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Apple Photos: a mixed review

Published by marco on

 A few months back, Apple replaced iPhoto with Photos.

There are some good things about it. It’s noticeably faster on my machine and, at the same time, seems to use less RAM (at least at first; see below). These are good things. However, the speed and space improvements come at the cost of a mysterious loss of functionality.

I call this lack mysterious because Apple didn’t just replace iPhoto with Photos—it claims to have merged iPhoto with Aperture, which is/was a much more powerful product. I would have assumed that iPhoto users would be bowled over by the addition of new functionality and that Aperture users would be the ones left feeling hamstrung by the update.

Instead, there are navigational and editing features missing to which I’d grown quite accustomed in iPhoto.[1]

“Show Original” is missing

You can no longer see the original picture at the push of a button. This was an extremely useful feature as it allowed you to quickly see how much you’d changed the picture. Just hold down shift in iPhoto and it shows you the original photo so you could quickly compare it to the current version.

In Photos, you can only revert to the original, which throws away all of your changes. While this is a good feature, it is no way a replacement for “Show Original”.

I would rather have seen them improve this feature to allow you to compare the last n edits until you’d switched pictures or saved. After that, only the original and the latest versions need be available (which both Photos and iPhoto are already keeping anyway).

Picture-title editing is broken

You can no longer edit multiple picture titles quickly by tabbing through the picture titles. In Photos, hitting the Tab key sends the keyboard focus into the aether, lost until you pick up the mouse and manually click into the next picture title. For an application that lets you manage dozens of thousands of photographs and publish them to various media, this is a very sad regression.

“Set Location” is gone

You can no longer set the location of a picture. You can only remove location information (presumably for publishing to services that don’t strip the location for you) or “Revert to Original Location”. The latter tantalizingly suggests that there is some way to actually change the location, but after a fruitless search, I had to conclude the feature is only able to restore the location should you have inadvertently removed it. Granted, this feature was not stellar in iPhoto, but it worked. It had a tiny, impractical UI, used an inordinate amount of RAM and the suggestions list left a lot to be desired, but it worked well enough to put the pin on the map for your pictures in more-or-less the right spot. If it’s still possible, it’s damned hard to find.

Edit: since I wrote the bit above, Photos has gotten an update and you can actually enter your own location again. It works quite well and feels more reliable that iPhoto’s feature. However, it’s in the undockable and non–keyboard-friendly “Info” window, which means you’ve got a lot of clicking ahead of you. It would also have been nice if they’d included a “Set Location…” menu item to make the feature discoverable.

Face Recognition is Hit or Miss

iPhoto’s face-recognition feature had its drawbacks, but it at least tended to highlight only actual faces. It didn’t seem to learn very well, but it didn’t mark random bits of scenery as potential faces. The recognition algorithm in Photos has gone completely off the grid in some cases.

As with the location feature, though, recent updates to face-recognition have made it productive and fun again to select faces. Sometimes, though, it’s suggestions seem completely crazy. Just when you think: “wow, it picked my face when I’m looking for pictures of my Dad. I must look like him at some digitally recognizable level.”, Photos then also thinks that random bits of scenery and a slew of women all also look like my Dad.

Face-Recognition UI is limiting

Though the new selector is in some ways nicer than the old one, it still takes too many clicks to finish up identifying faces. If you see someone you recognize, you have to click the picture and type in the name. If Photos finds others it thinks are that person, then you can select those. If Photos doesn’t, it congratulates you that you found one picture, makes you click OK and takes you back to the chooser to select the next photo. If it misidentifies a person, you can only say that it’s not the person it suggested, but you can no longer tell it who that person is. You also can’t tell it from that screen that this is not a picture of a person. Also, if there is more than one person in the picture, you can’t identify the other people in that picture from there either. You have to wait and hope that Photos gets around to letting you select that person.

Missing context in Face Recognition

While it’s nice that Photos now shows the face in context of the whole picture (zooming in on the face when you hover it), you still can’t jump to the photo in the “Moment” or event to see more context. And, even if you do manually go to the “Moment”, you can’t easily tab through the faces anymore. It kind of works, but you can get to the first face only by mashing on tab several times. It’s not obvious where the focus is before, so be careful or you’ll go too far. If you tab past the face you wanted, don’t expect to be able to shift + tab back—the focus then gets stuck on the list and you’re left to pick up the mouse.

Choosing a Person in Faces

The drop-down list of people’s names is better than in iPhoto (it no longer feels like it’s gobbling memory just to show the thing), but it’s still not sorted by recently used names. It’s always alphabetical, which means if you have to type a person’s whole first name and first letter of their last name just to skip the other person with the same first name who you almost never select, then you can just go ahead and do that every single time. Also, it only searches your text from the beginning of the name, so you can’t type a unique piece of a person’t last name to select that name quickly.

