Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Apple's new Photos app brings iOS simplicity to the power of a desktop

Apple's Photos for Mac OS X Yosemite combines an iOS-like interface with advanced editing tools familiar to desktop users. CNET takes a closer look at the developer release.

Jason Parker Senior Editor / Reviews - Software
Jason Parker has been at CNET for nearly 15 years. He is the senior editor in charge of iOS software and has become an expert reviewer of the software that runs on each new Apple device. He now spends most of his time covering Apple iOS releases and third-party apps.
Jason Parker
6 min read

Apple's new Photos app bridges yet another gap between the company's operating systems and further cements its goal of a unified user experience across devices.

Released to developers today, and later to the public as part of OS X Yosemite , Photos mimics the iOS image-viewing experience, but adds powerful editing tools that you can get only on the desktop. It's an improved experience over the aging iPhoto and Aperture image editing products -- both of which it effectively replaces -- but more in how it simplifies the organizational tools rather than the new features it adds. It won't compete with dedicated photo-editing software like Photoshop, but it is a great way to organize and tweak your images.

As a developer-release, Photos still has some work ahead. At this early stage, though, the interface and tools are easy to use and will be useful for both beginning and expert photographers alike.

New Photos app for OS X coming soon (pictures)

See all photos

What is it?

The Photos app is not a direct upgrade from iPhoto nor is it a complete copy of the Photos app on iOS. Instead it has it's own unique set of tools that are only available on Yosemite. Once the update is released, it will be the default photo management app on OS X, but that's not going to stop you from using any of a number of third-party apps. At this time, Apple hasn't announced a specific release date for the public, but we do know that it's coming later this spring.

Just like on iOS the Photos app in Yosemite will work closely with iCloud and with Apple's new iCloud Photo Library. The service will store high res images in iCloud, but keeps the full files from taking up too much space on your desktop or iOS devices until you're actually viewing them. This means that even if all your images are the highest quality setting, they won't be taking up as much valuable storage space on your hard drive or on your iOS devices.

Navigating the interface

When you first launch the Photos app, you'll see the familiar layout of photo thumbnails organized by date and location that you find in the Photos app on iOS. But in the upper left you have arrows you can click to quickly switch from Moments (individual pictures), to Collections (pictures taken in the same location), and to the wall of photos in the Years view. You can also use pinch gestures to switch between these on a track pad and a two-finger swipe lets you browse through thumbnails.

The Search window in the upper right lets you add just a couple of letters before it autocompletes to show you dates, locations, faces it recognizes and keywords so you can drill down to the photos you want.

You can select photos from the view of your choice, then hit the familiar Share button (found throughout Mac OS X and iOS) in the upper right to send photos via email, messages, Facebook, Flickr, and other common locations. There's also the capability for third-party services like Tumblr to add their names to the list via extensions. With the release going to developers only for now, Apple wants to smooth out the rough edges and give developers a chance to work other services into the mix.

The layout of your images will look familiar to those who use Photos on iOS. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

The four main buttons

In the top center, the Photos app has buttons for Photos (described above) along with Shared, Albums, and Projects buttons.

The Shared button is where you'll see all the collections of photos you've shared with others and collections that people share with you. In the sharing section, you'll be able to read people's comments and make comments of your own.

The Albums button shows all of your albums. Across the top you'll find albums Apple designed to make it easier to find specific images, with All Photos, Faces (which many will recognize from iPhoto), Last Import, Favorites, Panoramas, and the various video types (including slo-mo, time lapse, and burst). It also has a section for RAW images and photos you've edited with the Photos App tools.

The Projects button is where you'll find ways to spend a little money to create a neat project with your photos. Apple showed me a couple of the possibilities when it demoed the app. You can create photo books with one and two page-wide layouts, with images that bleed off the edges of the page that look great. You can enlarge your panoramas taken with the latest iPhones for a nice looking long image you could frame and hang on the wall, for example. There are also options to make cards, calendars, slideshows (with theme music) and individual prints.

Use the Projects button to create things such as books, calendars and greeting cards with your images. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Editing your images

When you want to make an image look better or add filters and effects, the Photos app makes it easy. You can double-click or reverse pinch to bring an image full screen, then use the Edit button in the upper right. Just like iOS, the Photos app for Mac has an auto enhance tool, which makes calculations behind the scenes to punch up colors and brighten or darken the image to give you the best look.

The crop tools have a nice addition with an auto rotation feature. When you take a photo where the horizon isn't perfectly horizontal, you can open the crop tool and hit an Auto button at the bottom right. The Photos app will automatically detect the horizon, then crop the image to fit so everything is straightened with no gaps on the sides.

There are also a handful of filters you can use to give your photos that retro Polaroid look, black and white, and a few others.

You only get a handful of filters, but they're high quality. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

It's important to note that it doesn't have anywhere near all the advanced photo tools of Adobe's Photoshop or the paint-like shapes, masks, and brushes from apps like SnagIt, so it won't be a replacement for these types of tools.

Instead, quick adjustments are where the Photos app shines, because it gives you the ability to use a slider to change multiple parameters at once. For example, to make an image brighter, you can use the Light slider to bump it up. But what's happening behind the scenes are adjustments to Exposure, Highlights, Shadows, Brightness, Contrast, and Black Point to make the overall look lighter -- all of which are available to adjust individually. I think people will appreciate that there's both an easy way, and a more advanced way to change these settings, making the app great for beginners or advanced photographers looking for a quick fix.

The app also works well for retouching your photos with a tool that allows you to brush away blemishes or other artifacts, which automatically uses the surrounding image to fill in the area.

Info for every image

Like iPhoto, the new Photos app will give you all the information from where and when a photo was taken to what the device was used, and any keywords you've associated with it.

It also lets you add comments to help you remember the moment and displays a map of the location. Here is where you can associate an image to the Faces features so you can find images of a specific person across several different photos.

You can auto-straighten pictures and crop out the gaps with the touch of a button. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

More to come

The Photos app is a necessary addition to Mac OS X Yosemite, replacing the somewhat long outdated iPhoto and Aperture apps. And I welcome that Apple is including it with the Mac OS X 10.10.3 update. That means that once you download the update to Yosemite this spring, the Photos app will appear on your Mac.

Photos isn't going to replace the big name photography apps like Photoshop, Lightroom, or even apps like SnagIt. Instead it will act as the main hub for your photos across all your Apple devices connected by iCloud so you can work on your photos from anywhere and the edits will show up on every device.

Now that it's been released to developers, more extensions and other features will probably become available at launch. But from what we have so far, I think it's a great start and will be a welcome addition to Yosemite for both iPhone and iPad photographers.