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A RAW Look at iPhoto 5

by Derrick Story

For me, iPhoto 5 represents the most exciting enhancement in the new iLife '05 suite of digital hub applications. In fact, it's the best revision to iPhoto yet. Those of us who attended Macworld SF had the opportunity to preview and play with the new version of Apple's digital shoebox.

In this article I'll touch on the features that I believe are most important when considering this upgrade, such as importing your existing iPhoto libraries, using the new editing tools, importing and adjusting RAW files, and managing QuickTime movies.

At the time of publication for this article, iLife '05 wasn't officially released. So I can't display screenshots from the application. But you can see what the application looks like by visiting Apple's iPhoto 5 web pages. What I can publish, however, are images that I've worked with in iPhoto 5, and I have some interesting ones for you.

This is by no means a comprehensive review. I'm still learning things about this application. But I will answer what I consider the most important questions about upgrading to version 5. So let's get going.

Importing Pictures

The first thing you'll notice when you connect your digital camera (or media card reader) to iPhoto is that you're allowed to enter a custom roll name and a description before you commence the upload. This makes it easier to keep your images organized and facilitates finding them later. And if you drag a folder of images into iPhoto 5, the app uses the name of the folder for the roll name.

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Upon connection, iPhoto tells you how many still images you have to upload and the number of movies too. Instead of only looking at tiny thumbnails during the importing process as in earlier versions of the application, you now get to look at large snapshot-sized pictures as the images transfer from your camera into iPhoto. This makes the importing process much more entertaining than it was in the past.

After the upload, QuickTime movies from your camera are displayed right next to the still pictures using a thumbnail from the first frame plus a movie icon in the lower-left corner and the clip length in the lower right. This works really well for clips imported directly from your digital camera. You can also drag QuickTime movies from your Mac's hard drive into iPhoto. The only problem here is that the first frame of these movies is often black, and that's what iPhoto uses to generate the thumbnail. I'm going to play with a workaround for this, but I suspect that if I make a poster frame in QuickTime, iPhoto will use that instead. More on that in future articles.

iPhoto 5 handles duplicates during import in much the same way it did in the previous version. When you hit the Import button, the application identifies duplicate photos already uploaded to your Mac and asks you if you want to replace them. If you don't, it only imports the new images.

Overall, importing is much more fun in iPhoto 5. Apple has modernized the interface and provided you with what is essentially a slideshow during uploading. A great improvement!

Using Existing iPhoto Libraries

I have good and bad news for you concerning existing iPhoto libraries. First the bad news. You have to "upgrade" your existing libraries to view them in iPhoto 5, and after you do, you can't open them in previous versions of the app. When you attempt to open an existing library (from iPhoto 4) in iPhoto 5, you're greeted with this message:

"Your Photo Library will not be readable by previous versions of iPhoto after the upgrade. The upgrade process may take several minutes depending on the number of photos in the library."

Now the good news. First, I can still use the trusty iPhoto Library Manager 2.0 to switch among existing iPhoto libraries in version 5. Second, the "upgrade" process is faster than in previous versions of iPhoto. And finally, all of my metadata was preserved, including star ratings, titles, and descriptions. But you do need to allow for the extra time to "convert" each iPhoto 4 library before you can start using it in version 5.

iPhoto 5 doesn't provide you with a way to manage multiple libraries. Fortunately, the free iPhoto Library Manager by Brian Webster still works with the latest version of iPhoto.

I recommend that you first back up all your existing iPhoto 4 libraries to an external FireWire hard drive, make sure they are safe and sound, and then launch version 5 and upgrade your libraries. I repeat, please back up all your existing iPhoto libraries to an external FireWire drive before converting them in iPhoto 5. You can find your iPhoto library in the Pictures folder on your hard drive.

