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Inside iPhoto: Image Management for Power Shooters

by Derrick Story

Apple's latest software addition to the digital hub is iPhoto. The slogan is, "Shoot like Ansel; organize like Martha." I'm not sure how much iPhoto will help your shooting, but if applied with some forethought, it can definitely help you better manage your images.

iPhoto becomes the new work environment for the capable, but boring, Image Capture application that we've been using since Mac OS X 10.1. Image Capture still seems to play a functional role, but iPhoto is clearly the new play space.

iPhoto coordinates the uploading of pictures from the camera, then gives you lots of options for organizing, editing, and outputting. You can send images to your ink jet printer, Kodak's online print service, your iTools Web page, an email account, a QuickTime slide show, a stand-alone Web page, and even a linen-bound book with acid-free pages -- all within the iPhoto environment.

Last year, nearly 40 percent of my business shooting was digital imaging assignments. No film whatsoever. I shot with digital cameras, processed on a PowerBook, uploaded to the Web via AirPort, and when the assignment was over, cataloged and burned the rest of the images to CD for delivery to the client.

Screenshot of interface
The iPhoto interface (click for larger image).

I've been using the digital equivalent of gaffer's tape and bailing wire to meet this need. For my next assignment, O'Reilly's Bioinformatics Technology Conference in Tucson, Arizona, I'm going to use iPhoto and the Mac OS X version of Graphic Converter for the entire assignment. To prepare for this, I had to really get inside iPhoto's head and understand its strengths and weaknesses.

In this article I'm going to cover some of iPhoto's key elements from the power shooter's point of view. I'll also discuss a few of the important decisions that need to be made in order to reap the greatest benefit from this versatile imaging application. You might also want to check out Dave Sims' weblog, iPhoto more impressive than iMac?, where he gives a nice overview of the application.

This is one of those applications that immediately fits in with your existing work flow and feels comfortable after just a few minutes of work. With a little bit of planning, I think you'll find iPhoto one of the most compelling reasons to fire up Mac OS X day in and out.

A few thoughts about picture resolution

Regardless of the maximum resolution of your camera --1.3 megapixel or 5 megapixels -- shoot your pictures at "high resolution." If your media card fills up too quickly with these larger file sizes, then buy another card.

The Resize Image window
iPhoto lets you quickly check your image size for any picture using the Info button.

I've always felt this way, but iPhoto gives me three new reasons to be more adamant about capturing at high resolution:

  1. Kodak prints up to 20 by 30 inches with "One Click" ordering.
  2. Full screen slide shows on my TiBook.
  3. The picture book option that allows you to order a "print on demand" collection of your images at full bleed (edge to edge).

All of these functions require at least 1.3 megapixel resolution for high-quality images. And if you're going to order a 8-by-10-inch print, or a full-bleed photo for your picture book, you're going to want at least 3 megapixel images, especially if you do any cropping.

Sure, you can fudge this a bit if you need to, but make that situation the exception, not the rule. By the way, the Kodak print prices through iPhoto are currently as follows in U.S. dollars (print sizes are in inches):

  • 4 by 6: .49 cents each
  • 5 by 7: .99 cents each
  • 8 by 10: $3.99 each
  • 16 by 20: $14.99 each
  • 20 by 30: $19.99 each
  • wallet size: $1.79 for four

Bottom line: to get the most out of iPhoto's rich feature set, shoot well-lit, high-resolution images that are in focus.

Uploading photos from your camera

Apple has posted a camera compatibility list that lists the cameras you can use to upload directly to iPhoto.

I prefer to use a PC card reader in my laptop, or a USB media-card reader for the iMac because they are faster than using the USB cables, and they don't drain my camera batteries during upload.

The good news is that iPhoto treats these media card readers the same way it does direct upload from the camera. Nice! I tested a PC card reader in the TiBook and a Zio card reader in the iBook, and both worked perfectly with iPhoto.

