Apple Photos: An Under-Appreciated Post-Processing Software Powerhouse

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As the market for digital cameras has intensified in recent years, the options available for post-processing software has exploded as well. There are dozens of great options for casual, enthusiast, and professional image-makers who are looking to get the most out of their images.

Programs like Lightroom, Luminar, CaptureOne, Affinity Photo, GIMP, DarkTable, and AfterShotPro, are all highly capable photo editors. It can be a daunting proposition to try and pick one that’s right for you.

Fortunately for Mac users, there is a fantastic option already available to you for free sitting right on your own computer. Apple Photos is a program you might have overlooked in the past, but with steady improvements over the years, it is now a serious contender when it comes to post-processing your pictures.

Apple Photos: An Under-Appreciated Post-Processing Software Powerhouse

A Brief History

The story of Apple Photos starts in 2002 with Apple’s late CEO Steve Jobs introducing an all-in-one program to let users catalog, edit, and share their digital pictures. This new software called iPhoto was revolutionary at the time, giving casual users a way to manage all their digital imaging assets in a way that was fast, simple, and easy to understand.

I used iPhoto from the first version that was released and even now it’s kind of amazing how well that initial offering worked, though it was clearly lacking many features we take for granted today. A few years later Apple waded into the professional photo editing market with Aperture, a program that was like iPhoto on steroids and was seen as a direct competitor to Adobe Lightroom.

Merger of Aperture and iPhoto

As the decade wore on and Apple saw how much people were using their mobile phones for taking and editing pictures it decided to kill off Aperture and iPhoto and replace them with a single program called Photos. This new application offered users a way to manage, edit, and share their photos much in the same way iPhoto and Aperture functioned, but also gave people the ability to sync their photo collections and even individual photo edits across all their devices.

With Photos, it was possible to crop a picture on your iPhone and then have that same cropped version of the picture show up on your Apple desktop a few seconds later – a syncing nightmare that was virtually impossible using the panoply of programs previously available from Apple.

Apple Photos: An Under-Appreciated Post-Processing Software Powerhouse

Evolution of Photos

One significant tradeoff when consolidating apps and enabling cross-device editing with Apple Photos was a lean feature set that, compared to Aperture, was downright anemic and even came up short when compared to iPhoto. Photographers hopeful for a fresh new program with all of their favorite features were dismayed and abandoned Apple Photos in droves only to rush headlong into the welcoming arms of Adobe, Macphun (now called Skylum), Corel, and other developers.

However over time, Apple has delivered on its promise to improve Photos and with each iteration, the program becomes more capable, not to mention speedier, than ever before. It can now hold its own against many of the other post-processing software options available on the market. It’s safe to say that if you haven’t used Apple Photos in a while you might be surprised at how good the current version is, and if you have never even tried the program you are in for a real treat.

Sunflower photo processed in Apple Photos app.

Photo management simplified

The core principle of Apple Photos has always been simplicity. Even back to the original days of iPhoto, Apple’s philosophy has been to make their image-editing programs as easy to use as possible. I can personally attest to this with my dad as an example.

He is a retired railroad mechanic who prefers working on small engines in his garage instead of tinkering on the computer. But he is perfectly capable of connecting his Canon Rebel T4i to his Mac, offloading his images into Photos, and post-processing them using the tools provided. Underlying that simplicity is a powerful set of editing tools that started out all too basic but have grown to be quite competent over time.

One library

The Photos app is built around the concept of a unified photo library, such that any photos you take on your phone automatically sync with your computer and vice versa. Because of that, the interface looks much the same whether you’re on a desktop, laptop, iPad, or iPhone.

Your pictures aren’t stored in the cloud per se, but Apple does use its cloud-based infrastructure to sync all your pictures while keeping the actual image files stored on your individual devices. To enable this all you have to do is click a checkbox in Apple Photos on your desktop and flip a slider on your iPhone and the program will take care of the rest.

Apple Photos: An Under-Appreciated Post-Processing Software Powerhouse

Organization

Photos organizes your images based on time data and does its best to group pictures into what it calls Events based on time and location data. Scroll through your library and you will see images grouped by categories such as People, Places, Favorites, and Memories as well as Albums which are collections of photos that you create manually or automatically using metadata (i.e. all photos with the keyword “Vacation” and “Kansas”.)

Unlike Google Photos and some other cloud-based services, none of your images are analyzed by Apple for the purpose of gathering data that can be used in advertising. A boon to privacy advocates and others who just want to keep other companies away from their pictures.

Apple Photos: An Under-Appreciated Post-Processing Software Powerhouse

Sorting and viewing images

However, some degree of machine learning is present in Photos, as the software attempts to group your images automatically with Memories based on time and location data. It also automatically looks for faces which it uses to populate the People category.

If you have ever scrolled through your near-endless Lightroom Library you might be surprised at how well Photos handles the presentation element of photo management. You can use the options buttons at the top of the screen to organize your images by Photos, Moments, Collections, or Years. All your images are available in each view, but the Photos app groups them dynamically so as you scroll up and down you will see them grouped together in specific ways. If you click Moments your images are grouped almost like day-to-day activities, whereas Collections shows photos in larger groups and Years literally displays an entire year’s worth of images at once.

