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Results make up for awkwardness of iPhoto for iPad

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Updated: June 12, 2012 8:06AM

Any review of iPhoto for iPad (released back in March, priced at just five tiny dollars) has to deal with an awkward truth: It isn’t a terribly intuitive app. During your first go, you’ll find yourself feeling mystified about what certain buttons do; you’ll be confused about how certain functions operate; and it’s going to take a good while before you discover impressive features that are hidden deep inside the interface, or behind a multi-touch gesture that you haven’t learned yet.

In fact, if you’ve spent lots of time working with iOS’ other iWork and iLife apps, an hour with iPhoto might inspire you to rummage through your trash barrel, just to check and make sure that the company logo in the upper corner of the box iPhoto came in is what you thought it was.

Yes. I’m saying that the initial experience can be so befuddling that you might forget that it was an App Store download. The main workspace screen is cluttered with at least 22 different buttons. Why are some of these buttons are underlit, while others are backlit and this other one is backlit in red, all of a sudden? Why are there two different buttons marked with sparkly magic stars? What’s the difference between highlighting a photo with the little Flag button and highlighting it with the little Award Ribbon button? Wait...I just tapped a tool button and the photo “peeled away” and removed all of my previous edits? What just happened?!?

(Answers at the end of the column.)

Although my first day with iPhoto was filled with many Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moments, by the end of the week I acknowledged that there’s nothing wrong with an app that requires you to actually learn some new things.

Simplicity is always a desirable ideal. It’s just not always appropriate for the goals of an app. That’s particularly true when the main goal is for the app to be just as capable as any equivalent app running on a desktop OS.

So, yes: you’ll suffer through your first week with iPhoto. You will wonder — correctly — why Apple made so many weird choices that cause confusion and which could have been fixed so easily.

(Oh, just to name one: Not only are two unrelated buttons marked with magic pixie sparkles, but they’re also side-by-side. I can’t help but think that the sparkles will be gone from one of these buttons in a future release.)

During this time, you will obsessively peck at iPhoto’s “Help” button. When you tap it, every button and interface element acquires a yellow coaching tag. It looks as though iOS is being pecked to death by a flock of canaries.

But here’s the point: Somewhere around Day One of Week Two, the clouds part. You’ll see a logic behind iPhoto that wasn’t immediately apparent and you’ll have forgiven those weird choices. From that day forward, until some company produces an even better photo editor or until the heat death of the universe, you’ll be working with an desktop-grade app with few limitations. Isn’t that better than an app that you completely figure out in five minutes and then completely outgrow in five weeks?

My iPad was my sole computer during a trip to Ireland last month. I truly didn’t miss my laptop at all. iPhoto handled all of my photo-related demands during six days of highly aerobic tourism and conference-going. I culled the one or two dozen good photos out of the one or two hundred photos I shot during each day’s adventures; I edited and enhanced the keepers; I shared a few of the good ones on Twitter and Flickr; and I kept everything organized. By the time I got back home, I already had a nicely edited album of photos to show off to a group of friends who had already been assured via email that they wouldn’t get any of the single pot still whiskey I brought home until the slideshow was over.

Compare and contrast this with my photos from my trip to China. I had my MacBook with me and the full editions of Aperture and Photoshop during that trip. It was nearly three years ago and I still have yet to edit and post most of my shots.

None of Apple’s other iOS apps is quite this complicated. But no other Apple-branded iOS app is quite this ambitious, either. Keynote represents Apple’s first generation of iPad apps. It’s clear that Apple trimmed down its feature list to ensure a clean, clutter-free user interface and that the user would have a calm, drama-free first day. Keynote doesn’t allow you to design your own templates and you can’t even do simple things like control the spacing of text.

iPhoto represents the second generation of iPad apps. It’s not merely a “mobile” photo editor. It’s a photo editor. A less-ambitious photo app like Snapseed is something you play with. iPhoto is an app that you can actually rely on.

iPhoto works with any image in your iPad’s system-wide photo library. All of your photo albums show up right inside the app, including the shots that you just slurped in from your camera via the iPad’s Camera Connection Kit, all of the albums you’ve synced to the device from your desktop photo library, and all of the snapshots and saved pictures in your iPad’s camera roll.

In addition, iPhoto automatically maintains its own group of smart albums within its own separate photo library. You can access every photo you’ve Edited, Flagged, or Favorited (that’s the little “award ribbon” button) right from their own albums.

The relationship between your iPad’s photo library and iPhoto’s internal library is a little confusing. You don’t import images into iPhoto yourself. That’s not even necessary. If a photo is “in use” by iPhoto (meaning that you’ve edited it, captioned it, Favorited it, or you’ve put it into a newfangled kind of presentation/organizational album Apple calls a “Journal”) iPhoto copies it into its own image library. Every night during my week in Ireland, I’d connect my camera to the iPad, import all of the day’s shots into the system-wide library, review them with iPhoto, and use the “Favorite” button to mark all of the ones I wanted to keep. Then I could go back into the iPad photo library and delete everything, to free up space for the next day’s photos. All of the keepers were safe inside iPhoto’s private library.

iPhoto can handle both JPEGs and RAW files. But the iPad’s operating system doesn’t know how to decode RAW images. You can view them (thanks to the file’s baked-in preview) and Favorite them, but you can’t make changes of any kind. If you’ve set your camera to shoot RAW+JPEG pairs, iPhoto’s clever enough to let you work with the JPEG version while leaving the RAW file intact so you can copy it to your desktop later.

