∞ iPhoto '11: The best on the Mac

Of the three apps that got significant overhauls in iLife ’11, none is more widely used than iPhoto, Apple’s application for managing and editing digital photos. The newest iteration of iPhoto builds on what’s familiar and presents the most refined, tightly integrated consumer photo editing experience on the Mac to date.

Edge to edge

[ad#Google Adsense 300×250 in story]While iPhoto ’11 is immediately familiar the first time you fire up the application, interface refinements grace the application throughout — some subtle, some more significant. Full Screen Mode is probably the biggest change. In some ways it’s a preview of things to come: during its Back to the Mac event in October, Apple noted that Mac OS X Lion, due out in 2011, will feature Full Screen Mode throughout.

In Full Screen Mode, you don’t have to shuffle windows to get to what you need — this iOS-style interface lets you more easily browse thumbnails, enlarge images and more, all using key commands or trackpad/Magic Mouse gestures. Navigating in Full Screen Mode does take some adjustment, so be prepared to be a bit frustrated at first — but you’ll get used to it quickly, I expect.

iPhoto ’11 doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to actually editing your photos — this application’s first strengths are in helping you keep track of them and sharing them. So changes to iPhoto’s editing functions are pretty mild in this new release. Photo editing features are grouped into tabs: Quick Fixes, Effects and Adjust. Each tab presents you with a palette of tools that help you with simple to complex changes — from casting your photos with old-time sepia glows to correcting red-eye, cropping, straightening or making more detailed adjustments to exposure, contrast, saturation and other elements of the photo.

Output options improved

iPhoto ’11 offers better ways to get photos to your friends and family than ever before. An all-new e-mail feature lets you create photo galleries using gorgeous templates that offer plenty of flexibility for layout and tweaks. Of course, iPhoto uses your Mac Address Book for contact information. iPhoto’s smart enough to optimize the photos to get past pesky file size limitations imposed by many e-mail servers, though you can also make sure the original resolutions are maintained.

The previous version of iPhoto included support for Facebook, but iPhoto ’11 improves integration. You can link your Facebook and Flickr accounts in iPhoto’s preferences; iPhoto then lets you see all of the photo galleries you’ve posted to those services. If you’ve lost or deleted those photos — or if they were never in iPhoto to begin with — you can import them back into iPhoto. You can also synchronize the photo albums in iPhoto with what’s on Facebook and Flickr. And Apple’s MobileMe galleries are also supported, of course.

Slideshows feature new animated themes with built-in soundtracks that provide viewers with the ability to enhance the dramatic flair of your photo presentations, and iPhoto ’11 leverages face detection to help center and frame photos better. This takes a lot of the guesswork out of producing slideshows to show off family events, vacations and so on.

Amazing books and cards

Some photos are worth turning into keepsakes. Many of my friends and family have collected photo books produced in iPhoto and Apple’s pro photo cataloging app Aperture over the past few years, and iPhoto ’11 sports some real improvements here, too. Taking a page from Cover Flow, you now select themes for your book using what Apple calls a “dynamic Theme browser” that spins like a carousel. Each theme sports different matting and framing for the photos, different text elements and different layouts. You also have different choices of background matte colors.

iPhoto’s “Autoflow” functionality has been improved in this release so images are placed on photo book pages more intelligently. Photos taken on the same day, for example, will be grouped together. And as with slideshows, iPhoto leverages Face Detection here to more effectively center and frame shots of people to take some of the grunt work of page layout for you. Obviously you’re left to decide how ultimately to lay out your book, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how good a job iPhoto does on its own. Photo books also feature full-bleed, two-page spreads. I haven’t had a chance to print out my own yet, but judging from a sample that Apple sent me, using what they indicated were unretouched photos taken from an iPhone 4 — you can produce some amazing books.

Letterpress cards are an all-new feature of iPhoto ’11, and according to Apple, an industry first. Let’s say you have a big reason to celebrate — announcing a new arrival to the family, for example, or inviting friends and family to celebrate the engagement of one of your children — you may want to send customized cards complete with a photo of the subject. Now you can, directly from within iPhoto, without having to send out proofs to a printing shop.

Letterpress, for the uninitiated, was the “original” method for working a printing press, just like Gutenberg — paper was pressed onto raised type or etching to produce printed material. It’s been updated for the 21st century, obviously, but the system Apple uses now mates letterpress cards available in more than a dozen different layouts with your text and photos. Just set it up using templates built into iPhoto ’11, then order your cards, and they’ll be delivered with matching envelopes, ready to be addressed and mailed.

A solid upgrade

All told, iPhoto ’11 is a solid improvement that makes the $49 cost of an iLife ’11 upgrade worth the cost of admission on its own. Admittedly, this is an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, improvement to Apple’s cornerstone iLife app. Despite the interface changes and the output improvements and numerous other enhancements, iPhoto remains, at its core, a photo cataloging and sharing app squarely aimed at consumers. So if you’re expecting a lot of professional photo or image editing features, you’re barking up the wrong tree. But I challenge you to find another consumer photo app on the Mac or any other platform with anything close to the features and ease of use of iPhoto.

One last point — iPhoto ’11 got off to a bit of a rocky start when it debuted in October. Some users complained that the upgrade process corrupted their older iPhoto libraries (I had no problems with mine). So make sure to visit the Software Update system preference as soon as you’ve installed iLife ’11, to help make sure you’ve got the latest and greatest version on your Mac.