Apple’s Photos app is now available to anyone via the free 10.10.3 Yosemite update that went out today, and after spending significant time with the app in beta, we can tell you that it’s a smart upgrade for Apple’s local picture management software. The app is a perfect reflection of the true future of photo storage: All your pictures, when you need them, wherever you need them.
iCloud Photo Library
At the heart of Photos for OS X is iCloud Photo Library, Apple’s cloud-based picture storage system that keeps libraries synced across platforms, meaning you’ll have access to the same photos, albums and shared collections whether you’re browsing on your Mac, on your iPhone, on your iPad, or soon, even on your Apple Watch. Enabling iCloud Photo Library is not necessary to use Photos, but it’s clearly something Photos was designed for, and it really helps the new software shine.
With iCloud Photo Library enabled, every photo you shoot and video you capture is automatically stored in iCloud, providing access on any platform. Changes made via edits on one device are instantly visible on others, as well as your Moments, Collections and time-based organizations of photos. Marking pictures as favorites, and rearranging picture order within collection is likewise sticky across all devices, provided you have iCloud Photo Library enabled on each and are signed on to all with the same iCloud credentials.
iCloud Photo Library also lets you keep your computer’s storage relatively unburdened by your collection, allowing you to optimize for available storage on your device and only keep recently accessed pics, or those you’re deemed likely to want to get at on your actual flash drive. All the rest are offered as low-res thumbnails, with full resolution versions available to download almost instantly depending on your connection from iCloud’s servers.
So far, iCloud Photo Library hasn’t missed a beat during my testing. It’s absolutely solid, which may be a surprise to those who helped Apple cut its cloud computing teeth on services like MobileMe. I can see how storage costs for putting your entire library in the cloud might start to get expensive with Apple’s iCloud storage subscription plans options and big backups, but mine consist entirely of photos I capture on my iPhone, which is a much smaller collection than the massive disk-based backups of pictures taken for work on my DSLR that I also maintain (and that I have no interest in storing for cloud-based personal use, at least for now).
Photos borrows its organization strategy for images and clips from the iPhone equivalent, and it’s a brilliant way to group and manage pictures, especially if you’re not already an avid organizer yourself. The pictures are grouped into time- and location-based ‘Moments’ by default, giving you a specific snapshot of a day-in-the-life as it happened in pics and clips.
For a broader look at entire trips, Collections organizes by location across several days, giving you a more macro view of whole vacations, for instance. Once again, these are organized automatically so long as you’ve allowed the device you’re capturing your pictures with to share location information. This is amazing if you’re incurably lazy with organizing your own photos post-trip, as I’ve discovered first-hand.
You can also zoom out even further to see you library organized by years, and then of course you can also create your own custom albums, as well as see pictures organized by type (Panoramas, Bursts, slo-mo videos, etc.), featuring auto-detected faces or collecting all those you favourite.
The beauty of the system is that it responds well to either a light touch or a heavy hand, meaning you can just worry only about shooting and never even think of manual organization and still get something that’s a pleasure to browse; or you can painstakingly hand-pick what goes where, what gets kept and tag favorites in great deal and come out with something that suits your exact desires.
I think it lends itself towards, and lays the groundwork for, a more or less hands-off approach to photo collection management, and that’s why I love it. I have neither the time nor the inclination to pay all that much attention to my personal pictures, and yet Photos will ensure that even without any elbow grease, I’ll most likely be able to look back in 10 years and have something eminently browsable that nonetheless documents a lot of my past – documentation I’d otherwise probably have regretted not engaging in myself.
Edits are one place where I do enjoy occasionally taking a more hands-on approach, and Photos accommodates that desire while also helping transition to a future where for the most part, the majority of picture-takers don’t need to worry about getting their hands dirty. The editing tools in Photos are robust, and mostly automated at the top level for casual users, but reward curiosity and additional clicks with ever more granular manipulation capabilities.
Apple’s own auto-optimization one-click edit is probably going to suit the needs of most, providing subtle but useful adjustments to pictures that help colors pop and can correct slight exposure issues that might be present in the original capture. The effect is generally restrained at present, which is the best way to address a broad audience, and for those looking to do a bit more, exposing sliders for adjusting specific values like Exposure, Highlights and Shadows, Brightness, Contrast and much more is just a click away.
Again, I’m amazed by how easy it is to sit back and let Photos do most of the work in this case. I’m generally fond of tinkering with RAW files when using my DSLR, but Apple’s one-click edits are often more than satisfactory in my use of the software. The beauty of this is that it results in a net gain in the total of improved photos, vs. the very occasional few I’d bother tweaking more manually prior to using Photos as my main desktop picture management solution.
Filters offer another avenue to explore in terms of single-click enhancements, and they do for Photos on the desktop what Instagram did for mobile, to some extent – meaning they broaden the appeal of post-capture effects to an audience far beyond the motivated hobbyist. Apple’s filter set is limited to just eight choices, but they should prove plenty for most users.
Apple has expanded the sharing options for photos with Photos, giving you access to iCloud Photo Sharing, which lets you easily share single images or collections with other iCloud users you trust, who can then like and comment on the pictures and see them in their own Photos app.
This may eventually become the only sharing method Photos users need, depending on the willingness of their social circle to go all-in on Apple stuff, but the app also supports easy sharing via Facebook and Twitter, using the system-level integrations of both services to make it even easier.
Apple also supports sharing extensions in the new Photos, giving you access to third-party apps and websites that leverage the new developer feature to let you post photos directly to various destinations. It’s a smart way to make sure that while Apple’s own software operates as the ‘home’ for all your pics and clips, you can also easily let them tour around to other spots you may also frequent as well.
While Apple’s Photos app may have big shoes to fill as the replacement for iPhoto, which acted as one of the original ecosystem highlights for Mac users, it’s more than equal to the task. The app has incredible depth while also feeling like a much more lightweight program, with performance that never feels sluggish or burdened by library size. And while some people who spent a lot of time and effort manually curating their collections might take some time to find their bearings in the new software, it’s perfectly geared for the new class of mobile photographer.
Photo management going forward is going to be much more about taking the management out of user hands, and letting them focus on taking pictures, and browsing back through collections. The ubiquity of incredibly good mobile cameras will add complexity to that task via volume, but Photos is a shake-up of the Mac’s picture software that proves Apple is ready to deal intelligently with the next 10s or 100s of billions of photos its customers will take.
Install the OS X 10.10.3 update to find Photos, and check out Apple’s support article to find out how to make the transition from either Aperture or iPhoto.