Search has certainly been the weakest aspect of Photos in iOS and macOS, and Apple has lagged significantly as competitors, using cloud-based photo analysis, added whizbang matching. Google Photos, which I started using not long after its introduction, has nearly terrifyingly accurate matching of people across ages, haircuts, and expressions. It also has the sense to interpret dates correctly.
iOS 10 and macOS Sierra come a lot closer to Google Photos, and finally present decent ways to find images. Keywords you enter can be matched against people’s names, facial expressions, place names, titles generated or assigned to memories, objects, and elements in a scene, as well as the more conventional words in titles, file names, dates, description, and other text metadata.
Analysis this summer of the Photos system suggested that users should be able to search against seven facial expressions: greediness, disgust, smiles, neutral, surprise, screaming and suspicious. This wasn’t promised by Apple and isn’t mentioned in the official macOS marketing. It didn’t work with my libraries, but this sounds like an improvement to come.
However, objects and scene types matched, like “train station,” “cow,” and “nightfall.” Date matching remains primitive for now: you can type in a month, which matches all photos taken in that month, or a month and a year for that subset of results.
Photos is a huge step forward for Apple, and should be less frustrating to use. Apple has room to grow: identifying faces across each device is a pointless exercise for its customers, and the app in both iOS and macOS could use some basic interface improvements for organization and usability. For instance, it's still unbelievable that you can’t caption images in iOS—you have to rely on third-party apps.
But the giant leap in search hopefully portends more overall improvements, now that Photos has near parity with other image-management sites and systems.
Note: This article originally appeared in June 2016 as a first look at Photos in iOS and macOS beta releases. It was updated September 20 to reflect the final version of those apps on both platforms. The article was updated September 21 to explain the People synchronization issue.