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Getting Started With Photos for OS X

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Read Time: 7 min
This post is part of a series called Digital Asset Management for Photographers (Learning Resource Guide).
From Lightroom to WordPress: How to Create SEO-Optimized Images

Alongside OS X Yosemite, Apple announced a new Photos app to replace iPhoto and Aperture. This week, it’s finally out of beta.

In this tutorial, I’ll cover the basics of getting started with Photos, look at how to make simple creative image edits in the app and how to share images to social media. I’ll look at who Photos is for given  the fact that it is replacing both Apple’s amateur and professional photography apps.

Setting Up Photos

When you update the operating system to the latest version of OS X, 10.10.3, iPhoto will be automatically replaced with the Photos. After the Mac reboots, you’ll get a notification prompting you to check out the new app. To start Photos, either click on the notification or launch it from the Applications folder.

On starting the app for the first time, Photos will offer a tour. It gives a simple overview of the interface which is already quite intuitive; it mimics iOS’s Photos app. You’ll also be prompted to import images from an iPhoto library, or create a new one. Unless you are setting up a new Mac, it’s best to import from the existing iPhoto library at this point.

Photos interfacePhotos interfacePhotos interface
The Photos interface.

Photos will also import images directly from the iCloud Photo Stream. Depending on how many images you have in the iPhoto Library and in the Photo Stream, this process may take a few minutes.

Once done, Photos is ready to use.

Importing New Images

Connecting a camera, or inserting a SD Card, into a Mac with Photos running will open the Import dialogue. To import all the images, click the Import All New Photos button. The import option can also be accessed at any time from the File menu.

Navigating the Interface

The Photos app has four tabs: Photos, Shared, Albums and Projects.

The Photos tab has the same Year, Moments and Daily overviews that the iOS app does. To zoom out to the Year and Moments use the back and forward arrows in the app’s menubar. In the daily view, use the zoom slider to change the size of the thumbnails. To view a single image, double click on its thumbnail.

photos momentsphotos momentsphotos moments
The Year view in Photos.

The Shared tab, the same as on iOS, shows all the iCloud shared images in your collection.

Similarly, the Albums tab shows all the albums in your collection. To create a new album, click on the plus icon in the app’s menubar with one or more photos selected.

The print options available in the Projects tab.

The Projects tab is only in the OS X app. From it, you can create photo books, cards, calendars, prints and slideshows. For a price, you can order professional prints of projects directly from the app.

Editing Images in Photos

One of the biggest benefits of Photos over iPhoto is that it includes tools for making basic creative edits. I’ve shown how to make simple edits in GIMP and Pixelmator before but with the new Photos app you’d only need to use them for more advanced edits. Simple adjustments to brightness, contrast, colour and crop are all available within Photos, as well as some more advanced options like white balance and sharpening.

With a single image selected, click on the Edit button in the top right of the app’s menubar to open the Editing Panel. In the right sidebar there are six tools: Enhance, Rotate, Crop, Filters, Adjust and Retouch.

With the Enhance tool, Photos tries to make a best-guess attempt at what will improve the image. While it can work out sometimes, you have no creative control and I don’t recommend using it. Generally auto-exposure algorithms make an image punchier—they tend to add contrast and saturation—which may make them look superficially better, but can lead to unnatural results, especially with portraits.

The Rotate tool rotates the image 90º counter-clockwise every time you click the button. To rotate the image clockwise, hold down the Option key and then use the tool.

crop toolcrop toolcrop tool
The Crop tool in action.

The Crop tool is for cropping and straightening images. You can select from any standard aspect ratio, such as 3:4 and 8:10, or use the freeform tool to crop the image however you’d like. You can also straighten an image by up to 45º—for anything more you need to use the rotate tool—to ensure your horizon is level.

filter toolfilter toolfilter tool
The Instant filter applied to the image.

The Filters tool has the same eight filters currently available in the iOS app: Mono, Tonal, Noir, Fade, Chrome, Process, Transfer and Instant. They each give the image a unique look. While Apple’s filters don’t have much on dedicated apps like Instagram or VSCOCam, they’re not bad. If one of them gives an image you’re editing the look you want, then it’s worth using.

The Adjust tool is where most of Photos editing chops are available. By default, you only see three sliders: Light, Color and Black & White. These use Photos’ auto-adjust algorithms to change the underlying, more advanced tools. To get access to these, click on the small down-arrow next to the tool name. 

For example, clicking on the arrow for the Light option, reveals the sliders to modify Exposure, Highlights, Shadows, Brightness, Contrast and Black Point. If you want true creative control over your image, you need to be working with these tools.

adjust toolsadjust toolsadjust tools
The advanced Adjust tools.

To access the other advanced Adjust tools, click on the Add option. From this menu you can add Sharpen, Definition, Noise Reduction, White Balance and Levels adjustments to your image.

Finally, the Retouch tool lets you remove small imperfections from your images. To use the retouch tool, paint over the blemish or dust spot you want to get rid of. Photos will then sample the surrounding area and blend out the imperfection. If you want Photos to sample from a specific part of the image, hold down Option and select the sample point before painting over the blemish.

When you’re done making edits, either click on Done to apply the changes you’ve made or, if you’re not satisfied with them, Revert to Original, to go back to the original image. All the tools are non-destructive. Even after you’ve applied them to an image, you can go back and modify or remove them at any time.

Sharing Images From Photos

Photos makes it easy to share images to social media directly from the app. With an image selected, click on the Share Button. From the dropdown menu you can select any social media accounts you have set up in System Preferences.

Sharing the image to Twitter.

As more developers make use of Yosemite’s Extensions, there’ll be more social networks and apps that you can share images directly to.

Who Photos Is For

Photos strikes an interesting middle-ground between iPhoto and Aperture. While it’s nominally a replacement for both, it lacks many of Aperture’s more powerful features. Yes, Photos can handle RAW files directly from a DSLR, but it doesn’t deal with them as well as a dedicated editor.

editing rawediting rawediting raw
Editing a RAW image in Photos.

Casual photographers who want to make simple adjustments to photos shot on their iPhone’s will be well served by the improvements but dedicated Aperture fans will be left feeling a little cold with the new app. Rather than supporting their professional users, it feels as if Apple has conceded the space to Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and is hoping to tempt people who don’t really need, or aren’t prepared to pay for, Adobe’s offering.

If you are an amateur photographer looking to make simple, creative adjustments and manage your collection of photos, then the Photos app is a huge improvement over iPhoto. If on the other hand, you’ve been using Aperture for the last few years and want a similar calibre of app, you’ll need to look elsewhere.


In this tutorial I showed you how to get started with Apple’s new Photos app—their replacement for both iPhoto and Aperture. The app is simple to use and powerful enough for most casual users. You should be able to get up and running with it in no time.

If you’ve any questions about Photos, please ask in the comments.

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