Photos for OS X is still new (currently at version 1.2), so it’s fair to expect that the application doesn’t offer the same image editing capabilities as something like Adobe Photoshop, Pixelmator, or Acorn. It turns out that Apple is not only avoiding competition with those and other apps, it is actively enlisting their help.
As I wrote in my review of Photos for OS X, I think its editing features are surprisingly sophisticated; for example, it smartly adjusts each component that affects light to balance the exposure. But although Photos offers many editing options that are not immediately obvious, its palette is still limited.
That’s where third-party developers come in. Photos for OS X 1.1 and later (which requires OS X El Capitan) supports editing extensions, a framework that lets other applications’ editing tools work within Photos. You can continue to use Photos to manage your photo library, and use extensions to apply edits that are not available in Photos or are implemented better in another application.
If you own some of the following photo apps, their editing extensions are already available to you. I’ll cover how to install and activate them, and then take a look at several current extensions that work in Photos.
How to install and use editing extensions
When you install (or update) an application that features an editing extension and launch it, the extension is made known to OS X. From there, do the following:
- In Photos for OS X, double-click a photo to open it.
- Click the Edit button to enter the editing view.
- In the list of tools at right, click the Extensions button and choose More. That opens the Extensions pane in System Preferences.
- Click the Photos category and enable the extensions you want to make available.
- Return to Photos and click the Extensions button, and select the one you’d like to use to edit the photo.
When you’re done editing with that extension, click Save Changes to apply the adjustments.
Now, let’s explore some editing options that are available now or soon will be.
Pixels are malleable, and Pixelmator’s Distort extension takes advantage of that by letting you pinch, warp, twirl, and bump areas of a photo. The entertainment possibilities are endless, of course, but sometimes you may want to apply subtle edits such as making someone’s nose less prominent (caused by closeness to the lens), or adding texture to a background. Distort also includes a Restore tool to undo the effect in areas (you can also choose Edit > Undo as you’re working).
The extension employs Apple’s latest technologies: it uses OS X’s Metal graphics engine and supports Force Touch using the Magic Trackpad 2 or the trackpad found on newer MacBook and MacBook Pro models. Distort is included with Pixelmator 3.4 Twist ($30).
One of the main limitations of the adjustment tools in Photos for OS X is that they apply to the entire image, not selected areas. If you need to spruce up one section, such as increasing the exposure of a person’s face in shadow, pull up the Affinity Retouching extension (currently in beta), part of Affinity Photo.
In addition to being able to make selections in which to edit, Affinity Retouching offers controls familiar to people who’ve used Photoshop in the past, such as Dodge, Burn, Blur, and Sharpen. It also includes a Healing tool and an Inpainting tool, which works to remove objects from a scene and intelligently replace them.
The BeFunky Express extension also wants to help you make selected edits, specifically when working with faces. Its toolset includes the ability to smooth skin, adjust skin tone, whiten teeth, and brighten eyes. There’s also an Auto Fix tool to work on the entire image and an HDR tool for bringing detail out of extreme dark or light areas. BeFunky Express is a standalone product that costs $5.
Developer MacPhun adapted several of its photo applications to include editing extensions. Tonality replicates the standalone application’s features as an extension to make photos black-and-white. It includes a large assortment of filters in categories such as Portraits and Architecture. You’ll also find individual controls for adjusting exposure, clarity, structure, and more.
Tonality on its own costs $70 or as part of the 2016 Creative Kit, which ranges from $100 to $180.
MacPhun’s extension for Noiseless brings the ability to minimize digital noise that results from shooting in low-light conditions at high light sensitivity (ISO). Noiseless automatically senses the level of noise and applies a preset amount of reduction (which you can adjust) and also includes manual controls for tweaking, for example, the amounts of color and luminance noise in the photo.
Noiseless is available for $60 or as part of the 2016 Creative Kit, which ranges from $100 to $180.
The Intensify extension is all about making photos pop. Another of MacPhun’s applications, Intensify boosts colors and details using a wide variety of presets that have been tuned to many types of subject matter: Architectural Details, Black and White Portrait, Dreamy, Gloomy Day, and more. Since the extension matches the application, you can take advantage of advanced features such as adding effects in layers and making masks to apply the adjustments to selected areas.
Intensify costs $60, or it’s part of the 2016 Creative Kit, which ranges from $100 to $180.
Have you ever found the perfect scene—perfect, that is, except for the person or distraction that draws the viewer’s eye to the wrong place? Sometimes I feel as if a quarter of my photo library could be titled Homage to Trash Bins I Didn’t Notice at First. MacPhun’s Snapheal extension lets you paint over an object that you wish to remove (using a paintbrush or selection lasso) and then erase that area, which is then filled by the software based on the surrounding area. Once you’ve defined an area, you can let the extension take a few cracks at it by switching the method used to calculate the filled area, including modes designed for working on facial blemishes. A Clone tool enables you to define a nearby source area and then paint using those pixels to achieve the same effect.
Snapheal costs $50, or it’s part of the 2016 Creative Kit, which ranges from $100 to $180.
FX Photo Studio
The digital photo age has brought not only the ability to shoot and edit images easily but also to apply almost every imaginable filter and effect to them. The options in the FX Photo Studio editing extension make Instagram feel inadequate. Choose from more than 200 styles and frames in several categories, or click a button to roll the dice and see which one comes up.
FX Photo Studio costs $30, or it’s part of the 2016 Creative Kit, which ranges from $100 to $180.
(Note that many of MacPhun’s applications are available from the Mac App Store at lower prices than their retail listings.)
Adjustments made in Photos for OS X are non-destructive, which means you can return to the original image at any point. When you edit using tools that are included with Photos, you can go back to the editing view and tweak individual settings. When working with editing extensions, though, the situation is different.
Once you’ve saved the changes made in an extension, it’s effectively rendered as a new version in the editing chain—you can’t launch the extension again and fiddle with the controls you applied. It’s also possible to use several extensions’ tools on the same image, such as performing adjustments using Pixelmator Distort and then turning the photo black and white using Tonality. However, you can’t step back through the edits; your only option is to restore the original image (click Revert to Original in the editing view) and start again.
Still, editing extensions serve a purpose: expanding the editing capabilities of Photos while allowing you to stay within the application instead of exporting images, editing them elsewhere, and re-integrating the new versions. More applications will no doubt tie into Photos’ editing environment in the future.