So, if your particular model of digital camera isn't on the compatibility list, don't worry, iPhoto is still for you.

Choose your keywords carefully

One of my favorite iPhoto functions is the ability to easily assign keywords to each image. But you're only provided 14 keyword buttons in the interface, so you need to think carefully about the type of pictures you take and choose your keywords carefully.

The Resize Image window
You can change the keyword buttons via Edit Keywords.

You can assign more than one keyword to a photo. For example, I can assign "2002," "Travel," and "Landscape" to one image. As I search through my entire photo library for specific images, I can first hit the "2002" button. This will display all of the pictures I've assigned to this keyword. Then, if I also choose "Travel," iPhoto will show me thumbnails of all the travel pictures I took in 2002. Finally, if I select "Landscape" too, then the selection narrows further to meet all three of those criteria.

When you're assigning the keywords, review in your mind the types of photos you take. I like to have basic categories such as people, places, plants, animals, objects, and nature in my list. You can change your keywords at a later time, but that will short-circuit the retrieval of shots that you assigned eliminated labels to. I think it's best to figure out your keywords up front, and then stick to them.

Life beyond the hard drive

Comment on this articleOK, it's time to roll out the power user tips. Show us what you've learned using iPhoto.
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One of my concerns with iPhoto is that people will keep all of their images on their hard drive only. There are a couple of things to consider here.

First, you need to back up your pictures just like you would any other chunk of valuable data. You can use external hard drives, but I recommend CD-R or DVD storage -- it's cheap and can be archived.

But what if your iPhoto image library swells to 2GBs or 3GBs? How are you going to burn that mass of interconnected data onto 700MB CDs without breaking the links that iPhoto has established to organize your library? (Those of you with DVD burners can let your libraries swell to larger sizes before you back up, but I'd still do intermittent backups to protect against hard drive crashes.)

iPhoto creates a folder in your Pictures directory titled, iPhoto Library. If you look inside this folder you'll see a combination of data files and images stored within a mishmash of subfolders. Tearing this structure apart for backup can be a nightmare.

The Directory Structure
Look in your Pictures folder and you'll see a new addition, iPhoto Library. This is where iPhoto stores all your images and data. Notice the metadata file I've added to help me retrieve photos.

Instead, monitor the size of your iPhoto Library folder (using the Show Info command, CMD I), and when it approaches 650MB or so, quit the iPhoto application, alter the name of the data folder to something like iPhoto Library (2), then restart iPhoto. The application will create a new library folder and leave the renamed one untouched.

Then you can easily burn the iPhoto Library (2) directory onto CD for backup. One note here: I recommend that you burn two CDs and store the second one at a safe and distant location. It's just a good archival technique.

If you want to "reactivate" a renamed library folder, then simply quit iPhoto, alter the name of the existing library folder, and restore the library you want to use to the original iPhoto Library name. When you fire up iPhoto again, everything in that library will be just as you left it the last time you worked in it.

As time goes by, you'll have many library folders on CD and on your hard drive. How do you find the library that contains those Florida vacation shots from the winter of 2002?

Before I burn the library onto CD, what I like to do is create a little metadata file and place it right inside the folder. In the file I list all of the content that's contained in the library, such as "Florida vacation 2002," and then save it as a text file.

When I want to find the iPhoto Library that contains those vacation images, all I have to do is launch Sherlock, CMD F, and search my hard drive by "Contents." Sherlock will find the key phrase in my metadata file and show me the folder where it resides. I now know which library to enable to find my Florida vacation pictures.

If your iPhoto Libraries are not on your hard drive, but on CD or some other medium, then leave a copy of the metadata files on your local drive for Sherlock searches or to browse manually.

As a side note, remember that you can set permissions for your iPhoto Library folders via the Show Info command. That way you have complete control over what others can see or alter.

There are many ways to use Mac OS X and iPhoto to manage gigabytes of picture data, and the system I've outlined is only one way to go. But to date, I've found it effective, and the price is certainly right!

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