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Author Topic: Taking Apple Photos seriously  (Read 5296 times)


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Taking Apple Photos seriously
« on: May 14, 2017, 07:12:54 pm »

I decided to try out Photos on Mac OS as a possible ("free") alternative to LightRoom CC. Adobe are jacking up prices in Australia next month to a level forty percent higher than the price in June 2015. I want to be sure the price/quality trade off is still there. So I've been looking around.

I was surprised by the sophistication of Photos 2.0 under the hood and by its powerful plugins. It's not for me, but... your milage may vary.

I'm going to get my main gripe out of the way first. This is a powerful desktop program on Mac OS Sierra (10.12) that tries to pretend it's a semi-functional iOS gadget. It  acquires, displays and curates your image files in an awkward iOS-y, 'don't-you-worry-about-that' fashion, ignoring the useful, transparent structure of your file system that you probably know like the back-of-your-hand.

It replaces references to the actual files you downloaded from your camera with the doubtful chowder of iCloud storage, a time-sequence metaphor called "moments" (you know: "in your life"), a bunch of arbitrary 'virtual albums' and a socially-souped-up concoction of "faces". It won't willingly refer to your images by their file name even they have one that you've carefully created to be meaningful and it won't organize them by shoot name or keywords unless you create 'smart albums' or fall back on Applescripting. Fortunately it has a fairly complete Applescript dictionary.

Still, the development tools lurking under the thumbnail-littered, paper-white front page of Photos are pretty solid. Over the past decade or more, Apple's devs have built a sophisticated RAW development sub-system into Mac OS (formerly called OS X) that Photos exploits with de-mosaicing and adjustments that are quick and versatile. If you enable all the adjustment sliders in the interface you can produce and tweak an 'automatic' result that is easily the equal of anything that the LR "development" module produces; with, possibly, the exception of sharpening controls and local adjustments. Even the Photos defaults ("enhance", the magic wand) make simple, bright, clean Jpeg images from your raws.

Then a lot of additional processing is offered by the "extensions" that Photos permits. These include several gems from big companies (DxO's 'Optics Pro for Photos' on the App Store; and Serif's 'Affinity' plugins for retouching, de-hazing and more) and from indie shops (Gentlemen Coders' excellent 'Raw Power' on the App Store; Polarr's beautiful 'Photo editor' on the App Store and on-line).

The DxO plugin -- $A15 on the App Store; probably $US10 -- is very good value; it offers the camera/lens corrections available in the full ($US200) version of Optics Pro as well as (cut-down versions of?) the lighting recovery, noise reduction and 'de-haze' routines. These adjustments can be very powerful (or not, there's not much control over the parameters of each). But I found that the lens/camera corrections were not as complete as those in the full version; the plugin could not find any corrections for my Ricoh GR, for example, although there is a module of corrections for this camera in the DxO database. Also the lens corrections are not available if you first process your image using Photos' adjustments or using any other Photos plugin (see below for an explanation).

The plugin that impressed me most was Raw Power (both 'standalone' and an extension for Photos) which leverages and extends the raw development routines exposed by the Mac OS system. It offers a broad range of global image adjustments including tweaks to the basic de-mosaicing routines, a luminosity-based Curves adjustment and presets that can be used to speed up processing and can be saved, exported or copied to and pasted on other images. Presets can also be saved as camera-defaults. Raw Power can straighten and crop images. When used as a stand-alone developer, it can save developed images in a variety of image formats and color spaces (Adobe RGB, ProPhoto). It has no local adjustments and only a simple (although clean) sharpening option. But, altogether, it is a solid, capable Raw developer for only $A15 on the Apple App Store.

I was also intrigued by the Polarr product that has a beautiful interface, is very fast and has a great set of global and local adjustments (there is a 'free' version on the Apple App Store that has most of the global adjustments). It has limited outputs and no printing facilities. But I would have given it top marks except, for the present at least, it processes and outputs in sRGB only (like Raw Therapee, sigh!). That single limitation is the difference between a slick raw developer and a pretty toy, in my view.

I've been delighted to find that my copy of Serif's Affinity Photo has spawned plugins for Apple Photos (without telling me, I think). Crucially, the AP plugins offer a half-dozen or more brushes and gradients for local adjustments and error/blemish correction to compensate for the lack of local adjustments in Photos or most plugins. Serif's 'De-haze' routines have a plugin for Photos, too. Affinity provides plugins for its own Develop module, for Miniatures and Liquify. Also, you can hand-off the image to the full Affinity Photo via a plugin if you wish (probably most useful for print preparation).

