Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The New Photos Paradigm

At Macworld 2002, Steve Jobs unveiled iPhoto as an integral part of Apple’s now-legendary “digital hub” strategy. It was billed as “iTunes for photos”, and it was one of the reasons so many people I know bought a Mac. During that keynote, Jobs noted that one of the reasons Apple was building a photo cataloguing and editing app was that six million digital cameras were sold in the United States in 2001. In the first quarter of 2015, Apple sold 74.5 million iPhones worldwide, which means that they alone sold as many digital cameras in every week of their first quarter as the entire US purchased in 2001.

It’s no surprise, then, that the organizational and editing model set by iPhoto is no longer as effective as it once was. You take your camera and a substantial editing suite everywhere with you, and it’s always connected to the internet, so your photos are always somewhere on a hard drive in the sky. They’re automatically geotagged and timestamped, and your favourites will probably end up on Instagram in a 640 × 640-pixel square box. In short: the way we shoot, edit, store, catalogue, and share our photos has completely changed. The software we use to edit them when we get back to our computer also needs to change.

iCloud Photo Library

Remember the days when you had to physically attach your camera to your computer using such ancient technology as a cable? Remember how you had to go through the arduous process of making sure your photos ended up in the right album while importing them, and manually geotagging them while shovelling coal into your computer to make sure it didn’t die in the middle of this process? Or, at least, that’s what it feels like now.

For a company so at the forefront of the “digital hub”, Apple was very much a laggard for advancements to that model, especially in cloud services. Every year brought new printed product designs — which, admittedly, were gorgeous — and new editing tools, but made it appear as though Apple was content to lag behind their competitors in syncing, storing, and sharing in the cloud. These shortcomings were unfortunately showcased in Apple’s flagship product: the iPhone. Despite each generation of iPhone becoming a way, way better camera with loads of networking capabilities, the easiest way to get photos into iPhoto was to plug it in and hit the import button on your Mac.

Apple’s initial remedy for this was Photo Stream, which was introduced as part of iCloud in 2011. Photo Stream stored your last thousand photos from your iPhone or iPad for up to thirty days and synced those photos between your iOS devices and your Macs, all automatically. What made it extra sweet was that it occupied none of your iCloud storage quota.

But Photo Stream was a decidedly stopgap measure, and it felt especially half-assed on the Mac. In iPhoto and Aperture, Photo Stream appeared as an album, but it had very little actual album functionality. You couldn’t edit photos in Photo Stream, for example — you had to drag your favourites from Photo Stream to a local album to edit them. And you couldn’t manually place the photo back into Photo Stream when you were done, making this whole exercise a little silly. It clearly wasn’t designed to be a cloud photo storage library so much as a way to conveniently view your recent iPhone pictures on your iPad, Mac, or Apple TV. And it didn’t store video files.

What I’ve wanted for a long time is pretty simple: I’d like my library of photos to be stored in the cloud, and I’d like to edit my photos locally and have everything sync up at the end of the day. Why? Scott Forstall nailed it when introducing Time Machine at WWDC 2006:

When I look on my Mac, I find these pictures of my kids that, to me, are absolutely priceless. In fact, I have thousands of these photos. If I were to lose a single one of these photos, it would be awful. But if I were to lose all of these photos because my hard drive died, I’d be devastated. I never, ever want to lose these photos.

So what should I do? What does everyone tell you to do to make sure your photos are all secure, and you don’t lose them? “Back it up”. Right? So everyone says it, you’re all saying it, we all know we should back it up. And I know I should back up, uh, but I don’t.

Lack of children notwithstanding, my photo library is pretty precious to me, and probably to you too. Photos are heroin for our nostalgia receptors, if there are such things. They remind us of specific places and moments. They jog our memory for things we want to remember, and remind us of things we don’t even remember forgetting.

So I do what I’m supposed to do: I back up my photos, along with the rest of my files. I have what is probably a better backup regiment for my photos than most people: not only do I have my Aperture library on a drive that backs up with Time Machine, I also have a Vault set up that backs up to two separate drives. I’m in the minority — apparently, only 10% of users surveyed by Backblaze back up their files daily.

But all three of my backups are in my apartment; if I were serious about backing up, I should be using an offsite backup solution, like Backblaze or CrashPlan. Both of those companies manage their own data centres, and both have pretty great track records of doing so. So would you feel comfortable entrusting your precious memories to a company way bigger than Backblaze and CrashPlan combined? A company that has been in business for nearly fourty years? A company that bragged about its media streaming prowess over ten years ago?

