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Review: iPhoto ’09

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At a Glance
  • Apple iPhoto '09

Of the five applications that make up iLife, iPhoto is the one with the broadest appeal. After all, nearly everyone has photos on their Mac, taken with their own cameras or those of friends and family members. As our libraries grow, so too do the problems with managing our pictures. With  iPhoto ’08 ( ), Apple tried to simplify photo management by introducing the concept of events, letting you automatically organize photos based when they were taken. With iPhoto ’09, Apple has added the who and the where components to this equation—helping you provide more context to your photos—and expanded the options for sharing your work with the social networking sites Facebook and Flickr. While there are some niggling issues here and there, iPhoto ’09 is overall a good upgrade.

Apple hasn't made many interface changes in iPhoto ’09. The organizational pane (which Apple calls the Source List) now has items for the Faces and Places features, and the Projects area is now called Keepsakes, but the overall structure and operation nearly identical to the last version. Events are largely unchanged, a good or bad thing depending upon how you felt about them.


Without question, the snazziest addition is Faces, iPhoto’s face-recognition technology. As you add a photo to your library, it is scanned for areas that resemble faces. If it finds a face (or more than one), iPhoto then tries to match it to the characteristics—shape, eyes, mouth, nose, and more—of similar faces in other photos in your library.

You need to put in some work when you first start using the feature, running through quite a few photos in your library and identifying them appropriately (also known as “tagging”), by clicking on the Name icon at the bottom of the screen, adding their nickname, full name, and e-mail address to their Face record (iPhoto doesn’t link with Apple’s Address Book, which would be useful for filling out the additional information).

When you are browsing photos and click on the Name icon in the toolbar, iPhoto will ask you if a recognized face belongs to someone you’ve already identified in your Faces database.

If you run into a photo that contains a face, but iPhoto for some reason didn’t recognize it—parts of the face might be obscured, for example—you can tag it using the “Add Missing Face” button. This process solely lets you associate the photo with a given individual; for various reasons, iPhoto doesn’t incorporate that selection into the face-recognition algorithms.

Once you’ve got a representative set of names, clicking on the Faces section in the Library panel lets you associate more of your photos with people you have added to your library. The program displays a corkboard-style background, with an icon for every person in your Faces database; double-clicking on an entry shows you all the photos that contain that person, as well as a list of pictures that iPhoto believes might contain them as well. If you click the Confirm Name icon at the bottom of the screen, each of the thumbnails zoom to the face in question, and clicking on it once accepts the suggestion, while double-clicking on it rejects it.

There are shortcuts you can use when accepting or rejecting faces in Confirm Name screen: holding down the Option key will reject the photo if you click on it, and, if you have a whole group of photos where the person is correct, just dragging a marquee around the group will automatically accept them (Option works here, too). And, before you click the Confirm Name icon, if you know a photo in the suggested list contains someone else, double-clicking on it previews the photo, where you can change the name to the correct individual. With all the necessary clicks, it’s not the most fluid interface, but it works.

It’s important to set some realistic expectations with Faces. This is not like the sexy face-recognition stuff you see on TV shows, where everyone is discovered immediately and appropriately. iPhoto frankly missed a lot of faces, and even on occasion thought inanimate objects were faces. And, despite the claims of some pet lovers on the Web, iPhoto never recognized my cats or my horse, even when I tried to force the issue.

You also have to work at it as you go. iPhoto doesn’t make any assumptions, even as your library grows, that a new photo contains your dad or your uncle Joe: you need to use the Name button or the Faces window when browsing new pictures, to verify and clarify.

As I gradually added thousands of photos to my library over the course of a few days (ultimately surpassing 10,000 photos), iPhoto got increasingly better at recognizing the most important people in my pictures, which makes sense, since there were more pictures of those people in my library. Apart from the odd pairings (I guess my dad does kind of look like Chairman Mao), I’m fairly impressed with what Apple’s been able to do here.

As you begin to add more photos of your friends and family to iPhoto ’09, the chances of a good match increase. In this screen I can click on each individual picture to confirm, but since they’re all correct matches, I can drag a marquee around all of the images to confirm them and click on the Done button at the bottom of the screen.

One nice tip regarding Faces: You can drag multiple faces to the Album section of the Source List, and iPhoto will creates a Smart Album that includes all of the people you selected. You can then edit that album to further refine the selection criteria (“only those photos that contain Joe and Sue,” for example), and as you tag new photos with those people, iPhoto will add the photos to the album.


In addition to the “who,” Apple has refined the “where” of your pictures, with the Places feature. If you have a GPS-enabled camera, such as an iPhone 3G ( ) or Nikon’s Coolpix P6000 (or even the original iPhone ( ), with its WiFi triangulation location feature), when you import photos into iPhoto, their location data will be included, and stored in the program’s Places database. If you don’t have some way to add GPS data to your pictures before you import them—I use Houdah Software’s HoudaGeo and my Garmin GPS to tag photos via GPX track logs—you can also add your own places to individual photos or whole groups of them via the My Places dialog box, which uses Google Maps to search and pinpoint locations.

Assigning a place to a previously untagged image is done through the My Places dialog box, which uses Google to search for location information, and displays either a street map or a satellite photo (or hybrid) of the location in question.