Oh, and one piece of semi-good news. If you've been using the "archive to optical media function" in iPhoto 4, you can read those discs in iPhoto 5 without having to upgrade the library that was burned to disc. There are limitations as to what you can do with the images in iPhoto 5—you can't edit the pictures or use the standard export command—but you can drag and drop them on to the desktop. You can also print, email, and upload them to your .Mac account.

That being said, those archived optical discs are not replacements for backing up your existing iPhoto 4 libraries on to a FireWire drive, as I recommended earlier. By doing so, you can then "upgrade" those old libraries and use all of iPhoto 5's features.

iPhoto 5 also allows you to burn archive discs, and it works in much the same way as the previous version. The improvement is that your optical archives can now include video snippets from your camera as well as use RAW files. More on those formats later.

One last thought—if you have a spare Mac, I recommend you leave iPhoto 4 on it until you've had a chance to thoroughly test version 5. You don't want to take any chances with your cherished digital images.

New Tools in the Advanced Editing Dashboard

When you switch into editing mode in iPhoto 5, you have a brand new set of manipulation tools unlike anything you've seen in earlier versions. Click on the Adjust button and a black translucent dashboard appears. Tools include brightness, contrast, saturation, temperature, tint, sharpen, straighten, exposure, and levels.

Each adjustment has its own slider bar. As you move the bar, you can preview the adjustment in real time. After you've completed your manipulations, you can press the CTRL key to toggle back and forth from the original image to the adjusted one. If you decide you didn't really improve the picture, simple press the Reset Sliders button to return to square one.

I really enjoyed using the editing tools. I suspect that I'll be able to accomplish most of my quick adjustments of JPEGs here, saving Photoshop for more detailed work. I was disappointed, however, with the Levels control slider. It has black and white point adjustments but no middle gamma control. Hmmm, maybe there's another way to achieve gamma adjustment, and I just missed it.

The highlight of the Advanced Editing Dashboard is the Straighten control. What a cool addition! It's actually fun to use, and you'll never have another skewed horizon as a result.

Fix Those Skewed Horizons

You'll love the Straighten editing tool in iPhoto that makes correcting tilting horizons a snap.

But at What Price?

As with just about everything in photography, you don't get something for nothing. There is some compromise of image detail when using the Straighten tool (right image). I cropped a portion of each of the skewed horizon pictures above at 100 percent. You judge for yourself. In most situations this small amount of image loss is worth the benefit of a straight horizon.

Click on the Done button and iPhoto saves your changes and returns you to browsing mode. You can always "Revert to Original" if you decide up the road that you don't like the edited image.

Also, in case you're worried that your old favorite editing tools from version 4 might turn up missing, worry not. iPhoto 5 still has the Crop, Enhance, Red-eye, Retouch, B&W, and Sepia manipulations.

RAW Files

One of the most common complaints I've heard about iPhoto 4 from advanced photographers is its lack of support for RAW files. Apple must have been listening in on the conversation. iPhoto 5 supports RAW files from selected Canon, Konica Minolta, Nikon, Olympus, and Sony digital cameras. I'm sure the list will grow as time goes on. You can view the specific models on Apple's web page. If your particular model isn't listed, don't despair. If it is relatively current, chances are good that iPhoto will recognize its RAW files. But test before you buy.

As you would guess, importing RAW files takes longer than importing JPEGs. I suspect part of the reason for this is that iPhoto builds a JPEG preview of each RAW file on the fly so you can still watch your pictures as they travel from the memory card to your Mac.

After the RAW data has been imported into iPhoto 5, you actually work on a JPEG that's generated from the RAW data. This makes sense to some degree, because you want to be able to work with the pictures as easily as possible.

To test iPhoto's handling of RAW, I imported a dozen .crw files from a Canon 10D camera. The images were shot under tungsten light with auto white balance. As you would expect, the initial preview generated by iPhoto was overly warm in tone.

Here is the unretouched picture captured under tungsten light in RAW mode.

I then used iPhoto 5's Advanced Editing Dashboard to try to correct the color temperature. After some fiddling, I improved the image as shown below. I didn't get the whites as clean as I wanted, and I had trouble holding the neutral dark gray background as I adjusted the whites, so this is my best compromise.

