iPhoto '09: The Definitive Review and Tip Sheet

If you couldn't tell from yesterday's facial recognition special, I've been immersed in iPhoto '09—just me and 30,000 photos. Here's my full rundown of the app, plus tips to make it work better and faster.

The big story for iPhoto '09—part of Apple's newly released iLife '09 suite—is that organisation gets two new dimensions. In iPhoto '08, time, the most important organising tool for photos, was more or less mastered with the advent of Events. Now there are Faces and Places, organising by people and location.

I'm not going to BS you: There's a slim-to-nil chance you will use either to tag every last one of your photos. Still, both are good new ways to organise things so that you can find your best photos faster, and that's coming from a guy who, in just 36 hours, has organised two or three metric shiteloads of photographic goodness.

This isn't tagging pictures with people in it—it's actually identifying and recognising people, so you don't have to go looking for them. You have to approve every suggestion it makes, but if you know the tricks, that's easy. Does Faces work? Yes. Well? Yes. But at first, you have to work with it. Yesterday, I outlined how the facial detection and recognition works (and doesn't work). Now here's where you come in:

After the system filters all your photos, looking for faces and doing basic recognition of appearance—a process that takes approximately 1 second per photo on newer Macs—you go to any photo, click Name and identify a person, preferably someone you love and have lots of photos of. We'll totally hypothetically call that person Jeremy.

Tip: In the early round, only name people whose faces iPhoto detected. Don't draw a "missing face" box (shown below) around anybody at this point, because the computer can't use it to find more pictures of your loved one.

Once you've made the initial ID, Jeremy's mug will appear on the Faces corkboard. Clicking on Jeremy brings up any photo (or photos) that you identified in the first step. Underneath a thick border, the computer will show you new photos it thinks are Jeremy. It will be mostly wrong. Do not panic.

Select "Confirm Name" and start clicking on the first photos you see of Jeremy. Do 10 if you can, but fewer is okay. Click Done and wait. Each time you greenlight actual Jeremy photos, the computer churns, using what it now knows to find new shots of Jeremy. It shows the most likely shots are at the top, so towards the bottom of the suggested matches, you get some serious riff-raff.

Tip: The tools are important to learn. Click and drag across photos to confirm multiple shots of Jeremy. Option-click and drag across photos to reject multiple shots who are not Jeremy. Rejection is important, so that the computer knows what not to look for. When you are not in "Confirm Name" mode, just drag shots of Jeremy up into the confirmed-shot window, and delete ones that are not Jeremy.

At some point in this process, the computer just runs out of suggestions. If you think there are more pics of Jeremy, go looking for them. Some good shots may have failed face detection. When you find them, you'll need to draw a "missing face" window around Jeremy's face, type in his name, and that shot will then show up in Jeremy's Faces dossier.

When you think you've got Jeremy's Greatest Hits pretty much nailed, start in on Jeremy's much more attractive sisters. Repeat the process for Jeremy's sisters, mother, brother, great-uncle and everyone else you have more than 25 photos of whose name you can still remember. Then whenever you want to find that one damn photo of them doing that one crazy thing, you know where to look.

Tip: In Faces, select two or more people and click Smart Album. On the left, you'll see an album containing those people, which you can rename "My Family" or "College Friends" or "Girls That Got Away" or whatever. Click on the smart album and you'll get a sea of photos with at least one person in each shot.

In some ways, Places is less automatic than Faces, but in many ways it's much easier to work with. Since it doesn't rely on face detection, recognition and a heaping helping of trial and error, it's much quicker than the at times sluggish Faces. Also, you don't have to go in deep to add location data. Since iPhoto '09 gives every event and every photo an Info button, you can just click to add locations to any cluster of images.

As you might expect, there are multiple ways to input location data. If you have an iPhone or are lucky enough to have a geotagging module for your camera, you don't have to do squat. Just load your pics, click Places, and smile at your vast array of gleaming red pins. But if you're like most of the universe, you need to input the location information yourself, which you do by selecting an event or photo, and clicking the Info button.

Tip: Command-click multiple events to select them, then double-click any one of the selected events. You will instantly get a photo cluster containing only those combined photos. Select all, click "Info" on any of the individual shots, and any change you make to it—such as entry of geographical data—is made for all.

Once you're in the Info pane, start typing a location in the appropriate text box. The computer guesses basic locations—most towns, cities and major landmarks in the US, plus larger cities around the world. It's easy to stump this one, though. Instead of settling on anything, click the "New Place..."

Here you have Google Local search, so whether it's the name of that resort in the Caribbean or the bar on Third Avenue, you'll find it pretty easily. I will warn you: Sometimes the Google search localises on the wrong area, returning only businesses and addresses in a particular city, so be sure to type your city and state. If you want an address, just type it into the search windows.