Once you have a number of locations configured in your photos, you can use the Places window to display maps of your photos, and you can drill down via the Browse panel to see which photos were taken where. iPhoto uses some reverse geocoding functionality, which can place many of your photos contextually in a broader “area>city>state>country” scheme, rather than the standard longitude-latitude-only scheme used by many GPS devices. This means that iPhoto was smart enough to display all the photos I had taken in Portland, for example, even though I never tagged them by name.

As neat as all this is, there are a few areas where Places feels under-baked: there is no Undo if you are changing a location, which can wreak havoc if you’ve accidentally selected a group of perfectly located images. On the flip side, as good as the My Places dialog box is, it would be great to be able to copy and paste location data from one photo to another (something similar to Microsoft Word’s Format Painter). Also, if you’re adding locations to places in Asia some maps display the local character set (Kanji, for example), even though Google Maps will display streets and place names in English if you’re accessing maps in a standard Web browser such as Safari. Apple has acknowledged that this happens, saying that this is a communication issue with Google Maps, but has not offered an immediate solution.

The Places Browse panel lets you quickly get to all the photos at a location. With the reverse geocoding support, you can also view, for example, all the photos taken in France, or Portland, Oregon.


iPhoto ’08 introduced a slick Web photo gallery feature; however, to share your pictures, you had to be a paying .Mac (now MobileMe) member. Apple now recognizes that there are other places people want to share and tag photos and has added direct posting to both the Facebook and Flickr Web sites.

The interface to creating albums on both sites is straightforward. Initially, you have to verify that you are a member, but once that’s done, all you have to do is select a group of photos, an album or event and click on the Facebook or Flickr icon in the toolbar at the bottom of the screen. You’re given options for who can view the photos, and, in the case of Flickr, their size, and iPhoto automatically uploads the gallery. Once the uploading process is complete, you can view and edit the photos on the service, assigning tags and adding or deleting images to the gallery, and iPhoto will synchronize any changes made, including downloading new images or deleting images, although they only get deleted from the gallery, not your library.

Apple has added a Travel book type to iPhoto's book-creation feature. The book includes a page template that displays a custom map, where you can add cities and a custom itinerary—with arrows—to showcase your travels.

Because Facebook also has a face-tagging mechanism, any names you’ve added via iPhoto’s Faces feature will show up on Facebook. If the e-mail addresses of your tagged friends match the e-mail address they use for Facebook, then they will receive a notification that they’re in your posted photos. Similarly, people can tag unnamed people in your images, and those tags will automatically synchronize with your Facebook galleries in iPhoto.

Also in the sharing category, Apple overhauled iPhoto’s slideshow feature, adding new themes, a bit more control over transitions (including music playlist creation on the fly) and a better mechanism for exporting your albums in multiple formats. They’re not huge improvements, but they’re well done.

Editing enhancements

Apple made some minor enhancements to iPhoto’s editing features. They pulled a few tools from Aperture ( ), such as the Vibrancy and Definition controls. The latter adjusts contrast in a more refined manner than the Contrast slider (and is similar in effect to the Clarity control found in Adobe’s Lightroom ( )). The Vibrancy effect adjusts saturation, but minimizes the effect on skin tones in a photo; if iPhoto’s face-recognition feature recognizes that a photo has a face—or you’ve added a missing face to a photo—the Saturation control automatically has the “Avoid saturating the skin tones” box checked, which uses Vibrancy instead of Saturation.

Also in the editing mode are Aperture-influenced improvements to the existing Shadow and Highlight controls. The Retouch brush is also improved, with better edge detection, which means that your little touch-ups look more realistic. It’s no substitute for the tools in full-fledged editors like Photoshop ( ), but it does a good job for small spots and minor problems.

My favorite improvement to iPhoto’s editing is a little one: now, when you click on the Enhance button in the toolbar, the changes that are made to the image show up in the Adjust panel, so you can see exactly which controls were changed (previously, the settings stayed at their center point, as if no adjustments had been made to the photo). This addition is helpful for understanding exactly what happened, and lets you easily dial back (or strengthen) a setting.

Some rough edges

While iPhoto largely shines, it still has a few weak points. The Effects pane, for example, remains underpowered. The black-and-white conversions are limited, and the vignette and matte tools still create heavy-handed, overdone results, which is a shame given how nicely a subtle vignette can help focus attention on a subject. Also, for people hoping to integrate Faces and Places into AppleScript or Automator workflows (for importing photos from other programs or to use location data and photos with other Mac applications), Apple inexplicably left out support for those features in this version of the program.

While iPhoto ’09 was quite stable, there were a few glitches here and there. For example, occasionally, when we moved out of Edit mode, the Retouch or Color Cast overlays would inexplicably stay on the screen, and some of my Macworld colleagues saw empty, black-bordered boxes on occasion when confirming people in the Faces panel.

Macworld’s buying advice

With the ever-increasing number of inexpensive digital cameras and memory cards being bought each year, the chore of maintaining thousands of pictures becomes more demanding. By focusing on the people and places behind our photos—and how we share them—Apple has made it easier in iPhoto ’09 to categorize, search for, and share our pictures. We’d like to see some of these new features more streamlined and automated, but this latest version is a solid step forward.

[Rick LePage is a former Macworld editor, runs the photo-printer site Printerville, and is editor-in-chief of the Photoshop Elements Techniques newsletter.]

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At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Solid Facebook and Flickr integration for sharing photos
    • Subtle but good editing enhancements
    • Faces and Places make it easier to categorize your photos


    • Minor bugs
    • Faces and Places could be easier to use
    • No Effects improvements
    • No AppleScript or Automator support for Faces or Places
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