This page was last updated 28 January 2012.

Tips and tricks for using iPhoto

I have a little under 50,000 photos in iPhoto, Apple's photo management tool that comes with iLife, which is preinstalled on all new Macs. My old Mac mini was struggling to manage so many photos, but my new i7 iMac is reasonably fast. I like iPhoto quite a bit, but it takes some getting used to. Here I'll explain how I made it work for me.

I am now using iPhoto 2011, as it comes with MacOS X 10.7 (Lion). Most of what the original review points out is still true, but it's in many ways worse than iPhoto 2009. Here's a new page on iPhoto 2011.

The remainder of this page is about iPhoto 2009.

Organizing photos

iPhoto likes to organize sets of photos into "events". An import operation from a camera or an external folder creates an event. Photos from an iPhone are split into one event per day, and so on. It's a useful feature but it rarely does what I want. I like to keep folders per year, with subfolders for specific events on that year. All the photos from a vacation go into one subfolder, regardless of which of my cameras it was taken with. All the photos of my home, or family, go into one subfolder regardless of when during the year they were taken. I tend to end up with far fewer subfolders than iPhoto events.

Inside a subfolder, I use descriptive filenames containing sequential numbers to distinguish photos. For example, all photos in the "0910-asia" subfolder (a nearly three-month vacation that started in 10/2009) have names that begin with a four-digit number, followed by a hyphen and the name of the place, sometimes followed by another hyphen and a description. So I might end up with "6557-cambodia-angkor-wat-dancers.jpg".

iPhoto doesn't really need that. But the method has advantages: I assign the names with scripts, rather than clicking and renaming each file, and I do this on the raw files before they are imported to iPhoto. I always keep the original raw files too - I trust iPhoto, but not that much. This means that the originals and iPhoto agree on the photo titles.

Also, iPhoto keeps the names and uses them (and the folder names too) when exporting web galleries to mobile me or other online services. It's very convenient if everything is named consistently. iPhoto does support tagging, but I mostly use that for smart folders; more on that below. (A professional photographer would use tags for a lot of things I have no need for.)

Importing is easy - create an album with Apple-N, then drag all the photos from the original directory on disk into the new album, and wait for it to complete. (At this stage I have already deleted the obvious and irrecoverable failures, like photos seriously underexposed, overexposed, or too blurry.) There are extra steps if you want to use all of iPhoto's features.

Quality ratings: assigning stars

I sometimes have separate original folders for all photos and the best photos, using hard links. In such cases, I first drag the best ones to the new album. They end up selected, so I can assign three stars (or some other nonzero number). Then I drag the complete set of photos into the same album. This will print a dialog because iPhoto notices the duplicates. I answer "don't import" and "apply to all". The new photos get no stars. I end up with an album where the best photos have three stars, and the rest has none. This works iteratively, too.

After this rough sorting by quality, I refine the star ratings. Since I use stars to create automatic slideshows, web galleries, and desktop backgrounds, I do this carefully. I try to follow this rough recipe:

I begin with one star and work my way up to five stars. It's a very time-consuming process, but necessary - you'll rarely use the photos with fewer than three stars and don't want to be bothered with them all the time.

Assigning locations

All the photos in an event are then placed on a map, like the one at the top of this page. My cameras don't put GPS coordinates in photos, so I need to do this manually. I don't attempt to use an exact location; I usually go as far as naming the city..

I select a group of pictures, move the mouse over one selected photo, and click the little "i" button that appears in the bottom right corner. I then type the name of the city (or similar) into the place field. If I have assigned this place before, I get the old name in a dropdown so I can select it. But if I hadn't, I need to choose "find (X) on map...".

Unfortunately, iPhoto isn't great at finding places because its name database isn't very good. A search for "Bali" is likely to find all the Balinese restaurants in your hometown, so if you want the island, try "Bali, Indonesia". I live in Marseille, but iPhoto misspells it "Marseilles", and that's one of the harmless cases. Some villages are found only if you enter the postal code number followed by the village name. St. Zacharie is found only as Saint-Zacharie, and sometimes you enter X and eventually, in the map, it turns out it was expecting "commune de X".

And some are so badly misspelled that you need to enter some known place nearby, and scroll the map to the place you want, to find out the name. It's quite bad with accented named too. Today I was in Gémenos, with an accent on the first e, but if I enter just "Gemenos" it won't suggest the previously entered Gémenos and sends me back to the map. And if the country uses a foreign alphabet, like the Chinese characters in the Lhasa example here, good luck.

I follow a convention that assigns all photos on the road between A and B to B. I am too lazy to identify the exact places on the road. People with GPS in their cameras win this one.

Assigning faces

I like iPhoto's Faces feature. It finds faces in your pictures and asks you to name them. It will then go and find the same face in all your other pictures, and puts all the faces up on a wall. It's then easy to find all the photos taken of a specific person. But the feature needs a lot of hand-holding.

For every new subfolder I click the "Name" icon button near the bottom left corner of iPhoto. It will show the first photo and put name tags under each face. Move the mouse there and it shows a box. You can click the name tag to enter a name. After a while it remembers the face and new faces have a tag asking "is this X?" with yes and no buttons, accelerating the process.

