Review: Photos for OS X is faster than iPhoto but less powerful than Aperture

Photos arrives with OS X 10.10.3, but should you use it? Jeff Carlson unwraps the new app and Apple's iCloud Photo Library feature.

photos for mac primary
At a Glance
  • Apple Photos for OS X 1.0

    Macworld Rating

    Photos is a big step up for iPhoto users, with better speed and editing tools. Power users of Aperture will probably want to stay with Aperture or switch to another pro-level app like Lightroom.

Last June, Apple announced the impending retirement of iPhoto and Aperture in favor of Photos for OS X, a new application it demonstrated briefly at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). For most of the intervening 10 months—a long lead time for a company that prefers to ship software soon after announcing it—we didn’t know the new application’s capabilities.

Would it be friendly enough for casual users but also include the depth to satisfy Aperture’s professional photographers? Would it be like a few other notable Apple software rewrites, like iMovie and Final Cut Pro X, that took bold steps forward at the expense of stripping away features and alienating users?

It’s time to find out. Photos for OS X is available now as part of the OS X Yosemite 10.10.3 update. The new version of the operating system is required, since Photos takes advantage of a new system framework to function.

Multiple masters

A modern photo library application has two jobs: organize the photos you add to the library so you can locate them easily, and edit photos to make corrections or change their appearance. (Sharing photos, uploading to social media, and ordering prints are also important, but I don’t cover those features in this review.)

Photos for OS X handles them with varying levels of success, but it also stretches to take on another, more ambitious task. Apple hasn’t been simply creating a new photo application for the Mac—this is the Mac component of the company’s grand photography effort that connects the iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Apple TV, Apple Watch, and the Web. With iCloud Photo Library, Apple is attempting to make all of your photos—not just the ones you capture with any one device—available on every Apple product you own.

photos family

All your photos, everywhere. It's a simple idea, but tough to pull off. 

All that said, I’ll offer one spoiler up front: Photos is not an Aperture replacement, even though it can open Aperture libraries. If you’ve only scratched the surface of Aperture’s tools, then you can probably expect a smooth transition. If you’re a photo professional or enthusiast whose workflow revolves around Aperture, you’ll want to stick with it for as long as you can, with an eye toward switching to another application like Adobe Lightroom at some point. Aperture and iPhoto continue to work under Yosemite, but they’re no longer being updated.

Also note that this review is based on the latest developer beta versions of Photos for OS X and OS X Yosemite 10.10.3. At this stage of development, main features are nailed down and showstopper bugs are usually sorted out, but if anything changes between the beta and the shipping release, I’ll update the article.

A new librarian

If you own an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch with iOS 7 or iOS 8, Photos for OS X will be immediately familiar. The interface is patterned after the mobile version of Photos.

photos 01 mac

The interface for Photos for OS X. (Click to enlarge.)

photos 01 ipad and iphone

Look familiar? The interface resembles Photos for iOS, shown here on iPad (left) and iPhone.

If, however, you’ve ignored Apple’s devices lately, here’s a quick overview of how you navigate the interface. Photos appear in chronological order, with the most recent images at the bottom of the list (and no option to sort in reverse chronological order). Views are broken out into a sort of “zooming” hierarchy that increases the size of the image thumbnails as you drill down: Years, Collections, Moments, and individual photos, which you switch using the unmarked arrows in the upper-left corner of the window or by clicking photos in the views.

photos 02 years

In Years view your thumbnails are so tiny, so you click to drill down...

photos 02 collections

...and Years are divided into Collections by location and date. 

photos 02 moments

Click a Collection to split it into Moments. And if you click any of these images, you can see it by itself. 

Perhaps the best news is that Photos feels fast. Even on an older Mac (my main machine is still a 2010 MacBook Pro), Photos is speedy and responsive. The application switches to very low-resolution thumbnails when scrolling quickly, and photos pop when you view them solo. Photos seems to handle thumbnails internally better than its predecessors. (The first time you convert a library, you’ll notice some lag as the initial thumbs are built.)

