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Review: iPhoto '08

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Five years ago, when iPhoto was first released, digital cameras were not yet ubiquitous, and organizing photos on your Mac meant putting files into folders and praying that you could keep track of which version of which photo was the right one. Since that time, we’ve seen the rise of the inexpensive digital SLR, the emergence of the Raw file format, and the release of high-end photo management and editing applications like Adobe’s Photoshop Lightroom (   ) and Apple’s own Aperture (   ). Through all of these developments, the major thing that has kept iPhoto from becoming a quaint anachronism has been its ease of use, especially for amateur photographers. For those users, the new iPhoto ’08 should not disappoint: Apple has kept it simple, while still enhancing its features to keep it current with more advanced products.

Adding to your library

One immediately obvious change in iPhoto ’08 is in the way your photos are organized when you import them from your camera. Apple has replaced the film-roll metaphor—in which each batch of imported pictures is stored as a “roll”—with a scheme called Events, based upon the time the pictures were taken. An event is represented by a thumbnail image in iPhoto’s viewing area. The Events feature is an attempt to better organize your pictures when they first enter your library by segmenting images into daily, weekly, and two- or four-hour chunks, depending on what works best for you.

The default for each Event is one day: as iPhoto imports your photographs, it puts all the photos taken on one day in a new Event, photos from another day in a different Event, and so on. The idea is that this method roughly approximates the way most people take pictures, and in reality, Apple’s simple delineators are pretty good. And, if you don’t like the way iPhoto split a particular group of images, you can move pictures in and out of Events with ease and merge multiple Events into a single one. If you don’t like the way Events work, you can simply turn off the Autosplit feature, and iPhoto ’08 will work identically to previous versions, creating a single Event for each of the photos you imported.

When you place your cursor over an Event thumbnail and slowly move your mouse back and forth, iPhoto “skims” the Event, displaying the pictures inside it—a very cool feature. Double-clicking on an Event displays a grid-like view of your photos, and double-clicking on a photo will either open it for editing or display it at a larger size, depending upon your preference.

In addition to Events, Apple has done other smart things to improve organization in iPhoto. The interface for editing and applying keywords is much improved, and includes the capability to create keyboard shortcuts for frequently used keywords. In addition to the five star ratings, you can also tag photos with a flag (as you would an e-mail message), and a flagged item in the source panel’s new Recent list makes tracking these photos easy. And, if you don’t want to delete any of your pictures, but also don’t want some of them cluttering up your views, you can quickly hide or show them—another very cool feature.

There’s also a new Unified Search field that lets you search for photos based upon title, description, date, keyword, or rating; between this and the existing Smart Album functionality, you can perform almost any level of image filtering, from quick to complex.

Editing your photos

There are no huge enhancements to iPhoto’s editing capabilities, but Apple has made iPhoto a better photo editor than it was before. The Adjust panel’s design has been updated, with the histogram now located at the top of the window. The Levels adjustment finally has a midpoint slider for adjusting the midtones in your photos, and there are new Highlights and Shadows sliders that can help restore detail from over- or underexposed images. You can also copy all of the adjustments you’ve made from one photo and apply it to other photos, which is good for fixing a group of less-than-perfect images that might have been shot with similar settings.

Apple also has updated the Retouch tool with a variable size brush and new algorithms, making it much more useful than before: unlike the previous version of the tool, I was actually able to easily remove camera dust and other spots from photos without having to jump through hoops.

iPhoto ’08 does inherit one editing enhancement from its professional big brother, Aperture: nondestructive editing. With previous versions, when you edited a picture, iPhoto would create a copy of the image. Any subsequent edits to that photo would be made on that copy, which would lead to image degradation if you made too many edits, and made it hard for you to undo some changes without reverting to the original image. (iPhoto has always preserved your original image, however, and still does.)

The new version of iPhoto ’08 keeps a list of all your editing changes. When you click on the Done button in the Edit view, iPhoto uses that list to create a copy of your original photo. If you decide later to re-edit the image, iPhoto ’08 uses the updated list to regenerate a copy from the original. This ensures that iPhoto is always using your original as the basis for any editing changes and it lets you reset many of your edits to their original condition—by simply resetting the sliders in the Adjust panel, for example—without having to revert completely to the original version. (You can’t backtrack from changes made with the Retouch or Enhance tools at a later point without reverting to the original, however, as there are no sliders to re-adjust. With the Retouch and Enhance tools, all you have is the immediate Undo command.)