It's very important to click the (X) button at the top left of the face box for things that aren't faces (this happens rarely), or faces of people you don't know and don't want on your Faces wall. If you don't do this, these faces show up when you choose a face on your Faces wall, under the heading "...may also be in the photos below". Although you could tell iPhoto there that "this is not X", it's very tedious to do this for all faces, and they keep popping up over and over again.

So what if you find a face under "...may also be in the photos below" that you want to delete or assign a name to? iPhoto doesn't allow you to do this. You need a workaround. Create a new keyword by pressing Apple-K, Edit Keywords, and [+], and enter "noface" or something. The keyword dialog assigns a keyboard accelerator to it, such as "N". Select all faces in the "...may also be in the photos below" section and press N. Repeat for other faces with unwanted misrecognitions.

Then create a new smart album with Apple-N named "noface", with the rule (Keyword) (is) (noface). Voilà, all the misrecognized faces are now in one album, and here you have the "Name" button and can X out nonfaces or assign names, something iPhoto wouldn't let you do in the Face list. After working through the smart album, don't forget to select all (Apple-A) and remove the "noface" keyword, by pressing N (or whatever it was) again if you still have the Apple-K dialog up. BTW, the left and right cursor keys go to the previous and next photo.

In newer versions, you can also create a smart album with the rule (Faces) (is) (unnamed), but you'll get an unpleasant surprise: iPhoto will now reveal its pool of misrecognitions and you might find thousands of photos in the folder. To delete unwanted faces, you now have to look at every photo and delete every single unwanted face. Apple makes this as difficult as possible: the (X) button is very small even though it's the button in iPhoto that you'll use more often than any other by a wide margin; it's invisible until the mouse comes close to the name tag, at which point it slowly fades in at a position that depends on the face size. There is no button to tell iPhoto that there is no face in any of the selected photos, which would save days of work.

Assigning keywords

As I said, I don't use keywords much for their intended purpose. I use them mostly for tricks like the "noface" keyword described above. But there are two other things they come in handy for:

Color correction

iPhoto has simple color correction tools that work fairly well for simple corrections. If you are looking at an image, click the Edit icon near the left edge of the bottom icon bar. Only two, occasionally three of the buttons you'll then see are useful.

Get up and look at the picture from a distance, it's easy to get lost in details. A color-corrected screen also helps, although Apple displays tend to come fairly well adjusted.

Clearly, this is a time-consuming process. I do this for all my five-star photos, and some of the four-stars, but not the rest.

Making web galleries

For Apple mobile me subscribers, publishing a web gallery is easy: in any folder, press the MobileMe icon and Publish (iPhoto 2009); or the Share, Flickr, and Plus icons (iPhoto 2011 - MobileMe will be turned off in June 2012). Upload can take a while. I wish you could sort or group the generated web albums on the web page but I haven't found a way to do this (other than copying the generated HTML text and hacking it, but haven't found the time for that). It supports Facebook too, but I have canceled my Facebook account a long time ago.

One of iPhoto 2011's many bugs may give you a warning The published set "Whatever" has been removed from Flickr with no explanation; in this case just publish it again. This seems to happen if a lot of photos are published, or iPhoto has crashed at some point, which happens a lot in iPhoto 2011.

But it's usually not a good idea to publish an entire album with all the pictures of an event. There could be thousands, and I try to keep my web albums to at most 150 pictures. Sometimes I break up an event into several web galleries - my 2009 world trip that visited 18 countries in Asia and Europe in six months is now 17 web albums, roughly one per country.

Instead, I create smart albums, using Apple-N and then choosing Smart Album. All the smart albums go into a folder in iPhoto's album list so I can hide the list easily - I have over a hundred of them. Each smart album has a rule list like the one shown at the right:

Then, in the new smart album, you use the MobileMe button. The nice thing is, whenever you make a change to the original subfolder, like assigning more or fewer stars to a photo or adding the nopublish keyword to a photo, the web album will update automatically. If you want to take a look, my web gallery is at

Apple's web galleries have a major flaw: you can't group albums, and sorting is a hassle. The main gallery page is in random order. You can log into mobile me (not the gallery link!), click the little sunflower icon, and drag albums around, but it's a really awkward way of doing things. iPhoto can sort its own albums but not the ones on mobile me. And you can't create a group or section division like "all my albums shot in Asia in 2009". Since I have 75 albums, it's very difficult to find anything. Also, you can't annotate albums or pictures and you cannot add text. Apple's mobile me web gallery is really only a toy for people with very few photos.

Printing Apple books

In addition to publishing an album, Apple lets you print a photo book on paper. I have several of them. Apple's quality is really good and the books look professional, although other shops may charge half of Apple's prices. I haven't tried those yet. After creating a book with iPhoto, you can either upload the book to Apple, or export to a PDF that you can send to another shop. You'd probably have to use their tools to design the cover and inside flaps and stuff like that.

In my first upload attempts, I always got an error message "one of your photos failed to upload". Typical Apple, no help on which photo was wrong or where the problem was. I actually had to resort to packet inspection with tcpdump to find the problem. It doesn't have anything to do with the photos. I had to bypass my provider proxy and connect directly to the Internet: in the System Preferences, Network, Advanced, Proxies, uncheck all boxes temporarily - and iPhoto book uploads worked. Some providers, especially mobile providers, do not allow you to bypass their proxy though.


There are a few minor issues that I would like addressed in future versions:

Continue reading my iPhoto 2011 review.

Back to my Apple page.

Tell me if you found this information interesting or useful, or if you have comments.