I tried the Aurora HDR plugin but, bizarrely, it does not in fact create HDR from a bunch of bracketed exposures as you would expect. Instead, it contorts the tonal values of a single image into a mock-up of over-compressed HDR. Horrible! This too is due, apparently, to a limitation of Photos that allows plugins to access only one image at a time. In short, don't bother. By the way: this limitation means no panorama or focus-stacking from Photos, either.

Pixelmator offers a plugin. I own the stand-alone program but never warmed to its interface or its limited filter-based adjustments. So I didn't bother much with the Photos extension which implements a few of these same filter-adjustments.

But Photos one-image-at-time approach and the Apple App Store rules impose an important limit on Photos plugins. Those that provide global adjustments (DxO, Affinity Developer, Raw Power, Polarr) strictly defer to any prior adjustments recorded in the Photos database ('photoslibrary'). You can use more than one plugin on any image, but you'll find you have limited (or no) access to the facilities of the second and subsequent plugins you use.

I'm not sure, but I suspect that the notorious limitations of the 'sandboxing' enforced on App Store applications regulates the cumulation of plugins' adjustments. Any plugin downloaded from the App Store must -- under the sandboxing rules -- store data that it wants to keep about its own changes to the image in it's own 'fire-walled' data space (usually ~/Library/Containers/). This means plugins know nothing about each other, cannot cooperate with each other, and will not overwrite changes made to the image before they are granted access. Their full operation is possible only if the image passed to them is an untouched raw. The local adjustment plugins (Affinity and others I have not reviewed here) do not seem to be so badly affected by these limits.

Still, I found Photos and it's plugin suite sufficiently powerful and intriguing to persist with testing and tweaking for a few days. Image-by-image it is possible to produce very good results from a variety of raw images quite quickly. But there's the rub. Photos assumes its users will be satisfied with one click, 'magic wand' enhancements, one image at a time (there's no copying and pasting of settings or user-presets in Photos itself) and will then to trust it to squirrel their "memories" away, possibly using it's commercial printing service to create a physical album every so often or sharing a bunch of snaps on "social media" (via inbuilt Facebook, Twitter and Flickr export routines).

Photos is not for you if you want to explore the potential of your camera or vision or the digital record of light using panorama or focus or exposure stacking. It's not for you if you are in the habit of curating the images you make to maintain the quality of your portfolio because it offers no photo ratings or processing labels; only an iOS-y "Favorite" tag (a Heart, naturally). Photos won't suit if you find the "simplified" iOS interface bizarrely limiting on a powerful general purpose computer. You should stay away, too, if you can't trust Apple's proprietary "photo library" or iCloud server farms to maintain your assets.

"Trust" is certainly a factor that counts against Apple software, in my view. I can't help feeling that, like all Apple software since HyperCard, Photos for Mac OS has the longevity prospects of a cute little chick. One day, out of the blue, even if the program becomes as mature as Aperture, Apple will kill it with few regrets and some imperious hand-waving. Possibly in the name of "courage". Or just because they've reorganized their divisions to heap their huge resources on the next hotness. They're not making or maintaining Photos for the money (or love or fame). In any case, the desktop version serves only to complement the more-prominent iOS version that is much closer to "the money".

So my search continues. Best to all.



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Re: Taking Apple Photos seriously
« Reply #1 on: May 14, 2017, 07:26:37 pm »

The problem that the potential replacement of Aperture by Photos creates is that there are no real asset management features like Aperture has of advanced keyboarding and Smart Albums. The are raw conversion plugins for sure, but there are a mass of image editing programmes and not many decent asset management programmes.

Aperture was unique in that it supported all raw files (including all the medium format ones unlike Capture One) and you can run it on a shared drive (unlike Lightroom). So I am still  using Aperture.

I too am concerned about the rise and rise of the price of Adobe, at least in Australia.
« Last Edit: May 17, 2017, 09:49:52 pm by BobShaw »
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Re: Taking Apple Photos seriously
« Reply #2 on: May 17, 2017, 12:32:47 pm »

Interesting. Until Apple decide they are bored with it and drop it, that is.

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Re: Taking Apple Photos seriously
« Reply #3 on: June 07, 2017, 05:24:51 am »

Photos is a great companion app to the iPhone and iPad.

The most useful extension to Photos is External Editors - 

I use to share images with my family, the shared albums are great.  It's where my iPhone photographs go and that's what the tools do really well at.   I will take in the occasional folder of images I have output from Capture One in, but purely to share or have generally available to me, the iCloud storage and syncing is nice to have.
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