iPhoto sucks, 2009 edition

iPhoto still sucks. A quick google for "iPhoto sucks" gives a variety of hits

First, let's review the primary reason why iPhoto still sucks: it doesn't use the file system. It stores everything in a huge, monolithic file called, by default, "iPhoto Library". This is a HUGE interoperability problem:
  • Other programs can't read, modify, delete iPhoto photos. 
Anytime all of my data is glommed into a single, multi-gigabyte clump I start to worry about data integrity issues - I don't want a single bit flip to make my entire library go bad!

There are some alternatives:

Perhaps the biggest new tool on the scene isOrganize Picasa for Mac (Requires: Mac OS X 10.4.9+, Intel CPU, 256MB RAM, 100MB available hard disk space). Picasa is Google's free, previously Windows-only entry into the desktop photography organization space. It's a very good program, except that it crashes all the time, and use the Windows version extensively on my Sumi, my Thinkpad T43 running XP. Picasa works with both file-oriented photos and iPhoto's custom file-system (however, Picasa is read-only on iPhoto library).

Another alternative is Adobe Bridge. "Adobe® Bridge CS4 is a powerful, easy-to-use media manager for visual people, letting you easily organize, browse, locate, and view creative assets." Bridge also has primitive import capabilities - it will get your photos and movies off your device, but it doesn't do duplicate detection or offer the option to delete source files when you're done. It's a very low level utility, but does have very sensible folder naming conventions.

There is another program that comes with OSX called Image Capture which is very primitive but at least offers to delete source files when you're done. This is great when you need to delete data from your iPhone and don't want to click delete 200 times. Image Capture is very nice, but it doesn't separate data according to the date it was taken, unlike Bridge.


Eventually, any content of value is going to be shared. But how? Where? For photos the four major options are: Flickr, Picasa Web Albums, Facebook, and Dropbox. For videos, there's basically just YouTube and Dropbox (although Flickr does allow for short videos to be posted).

I have the most experience with Flickr. You can pay to have a Pro account ($25/year) which allows unlimited uploads at any resolution. Flickr has a highly developed community of photographers (although they are playing around with video, it's still primarily about photos), and some really nice sharing options (like embedding slide shows in your blog). Unlimited storage is pretty cool but in practice you don't want to be posting crap so you don't really use all of it. The only reason to go Pro is to make sure you get full resolution. You can get photos to Flickr in 3 ways: through the web, through the Uploadr, and through email. Email is the best option, because it's the most flexible (you can email from Picasa or the iPhone for example).

Picasa Web Albums is newer and quite compelling, especially if you use Picasa. The integration with the desktop client is extremely good, and lets you sync edits and add watermarks automatically. Photos default to private (although you can share public photos as well). Honestly, if the Picasa Mac client was more stable, I wasn't already invested in Flickr, and Facebook wasn't such a tempting alternative I'd be using this product.

Facebook Photo Sharing is something that I really want to learn more about. I've seen other people sharing photos, tagging people in the photos, and commenting - both of which are great features. But I have questions. For example, is it possible to post public photos so that non-facebook users can see them [answer: yes, but only via URL]? Is there a way to upload more than one photo at once (e.g. a desktop uploader?) [answer: yes, there's a Picasa Facebook Plugin] Is it possible to upload via email [yes, but not to an album]? Are tags supported you can only tag people]? Is it possible to download your photos once uploaded [only by right-clicking]? What are the maximum filesizes supported [looks like about 600px]? Is the original maintained (e.g. is it suitable for archiving?) [no]. Basically, this is great for snapshots with people in them.

Dropbox is a very basic option, best used for long videos that won't fit on YouTube (which is limited to 10minutes, I think), for audio recordings, or for anything else that's not a photo or a small video. The great thing about Dropbox is the flexibility: it's really just a net accessible file system. You don't get any nice things like tagging or flash viewers or anything. But on the plus side you can share whatever you want, no matter how big, as easy as a file copy. Very good for audio and video.

My Process, or, What I do

When I take photos with my Nikon D90 (a "semi-pro" DSLR) I almost always sync with my Mac by just putting the SD card into a reader connected to the Mac - this is both faster and more battery efficient than connecting the camera up directly with a USB cable (although it's probably harder on the SD card and camera). You can configure which program runs to sync photos: I'm using Adobe Bridge currently, but both iPhoto and Picasa can do an import. (I use Bridge because I like it's file naming better, but I do miss duplicate detection). I import into a sub-folder of Photos called D90 - it turns out it's handy to organize by device. Then I boot up Picasa which detects the new photos, and do my basic editing there. Occasionally I start up Photoshop. Then I post to Flickr via Picasa's built-in email interface.

For my iPhone 3GS I sometimes post directly through the phone: you can email photos and videos, or post videos to YouTube or to Facebook (with the Facebook iPhone app) over wifi or 3GS. Otherwise I sync photos and videos (but not audio, alas) with Adobe Bridge, as with the D90. Unfortunately I haven't figured out how to do a bulk delete on the iPhone Camera Roll! The immediacy of getting data off of the device and onto the net immediately is wonderful, if a little slow. I am certain that this is the way of the future. Audio is quite tricky, alas. The iPhone 3GS offers a new "Voice Memos" app (it may be available on any iPhone 3.0 phone). Audio is only sync'd via iTunes (see the Voice Memos smart list). Then you have to export as MP3 files, if you want to share (right click, "Create MP3 Version" - the iPhone records m4a audio.) Another option is to email the audio file, but this is of limited utility unless you only want to share with one other person. [An interesting alternative to Voice Memos audio is Evernote. Evernote is time limited (10min) and very low quality compared to voice memo but it does OTA sync with the Evernote servers, is geocoded on save, and you can store text alongside the audio and you can share the audio if you want.]

