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Photographers are spoilt for choice these days when it comes to photo management tools. Web sites like Flickr allow casual users to share their images with others with point-and-click ease, while at the other end of the spectrum, dedicated software packages offer prosumers a wide range of tools to refine their output.

The falling prices of starter-level digital SLR cameras have convinced many to upgrade from conventional point-and-shoot models. These upgraders are also more likely to outgrow their original choice of photo management software.

For the purposes of showcasing their best photos and having an online safebox, the likes of Flickr are as capable as ever, and it’s pretty likely we won’t be seeing a shift in that part of the landscape anytime soon. However, as one’s archive of photos gets larger, placing the entire trove online may not be the best option due to limited storage capacities on the remote end.

Part of that concern can be alleviated by cheap terabyte-class storage, which leaves us with the problem of storing photos in an organised manner. We can leave our photos in folders all over our hard drives, but that’d grow to become unmanageable in the long run. This can be dealt with using a pro-level suite like Aperture or Lightroom, which offers an all-in-one solution that fits into a photographer’s workflow, but many would not be willing to shell out the high prices.

iPhoto is Apple’s attempt to address this demand for a consumer-level photo management suite, with a feature set that is “good enough”. If you are a new user interested in finding out more about iPhoto’s capabilities, or a current user trying to answer the question if the new version is worth the upgrade, read on. Don’t fret if you do not fall into any of the two categories; we’re going to focus on some amazing innovations which have found their way from the Apple labs into a consumer product, and we assume that’d make for some interesting reading!

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 iPhoto ’09

Faces and Places – new ways of managing photos
The ‘wow’ feature of this latest version of iPhoto is Faces, which utilises face detection to locate photos of the same person from your archives. This sounds like something James Bond would use to locate his foes in a photo of a crowd.

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Test photo from sxc.hu

We found that Faces worked fantastically well, except for some cases where the wrong person was identified, or simply wasn’t detected in a photo at all. However, this is the exception rather than the norm.

Faces would really help when you have to sieve through thousands of photos to locate a picture of a particular person. If your usual habit is to tag photos according to the persons featured in them, all you have to do is tag once and iPhoto can do the rest of the work for you.

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Many faces from a single interface. (Courtesy of Apple)

Places can help you to organise photos according to where they were taken. iPhoto does this automatically by processing the GPS location tags that are attached to photos by GPS-capable cameras (that includes the iPhone); sadly we don’t have a camera that does GPS, and our iPhone hasn’t been to places more interesting than our office, let alone the Eiffel Tower. To whet our appetites, an official link describing Places would do for now. (With the help of Google, you can manually assign locations to your photos as well, and get Places working with that. See our screenshots below.)

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Would love to… but wish we could.

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No GPS? You can assign locations manually.

Facebook and Flickr integration
Select photo(s), click on the button, and we’re done. OK, in reality it does take a few more clicks. Sharing on photo albums is just one in iPhoto’s repertoire of Facebook tricks. With Faces, iPhoto automatically tags your friends and sends them notifications. This is not something you do on the Facebook site itself, but within the iPhoto interface; a great way to show off your (or rather, iPhoto’s) tagging skills.

It’s as easy to get your photos on Flickr. After logging in to Flickr with iPhoto’s assistance, you can sync your photo sets, which takes away the need to manually rearrange your Flickr sets from your web browser. (Syncing is also available for Facebook.)

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Not hard to share your best photos.

Red eye no longer
In Edit mode, a good selection of photo retouching tools are available to help you make your photographs look better. With these tools, common aberrations like red eye can be eliminated with one click. See how it works here.

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Click on Edit to switch to Edit mode, for the retouching tools

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The iPhoto ’09 Edit mode

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If there is nothing to correct, iPhoto can make your photos look even better. The Enhance tool takes just a single click to access, and instantly adjusts the contrast, exposure and colours of your photos. We tried the Smart Saturation feature (just a check box to toggle) as well, and were very impressed with the results.

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Smart Saturation – “Avoid saturating the skin tones”

These are just part of the collection of tools; there are more to play with. We also liked the Effects panel, which allows us to apply artistic effects to our photographs.

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Instant Picasso

Our verdict
If you are already using iPhoto, iPhoto ’09 is a worthy upgrade over any version you may have, even ’08. The new features are fun to play with, and certain regular operations like tagging are easier and faster to perform with the new automation techniques integrated into iPhoto ’09. New users will be impressed with the features that are available with iPhoto, and the excellent user interface is a joy to navigate. iPhoto ’10 will have some high expectations to live up to, but for now, iPhoto ’09 is definitely one piece of software that we can live with.