Review: Apple iPhoto
Third-party photography applications began to flood the App Store well before the iPhone had a truly great camera, and have continued to improve with every passing year. Yet Apple has struggled to achieve the correct balance with its own iOS camera offerings: a focus on elegance has kept the official Camera and Photos apps simple, despite significant improvements to the company's Mac photo apps iPhoto and Aperture. So it's with a great sense of relief that we welcome the new iOS version of iPhoto ($5) to the table: this standalone app enables Apple to bring a considerable amount of its desktop expertise to bear on its mobile devices, and although it suffers somewhat from overambition, it's yet another strong, aggressively-priced piece of software -- and one that deserves to be considered in the same breath as the best third-party apps we've tested for the iPhone and iPad.
One key thing to mention up front about iPhoto is its unusual support for certain iOS devices: it runs on the iPhone 4 and 4S, iPad 2, and third-generation iPad, but not on the iPod touch, earlier iPhones, or original iPads. While some people may see the lack of broader support as a negative—and it is in fact a reason to seek out other editing tools if you’re using an unsupported device—the fact that iPhoto launched with separate iPad and iPhone interfaces is actually quite impressive, given the scope of what Apple has tackled with this app. Moreover, iPhoto runs well in both landscape and portrait orientations on each screen size, which was no easy design feat, either. Think of iPhoto for iOS as a dramatic evolution of the built-in Photos app, complete with its own unique library management and editing tools, each far beyond the scope of what an iPad or iPhone has on its own. Once you have iPhoto, you can effectively tuck Photos away in some forgotten folder or Home Screen; unless you’re looking for a completely stripped-down way to play back pictures, there’s not much left for Photos to do.
Half of iPhoto is an attractively redesigned “glass shelves” interface for organizing and browsing photographs, presenting you with the choice of Albums, Photos, Events, and Journals—the latter a new addition to the iPhoto world. Albums are presented as photo thumbnails inside of colored books, and consist of photos you’ve grouped together manually, synchronized from your computer, or had auto-organized into categories such as “camera roll,” “Photo Stream,” or “Edited” by your iOS device or iCloud. Photos presents you with the complete collection of individual images on your device in a four- to seven-image wide grid depending on the screen size and orientation, while Events offers framed photo boxes akin to Albums, assuming that you’ve synchronized events from the Mac version of iPhoto using iTunes. If you haven’t, iPhoto for iOS displays an animated, jiggling snapshot of four photographs, telling you to sync events with iTunes in order to see them here—a rare tip of the hat to the desktop software in this “post-PC era.”
Perhaps the most interesting set of shelves is the newest one, Journals, which represents a completely rethought way of organizing and presenting photographs. You create a journal by selecting as many photographs as you desire from your existing collections, then watch as iPhoto automatically lays them out on a grid spanning one or more pages, making automatic decisions about which to present at larger sizes while others remain small—and cropped into squares. Each image can then be manually resized, captioned, or moved, automatically adjusting other elements on the grid in the process, while additional text and graphical elements can be added to fill in spaces between photos. Text—including headers, notes, food descriptions, quotes, and recollections—can be added, as can map, calendar, and even weather details automatically grabbed from Weather Underground, assuming your images have been geotagged.
While the Journals feature is still a little buggy, with some odd graphical issues that popped up during grid-based repositioning, this concept of organization is one of the biggest, smartest innovations Apple has yet developed for photographers—a format that can easily be created on an iOS device, shared as easily with other iOS devices as on the web, and used to make sensible, richer arrangements of photos and information than were possible with traditional “albums,” “events,” and even printed materials that the Mac versions of iPhoto could output. iPhoto actually creates the iCloud-based web pages for you, complete with clickable, higher-resolution photos that can be enjoyed using any modern browser. The single biggest question we have is whether Journals will have the lasting power it needs to continue as a cross-device format, or whether it—like Faces, Places, and even Events—will wind up as a niche feature, added this year but essentially forgotten two years from now; in our view, it deserves to be prominent and widely used.
The other half of iPhoto—arguably the one that will be more important to more users—is its photographic editing toolset, and it’s here that the app runs into some trouble. Though there’s no argument that Apple is well ahead of the popular curve in both multi-touch gesture engineering and photo application creation, with development teams that have probably given more thought to both topics than any of their users, there’s also no getting around the fact that the editing tools in iPhoto for iOS don’t feel as intuitive as ones in top rival apps.
