How Apple Photos Helps Me Enjoy Photography Again

I’m a convert (as I recently explained). Of course photos is not a professional photos app. But that’s cool, most of the time my photos are just for me. Compared with something like Lightroom, Photos has a limited range of options. But in those limitations is a the freedom to enjoy post processing.

Shiwazara, Japan. Could be down the road though, right?

I’m pleased to say that photos, together with iCloud Photos library, has been working surprising well for me. The workflow is simple: shoot, import, edit and maybe share. Editing is absolutely non-destructive: you can finish editing (no need to ‘save’) and later make further tweaks, working from changes to the original file, not a saved version.

This is an important point: saving JPEG (compressed) files multiple times compounds compression and multiplies artefacts. This doesn’t happen in photos. Changes to processing options sit on top of the original file and seem to be applied on the fly for viewing and saving. Here at least, Apple is delivering on its brand promise of simplicity. It makes working in JPEG much more feasable for enthusiasts.

Pleasingly, Photo’s editing options are useful and professional for a consumer app. Maintaining basic editing features, Photos does away with less used options like brush and gradient editing adjustments. It’s saying “no” to labouring over the editing process.

Photos invites ameatures to step up and aim for more, and asks enthusiasts to relax (and take better photos).

At this point it’s worth mentioning that folks who rely on presets for their workflow will never be happy with Photos — but luckily that’s not me. I like to start from scratch with every photo. Many photographers rely on other specific workflows that the simplicity of Photos will deny them. But if, like me, you’re a bit tired of the effort apps like Lightroom require, you’ll enjoy Photos.

I recently wrote in Going JPEG that I was moving from Raw and Lightroom to JPEG and Photos. However I’ve since realised that Raw is perfectly usable in Photos (although less proactical given the iCloud syncing options). I may go back to shooting in Raw: I do mis those broad highlights and shadows. Still, for this article, I’ll be using JPEG originals as that’s what I’ve been shooting so far.

Let me talk about how I edit photos in Photos.

Apple Photos 101

Just in case you’re new to Photos, it’s Apple’s iPhoto replacement, with a new focus on time and place based ‘collections’ that help make organising and finding photos a breeze, via zooming and scrubbing. It works hand in hand with iCloud Photo Library to sync your entire library between devices, holding thumbnails for many or most of the photos and downloading individual shots as needed.

You start (and end) editing a photo with the enter key as a shortcut. There are range of editing tools including auto enhancing (eww), cropping (a bit fiddly), rotating, a few fliters (not bad but I don’t use them), adjustments and retouching (healing).

Adjustments is where the magic happens. There’s a strong selection of visible options and I recently realised you can add more and save a default range of options (for example, all of them).

Right: the editing options. Left: selecting elements for the ‘adjust’ interface.

All the options have an automatic setting, so you can start there and see how you go.

Usually I like to convert my photos to black and white. What can I say, I seriously get off on tonal balance. That means I head down to the Black and White section straight away.

Before I get into details, let me tell you what I generally go for in a photo. I like a heavy low end, that’s what I love and I guess it’s my style. But I don’t like clipping blacks. I go for the widest possible gamut of tones, weighted low. Most photos I keep for the memory, but I select a few to edit and share — as yet I’m not sure why.

Here’s a rundown on the Adjustment editing options and how I use them for a sweet black and white conversion.

Black and White

The top slider shifts between a variety of combinations of colour toning, allowing for a pleasing balance to be struck. For example, reds can become darker or brighter. This is where I start experimenting. The Intensity refers to how much that is applied. Neutrals can be a bit dangerous as it seems to create banding in a lot of photographs. In some situations though, it can fix banding created by the above two options.

Tone is similar to contrast, although tends to eliminate the low end on JPEGS more than I’d like. I tend to turn this down, flattening the image, and then add Contrast from the Light section (which is where we’ll head next. Grain is good for hiding noise or slight banding — the only purpose I use it for, and I’ll try everything else first. Unfortunately the option for grain is only availbale for black and white conversions.


The Light section is where most people will like to start, as it is where Exposure, Highlights, Shadows, Brightness, Contrast and Black Point live. There is also a generic light slider which seems to alter all those options in an intelligent way. Try it out, it’s interesting.

Every photo is different but I usually end up with high contrast, low exposure, high brightness, flattened highlights and boosted shadows. The black point may rescue the low end in select scenarios but I don’t appreciate the faded look most of the time.


Color is something I rarely use as I prefer black and white, but the basic options are powerful, even allowing for colour contrast. It’s pretty straightforward.

Sharpening and Definition

Sharpening is something I never do because I like softer images (I even cancel it in camera). The definition option is useful for many images with low contrast, and to create micro contrast.

Noise Reduction

My photos are almost noiseless :o) so I almost never venture here. It’s a simple slider that seems to work as expected. No advanced noise controls here.


While the Levels interface is limited, it’s great to have it. I try to acheive a good balance in the Light section, but sometimes it’s good to have linear control. Maybe I should be starting here — not sure. Most of the time I think the difference is minimal. Light makes intelligent changes to specific bands of tone, Levels is more global.

Levels is great when you can’t get your detail in the blacks any other way. You can force the lowest 3% or so to move into 5-10% territory. Scross down to the last image to get a gist for what I mean.

A misty mountain range provided a great tonal backdrop for grass and weeds.

A Note on Editing

The beauty of the range of editing options in Photos, in my opinion, is it’s hard to make a photo into something it’s not. Photos won’t rescue a shot for you like lightroom, but it can help you make a good photo better. I try to bring out something special in my photos, but I believe photography should be more to do with taking photos than it has been for me recently — and Photos is helping me with this. I’m looking more to my camera for quality than my computer. Though I may switch back to Raw, and make an effort to shoot more selectively (4000 shots in a month in Japan!?!?), Photos offers me what I need and nothing more.

A Note on iCloud Photos Library

iCloud Photos Library definately makes it easier for me to manage my photos. They’re all everywhere, and they’re all in the cloud. But, you need a robust internet connection for this. I’m not sure if going back to Raw will be feasable with this option turned on — while only thumbnails are downloaded, everything is uploaded, and upload is often in short speed and supply.

Be careful with tethering! I plugged my phone into my computer to charge one night in Japan and iCloud Photos chewed up a fresh $40 worth of internet (2gb), overnight. I understood my mistake, but wasn’t impressed that Photos didn’t recognise a tethered connection and leave it be.

Find me wherever it’s convenient… (pretty much the same as medium)
Flickr (my best shots and black and white conversions)
Facebook Page (best shots with more commentary, and links etc)
My Flipboard mag on black and white photography: “The Streets are Black and White” (links and fave photos from around the web).

Japanese Asterix lives here.
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