The process of examining and triaging photos goes fast, fast, fast. You just flip through these hundreds of snapshots like you’re viewing a slideshow or leafing through a pile of detailed 8x10 prints. You can view multiple photos at the same time, for side-by-side comparison: just tap and hold on additional thumbnails from the tray on the left of the screen. If you tend to shoot in bursts (or bracket your exposures), iPhoto will even automatically select and group similar photos.

Onward to editing...and here’s where iPhoto for iPad leaves the MacOS version of iPhoto behind. It’s not just that it has more features. It’s much easier and more satisfying to edit photos by putting your hands directly on the pixels than by working through a trackpad or a mouse.

iPhoto’s exposure controls are quite clever. A single horizontal slider combines the functions of brightness and contrast controls, plus a histogram; I’d like to see this slider become a standard for desktop apps. Color adjustments are split into the three tones that most people care about. Tap the sky in the photo and slide your finger to adjust the levels of just that part of the image. Ditto for skin tones and green grasses.

All of these adjustments can be copied from one image and applied to others. So once you’ve fixed the weird blue-green lighting and the underexposure of one the photos you shot during your kid’s hockey game, you can fix the other 50 photos instantly just by selecting them all and pasting the adjustments in. Neat.

There’s also a box of brushes for “painting” adjustments into specific parts of the photo. You can dab away a blemish with the “Repair” tool, brighten up a shadow-set pair of eyes, punch up the saturation on a kite while leaving the sky alone, etc.

As you can guess, that’s another instance where the touch interface kicks butt. But I wish these functions were more refined. The brushes work like spray cans. If you want to make an adjustment to any area larger or more precise than your fingertip, it’s easy to apply strokes that partially overlap and result in a streaky result. The solution is to use the “Show Strokes” option (in the tool’s settings panel) and keep applying coat after coat until the area’s been smoothly covered.

Another complaint: the “Sharpen” tool is way too severe, even at its lowest setting. I don’t dare to use it. The Sharpen functions on desktop editors can make a focused image look sharp enough to cut through leather, without ever making it look phony.

I admit that I had low expectations for iPhoto’s Effects filters. In most mobile photo editors, “effects” are those wretched tools that take a gorgeous photo and makes it look like a sticker that’s been on a bus station bathroom floor for about eleven months.

Not so with iPhoto. Apple should have called this toolbar “Filters.” These tools are there to enhance your photos, not Instagram them. Here you’ll find graduated filters (to darken a sky while leaving the ground alone), vignette tools, a slider to adjust the color temperature (why isn’t this part of the “Color” toolbar?), selective defocus, and other common Photoshop-ey sort of photo treatments. Tap to apply and then swipe the photo to make further adjustments, like choosing how far the blur or filter area extends down into the image.

The Watercolor and Oil Painting effects are the two surprising superstars. “Watercolor” is unlike any other art filter I’ve seen in any other consumer photo app; I want to buy its creator the beverage of his or her choice. The filter understands that a watercolor involves pigment, suspended in water, soaking the bristles of a brush, applied by a human hand across an absorbent sheet of paper that’s already been dampened. With the right source image, it creates an image that’s very hard to distinguish from handpainted artwork.

“Oil Painting” will rarely bamboozle anybody. But it’s a surprisingly handy tool for improving photos. Its basic effect is to severely intensify the contrast between adjoining areas of color, and to minimize the variety of tones within. If you hand it a shot that’s slightly out of focus, or that was shot at high ISO and is thick with digital noise, the Oil Painting filter can improve the photo immensely.

These filters are so interesting that they became part of my regular workflow. After I’ve cropped, straightened, and adjusted a photo, I apply these filters just to see what will happen. It’s remarkable how compelling an unremarkable photo becomes after the Watercolor filter has changed it from a recording of an image to a suggestion of a scene.

It’s really too bad that you can’t apply more than one of these effects filters to any photo. Why can’t I Warm the color and darken the overexposed sky, too? Drat.

Now you’ve got dozens of great photos. How do you organize them?

I wish iPhoto were a little more aggressive about that. You can enter a quick caption/title for each photo. You can’t enter the sort of detailed description that helps lock in the memory of a moment, though. You can’t tag your photos, either. That omission is pretty painful for anyone who takes lots of photos. Even the most rudimentary tag (“Ireland”), written directly into the JPEG file’s EXIF metadata makes it easy to locate photos among thousands in a desktop library, days or even years later.