In just one bold move, Apple has almost entirely done away with the ever-present adjustment sliders found in iPhoto, Aperture, and competing iOS apps such as Snapseed, so when you want to adjust the brightness and contrast of a photo, you tap on an icon at the bottom of the screen—the far left on the iPad, or one of several sliding centralized bottom icon panels on the iPhone—and then swipe up, down, left, or right on the photo to make adjustments. But the swiping has to begin after a properly-timed tap on the photo, after which arrows appear to let you know that you’re either adjusting brightness or contrast at a given time, not both, and sometimes the adjustments change automatically: “brightness” may be replaced with “shadows” or “highlights,” based solely on where you’ve tapped.
These simple critical adjustments feel like the result of a really smart developer having iterated upon numerous alternatives and settled upon the best one to combine multiple sliders into a single, universal control system. Yet for all of their reductionist brilliance, they don’t feel natural at first, and the more tools you use, the more you may begin to wish for simple, text-based on-screen labels that don’t need to be toggled all-on or all-off with the top-of-screen ? help button. Two years from now, iPhoto’s gestures may feel completely natural, but today, they take some getting used to.
Additionally, some of Apple’s design decisions don’t feel so much “smarter” or “better” as “different” and “artsier.” Filter applications have become incredibly popular in the App Store, so Apple tosses in a collection of filters, integrated very uneasily into swatch-like strips labeled “Artistic,” “Vintage,” “Aura,” “Black & White,” “Duotone,” and “Warm & Cool.” Whereas the simple slider-like controls work well to let you move through Black & White options, quickly and smoothly switching between different black, white, and gray levels, the “Vintage” and “Artistic” groupings make less sense, abruptly transitioning between very disparate effects with less than ideally implemented options and controls.
Similarly, Apple offers a collection of separate brushes for features such as saturation, lightening and darkening, sharpening and softening, red eye removal and repair. While these brushes turn out to be exceptionally powerful and easy to use once you’ve figured them out—you literally just keep touching your photos until they look the way you want—the lack of an on-screen cursor, brush size adjustments, and some other intuitive visual clues leaves you just hoping that you’re doing the right things, and occasional page-flipping effects tossed in by iPhoto sometimes make you wonder whether you’ve just lost subtle corrections you’ve made. Then, amidst all of the huge changes to features people would expect to find, there’s a separate set of on-screen slider-based tools for several new features—“greenery,” “skin tones,” and “blue skies,” plus “saturation”—collectively represented with a palette icon. And a powerful collection of White Balance options takes the form of button-style settings on a digital camera, rather than just… sliders.
In short, while Apple has packed quite a few editing tools into iPhoto for iOS, and they work equally well on the iPad and iPhone screens, they feel like a very weird “1.0”—not the typical underthought, “we’ll fix it later” 1.0 we’re accustomed to seeing from developers, but rather very well-considered but neither entirely consistent nor intuitive product that will certainly require some post-release adjustments. It’s hard to say right now whether it’s better to spend the time necessary to learn iPhoto’s idiosyncrasies or just use an already more intuitively designed alternative instead, but we’d lean for the moment towards the latter, specifically Snapseed.
Having said that, there are quite a few great features that iPhoto is already leveraging to make itself stand out from the existing crowd. Multi-photo editing, complete with the ability to apply a collection of photo settings from one image to others, is non-trivially important. Being able to use a tap feature to identify multiple similar photographs in your collection automatically is another, as is iPhoto’s support for 18-Megapixel images—regrettably shy of the full resolution of today’s highest-end DSLRs, but much better than some of the apps out there. And Apple’s sharing and photo slideshow features are staggering: in addition to full journal sharing and web publishing, pictures can be e-mailed, Tweeted, shared on Flickr or Facebook, printed, and “beamed” to other iOS devices running iPhoto, individually or en masse. A slideshow feature displays images with new Portfolio, Magazine, and Dateline effects amongst more familiar others, the latter complete with date stamps, weather information, and other cute animations designed to make the presentation more exciting.
All of these features and their execution lead to a somewhat unusual rating—a qualified A-. In raw scope, iPhoto for iOS is undeniably impressive, offering an improved photo library management structure, a powerful suite of editing tools that puts Adobe’s Photoshop Touch to shame, and sharing options that use the web, iCloud, and multi-device beaming to transcend anything we’ve seen in iOS photo apps before. On the other hand, rough edges here and there take away from the overall user experience, resulting in an editing package that requires more learning, trust, and in some cases steps than earlier and less ambitious App Store releases. Version 1.0 of iPhoto is a truly great start for Apple, and thanks to its support for both the iPad and iPhone platforms, it leaves less glaring initial omissions than its iLife and iWork predecessors did when they were released. But it will certainly benefit from post-debut improvements, and because it comes so tantalizingly close to the ideal, it really feels like it needs them sooner rather than later.