I didn’t run into any serious problems converting iPhoto or Aperture libraries in my testing. In one case a library didn’t have correct permissions and Photos offered to repair it for me during the conversion process. Large libraries can take a long time to convert, though, from hours to days depending on the size of the library and the speed of your Mac. (Regardless, make backups of your photo libraries!)

Faces and Places

You do need to be aware of some structural changes that occur in the transition. Notably, star ratings are converted to keywords, like “1 Star,” and “2 Star.” Photos now uses a binary Favorite label to mark photos you want to stand out (those Favorites will automatically copy to the Apple Watch). EXIF metadata is retained, even though not all of it is exposed in the Info window. Any custom metadata fields you created in Aperture are stripped away entirely. Events (iPhoto) and Projects (Aperture) are converted to regular albums.

The Faces feature also comes across, only in Photos it appears as a special album in the Albums view. Sorry, Aperture users who were able to turn the Faces feature off: it’s on in Photos. However, it’s not nearly the performance drag that it was in iPhoto, I’m happy to report.

In fact, Faces seems faster and more accurate in Photos, although the interface for assigning faces is a bit odd. Suggestions appear at the bottom of the window; you can double-click a face and type a person’s name, or drag it to any existing faces you’ve identified above.

photos 03 faces

It’s like Twister for faces!

However, dragging works with only one face at a time; you can’t choose multiple faces and assign them this way. Instead, you can take an alternate route and click the Add button to see which images Photos thinks contains a person already named.

photos 04 faces add

Finding additional faces.

I admit I was dubious about Faces, a star feature in iPhoto, being relegated as an album in Photos, but it works alongside several other special albums that collect favorites, panoramas, videos, slo-mo and time-lapse videos, and bursts (the multiple shots captured when you hold the shutter in the iPhone’s Camera app).

Another former star feature, Places, is retained in Photos, but it’s easy to miss. In the Years, Collections, or Moments views, click the name of a location to view the photos on a map. The iOS version of Photos exhibits the same behavior, which seems oddly hidden to me. If geolocation data is attached to a photo (such as a shot taken with an iPhone), a map also appears in the Info window, if the window is visible.

photos 05 geo link

Click a named location to view the map.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to assign geo information to photos that don’t already have it. For example, if I shoot several photos of a location with my iPhone, I can’t copy that data to photos shot at the same place with my DSLR.

Easy keywords and speedy searches

All of these components are built in service of locating photos without endlessly scrolling through the library (even if that is faster now). Turning star ratings into keywords puts more emphasis on keywording as an organizational feature (an approach I applaud). The Keywords Manager is a separate window that you’d probably never open except for an important shortcut. To restore a semblance of star ratings, drag the rating keywords (“1 Star”) to the Quick Group area, which allows you to apply the keywords by pressing a number on your keyboard. The catch is that the Keywords Manager must be open when you’re doing the tagging. You can also simply type keywords into the associated field in the Info window.

photos 06 keyword panel

Keywords are an easy workaround for the lack of star ratings.

The benefit of tagging is making photos easier to find. Aperture users will miss the ability to assign tags and other metadata during the import process (and speaking of importing, tethering a DSLR is no longer an option). However, the Search function finds matches beyond just keywords, including locations and Faces names. In my testing, searching was quick and accurate (although the Info window showed information for the entire library instead of the current search result).

photos 07 search

Search results.

I must admit that I’m a bit perplexed as to why the Info and Keywords Manager windows are free-floating entities, even when Photos is expanded to full-screen mode. Perhaps Apple is no longer pushing for applications to be limited to one self-contained window, or this is just the byproduct of developing a 1.0 product (albeit one with 10 years of experience behind it). As it is, I find myself moving the supplemental windows more often than I’d like. Many people coming from iPhoto may simply never access them.

Editing photos

The editing tools in Photos are surprisingly sophisticated and easy to intuit, even if you have little experience editing photos. As with iPhoto, adjustments are applied to the entire image, not selective areas, as is possible with Aperture’s Quick Brushes.

photos 08 edit1

The original, with a less-than-ideal exposure.