All of these are good and welcome improvements, but remember that iPhoto really isn’t designed to be a heavy-duty photo editor like Photoshop (   ), Photoshop Elements (   ), Lightroom or Aperture. Photoshop, for example, gives you much finer control over tonality and color.

Better Web portfolios

The high-profile new feature in iPhoto ’08 is the Web Gallery. This specialized album works in conjunction with your .Mac account, letting you produce slick portfolios of your pictures (and movies), with a surprising number of options for you and your viewers. Like any other album, you can order your photos any way you like, and iPhoto automatically uploads the images in the background while you work. If you make changes to a Web Gallery, by adding or removing pictures, or rearranging photos and updating titles, iPhoto keeps the page up to date. Web Galleries represent the next generation of iPhoto’s Photocasting feature, which let people subscribe to photo pages you placed on .Mac.

You can protect your gallery by requiring a user name and password, and you can set up each gallery so that people can download pictures, or not, if you so desire. In addition, each gallery can be configured so that you (or others) can add photos to it via a Web browser or a custom e-mail address that iPhoto creates for each gallery. With this feature, I was able to upload images to one gallery on a regular basis from my iPhone, and also let friends update another gallery with photos from a recent trip we took together. Your friends and family do not need a .Mac account to upload photos to your gallery.

Of course, if you don’t have a .Mac account, you can’t take advantage of Web Galleries. If you have a Web site on another hosting service or through your ISP, you can use iPhoto’s Web Export functionality for creating simple galleries, or use the iWeb export feature to create photo pages and blog-style entries with your photos. Both of these options were available in earlier versions of iPhoto, but they are comparatively plain and unsexy and lack the Web Gallery’s “wow” factor and interactive, multi-user capabilities.

Printing your photos

Apple has added a number of new book types to iPhoto’s printing services, including books with dust jackets and foil-embossed covers, as well as with wire-bound soft covers. The calendars are much larger (1.0.4-by-13 inches) than before, for the same $20 price. There are also more themes throughout all of iPhoto’s external printing services, which means even more options for getting cards, books, postcards, and prints done at reasonable prices. (I ordered some of the new book and card types, but have not received them yet.)

If you own a photo printer, you have some extra options for creating nice-looking prints with iPhoto ’08. A new printing module lets you create and customize prints and contact sheets, with borders, mats, multiple backgrounds, and more. It’s a welcome addition to the program, and one that’s sure to get a lot of use from the do-it-yourself crowd. It would be nice to be able to customize the calendars and cards for home printing; however they’re really designed to be used only with the online printing services. You can print the calendar for example, but you can’t choose a different paper size or orientation.

Sporadic crashes

During the fairly intensive review process, I experienced a few crashes with iPhoto ’08, even after installing the Version 7.0.1 update, and Apple’s Discussion Boards have similar reports of problems with missing Preferences screens, problems importing photos, crashes, and more. This issue will go away as Apple releases new updates, but its initial lack of stability definitely detracted from this otherwise well-crafted application.

Macworld’s buying advice

Most people are looking for simplicity in managing the multitude of images churned out by their digital cameras. The average home or amateur photographer is less concerned with editing each and every photo, than in sharing photos via e-mail, prints, slideshows, or simple Web pages. Since its debut, iPhoto has been the product for that person, and iPhoto ’08 continues that trend. While the improvements to iPhoto ’08 are less splashy than in previous versions, they are substantial and helpful. It does a great job of walking that fine line between making it easy to organize and present your pictures, while still placing solid editing tools at your disposal.

[ Rick LePage is Macworld ’s editor at large. He publishes the Creative Notes Weblog. ]

Events replace Rolls as iPhoto’s primary organizational metaphor. iPhoto can automatically create Events based upon one of four time intervals, and you can move photos into new or existing Events with ease.The Web Gallery feature, which requires a .Mac account, lets you set permissions for each gallery you publish. You can limit access by creating user accounts, let people download photos, and even provide a way for people to upload photos to your gallery via e-mail or a Web browser.iPhoto ’08 has quite a few new options for people who want to print on their home photo printer, including customizable, multi-photo layouts, with mat borders.Adding keywords to photos is much easier in iPhoto ’08; Apple even included the capability to create keyboard shortcuts for frequently used keywords.
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