Apple’s odd little Photos app

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BitDepth#985 for April 20, 2015

Photos offers solid editing tools, but hides them in an interface that’s more concerned with pretty than useful.
Photos offers solid editing tools, but hides them in an interface that’s more concerned with pretty than useful.

On its own, the newest addition to the software that comes bundled free with Mac OS X, Photos, isn’t a bad little deal at the price.

It’s positioned as an upgrade from iPhoto; the software that’s been part of the Mac since it transitioned to Unix.

For 13 years, Mac users have had a love/hate relationship with iPhoto.

It was fast, convenient to use and offered most of the tools that a beginner playing with photographs might like to use to adjust their images.

Unfortunately, iPhoto didn’t scale well with serious use and the internal library that managed the images became sluggish and difficult with large image datasets.

Photos is doubly challenged.

It must not only replace iPhoto’s inviting simplicity, it will also be expected to provide some level of utility for users who were comfortable using Apple’s pro photography tool, Aperture.

In its first incarnation, introduced with the upgrade to Mac OS X version 10.10.3, it manages to do neither particularly well.

The first mission of Photos, it seems, is to create a Macintosh based link to the image management software of the same name on the company’s iPhones and iPads.

Snappers using those devices will be delighted by the new app’s ability to synchronise captures taken on those mobile platforms with their computers.

Everyone else is likely to be disappointed by Photos, which manages with characteristic Apple style, to be elegantly less than anything its customers had before.

Photos is hardly the first product to get this diminishing makeover for mobile alignment.

The company’s productivity suite, formerly iWork and now broken out into its component word processor Pages, spreadsheet Numbers and presentation package, Keynote, went almost overnight from spare but useful to lobotomized when Apple decided to bring them to parity with their iPad counterparts.

The decision clearly indicates where the company believes its fortunes lie, but has the unfortunate effect of at best, irritating its more experienced customers using the Mac and at worst, totally alienating them.

It’s taken Final Cut, once a market dominating force in the film-making world, almost five years to recover from a similar make-over it got in 2011 that made it more friendly for first-time users but useless to professional film editors.

Photos fulfils the most basic needs in an image browser. You can import your previous collections in Aperture and iPhoto, but not, quite surprisingly, both of them.

If you import an iPhoto library, you have to create a new library to import the Aperture database. Given that the new software is intended to replace two discontinued products, it’s stupid at best and for serious users, downright annoying.

Photos handles JPEG and TIFF files just fine and can reference new imports, which means that you don’t need to create a huge library file to hold all your images, but its RAW file support is spotty.

It doesn’t understand the sidecar files created by professional parametric image editors like Lightroom, so all your work in those products is lost, though it does read information embedded in DNG files.

The robust and straightforward print and photobook ordering tools from iPhoto and Aperture have been further simplified in Photos and remain one of the strengths of Apple’s photo ecosystem.

For a first incarnation of a product designed primarily to replace the popular, if sometimes problematic iPhoto, Photos is a spartan evolution of the idea of a desktop image organiser and editor.

There is a token effort to add Instagram style filters, and the image editing tools are capable if a little dated, not to mention deftly hidden. You’ll need to pop down a disclosure triangle to see all the options that are available.

Apple has demonstrated its willingness to listen to its users and to return, with agonising slowness, important features to major products like Keynote and Final Cut.

Photos, one suspects, will be no different, but the image editing market is heating up and one little company, Macphun, seems keen to target all the Mac based photographers that Apple is rather pointedly ignoring and Adobe is annoying with attractively priced and well-crafted single-purpose apps that offer a lot of power in an elegant interface.

Aspiring photographers will find more useful organisation and sorting tools in that company’s SnapSelect than they will anywhere in Photos.

If Apple doesn’t raise its Photos game soon, it may well find itself presiding over a fiasco in one of its core markets that makes Google’s lame support of Picasa look awesome.