iPhoto is an excellent tool for basic photo management and editing, but if your library's getting too big to handle or you need advanced editing options, it might be time to look into alternatives. Adobe's Lightroom and Apple's Aperture provide better management and image tools, while Photoshop and Photoshop Elements can augment iPhoto's basic editing software with more powerful options. If you're starting to feel like your library is getting out of control, here are some of the best reasons to upgrade.
Better organization and file handling
When digital photography first hit the scene, the average shutterbug's saved images numbered in the hundreds; these days, most photographers--regardless of whether they're professionals or amateurs--have thousands of pictures and videos to organize. Digital asset management is challenging at best, but with the right tools, organizing and locating images can be a snap. Lightroom and Aperture both offer extensive metadata functionality, allowing you to add important information such as copyright and contact information to an image, which carries over when photos are exported.
Media handling (an app's ability to read and store various file formats) is also key. Photo formats include JPEG, TIFF, and Raw, while varied video formats are populating more and more hard drives; depending on the format, those files are sometimes difficult (if not impossible) to view and play in simpler applications like iPhoto. Lightroom 5, for example, allows users to not only view, but edit a wide range of video formats from within the software--a real bonus for photographers who also shoot video.
Upgrade your editing
As your photography skills develop, post-processing becomes a more important part of your workflow. With more advanced software programs, adjustments like exposure, sharpening, and color correction can be made locally to select portions of an image thanks to layers and layer masks; in contrast, most of iPhoto's tools apply globally to the entire image.
Most programs, including iPhoto, can process Raw files. The processing provides a huge amount of control over "developing" an image by altering its white balance, exposure, image noise, and highlights/shadows. This bypasses the camera's processing algorithms, which may not be representative of the conditions under which the images were captured. Better software offers more control, however, and you may get a better-looking Raw image by bringing it out of iPhoto into a program like Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.
Speed up your workflow
Most photographers would rather be out shooting than sitting and editing their images. As such, batch processing images is a big help for building a faster workflow. Adobe Photoshop not only offers a complement of default batch processing options, but you can also create custom actions or install an action set from a third party. With these processing tools, you can simplify repetitive tasks such as resizing and watermarking, or even apply specific adjustments with a single click of the mouse.
On the Lightroom side, photographers can create presets--or use third-party presets--to quickly apply a certain style or look to images. Using presets is a quick and easy way to create a universal, repeatable look for your photos without having to spend time tweaking each image.
Dabble in plug-ins
Plug-ins offer even more options for creative photographers by supplying specialized adjustments and improving the speed of your workflow. Granted, most of these add-ons will put a minor--sometimes major--dent in your budget, but they can help you create a signature look or add a creative touch to images.
For example, while most applications offer a method of converting color images to black and white, manufacturers of specialized plug-ins often go to extraordinary lengths to simulate black and white film looks that can be applied--and tweaked--by using their plug-ins. Like actions and presets, plug-ins can be a real time saver while providing detailed personalization. Earlier versions of iPhoto offer limited plug-in support, while apps like Lightroom, Aperture, and Photoshop have a much more expansive library of third-party plug-ins to choose from.
Moving on up
If and when you're ready to step up from iPhoto to an advanced piece of software, it's worth downloading a free trial of the apps you're interested in to see which best meets your growing needs. Don't be afraid to look for help if you're initially overwhelmed, as advanced programs tend to have a steeper learning curve than basic apps like iPhoto. But if you want to move forward, it's well worth the extra time to learn the ins and outs.