At the surface level, you can drag sliders for Light, Color, and Black & White and let Photos do the computation to improve the image. It doesn’t simply turn up the exposure for Light, for example.

photos 08 edit2

Basic adjustments.

In fact, clicking the expansion button that appears at the right edge of the control reveals separate sliders for Exposure, Highlights, and so on. As you drag the master Light slider, for example, the other controls adapt to balance the image. For photos with decent exposure, I wasn’t usually able to blow out the highlights by just maxing out the Light slider; the software kept the levels in check.

photos 08 edit3

Advanced adjustments allow me to bring out detail in the shadows.

And if those feel limiting, several other controls are tucked in the Add menu, including White Balance, Vignette, Sharpen, and Levels.

photos 08 edit4

Even more adjustment types.

When working with Raw+JPEG pairs (where the camera captures both a raw image and a full-size JPEG image, and presents them as one photo), Photos gives you the option of choosing which version to use as the original.

I was also impressed with the Retouch tool, primarily because of its design: it smartly combines two tools, an automatic retoucher and a clone tool. Click once on a spot to attempt an auto fix. Or, to sample from a nearby area, Option-click there first before clicking the spot to be repaired.

photos 09 retouch1 before

Option-clicking to enable the clone mode of the Retouch tool worked fine. (Before, above. After, below.)

photos 09 retouch2 after

iCloud Photo Library

Building a new flagship photo application on the Mac is a tall order, and yet Apple is being more ambitious by incorporating iCloud Photo Library. The feature is not turned on by default—there’s no requirement that your photos be stored on Apple’s iCloud servers.

If you do enable it, Photos uploads copies of your original images to iCloud, which are then shared with any device on which you’ve enabled the feature. In this way, your entire photo library can be accessible on your iPhone or iPad.

photos 10 upload icloud

Sharing your photos to the sky.

There are, of course, some caveats. Most people’s photo libraries are larger than even the highest-capacity device (currently 128GB for iPhone and iPad, 512GB for a maxed-out MacBook Air). In that case, you have the option of optimizing the photo storage, which stores only low-resolution versions on the device for when you’re browsing the library. When you tap or click a photo thumbnail to view it, the high-resolution version is downloaded as needed.

This implementation is both clever and frustrating. Opening an optimized photo makes a small status wheel appear, which immediately fills to 25 percent and then, in my experience, often idles for a bit while waiting for the data to arrive—in some cases longer than a minute. I experienced this on a variety of Wi-Fi and cellular networks. However, I’ll also note that performance seemed to improve as the release date drew closer, so I can’t rule out that the lag I witnessed was due to testing or optimization before Photos was available. How the service performs under load when potentially hundreds of thousands of people are accessing it is an open question.

photos 11 icloud spinner

The high-resolution version is downloading, as evidenced by the status indicator in the lower-right corner.

iCloud Photo Library works with only one library that you designate as the System Photo Library. Also, if any of your photos are referenced—the files exist somewhere other than the Photos Library.photoslibrary package that is the default storage location—those images are not included in the iCloud Photo Library (but you can consolidate the library and bring the files in-house).

In addition to being able to view all of your photos on other devices, iCloud Photo Library transfers edits between devices. After you make a photo black-and-white on the Mac, for instance, it appears on your iPhone and iPad (and Apple TV and Apple Watch) the same.

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    Photos is a big step up for iPhoto users, with better speed and editing tools. Power users of Aperture will probably want to stay with Aperture or switch to another pro-level app like Lightroom.

    Pros

    • Fast performance overall.
    • Improved editing tools over iPhoto.
    • Ability to connect to iCloud Photo Library and Apple’s greater photo ecosystem.

    Cons

    • Not a good option for dedicated Aperture users.
    • iCloud Photo Library sometimes stalled.
    • Hard to know the fault of delays.
    • Some odd choices in user interface (like the floating Info window)
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