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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.