Yes, Apple should be the obvious choice for a company you can trust to keep safe your most precious memories. Yet, despite their apparent solidity, Apple has a spotty track record when it comes to cloud and web services. From incomplete and poor data in Maps to the iTunes errors many of us see daily, Apple’s record isn’t great. And now they’re asking us to entrust our photos to them. Gulp.

I wanted to turn iCloud Photo Library (hereafter: iCPL) on everywhere so I could get the best possible experience.1 Switching it on for my iPhone was easy: I already had the 20 GB iCloud storage upgrade, so the 3-4 GB of photos on my phone fit perfectly in that space, with room to spare. But I shoot RAW files with my Canon, and I have about 60 GB of those in Aperture. So my first order of business was to upgrade my iCloud subscription.

Luckily, Apple is no longer criminally insane, so they now charge reasonable prices for their subscriptions. A 200 GB plan for four dollars per month is a no-brainer.

When launching Photos for the first time, you will be prompted to import your existing photo library. The import process creates hard links to your old photo library and uploads everything to iCloud over HTTPS:

cloudd.5391                                                                                 154 KiB          12 MiB      0 B       0 B     562 KiB
tcp4 192.168.0.6:60653<->17.158.10.22:443                        en2     Established        3909 B           5227 B      0 B       0 B       0 B    77.97 ms   256 KiB    39 KiB        BE         -     cubic
tcp4 192.168.0.6:60638<->17.158.10.22:443                        en2     Established        3952 B           4723 B      0 B       0 B       0 B    71.97 ms   256 KiB    39 KiB        BK         -    ledbat
tcp4 192.168.0.6:58478<->17.158.10.22:443                        en2     Established        135 KiB          146 KiB     0 B       0 B    1398 B    68.78 ms   256 KiB    39 KiB        BK         -    ledbat
tcp4 192.168.0.6:60673<->17.158.10.18:443                        en2        TimeWait        6772 B            23 KiB     0 B       0 B       0 B    63.41 ms   256 KiB    39 KiB        BE         -     cubic

Uploading all these photos on my home broadband connection took what I imagine is a long time, but I’m not certain exactly how long because it’s completely invisible to the user. It runs in the background on your Mac and on your iPhone, when you’re charging and connected to WiFi. I can’t find any setting that would allow you to do this over LTE, but I’m not sure why you’d want to — photos taken on my 5S are something like 2-3 MB apiece. (I’m aware that this paragraph is going to sound incredibly dated in a few years’ time, for lots of reasons.)

And this is primarily what sets iCPL apart from backup solutions like Backblaze, or other “automatic” photo uploaders like Google+ or Dropbox: it’s automatic and baked in at the system level. Dropbox can’t do that because it can’t stay running in the background, or spawn daemons to do the same. On a Mac, it’s a similar story. Because Power Nap doesn’t have a public API, competing services can only sync while the Mac is awake. iCPL, on the other hand, can take full advantage of being a first-party app with full private API access, so it continues to sync overnight. Nice, right?

As of writing this paragraph, I have 6,149 photos and 12 videos stored in iCloud. Most of these — about 4,000 photos and all videos — are from my iPhone. The rest are RAW files from my Canon XSI. Both work fine in iCPL; it accepts all the popular image file types, and MP4 video files.

While writing this, I realized that I had an archive of approximately 10,000 photos I had to remove from my phone over the past couple of years to free up space, so I’ve started importing those too. During the import of a second batch of photos, I mis-clicked the option to import duplicate photos. It turns out that Photos doesn’t have a post-import duplicate detection tool, which is baffling to me. In a choice between manually finding and removing about a thousand duplicate photos or just leaving them in the cloud, I’ve chosen the latter. I have plenty of storage, and it’s far less frustrating.

All this iCloud storage also means that you can free up some disk space. By default, your device will likely be set to download and keep original photos. If you’d prefer, though, you can choose to allow automatic disk space optimization. This will place all the original files in iCloud, and each device will download only what it needs, on demand.

Be warned, though: getting photos from the cloud as-need in combination with a cellular connection on your phone can lead to some nasty surprises. I was curious as to whether Photos on iOS would download an original RAW file, or whether it would grab an optimized JPG version. Not only did it grab the RAW version of a 13.2 MB photo, it also downloaded what I can only assume are a couple of buffer files on either side of the selected photo, all of which happen to be RAW files, in this case. Total bill for downloading one photo: slightly over 50 MB of my 1 GB monthly bandwidth allotment. Eek.

