Photo browser utilities for the Mac: Quickly sort through a photo shoot

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When many professional photographers finish a job, they go to a Mac and use the sophisticated, $150 Photo Mechanic to copy, review, and cull photos quickly. Unlike a tool such as Adobe Lightroom, which manages a photo library for you, Photo Mechanic is a media browser that reads whichever Finder folders you point it at.

That’s overkill, though, for people who simply want to manage their photos in the Finder, or review the images before importing them into Apple’s Photos app. Even when you view items in a Finder window as icons and scale them to their largest size, they’re still not large enough to really evaluate which shots are keepers. Using the Finder’s Quick Preview (press the spacebar with one or more images selected) can be a slow process, especially with RAW-formatted files.

As an alternative, I looked at three simple utilities that quickly review media in the Finder and give you options for acting on the files: Spect, Full Frame, and Phiewer (and its expanded sibling Phiewer Pro).

Not everyone needs a full photo library system the likes of Apple’s Photos or Lightroom, so it’s great to have these slimmer options. With a taste of these features, though, I want more. Instead of a binary keep/trash choice, I’d like to see the ability to apply a Finder label to selected photos as a way to flag images with a higher priority for later editing, for example. They don’t have to become as extensive as Adobe Bridge or Photo Mechanic, but a few steps further would be welcome.

Full Frame

Full Frame starts at the photo import process, looking for an attached memory card or camera. Unless you reflexively copy every image to your hard disk first, this is the natural place to begin, especially since neither the Photos app nor Apple’s Image Capture utility give you large previews to see what you’re importing.

Full Frame can scale thumbnails up to 400 percent of their native size, which certainly lets you see what you’re working with. If you need an even larger preview, clicking the zoom (+) button in the top-left corner of a thumbnail fills the window with that image in slideshow mode (which doesn’t actually play a slideshow—it just makes the preview large enough to view one photo at a time). It can also reveal the full Exif metadata for one image or multiple selected image, and optionally rename files during the import process. Metadata presets apply custom information to files as they’re imported, such as adding a copyright notice.

fullframe import previews Jeff Carlson

Reviewing the contents of a memory card in Full Frame

Since the application is designed as a mechanism for importing photos, its primary task involves setting a destination folder and clicking Import (or Copy if the source is another folder). If you’re using it to sort through existing folders of images, you can ignore that part and use the Delete button to cull the shots you don’t want to keep.

Any of the metadata preset features apply only when importing or copying images. You can edit some fields manually in the Info window, but which fields appear depend on the file format; JPEG files include an Image Description field, but the iPhone’s HEIC format does not. You won’t find a common Title or Description field that applies to every image.

If you do edit the metadata, you can then save the change, but not all file formats are supported. The app threw up an error when reading raw .RAF images from my Fujifilm X-T1, a four-year-old camera, saying that version of the format hasn’t been tested yet. For those that do work, the metadata is saved into the raw file, not to a sidecar file.

Full Frame is free to use for 100 images, after which in-app purchase options kick in: $4.99 for an additional set of 100 images, or $29.99 to remove the amount restriction. As an alternative to Image Capture or Photos for importing images, the application provides a better way to review images at import.


The newest entrant to this category of photo browsers is Spect, a speedy and simple utility for viewing images within folders. When you point it at a directory, large-sized thumbnails appear. At the largest zoom level, Spect fit four images (six when the navigation sidebar is hidden) on my 15-inch MacBook Pro screen, which is large enough to evaluate the quality of the image. A slideshow mode expands the image sizes to fit the application’s window (and automatically switches between images); you can also play a randomized slideshow.

Spect swiftly displayed all the images I threw at it, including raw files from multiple camera vendors. There’s also an option to include PDFs, but the software ignores video files.

One challenge when storing photos in the Finder is dealing with folder hierarchies. Some people nest images based on date, location, or event; when you’ve been shooting for a while, a camera’s number increment turns over, which can leave you with multiple files titled “IMG_1234.JPG,” for example. Spect deals with hierarchies by letting you set how deep it should scan a given folder. It displays whichever images it encounters in the main window, so you don’t need to navigate folders manually. Also, you can choose how to sort the images, regardless of where they’re stored, by name, creation date, modification date, or file size.

spect depth Jeff Carlson

View multiple levels of a folder hierarchy in Spect’s browsing area.

For sorting through your photo collections, the only option Spect provides is to send files to the Finder’s Trash. If you want to do anything else, you can reveal the image in its Finder window and act on it there. That includes renaming files or even viewing more information than just the filename. However, dragging and dropping images between Spect and the Finder moves files as you would expect the Finder to act.

Spect is an image viewer that, in this version, wants to remain simple and do one task well. It’s the perfect pre-processing complement to Photos if you’re particularly choosy about what ends up in that application. I respect this approach, although it does make me long for just a few more options, such as set Finder labels or even send an image to a photo-editing application.

Spect costs $4.99 from the Mac App Store. A free trial version, downloadable from the Spect website, allows unlimited browsing but disables other features.

Phiewer and Phiewer Pro

The approach taken by the free Phiewer and its paid version, Phiewer Pro, is to emphasize viewing one image at a time—no complaints about not being able to view a photo here! You can point the app at a folder and view its contents, and optionally delete the image you’re viewing.

A grid of thumbnails appears in a sidebar, and you can resize the thumbnails to get a better idea of which image is which. To make them more than stamp-sized, though, I found myself expanding the sidebar’s width to view more than one thumbnail at a time.

Unfortunately, if you’re browsing some raw files, Phiewer doesn’t display a thumbnail image. In my testing, it did fine with JPEGs and Nikon .NEF raw files, but remained blank for Canon .CR2 raw files, Fujifilm .RAF raw files, and even iPhone HEIC files.

You need to select each thumbnail and wait for the application to read it and create a viewable image in the main viewing area. Looking at a grid of empty thumbnails is useless when you’re trying to sort through your images.

phiewer main Jeff Carlson

Phiewer gives you a nice, big view of an image, but raw thumbnails remain inexplicably empty.

According to Phiewer’s documentation, clicking a thumbnail renders the image, and then the empty thumbnail is replaced by a preview of the actual image; there’s even a setting to store or discard that image cache. However, that behavior worked only when I was reviewing images on an attached memory card, not browsing folders on my hard disk. So even after viewing an image, unless you have excellent spatial memory, you won’t see which images you’ve previously viewed.

phiewer pro effect Jeff Carlson

Phiewer Pro includes some editing tools, such as applying pre-made effects.

Phiewer Pro adds a host of editing controls, such as aligning and cropping, and applying filters for aspects such as brightness, contrast, and the like. There are also several pre-made effects, although you can’t apply an effect and then tweak its appearance using the filters; choose one tool or the other.

Both Phiewer and Phiewer Pro include a basic slideshow tool. Unless you’ve viewed every image in the current folder, however, you have to wait for each non-JPEG image to render, which makes the show stutter.

Phiewer is free. Phiewer Pro costs $4.99 at the Mac App Store.

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