Oh, well. iPhoto does offer an improvement on the basic photo album concept. A Journal is similar to an album in that it’s a handpicked collection of photos (“Bus Trip to Branson,” “Paula’s Birthday,” “Uncle Myrle’s Long-Overdue Beatdown”). But instead of presenting your photos like a book or a tray of slides, a Journal is a freestyle scrolling canvas. iPhoto will automatically grid out your photos on the canvas as you add them to the Journal, giving greater prominence to the ones that you apparently liked so much that you captioned and/or favorited them. You’re then free to move and resize them however you like. iPhoto can also add retrieve and add maps and weather info, if that’ll help complete the (drizzly) story of your big weekend at the International Festival of Dampness in Portland, Oregon.

You can share your photos through the usual channels: Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, email. You can export edited photos to your iPad’s system library, so other apps can use them.

Any photo in iPhoto’s internal library can also be shared back to your desktop (and then integrated into your desktop library), via the iTunes app’s standard document-syncing mechanism. There are a few limitations. If you didn’t edit the photos at all (if you only used iPhoto to pick out the keepers), iPhoto will export the files in their original format and resolution. Even 24-megapixel RAW files will be copied on your desktop as though you’d imported them from the memory card directly.

But! Edited photos are a different story. iPhoto has a hard maximum limit of 19 megapixels for edited photos. Images that are smaller than that will be edited and exported at their original resolution. Images larger than that will be downsampled by a factor of four; a 24 megapixel JPEG becomes 6 after you’ve edited and exported it to your desktop. And the maximum exported resolution of any edited photo is 16 megapixels.

Again, this only affects JPEGs that you’ve edited with the app. If you imported 100 photos from your spiffy Nikon d800 into your iPad, culled out the 21 keepers, and then spat them back out to your notebook PC without making any changes to them, they’ll land in your library at their original 24 megapixel clarity.

Apple put a lot of thought into a more traditional social sharing network: showing your photos to friends and family in the living room, either one at a time or through a slideshow. iPhoto can display photos to any TV or projector, either via wireless AirPlay or through a video dongle. You can mirror your iPad’s display to the screen or you can set it up so that your audience only sees the photo itself while you scroll around, looking for the next photo to present.

A Journal is another mechanism for sharing your photos, whether you’re playing it like a slideshow or simply picking and choosing images to throw onto an external display. Journals are normally private to your iPad, but you can also choose to send it to iCloud. iPhoto will pop out a URL for the online version of the Journal, which any of your friends and family can use to view your photos via any web browser.

I’ve been talking solely about iPhoto for iPad. But the same app also installs on your iPhone, and (somewhat incredibly) it delivers all of the same editing features. You can beam photos between the iPad and iPhoto editions, with edits and captions intact. You’ll be impressed that such a powerful app works on a phone...even while you’re desperately yearning to be back using the iPad’s huge screen.

It’s inconceivable to me that Apple won’t be releasing a new desktop edition of iPhoto that looks exactly like the iPad version. It’s that good an app; it’s an instant addition to the pantheon of Must-Have iPad Software.

2012 seems to be the year when Apple, and many other developers, have become comfortable and confident enough about the iPad to begin to write the sort of apps that define it as a computer that can suit the needs of some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time.

iPhoto is one of those kinds of apps. It doesn’t just reassert the iPad’s supremacy over all other tablets (although, yes, it’s yet another reminder of the total hopelessness of the Android tablet app marketplace). It goes way beyond that. iPhoto asserts the iPad’s equality with notebooks. I spent a whole week in a foreign country with lots of work to do, and I left my laptop at home. iPhoto for iPad is one of the reasons why I pulled that off without any real sacrifices.

Just don’t get discouraged early on. During my week in Dublin, I discovered a charming locally-made beverage called “Guinness.” Have a pint of it sometime during your first week with iPhoto. The alcohol will mellow you out, the protein and carbs will renew your energy, and the taste will remind you that it’s a beautiful world out here and that most of our miseries are simply the residue of a poor attitude.

(Answers to the “What’s Up With iPhoto’s Interface?” Trivia Pop Quiz Extravaganza:

1) If the button representing a collection of adjustment features is lit, it means you’re currently working with one of those tools. If it’s underlit, that means you’ve used one of those tools on this photo. If it’s lit in red, you’ve used this tool on this photo but iPhoto is temporarily hiding its effect (see Answer 4).

2) One of them opens the “Effects” tools and the other is the button that magically fixes the image automatically.

3) When you “flag” a photo, you’re adding it to an a collection so that you can work on all of those photos as a group — share them all to Flickr, apply a white balance adjustment to each of them, etc. “Favoriting” is most handy when you use it to mark the “keepers” among the hundred shots you’ve just imported from your camera. They all go into an album where you can quickly get your hands back on them.

4) iPhoto is simply throwing you an impossible-to-miss sign that it’s temporarily stripping away all of the edits and effects you’ve applied to the photo while you’re working with this next tool. Otherwise, the CPU might become so overtaxed that the interface gets sluggish and stuttery. You wouldn’t want that to happen when you’re trying to paint in a Lighten adjustment just to one area of the photo. When you leave that tool, all of the other adjustments will “peel” right back in.

See? It’s confusing at first, but it all makes sense in the end.)

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