Now that I’ve got all my photos on a hard drive in the sky, I should create something.

Photos

So you’ve spent a day out and about, shooting a bunch of photos on your digital SLR and your iPhone in a bunch of different locations. You get home and you want to import, sort, edit, and share these photos. Pretty standard workflow, right? Let’s get started.

For photos taken on the iPhone, the importing is obviously taken care of automatically via iCloud. Importing photos from your SLR is done the old fashioned way, by either connecting your camera via USB, or by ejecting the SD card and plugging it into your Mac. When you do, a new tab — Import — will appear alongside the existing Photos, Shared, Albums, and Projects tabs.

Importing photos couldn’t be simpler. Across the top is a filmstrip of photos you already have in your library; below it are new photos. Select the ones you want, or just click “Import All New Photos”. I’ve found that importing is just as fast, if not faster, than Aperture. Thumbnails build quickly and scrolling is far, far smoother and faster than either of its predecessors.

The Album sorting paradigm still exists in Photos but it’s decidedly subdued. Like on iOS, the default view separates photos automatically based on date, time, and location. Faces are also available as a categorization method, but it’s also not as pronounced as it was in iPhoto.

For being a primary factor in the way photos are grouped, locations seem to get the least amount of love in the app. In order to have a location assigned to a photo, it must have been taken on a camera that automatically adds location data; there is no global map view, and no way to manually assign a location to photos. However, if you do this kind of mixed import with photos taken on the same day and in the same timeframe, Photos will assume that these photos were probably taken in the same location, and place them alongside each other in your collection.

Sorting through your imported photos to find your favourites is even simpler than it was in iPhoto and Aperture, and by “simpler”, I also mean “less capable”. You can tap the heart-shaped button to mark a photo as a favourite, and that’s it. There are no star-based ratings, nor is there a two-up view to compare between similar shots and pick your best.

As you dive deeper into Photos, you’ll notice a pattern beginning to emerge: it does basically the same stuff as iPhoto, but in a far nicer way, and is no match for Aperture. It’s also far more than simply a scaled-up version of its iOS namesake.

By default, the enabled palette of editing tools consists of the Colour, Light, and Black and White editors. Like their iOS counterparts, these three simple-looking sliders are comprised of multiple adjustments that are continuously assessed and modified on a per-image basis. Cranking up the Light adjustment on one image, for example, might significantly increase the exposure while reducing highlight brightness. Doing the same on a different image might instead reduce the exposure while cranking up the shadow brightness. Clicking the small disclosure arrow beside each of these adjustments will reveal all of the subset tools, so you can further tweak each aspect.

But there are far more tools bundled into the Mac version of Photos than its iOS counterparts. Clicking the “list” icon in the top-right of the adjustment palette will reveal a vastly broader range of tools, from levels to white balancing, to sharpness. This is as much an ode to simplicity as it is to needless difficulty. While I understand burying a fairly complex tool like levels from most end-users, most people would probably be comfortable with white balance and sharpness. There are some notable omissions here, too: there is no curves tool, for example, or adjustments for fine-tuning RAW files after import. Even some tools that are in the app, such as the magenta/green tint, are buried within other tools — in this case, the white balance tool. This depth means that an adjustment previously requiring one click now takes a couple more.

The tools that do exist are of a very high calibre. As I mentioned above, the three standard tools are complex and nuanced, adjusting multiple parameters constantly to create a great image. On a RAW file with good exposure, the black and white adjustment doesn’t leave a bunch of blocky noise everywhere.

Unfortunately, unlike in Aperture, these adjustments cannot be layered. You cannot, for example, have two instances of levels. You get one, and you’ll be happy to have it.

Most impressive of all is that these adjustments sync over the air to your iOS device in a non-destructive manner. You can tweak the colour on your Mac, then grab your iPhone and use the same tool. But this ability is limited to Colour, Light, and Black and White, filters, and cropping; additional adjustments are not editable on iOS, and any photo with adjustments beyond this set will appear as “flattened”. That is, if you apply a filter and you also adjust the white balance, you won’t even be able to change the filter.

