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Apple’s Photos App for the Underwater Photographer
By Joseph Tepper, April 11, 2015 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

It’s been nearly a year since Apple broke the hearts of many underwater photographers with the announcement that they planned to discontinue both Aperture and iPhoto. While Aperture was not nearly as popular an editing/organizing tool as Photoshop or Lightroom, it certainly had its devotees. And for photographers looking for ease of use and one-click editing, iPhoto did the job well.

Needless to say, there’s been a bit of anticipation in the photography community for the release of the replacement OS X program, Photos. It's time to stop mourning the loss of Aperture and take a look at the future of Apple's image editing software, and what it means for the underwater photographer.


Opening Photos automatically imports your existing library in iPhotos, but you can also manually import your underwater images by album.


Apple Photos Features

While Photos is undoubtedly an upgrade from iPhoto (more on that later) it is important to remember that it is not a replacement for the pro-level Aperture software. More demanding editors won’t find adjustment brushes for fixing blown out areas or taking out dust spots.

Having said that, Photos does incorporate a host of new features that elevate the editing process from the previous iPhoto software. To claim a title of “prosumer” image editing software, Photos features an advanced image search and editing tools. I was pleased to see that when I imported my underwater portfolio, the file names, description, and keywords were automatically searchable.

Of note there are several features that didn’t make it to the new Photos. Most notably for serious photographers there’s no star-rating system to differentiate your favorite shots from the so-so’s and the no-no’s there’s just a “heart” to like your own image. There’s also no way to edit videos in anyway in the new Photos, which existed in iPhoto.

Apple's Photos features manual adjustments like white balance, levels, saturation, highlights, and shadows, giving a reasonable amount of editing control.


Editing Images in Photos

Having never used previous iPhoto versions to do serious editing, I was pleasantly impressed by the abilities inherited in Photos. While the program offers a myriad of one-click fixes for those not interested in spending significant time editing, they don’t tend to work all that well with underwater images. The one-click, “Enhance,” actually made most of my test images look worse than their original state.

There are also intermediate controls, within the adjustments tab, most notably light and color. The user can either use built-in presets for these settings by sliding an icon left or right. However, these results are often not-subtle and often a bit shocking.

Using the automatic slider for "Light" produces a harsh lighting effect on the image (left), while manually adjusting through highlights and shadows produces softer, more refined results (right).

Within these sub-sections you can take more-or-less full control of the controls. The light control, for example is broken down into exposure, highlights, shadows, brightness, contrast, and black point. Even if you have no idea what these specific controls do, I urge even the entry-level user to play around with the manual settings rather than the automatic slider.

Other useful adjustment tools include a histogram, custom white balance, and noise reduction. One nice feature about the Photos editing section is the ability to customize which tools automatically appear to the right of the image. For example, I saved Levels, White Balance, and Light in my toolbar, since I use them the most.

A final important tab in the editing section is the “Retouching Tool.” It is perhaps best compared to the popular Healing Brush in Photoshop. You simply select the diameter of the brush and click on unwanted backscatter and dust to make it disappear. It’s not as accurate as Photoshop’s clone or heal tools, but it’s a solid start for someone entering into the world of image editing.

Check out our test drive of Apple's Photos ability to edit underwater images.


RAW vs. JPEG in Photos

I was surprised to learn that Photos can open and edit both RAW and JPEG files, meaning even prosumer photographers can use it to edit RAW files. Having said that, during my initial tests, I found that the RAW files were surprisingly not as malleable as I expected them to be. For example, increasing contrast and using the highlight tool to bring down a sunball resulted in an apparent pixelization, and degradation of images.

For those still wanting to use Photos with RAW images, I’d recommend using a RAW converter to sort out all of your global changes (white balance, contrast, highlights, shadows, etc) and then save it as a high-quality JPEG. You could then import the JPEGs into Photos to take advantage of any creative filters, fine tuning with the retouch tool, and general organization. 

Although Photos can import RAW photos and edit them into JPEGs (left), using a RAW converter seems to limit degradation to image quality and maintain more malleability (right).


iCloud Storage

One of the big pulls for Photos is its automatic synchronization with iCloud—allowing you to view, edit and share images from almost any device. For phone photographers, it means anything shot on your iPhone will automatically appear in Photos on your desktop.

However, if you’re looking to store hundreds (or thousands) of images taken with your underwater camera, the Photos iCloud system is less appealing. Users are required to choose to either keep all images saved on the computer’s hard drive OR in the cloud. There’s no picking and choosing: You can’t select your portfolio highlights to only be synced in iCloud to easily show magazine editors or friends on your phone.

It may seem generous that Apple offers 5GB of free iCloud storage with Photos—but let me tell you, that doesn’t last long. In fact, I reached my limit of free storage just by syncing the images from my iPhone. But if you plan on using iPhoto regularly to organize RAW files and JPEGs, you’ll need to upgrade. Plans range from $1 per month for 20GB to $20 for 500GB. There are many more affordable options, some even with more storage space.


Photos for the Underwater Photographer

So, is Photos right for you? This is a difficult question. Photos is a free download for Mac OS X users, so it’s likely to be on many of your computers in the near future. I think it’s going to break into two camps: Those who were satisfied with iPhoto for editing and organization will be impressed with the additional creative control, ease of use, and new appearance. Aperture devotees, on the other hand, will probably be disappointed. And this is the main point: Despite how it may seem, Photos is no Aperture replacement. There’s no adjustment brushes or downloadable plug-ins to fit your every need. We hope that future updates to Photos includes such abilities and better RAW image processing.

I think it’s unfair to categorize Photos as prosumer, and that level of photographer will likely be better served by Lightroom, or even Photoshop. Having said that, it is without question a very impressive tool for iPhone images and the casual underwater photographer.



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