Once you've searched for something, click the plus-sign and you can add it to My Places, a list of the locations you are assigning to your photos. You can rename however you like, and once you've added them, they show up in the high-level location search, so they're easy to re-use whenever you want.

After you've added a few locations, click the Places tab on the top left corner of iPhoto. You'll see a big Google map, with pins for all the photos you've tagged. Click a pin and you get an arrow; click the arrow and you get your photos. When looking at one of your geotagged photos, go up to the Photo menu and select "Show Extended Photo Info." Suddenly you'll see not just the shot's metadata, but the geographical latitude and longitude that came either from GPS or your own data entry. The shame is that they're indistinguishable, since unless you're inputting street addresses for geotags, the GPS data is going to be much more accurate.

Tip: Clicking on a pin gives you only shots from that specific geographical location. For instance, the Seattle pin may not give you shots you took at a bar downtown, if you gave that bar a more particular geography. In this case, search for "Seattle" and you will see all shots geotagged in the metro area, plus any shot tagged Seattle or living in a folder called "Seattle."

Once you've geotagged your photos, you can make use of the mapping feature when making a "travel book." Unlike iMovie, there's only one map style, but as you can see, there are still many different ways to position a map in the book:

There was a time when I'd rather use anything but iPhoto to tweak my shots, but little by little, useful adjustment tools are making their way in. This time around, saturation has been made "smart"—you can click it to adjust background colour vibrancy without messing up skin tones. There's a "definition" slider, which brings out details—a good alternative to the sharpness slider.

The retouch brush has been given the ability to find edges. In the shot below, you can see how it removed the water stain easily, but preserved the all-important cable-knit pattern of my dad's sweater-vest.

Most of the updated tools are great, but although red-eye reduction is finally automatic, it's still better done by hand, or by an app other than iPhoto.

For starters, it only can automatically remove red-eye from faces it detects, and though the Faces feature is great, there are still problems with detection.

When it does detect them, it drops round black splotches onto each eye, like you see here, even if the eyes are half closed. Not only that, but there's no way to adjust the opacity or hue of the dots, so everyone gets a seriously black eye, even when grey or maybe a nice brown would better suit them. I find that going in by hand and using a smaller dot works well enough for most cases, though if you're planning to share or frame a shot, Photoshop or really any enthusiast-level photo editor would be a better option.

The final major improvement of iPhoto '09 is the way you take photos out of iPhoto and into other realms. There are now six themes for animated slideshows, some zanier than others, like the acid-flashback "Shatter" or the mod cinematic "Sliding Panels." You can add any music from iTunes that you want (DRM or not) though Apple pairs the themes themselves with great, recognisable music already, as you can hear in the following "Scrapbook" slideshow of my two cats, Wade and Wynona, which was made in a few clicks with default settings:

Tip: Select Fit Slideshow to Music Duration to avoid weird looping or awkward cutoffs. You might need to add photos or remove them, though, to modify the pacing.

The only weird thing is that once you've set up a slideshow, you have to exit out of it to export it. Just make sure your settings are fine, escape out of the full-screen slideshow interface, then, while you're still in the album that is tied to that slideshow, choose Export... from the File menu. Clicking the Slideshow tab will give you the handsome menu chart you can see below, a wonderful help for saving at the right quality and resolution. (Honestly, I'd like to see more of this in QuickTime Pro and iMovie.)

The final component to iPhoto '09 is how it shares to Facebook and Flickr. As a father of an almost-1-year-old (who my wife won't allow to appear on Giz), I have 7,000,000,000 photos on my MobileMe gallery, but nearly nothing on my Facebook page, because I forget to upload to it. Now, once I activate a gallery, I can just drag photos to it whenever I feel like it, just like I do with MobileMe. Let's be honest here: Who needs MobileMe when you can use the same tool to upload to Facebook and Flickr? Wait, I know the answer to that: Grandparents need MobileMe. If you don't know what I'm talking about, don't worry. To quote Zep, your time is gonna come.

That's it for me. I've aired my complaints here and there, but for the most part, I've banged my head against every part of this program, and I can safely say 90% of the additions are improvements. I am not annoyed at learning the new functionality, and I don't think there's a lot of dead weight either. I'd be happy to answer any questions, but hopefully most answers are already in the text above, as thorough as I aimed for it to be. Bottom line: All this, plus the improved iMovie '09 and the not-as-obviously-useful GarageBand and iWeb upgrades are all available in the same box, now, for $US79. It would be nice if you could just download an iPhoto-only licence for $US29 or something, but the whole iLife '09 kit ain't bad. [iPhoto '09]

Trending Stories Right Now