Flip Video has it's own proprietary syncing application. Unfortunately it is modelled on iPhoto: data gets plopped into a monolithic application which then needs to be exported. If you just want to burn DVDs and send to YouTube you may never need to export. Of course, I find myself using the Flip much less now that I have the iPhone 3GS. [Is it possible to use Image Capture for the Flip?]

Making Art

My true goal is to use this data to say something about the world, to share an insight about the world. The best photography can certainly stand on its own, and a title and/or description is enough. For that, Flickr and YouTube are enough. However, more often than not I find myself wanting to say more, to embed these images and videos and audio into a more comprehensive document, to make a multimedia essay. Flickr and YouTube, along with a blog (like Blogger) is perfect for this. Both services provide nice Flash viewers for the content, which can be embedded in the post (see "Short Trip, Important Lessons" for a simple example).


The best bang for the buck, in my opinion, is using Bridge (or Image Capture) to get the photos off your camera into an actual filesystem, then use Picasa to upload to Flickr and YouTube, and then use Blogger to write great posts, embedding assets as needed. However, there's a bit of a marketing problem. You can link people to your post from Facebook. However, this has the important drawback that a) people can't be tagged and b) it seems like people are not often willing to look at links. People like photos, but they like them native to Facebook.

Working offline is tricky. If you don't have an internet connection then you can't upload your resources, which you can't embed in your essay. In this case you can fall back on classic HTML authoring techniques: make a folder for your essay, placing all your assets in that folder alongside an index.html file. When you are online, put the assets up first, adapt the post for the new URLs, then post the essay. (I've never seen that kind of functionality in an offline blog authoring tool, so you have to do it by hand.)

But, overall, avoid iPhoto because it makes everything else harder.


SuzSpeaks said...

I stumbled onto your post... It is just what I was looking for! Thank you!!
Do you mind if I ask how you organize your photos?

josh said...

Hi Suz,

Well, currently I'm letting Bridge import into sub-folders of "Pictures" autosplitting on date. Then I use Picasa to star the ones I like, and those I either post to Flickr or Facebook depending on content. (Vidoes go to either Dropbox or YouTube).

I actually would rather like it if I could rename files according to the device they were captured on. This information is stored in EXIF (which is searchable in Bridge) but it's surprisingly handy to have in a more available format.

BTW I just discovered another item on the plus column for iPhoto - it has very good integration with iMovie. I still haven't figured out how to import a photo from the file system to use as a backdrop in title frame in a movie. (However, this may be more of an item in the negative side of iMovie :)

Glad you liked the post.

Michael McNeil Forbes said...

If you right click on the iPhoto library, you can choose "Show Package Contents" which will allow you to see all the files that make up the library. Two folders, "Originals" and "Modified" contain your pictures (if you chose to copy them on import). The "Originals" folder has your original images and "Modified" has any changes you make in iPhoto.

This is hardly a monolithic chunk of data. You can easily access these files with other programs etc.

My problem with iPhoto is that if you muck with these files, (move them, rename them etc.) then you can mess up the database and there are not easy ways (that I have found) for fixing this. Plus, I would like iPhoto to save comments etc. in the original files so I can use them with other programs. I was looking for a good way to do this when I found your notes.

I have not used iPhoto '09 yet, but I think your main gripe about a bit flip messing up your entire library is not really a concern.

josh said...

That's a good tip Michael, and I'll squirrel it away for a day when I absolutely have to use iPhoto for something. But consider that your workaround doesn't truly address the "monolithic file" problem. First, it requires special finder support - or can I see individual files from the command line? Second, as you say, manipulating files behind iPhoto's back is asking for trouble, as you imply.

Truth be told I'm pretty happy with Bridge + Picasa + Flickr Uploadr right now, and the only time not using iPhoto has been a problem is with iMovie.

(The only part of the puzzle I have left to solve is a way to batch transcode massive, raw digicam videos into something smaller and easier to manage...)

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Anonymous said...

I agree, iPhoto sucks. TWICE it has deleted all of my photos. That's several years' worth of irreplaceable memories. I was beyond furious. I read that iPhoto deletes not the images but the path to them--so what. They're still invisible. I logged in and the folders were empty. We bought recovery software and after several hours of work, managed to retrieve the images, but they disappeared again! I am using KodakGallery. It's a pain in the butt to use but it's safe--I don't think Kodak will ever delete all my files. I don't mind paying for the service (you have to spend a certain amount each year, depending on how much disk space you use) because it's not more than I'd spend on prints or gifts anyway.

Anonymous said...

iPhoto is a piece of crap. I hate this stupid piece of crap. Actually I hate macs all together. I am fast realizing I cannot trust any software written for the OSX platform. POS