What it does do nicely is pick up and match information from Contacts. If you have named the person in your contacts differently than in Photos (or vice versa), changes you make to Contacts are picked up immediately, which is nice.

No Historical Navigation

You can search people by name and it shows their pictures, grouped by year/event. However, if you searched that person to fix a typo in their name, you’re out of luck because you can’t change the name of the virtual “folder” that you have open. Instead, you have to cancel out of the search and manually scroll through the list of faces, searching for the one you want. My list has over 450 faces in it. Also, the list is sorted by the number of pictures of that person, in descending order. Hooray. This is not particularly conducive to finding a particular person.

A better search would have stayed on the main page with the faces in bubbles, restricting the ones displayed to the ones that match the search text. Double-clicking on a single face would take you to the search results.

Make Key Photo is not so easy

The “Make Key Photo” option isn’t available where you’d expect it to be. If you’re not explicitly in the “Faces” area, you can’t make a key photo. If you stay in the faces area, you can’t really search for pictures as well as when you’re browsing “Moments”. If you browse too far, good luck jumping back to where you were: though the navigation sometimes feels historical, it’s actually spatial. So if you jump to “Moments” from “Faces”, you can’t easily jump back to where you were in Faces.

A lot of this confusion could be solved with a more web-like historical navigation and, for the love of all that is holy, just capitulating and putting stuff in the menus again or using that evil, evil shortcut menu. Apple’s drive to make a desktop application function just like a hamstrung UI made for tablets or phones where you can only fingerpaint on the screen is quite apparent.

Random list of Unnamed Faces

As you work with “Faces”, you start to get the impression that there are pictures with unnamed faces that aren’t in the list at the bottom. You would be correct. The list at the bottom—which is the only way to start identifying faces—only shows some of the pictures. If scroll all the way to the right and identify that face or mark that picture as “Not a Face”, a new picture will slide in from the right, where many, many more are waiting out of your reach. You will be patient and work with the ones that Photos has decided you will work with.

If the list is long, when you ignore or name a face, Photos animates the removal. It does this, however, only after it’s actually removed the picture, which takes a few hundred milliseconds. The lag here makes it difficult to ignore multiple faces quickly. At least you can select multiple faces—I was going to be all snarky about this being a missing feature until I actually tried it and discovered to my surprise that it worked.

It would also be nice if you could switch between “browse” and “edit” mode. As it stands, 80% of the screen is taken up by a pretty browser. If you’re identifying faces, you’d actually rather use all of that space to show the unnamed faces instead of just scrolling horizontally in the bottom 20% of the UI.

Keyboard Support is Sad

There are shortcut keys, but you have to find them all yourself. None are marked or in the menus (e.g. delete without asking is + Delete, Go back is + up-arrow) and so on.

Memory Usage / Stability

Though the user experience is smoother and faster than in iPhoto, the stability is not much better. After using the facial recognition feature for about half an hour, Photos crashed and took quite a while to clean itself up before offering to restart itself. After a restart, I kept a closer eye on memory usage and, while it started off at a reasonable 500MB, it quickly climbed to 1.2GB after 10 minutes.

The Map and Overview are very cool

The events are gone and have been replaced with “Moments”. However, all of your data is organized by year and you can zoom out until you see a truly impressive number of thumbnails on one screen. Clicking on the place names jumps to a map with all of your pictures spread on it. Zoom in to see where the pictures were taken. This is much nicer and faster and smoother than it was in iPhoto.


Now that I can set the location again, there are no blocker issues to my use cases. It takes longer for me to name pictures now since I can’t just tab through them anymore, but at least it’s still possible. I would rather I could compare two versions of a picture, but it’s also not a dealbreaker. The original version of Photos left me quite cold, but the latest version is at least sufficient, though I understand that that’s not a ringing endorsement.

[1] I am 100% aware that Photos is free, as was iPhoto before it. That, in fact, OS X is also free for use and that I haven’t actually given Apple any money for anything since I bought my iMac over 6 years ago. This does not stop me from lamenting serious regressions in a tool that I’ve integrated into my workflow. I’ve looked for alternatives and came up with nothing. I’m kinda stuck on iPhoto/Photos for making my photo albums and would love for them to restore some of the features they so callously tossed to the side.


#1 − Adjustments and Enhance “sometimes” don’t work


After publication of the article above, I encountered another issue that I’d seen before, but had assumed was something I was doing wrong. Nope: Photos cannot show previews of adjustments and enhancements in real-time anymore. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. The solution, according to Adjustments not working in Edit mode using Photos is that “[q]uitting and relaunching the application fixes the problem temporarily.” What a lovely workaround. This issue has apparently been in Photos since it launched in April. No fix from Apple in sight.

At least a restart did solve the problem, as advertised. I hope it survives without further restarts for the 60 pictures I want to touch up.