Apple Photos: An Under-Appreciated Post-Processing Software Powerhouse

Grouping options for how to display your thumbnails – Moments, Collections or Years (shown here).

All this is fairly simple and intuitive, and if you have a trackpad on your Mac you can mimic the pinch-to-zoom feature found on iPhone and iPad devices to zoom in and out of your entire photo library. Longtime Lightroom users will note several deficiencies in this design methodology, though, and a host of missing features like Compare, Survey, and fine-grained sorting criteria not to mention Lightroom’s far superior Library Filter.

This illustrates the point that Apple Photos is not intended to be a full-on replacement for Lightroom. Nevertheless, it can be a good starting point for amateurs or even enthusiasts looking to get a little more control over their image organization.

Powerful post-processing editing features

Image management is one thing, but post-processing or editing is a whole other matter entirely. Unfortunately, this is where Apple Photos has traditionally fallen flat. The first version of Photos had an editing feature set that was positively anemic and downright infuriating to longtime users of Aperture. They felt they had been hung out to dry by Apple, and it was not even worth comparing to programs like Lightroom, Photoshop, and others.

But like the fabled tortoise racing against the hare, Apple has steadily injected an ever-growing list of editing tools into Photos. It’s now not only competent but worth considering for anyone who wants to dive deeper into more professional-style editing.

Basic and advanced tools

Select a photo and click the Edit button to open up a cornucopia of editing tools. They cover all the basic options you would expect to find in any prominent image editor and even a few surprises. Of course, you can perform basic edits like Crop, Red Eye Removal, and White Balance and if that’s all you want then you’re good to go.

There are also highly advanced tools like RGB Levels and RGB Curves in which individual color channels can be edited, Selective Color that lets you adjust Hue, Saturation, and Lightness for Red, Yellow, Green, Cyan, Blue, and Magenta colors. Also present is a Noise Reduction option that allows for Luminance and Color noise, and even a Lightness tool with the freedom to adjust seven different parameters including Exposure, Brilliance, Highlights, Shadows, and Contrast.

Apple Photos: An Under-Appreciated Post-Processing Software Powerhouse

Filters

Apple Photos also has a nice array of filters. They work just like those in Instagram or other programs like Luminar, with one-click presets such as Vivid, Dramatic, Mono, Noir, and more. Add to this a pretty good auto-enhance option and the ability to undo edits one at a time or revert to the original with one click, and you can see how this program might be worth a second look. I remember using it when it first launched and was immediately put off by its overly-simplistic workflow and lack of features. But now I would honestly recommend it to anyone who is considering buying a subscription to Lightroom or investing in any other image editing post-processing software options on the market.

Apple Photos is not perfect, but it could suit your needs better than you might realize. The best part is it’s absolutely free if you own a Mac computer, iPhone, or iPad. There’s something special about editing a picture on your desktop, picking up your phone and seeing all your changes automatically synced, and then realizing it’s all happening without any monthly fee or another type of additional payment.

Apple Photos: An Under-Appreciated Post-Processing Software Powerhouse

Caveats and Limitations

All of this editing and organizational finesse comes with a rather large asterisk or two, as there are some significant drawbacks to Apple Photos that savvy photographers need to be aware of.

The most important is that this is an Apple-only program, so if you use Windows or Linux you’re out of luck. The mobile version is firmly ensconced in Apple’s infamous walled garden which means it never has been, and never will be, available for Android phones.

Also despite the lack of a subscription model, if you want to take full advantage of the iCloud-based storage options you will need to shell out some cash for iCloud Drive. Apple only gives users a paltry 5GB for free. Fortunately, iCloud plans are quite reasonable, and I am perfectly happy with my 50GB plan that only costs 99 cents per month.

Apple Photos: An Under-Appreciated Post-Processing Software Powerhouse

If you want to take full advantage of Photos’ cloud-based options, you might want to purchase additional storage. Fortunately, this is optional and it’s entirely up to you whether you want to do this, and how much storage to buy.

What’s missing

Finally, there are some notable features missing from Apple Photos that users of Lightroom, Luminar, and other apps will likely bemoan – and rightly so. There’s no history panel, no brush adjustments, no radial or graduated filters, no way to share presets, no plugin architecture for third-party expandability, no way to sync edits across multiple photos, and the list goes on.

Even simply exporting a photo can be frustrating. You only have a few options available by default like sharing to online social media sites or setting an image as a desktop background. These can be customized albeit not nearly to the same level as many other programs. It’s safe to say that if you want to give Apple Photos a chance it’s best to keep your expectations in check.

Apple Photos: An Under-Appreciated Post-Processing Software Powerhouse

Unless you want to post images directly to Facebook or Flickr, you might get a little frustrated with the default sharing options.

Conclusion

I hesitate to make a solid recommendation regarding Apple Photos because it really is dependent on the needs of each individual user. Other than to say a once low-end unimpressive program without much going for it has now been transformed to the point that I think it could really be useful for a lot of people.