I used iPhoto 5's Advanced Editing Dashboard to improve the color temperature of my original image.

I then wanted to use the Camera RAW function in Photoshop Elements 3 for the same image. I selected Photoshop as my optional image editor in iPhoto 5's preferences. Then, when I double-clicked on the image in iPhoto, Elements did open it, but it opened the JPEG that iPhoto had generated, not the original .crw file as I had hoped.

I contemplated a workaround for this. What I wanted to do was manipulate the original RAW data captured by the 10D, not the JPEG image that iPhoto had generated from the RAW data. I remembered the "Original" option in the Export function from previous iPhotos, and how it never seemed very useful to me. Well, it is now!

When I selected Original under Export, iPhoto 5 exported the .crw file to my chosen destination. When I opened that file in Photoshop Elements, I was greeted with Camera RAW. Woohoo!

I made my adjustments in Camera RAW and was able to produce a cleaner image than I had using the Advanced Editing Dashboard in iPhoto 5, as shown below.

When I opened the same original file in Camera RAW, I had a much easier time correcting the color temperature and exposure than I had in iPhoto 5.

Clearly, I have lots more exploration to do with RAW files in iPhoto 5. But my initial thoughts are as follows:

The bottom line is that iPhoto has made a huge step forward toward handling RAW data in the same environment that you use to store and organize your pictures. Its editing tools for these files fall short of those included in Photoshop Elements 3 or Photoshop CS. But then again, iPhoto does not claim to be as powerful at editing as is Photoshop. I'm sure we'll see enhancements to handling RAW files in iPhoto during the coming months. For now, we're off to a good start.

QuickTime Movies

As I mentioned at the top of the article, iPhoto 5 lets you import and organize the video you record with your digital camera. In the case of my Canon S400, these are .avi files. I should mention that Steve Jobs said MPEG-4 in his talk, and the same information is listed on the iPhoto 5 site. But it appears that iPhoto 5 can handle just about any movie file created with a digital camera.

This is a great convenience. Now I can keep my short video snippets organized along with my .jpg and .crw files. But for the moment, the good news ends there. If you click on the Edit button or double-click on the movie file, iPhoto 5 launches QuickTime Player, which is what I expected.

What I didn't expect was that if I altered the movie in QuickTime Player, such as trim off some bad footage, and then choose Save, QuickTime asks me where I want to save the edited movie file. In other words, the edited movie does not go back into iPhoto 5 like the still images do.

This needs to be corrected if iPhoto is going to strive to be our digital shoebox for video clips as well as for still images, and I suspect it will be corrected in future releases.

For now, iPhoto is great for storing your original snippets, but if you want to edit them, you have to save them outside iPhoto, and then reimport the files.

Final Thoughts

There's much more I could write about iPhoto 5. This version represents a terrific effort by the entire iPhoto team at Apple. For example, they totally rewrote the engine that iPhoto uses to lay out the variety of custom books we can now create and purchase using our very own images. This function works much better in version 5 than it did in version 4.

Other enhancements include a robust search engine similar to what we've been enjoying in iTunes, and the addition of "objects" for our slideshow and book projects. These objects allow us to create separate environments for those outputs enabling us to manipulate the images without affecting the pictures in the master library. Very clever. And the slideshow tool has undergone many improvements making it much easier to create dynamic presentations from our still images.

But I'm going to save those discussions for future articles and for the next edition of iPhoto: The Missing Manual. In this article, I wanted to get your feet wet with what I consider some of the most important aspects of version 5.

Bottom line, existing iPhoto users should be thrilled with this overhaul, and I suspect we'll see many converts too. After spending just a little time with it, I'm already hooked. iPhoto 5 is fun to use, and it shows great promise for improvements up the road.

So back up your existing libraries and give it a spin. Let us know what you think in the TalkBacks below.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit

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