I’ve found that syncing edits between devices is pretty instantaneous. Usually, by the time I unlock my phone and launch Photos, the edits have synced. Occasionally I’ll run into an issue where I’ll make an edit on my Mac, then view it on my iPhone, then make another edit on my Mac, and the phone copy won’t update. The thumbnail usually will, but the full-size image will be cached. I’ve found that I can usually work around this by force-quitting Photos on my phone, making a small tweak on my Mac, and relaunching Photos after a minute or so. The small tweak will help trigger a re-sync, and the minute will give everything plenty of time to catch up.

There’s one more tool available on the Mac that isn’t to be found in the iOS versions of Photos: a retouch tool. I’ve used a lot of different photo retouching tools, including those from iPhoto, Aperture, various versions of Photoshop, and various iOS apps. I must say that the one in Photos is easily one of the best I’ve ever used. Even in automatic mode, where it guesses the best source area, I’ve found it to be consistently great at matching tones, colours, and textures. This is a hard feature to get right; even the one in Photoshop is often flummoxed. But the one in Photos seems to get it right more often than not. I’m smitten.

There are also the typical tools you’d expect. There’s auto-enhance, which I never, ever use, but I tested it for the purposes of this review and I found that it does, indeed, work. There’s also a cropping tool, which annoys me because it resets the aspect ratio every time you select a photo. So if you want to crop a series of photos to 3:2, you have to manually select it each time.

So, you’ve picked your favourite photos from those you imported earlier, and you’ve edited and cropped them. Now it’s time to share them. Syncing them to your iOS devices is a piece of cake — they’re already there.2 Sharing to your social networks is also easy: it uses OS X’s share sheets, naturally. Sharing to disk, however, is a little bit hidden. It doesn’t appear in the contextual menu, nor anywhere in the apparent UI, but it’s there, under File → Export. You can also create the usual plethora of calendars, greeting cards, and books.3 I didn’t test this beyond creating one, but it’s pretty much what you’d expect if you’ve ever created a printed photo product with Apple before.

Photos gets most of the basics right, and I do like what it does. Yet I can’t help shake the pervasive feeling that this is no Aperture replacement. It’s clearly designed for the way in which most people take most of their photos these days, and that’s fine. If this were solely a replacement for iPhoto, it would be spectacular. But as Aperture was discontinued at the same time, this feels like a product that must fill the shoes of both of its predecessors. I have no doubt that, over time, myriad plugins and extensions will be created for it that make it far closer to Aperture, should you so choose. Apple may allow multiple iterations of the same adjustment tool to be used at once, and they may add features like two-up viewing and duplicate detection, both of which are pretty much essential.

For me, there’s no shaking the fact that this doesn’t feel like Aperture. There was something about editing a photo in that environment that felt like you were creating something really special. It was the kind of application you could get lost in. Photos doesn’t feel like that. It’s not the all-Yosemite UI, I don’t think, nor is it any particular addition or removal of features. It’s just, somehow, not quite as engaging, immersive, or just plain fun.

I like Photos, but I don’t love it. Yet.


  1. True to form, my iCloud Photo Library experience got off to a rocky start. Photos simply wouldn’t sync, so I had 1,600 memories stuck in the void. Furthermore, the Photos “app” on the iCloud web service never appeared for me, even after iOS 8.1 was released. I tried all manner of toggling, restarting, and resyncing. By some fluke, I managed to make the web app appear, but it was stuck in a preparation mode. Manually triggering a sync would throw a “sync will resume when this iPhone has restored from iCloud backup” message, despite never having used iCloud for my phone backup purposes.

    I filed a radar on this, and mentioned its number to anyone who would listen. And it worked. I got a call from a nice person on the iCloud team, who reset some caches on their end and did some other wizardry. This worked on my Mac and iOS devices, but not on the web. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that the latter was debugged.

    This is normally the sort of thing I could debug on my end, but as iCloud has been designed as a black box of magic, I couldn’t. When it works, it is magical, but the lack of transparency makes debugging virtually impossible. I’m not sure what kind of verbosity developers see in the console when writing their own iCloud-enabled apps, but if it’s anything like what I’ve seen, I understand their frustration. ↩︎

  2. Some data from Photos, like Faces, isn’t very visible on iOS, but it does sync. You can reveal it by doing a search for someone whose face you’ve tagged. ↩︎

  3. Based on some early chatter I heard, I was under the impression that printed products were being dropped in Photos. I was wrong, and I regret the error, but I’m delighted that these products are still around. ↩︎