While it’s still not up to par with its Aperture ancestor and continues to lag behind a lot of other options on the market in terms of features and capability, it’s a free, powerful, highly effective photo manager and editor that just might surprise and delight you if you give it a chance.

Read more from our Post Production category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

  • Geeky Organizer

    It is not called „plugin“ but there are several third party apps which offer so called extensions for Apple Photos (e.g. Affinity Photo, Pixelmator, Luminar…). That‘s a very nice feature and similar to use like plugins.

  • Ariel Glaze

    Photos is to Aperture what The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are to the first trilogy.

  • Myrna

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  • Cam Miller

    I happily use Photos for a lot of my editing and my library. I take photos of cats for the webpage of a large animal shelter and Photos is usually the only editor I need and speeds up that work considerably. It needs a clone tool and layers would be nice for some of my own photos, but I have an old version of Photoshop that works just fine for that. The only thing I don’t like about it is that I will always have to fork over big $$ for a Mac because I don’t ever want to be without it 🙂

  • Nizmo

    IPhotos is made for apple fans selfie santas. There is no comparison even to Apperture I’m even not talking about Lightroom or Capture One. It’s absolute joke to compare this app to a proper software.

  • Lyndsay

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  • iPhoto, a program that has been deprecated for a few years now, was nowhere near a replacement for Aperture. However Photos has a lot going for it and if you haven’t tried it recently you might be surprised at the amount of editing power it has. Of course it’s not in the same league as Lightroom or Capture One, but it’s not too shabby either and could probably serve as a great solution for people who want more control over their photos but don’t want to shell out the money for a high-end program just yet.

  • Yes, a Clone tool as well as Layer support would be awesome!

  • Cam Miller

    I believe you are confusing iPhotos and Photos – two completely different apps. I’ve used both and Photos is much better.

  • Nizmo

    Really? 🙂

  • It really is. iPhoto hasn’t been in development for almost three years, and it’s a slow, clunky dinosaur compared to Photos. Not that Photos is the same as Capture One or Lightroom, but it’s significantly improved over iPhoto.

  • Christa

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  • KC

    Let me start with I haven’t used Photos much, since I don’t own a Mac any more, or an iPhone. That being said. Photos is much better than iPhoto. Aperture, unfortunately, never quite got to where it needed to be.

    Before I say more and get flamed endlessly by Apple aficionados, Photos, like a lot of these lighter apps/programs has its place. It’s all good. It’s better to start “light” and get the basics of editing down, rather than jumping head first into a “heavy” editor like Photoshop. There’s a lot mid-level editors coming onto the market for all platforms. That’s great.

    The trick is thinking ahead. That fuzzy “this app/program is good but what happens when I need more” area. Getting “locked” into an app/program ecosystem is like getting locked into a camera ecosystem. Somewhere along the way it gets awkward.

  • That’s a good assessment of the situation, KC. Photos isn’t the best manager/editor out there, but it’s not too shabby either.

  • Sandra

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  • T_Will

    I was just going to mention this, I use the Pixelmator extension quite a bit to do clean-up within the Photos app.

  • T_Will

    “Even simply exporting a photo can be frustrating.”

    I think you need to do a File -> Export to get the full set of file export options (rather than using the “share” button).

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  • Steve Eather

    Hi Simon, thanks for a great, well balanced article. However I need to correct one point … Photos does have the ability to accept plug in software from other sources. I have used Luminar in this fashion for over a year. My processing is completed in Luminar and then saved in Photos as I like their library configuration. It’s ultra easy to use: open a photo on your Mac, click on edit (top right corner), click on extensions (round icon with 3 dots in it) and choose your extension, eg Luminar, Lightroom etc. Highly recommend it. Go well, Steve

  • Gallopingphotog

    I use Photos for 1) “snapshots” such as family gatherings, that I will put on iPhone & iPad as well as FB, Flickr, Cluster, etc. for family sharing; 2) photos for iPad & iPhone that I want to have with me to show friends, etc. (some travel shots, photos of pets, etc.), stuff like a picture of a special tool I’m looking for, a label, etc. The Photos editing tools are fine for all these.
    Lightroom and Photoshop are for “good photos” from the originals through all the editing manipulations. Some photos are in both, and I do store all my originals (minus the obvious unusable) on an external HD.
    In essence, I consider them as 2 very different programs suited to very different kinds of photos and their use.
    I do think if someone is just starting out, the simpler options of Photos are quite easy to learn and can smooth the way into LR and later PS.

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  • Mark

    Photos cannot even apply ratings to photos. Previous star ratings in an iPhoto library converted to “1 Star”, “2 Star” etc keywords in metadata. That is just whimsical design nonsense and is absolutely putting this application in the class of the selfie santa.
    Add the fact that it wants to embed imported photos into its enclosed “library” system by default or else leave “in their current location” and you can see it is a very poor man’s Lightroom.

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  • KC

    “Powerhouse” is a bit of a stretch. Google’s Photos is good as well. There’s quite a few good apps/programs/services out there. Use the one that works for you. Nobody is going to know from the final image. I’ve seen far too many photographers struggle by jumping directly to Photoshop because “that’s what all photographers use”. Not every image needs that kind of editing horsepower.

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