Hands-on with Photos for Mac, Apple’s iPhoto replacement

Hands-on with Photos for Mac, Apple’s iPhoto replacement

Photos for Mac is finally here. Apple let its iPhoto app languish for a long time before deciding to scrap it and create Photos for Mac. The company first announced the app back in June 2014 and today, we have the full version to play around with.

Is it a worthy successor to iPhoto? Let’s find out.

Download and Installation

Photos for Mac welcome screen

Photos for Mac can be downloaded as a patch for OS X 10.10 Yosemite. If you haven’t updated to Yosemite, it’s required to use Photos for Mac. If you’re already running Yosemite, just head over to the Mac App Store and hit the “Updates” button. You’ll see a 2.02GB update with Photos for Mac.

Once the download starts, grab a coffee or tea because you’re going to be here for a while. In addition to the sizeable download, installation of the patch takes another 15-20 minutes.

On first launch, you’re asked whether you want to import your iPhoto library or start fresh. If you select your iPhoto library, you’re greeted with an upsell for iCloud storage. Since I had over 60GB of photos in my iPhoto library, I was told to get the 200GB plan for $3.99 per month. Then wait another half hour as Photos readies your photo library.

iCloud pricing

iCloud storage prices are reasonable but it may surprise users who’ve been happy using iCloud for free with iPhoto. The free plan still exists and has confusing restrictions like only keeping the last 1000 photos and for a set period of time. Free users get 5GB of storage, which isn’t a lot. You also don’t get full resolution photos synced to your iCloud if you don’t pay. Upgrading your iCloud storage makes sense if you live in Apple’s Mac and iOS ecosystem.

If you don’t pay for a subscription you’ll be missing out on one of Photos for Mac’s greatest features: automatic syncing between devices. If you edit a photo on one device, the changes will automatically be pushed to all your devices. For many, this is the app’s killer feature.


However, if you’re an Adobe Lightroom fan, you’re better off getting the $9.99 photography plan from Adobe. This gets you access to Lightroom, Photoshop, and the company’s other mobile photography apps. And you’ll be able to sync all of your work and changes using Adobe’s Creative Cloud.


Photos for Mac tumbnails

One of iPhoto’s biggest annoyances was its terrible performance. The app took forever to launch and large photo libraries crippled it. Thankfully, Photos for Mac fixes this for the most part. Photos launches almost instantaneously and navigating large photo libraries is a breeze now.

However, I did experience annoying delays when moving between album views. Zooming in and out from thumbnails was fine but jumping between full screen photos and back to thumbnail view caused the app to chug for a second or two. I’ll cut the app some slack as I’m testing it on a 2010 MacBook Pro, which is ancient by technology standards.


Apple did a good job of streamlining the myriad of features in iPhoto. Not everything made the cut, but most of it is here. I was curious to see if Faces and Places would make it to Photos for Mac since I used them a lot in iPhoto. Thankfully, they’re still in the app, but they’ve been moved around.

Photos for Mac Faces

That fence is not a face, Photos for Mac.

Faces is hidden from the user for the most part. You can browse your tagged faces in the album view but it was initially unclear how to tag new faces. The option to tag new faces is now hidden in the “Get info” menu. At the bottom is the option to add new faces, which automatically circles things in a photo that Photos thinks are faces.

Faces has never been the most accurate tool in iPhoto and it’s the same story in Photos for Mac. Expect the app to circle pieces of toast and carpet as faces. However, when it does recognize faces, it works extremely well. All it takes is a click to tag a recognized face. You can manually tag a face by typing in a contact’s name.

Photos for Mac Places San Francisco

The Places features was even harder to find in Photos. iPhoto had a map view to browse your photos by location, but Photos for Mac hides location from you. To view location photos by location, you’ll have to zoom out from the Photos tab and look for year and locations listed. Clicking on a location will bring up a map view with stacks of photos on top of each visited location. It works just like it did in iPhoto but it’s harder to find.

The biggest change is Photos for Mac’s editing mode. Everything has been simplified and is more newbie friendly than ever. This is either a very good or bad thing, depending on how you were using iPhoto before.

Photos for Mac editing sliders

Personally, I find the simplified adjustments great. There’s an auto-enhance button that does great work. You can also use a slider to adjust under or overexposed photos, which changes settings automatically. You can then go back and tweak individual sliders for highlights, shadows, contrast, etc. I think Apple did a good job of balancing ease of use with more advanced features. There’s even an auto-crop feature that analyzes your photos for horizons to correct tilt.

If you were an Aperture user, you’re going to hate Photos for Mac. It’s too simplified for amateur photographers and especially professionals. You’re better off paying for Adobe’s photography subscription.

Photos for Mac print pricing

For scrapbook makers, Apple still includes the ability to make photo books, prints, cards, and letters. They’re extremely expensive but do offer professional results. Plus, it’s easy to create projects and order them from within the app.

Photos for Mac video

Videos can still be imported into Photos for Mac and now they’re better organized. You can play back videos inside the app but there’s no full screen mode, which was also the case for iPhoto. However, you can now trim your videos but you’ll want to use iMovie for more involved editing.

What’s missing?

Not much, actually. The biggest omission is the star rating system, which was something I never used. Instead, you can “favorite” a photo with a heart. This helps you organize your photos somewhat as it creates a folder for your favorite photos.

Also missing is Facebook and Flickr sharing, which isn’t that big of a deal. You’ll just have to export your photos before uploading to each service instead of doing everything in the app.

One omission that will probably upset some users is the ability to geo-tag photos. You can browse by location but you can no longer manually tag your photos. This is annoying if you have a camera that doesn’t collect geo-location data.

Wrap-up: A great upgrade for most users

Photos for Mac Barcelona office

Apple did a really good job with Photos. It’s easy enough to use for any user while keeping some more advanced features. Pro photographers were likely using other apps like Aperture or Lightroom. In addition to discontinuing iPhoto, Apple is also giving Aperture the ax, which leaves pro photographers with one choice: Adobe Lightroom. That’s not a bad thing as Lightroom is a great program with a ton of support.

For most users, Photos for Mac is better than iPhoto in every way. It’s faster, simpler, and is distilled down to the best parts of iPhoto. Sure, you’ll have to get used to a new interface but it doesn’t take that long to do. Some things like Faces and Places could be less hidden but I’m glad Apple decided to keep them.

Photos for Mac may try to get you to subscribe to iCloud but its prices are reasonable and its killer syncing is worth the cost. However, users who wish to stay free can look to Dropbox, Google Drive, Amazon Prime Photos, and Flickr to host and share their photos.

Source: Apple

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Follow me on Twitter: @lewisleong

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