Picture Perfect

If you sensed a trend when Apple released iMovie, iTunes, and iDVD, you were right on. Apple's similarly named i-Apps are the easy-to-use media-savvy software at the heart of Apple's "digital hub" strategy. Now there's iPhoto, Apple's new image-management software that attempts to do for digital cameras what iMovie did for digital camcorders.

Anyone who's used a digital camera knows that for all their conveniences, they're still a pain to handle once you've downloaded your photos. Apple's own Image Capture utility in Mac OS X made it easier to download photos to your Mac, but you were still on your own when it came to organizing and tweaking your photos, let alone getting prints of your favorite images. iPhoto does that, and more.

Like its fellow i-Apps, the free, OS X-only iPhoto features a brushed-aluminum interface that you operate through a series of aqua-blue buttons. The first button, Import, isn't one most people will have to select--instead, just plug in a compatible USB digital camera and iPhoto will automatically start up. You press the Import button to bring in photos, and if you always erase your camera's memory after importing you can skip a step by checking the "Erase contents after transfer" box.

If you've got an archive of pre-iPhoto images on your hard drive, or if you use a scanner or incompatible digital camera to bring images onto your Mac, you can still import those--just choose Import from the File menu. When we imported hundreds of digital camera images into iPhoto, we found that the program was intelligent enough to sense the date and time they were taken--making our entire photo collection display seamlessly when sorted by date within iPhoto.

iPhoto stores its images inside the Pictures folder of your Mac OS X user folder, in a subfolder called iPhoto Library. Inside that folder, images are saved within folders organized by the year, month, and date the images were first shot.

iPhoto displays thumbnails of all your imported photos in the program's large photo pane. A slider lets you view those thumbnails as teeny icons or large-sized previews--or any size in between. It's definitely a lot easier to sort through photos when you can see what they are, rather than relying on an incredibly small icon or an inscrutable filename like IMG_0318.JPG. You can also rotate images easily via a button or a keystroke. The default rotation is, oddly enough, counter-clockwise. To rotate an image clockwise, hold down the Option key when clicking the rotate button.

On the left side of the iPhoto window is a pane that looks suspiciously like iTunes's playlist pane. This area serves a similar function in iPhoto: you can group your photos into any number of arbitrary "albums," or click on Photo Library to see your entire photo collection and Last Import to see the most recently imported batch of images.

iTunes made MP3 access easy through a point-and-click navigation system that let you limit your MP3 list by artist, album, or both. There's a similar principle at work in iPhoto--you can create up to 14 different keywords and apply as many of them as you like to each photo. Then you can filter your library and albums by clicking on and off the buttons for each keyword. However, these filters are additive--you can view all images containing the keywords "family" and "friends," but not those containing both "family" and "friends." You also can't limit your search by, for example, showing all images containing "family" but not containing "friends."

With iPhoto's Edit button selected, you can crop images (even optionally constraining them to appropriate aspect ratios, such as those for 4-by-6-inch prints), remove red eye, and even strip out color to create a black-and-white effect. iPhoto always keeps an original version of your photo, so if you don't like the changes you've made in Edit mode, you can choose Revert to Original from the Edit menu.

By default, double-clicking on an image in Organize mode will select the Edit button; however, if you prefer to edit your images in another application, you can make that double-click open the source image in that program. In this case, you'll be editing your source image yourself--so the best thing to do is choose Duplicate from the file menu, and then double-click on the duplicate image. That way, you'll still have a copy of your original source image. Still, having the option to edit in another application is valuable, because iPhoto's image-editing abilities are fairly limited. For example, if your photo isn't quite the right color, you'll need to use another application: iPhoto has no color-correction features of its own.

Perhaps the most impressive of all of iPhoto's features can be found beneath the Share button. From this section of the application, you can send your images to any number of useful destinations. Choosing the Print button gives you a print dialog box that appears much simpler than those that come with most photo printers; just select your printer, choose the paper you're printing on, and select the size of the margins around your print.

Clicking on iPhoto's Export button lets you do a mass export of images files, including automatic scaling to a maximum size you can choose--useful if you're building your own Web site or e-mailing some images to friends. The HomePage button links to Apple's iTools online service, letting you create Web-based slideshows and albums with a few clicks--the results are hosted on Apple's own iTools Web servers.

iPhoto can show your photos off in a full-screen Slide Show mode, complete with background music (Apple provides a couple of background songs, but you can also choose your own). Slide Show uses Mac OS X's Quartz technology in the same way that the Mac OS X screen saver does; it flawlessly fades between different pictures, giving your photo montage a professional feel.

And what would photography be without the ability to hold a finished photograph in your hands, or mail it to a far-off relative? Behind iPhoto's Order Prints button is an engine that will let you order prints (printed on Kodak paper, from Kodak's online photo-finishing service) from right within iPhoto, right down to the Amazon.com-style OneClick ordering button. Four-by-six-inch prints cost 49 cents each, the same price that Kodak charges for photos on ofoto.com, its Web-based photo-printing service.

In addition to traditional photo prints, iPhoto will also let you create a high-quality hardcover photo book, via the Order Book button. When you click on Order Book, you can use iPhoto to lay out the book's design, from a minimum of 10 pages to as many as 50. iPhoto allows you to specify the number of photos you want on each page of the book, and write text to accompany the images. The end result is a linen-covered book with acid-free paper, shipped to your door--but at a price. Books start at $30 for 10 pages, plus $3 for each additional page as well as a shipping charge. It might be a bit pricey for an album of snapshots, but an iPhoto-made book seems like a guaranteed home run as a gift.

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