oreilly.comSafari Books Online.Conferences.


AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Fast Picture Previews

by Derrick Story

Many photographers with whom I talk like previewing their images before committing them to their favorite digital shoebox. Now, whether or not sorting images before uploading them to iPhoto (or related apps such as iView MediaPro) really saves you that much time, is a matter of perception. But I must admit, sometimes after I insert my memory card into the PowerBook, I just want to scan the images to quickly see how I did before commencing the upload.

Mac OS X provides you with some handy builtin tools for photo previewing. And there are also a couple of free third-party utilities that enhance this process even more. So let's get to work and see what tools are available and how to use them.

How Do You Upload?

Not all camera-to-computer configurations allow you to preview and sort your images in the Finder. But these three ways work great:

Related Reading

Digital Photography Pocket Guide
By Derrick Story

  • PC Card Slot: PC Card adapters for digital media usually run less than $15 US. Simply remove the memory card from your camera, put it in the adapter, and insert in the PC Card slot on your PowerBook. You'll get an icon of the adapter on your Desktop that you can open to reveal the photos on the memory card. Added advantage is that you don't use any camera battery life during previewing and uploading.
  • External Card Reader: If you don't have a PC Card slot, then consider an external reader that connects via USB or FireWire as an option. The FireWire models are particularly fast and, like the PC Card method, no camera battery power is required.
  • USB Mass Storage: All digital cameras should have this capability, but not all do. You'll know right away if yours does because you'll get a storage device icon on your Desktop when you connect your camera. Open the icon and your have direct access to the pictures on your memory card. In essence, your camera becomes a mini hard drive. The downside is that you will use vital battery power.

I think the most versatile cameras for picture previewing are the models that have USB Mass Storage capability. One of my favorite types of "USB auto connect" digicams is the Olympus line of "C" cameras, including the C-5050 Zoom, and the just announced C-5060 Wide Zoom. If you have such a camera, then regardless of which of the above three connectivities your prefer, all of your options are available.

One quick note here. Chances are that when you connect your memory card to your Mac, iPhoto will come to the front with its pulsating Import button. Simply minimize the app until you're ready to upload. It will still be ready to work when you are.

Native Mac OS X Tools

Once you've connected by one of the three methods listed above, and can see all of the information on your memory card in the Finder, then you can use a couple of builtin Mac OS X tools to preview you images. And if you wish, you can cull them then as well.

Find the folder on your memory card that contains your photos, open it, then on the top Menu Bar of your Desktop, click on View -> Show View Options. This is a handy little dialogue box that allows you to convert those boring JPG icons of all of your pictures to image thumbnails. Then, by dragging the scale marker to the right, increase the thumbnail size up to a viewable 128 x 128. Be sure to click the radio button, "This window only," or you might enlarge all of the icons on your Mac.

The Show View Options menu item provides some nice tools for previewing the pictures while they're still on the memory card.

Getting the Bigger Picture

It's not always easy to tell a good picture from a bad one at 128 pixels. And you certainly don't want to accidentally toss a "once in a lifetime" shot just because you didn't see the flying saucer hovering about the roof of your house when viewing the image at 128 pixels.

There are a couple of nifty free CM Plugins that allow you to view enlargements of your photos with just a right-click of the mouse. PicturePop is the model of simplicity. You control-click on any photo file, choose PicturePop from the Contextual Menu, and the image is displayed screen size right there in the Finder.

Simply right-click or ctrl-click on the picture file, and QuickImage presents you with many options, including to view the photo at a variety of sizes.

If you want a little more functionality, take a look at QuickImage CM by Pixture Studio. You have the same right-click convenience as with PicturePop, but you can also zoom in and out, crop, apply filters, and "save as" to other formats. QuickImage is particularly good at letting you closely exam an image to help you decide whether or not to keep it.

Not only does QuickImage let you examine your pictures at any size you want, you can set trimming constraints and crop your photos too.

If you do make adjustments in QuickImage, however, such as cropping (hold down the spacebar to covert the cursor to trimming mode), you have to use the "Save As" command to apply your adjustments to a copy of the original picture. QuickImage will not automatically make changes to the pictures residing on the memory card.

However, this tool is still handy for previewing adjustments, such as crops, exposure compensation, B&W conversion, etc. even if you don't apply them until later when working in your regular image editor.

Preview of cropped picture in QuickImage. I won't actually apply this crop to the original photo, but I have the opportunity to play with the possibilities while working in the Finder.

Creating a Workflow

For many Mac snap shooters, the workflow is as simple as connecting the camera and uploading the shots directly to iPhoto. This is a great way to go, and it eliminates what Steve Jobs referred to as the "chain of pain."

But some photographers like to tinker with their pictures before adding them to their catalog systems. If you fall into this camp, then here's a sample workflow that you can use as a starting point.

  • Connect the memory card to the computer via PC Card slot, media reader, or USB Mass storage.
  • Convert generic Jpeg icons to picture thumbnails via Show View Options or "Add thumbnail Icon" in QuickImage.
  • Enlarge the thumbnails to 128 pixels via Show View Options.
  • Delete the obviously bad shots right off the memory card by using one of the many trash options available, including dragging directly to the trash can.
  • Enlarge images of particular interest to closer inspection using PicturePop or QuickImage.
  • Apply preview filters or adjustments in QuickImage to evaluate image potential when later working in your image editor.
  • Upload the surviving pictures to your digital shoe box.
  • Copy a second set, your "masters" to an external hard drive for safe keeping.
  • Disconnect the memory card from the computer and format it with the camera's format command.

Of course there are many variations to this sample workflow. For example, I rarely convert all of my file icons to picture thumbnails because it takes too long with memory cards full of images. Instead, I just randomly preview photos with QuickImage to get a feel for the quality of the shoot. Once I'm satisfied, I hit the Import button in iPhoto and go grab a cold drink.

Your approach might be completely different. And you might do it one way today and another tomorrow. What's important, is that you know the available options so you can call on them as needed.

Final Thoughts

One of the advantages of working with your pictures in the Finder is that you're more likely to drag them to a backup hard drive than if you're uploading directly to a digital shoebox such as iPhoto. I'm an advocate of saving a second set of "master images" to external drives. I like knowing that no matter what happens in my digital shoe box or image editor, I have a another copy of every one of those pictures waiting for me in pristine shape on another drive (and eventually on optical media too).

That might be overkill for you. But do create a backup plan that's appropriate for your level of paranoia, and stick to it.

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

Return to the Mac DevCenter