iPhoto '11 for Mac review: What's the best photo software for Mac in 2013?

Is iPhoto '11, the most recent version of Apple's photo organiser and editor software, the best option for Mac users in 2013? We review iPhoto '11 again two and a half years on to see if it's still the best photo software available, or if there are rival offerings that are worth a look. Updated 20 August 2013

Apple iPhoto '11 review

iPhoto '11 came out, as the name suggests, at the very start of 2011, but it continues to see heavy use by Mac users. (Unsurprisingly, given that iLife '11, the suite of lifestyle software apps that iPhoto '11 is part of, is installed by default in all new Macs and MacBooks.) But does iPhoto hold up 28 months on?

iPhoto '11 for Mac review: Price

First of all, let's talk money. iLife '11 is pre-installed on all new Macs and MacBooks, but if you've got an older model that isn't equipped with the suite, iPhoto can be bought alone for just £10.49 from the Mac App Store, making it a bit of a bargain.

iPhoto '11 for Mac review: The interface

Apple iPhoto '11 review

The biggest change to iPhoto's interface is the full-screen mode available in iPhoto '11: hit Ctrl + Apple + F and the window expands to fill the screen, displaying your photos to best effect. You can cycle through the photos in a folder with the arrow keys, and the whole thing is about as convenient and user-friendly as you'd expect from an Apple product.

iPhoto '11 is also multitouch gesture-compatible; so if you're using a Mac with a touchscreen display - or a Magic Mouse - you can browse and scroll using multiple-finger swipes.

And the 'chrome' - in other words, the visual furniture, frames and so on around the functional parts of iPhoto - has been updated from iPhoto '09, with a more modern, grey and charcoal palette.

Of course, when we say modern, we're talking modern for early 2011, and the superficial visuals of iPhoto '11 are now looking a little tired: with its colour gradients, borders, shading and quasi-realistic skeuomorphic design (a fake 'cork board' in the Faces sub-section and fake wood in the Create palette) iPhoto '11 will look desperately dated when the iOS 7 era arrives. Given the cues iPhoto '11 takes from its iOS sibling, the next version of iPhoto for the Mac is sure to look very different indeed.

Apple iPhoto '11 review

iPhoto '11 for Mac review: Photo editing

While viewing a photo you can easily access iPhoto's editing tools. iPhoto is an organisational tool more than an editor, so these are relatively simple, but they'll be more than enough for basic colour tweaks, cropping, rotation and so on.

Again, the interface for the editing tools is attractive and clearly laid out. The tools are divided into Quick Fixes (crop, rotate, red eye and so on), Effects (colour tone, contrast and filters) and Adjust, which allows fine numerical control over the levels in the photo.

Apple iPhoto '11 review

iPhoto 11's Quick Fixes are visible in the pane to the right

Apple iPhoto '11 review

New in version '11 of iPhoto are six circular buttons at the top of the Effects palette, each of which lets you increase a single characteristic of the picture: 'Lighten', 'Darken', 'Warmer', 'Cooler' and so on. They're a great option for beginners, both self-explanatory and convenient, but other than judging the photo itself by eye there's no easy way to tell exactly how much you've hit one or several of the buttons - there are multiple undoes and you can revert back to the original at any time, but if you'd hit Warmer three times, Contrast twice and Lighten once, you could easily get confused about which tool is producing the effect you like.

(The filters below, on the other hand, show numbers as you incrementally increase their effect.)

Talking of undoes, the Reset button, along with Copy and Paste, have been removed from the editing pane. You can still copy and paste effects wholesale, but have to do this via the Edit dropdown menu (which is only available from the non-fullscreen viewing mode).

How to transfer photos from your iPhone to Mac

iPhoto '11 for Mac review: Faces, Places and Events

Apple iPhoto '11 review

A quick word, then on a dull but important element of iPhoto's appeal: its organisational capabilities.

The photos you import are categorised in multiple ways to make it easier for you to browse through a potentially enormous library of snaps. The new folder Places, quite simply, uses geo-tagging metadata to organise your photos according to where they were taken (they're laid out on a map, rather pleasingly) but the really clever one is Faces, which uses facial recognition technology to divide photos into the subjects shown.

You have to tell the program who the first example of each person is, of course, but after that it starts spotting them for itself. You then either click its suggestions to confirm or Alt-click to alert it to mistakes.

Apple iPhoto '11 review

Looks like we've been accidentally photographing ghosts again

The automated face tagging has been significantly improved from the previous version of the software, and the hit rate is reasonably high; but you should still expect a few entertainingly bad guesses, from totally different people (men identified as women, babies identified as adults) to bits of buildings and shapes on clothes:

Apple iPhoto '11 review

iPhoto '11 got our former publishing director (wearing a mask in one photo, admittedly) mixed up with a baby

The visuals of the Faces window, too, as discussed earlier, is shockingly un-Apple: a gauche cork board with 'Polaroid'-style thumbnails labelled in a font that's almost as ugly as Comic Sans.

Finally, photos are organised by data, and iPhoto '11 encourages you to label dates with the Events that happened then, so as to organise images by 'Dad's birthday party', 'Ken and Barbie's wedding' and such like.

Mac photo software reviews 

iPhoto '11 for Mac review: Books, cards and calendars

Apple iPhoto '11 review

The biggest functional upgrades from iPhoto '09 relate to what you do with photos after you've imported, catalogued and edited them: the output and social sharing options.

You can easily turn your finished photos into books, cards and calendars from within the iPhoto '11 interface. There's a wide range of themes and templates to choose from, and iPhoto automatically flows the picture you've just been viewing into each template so you can see what it will look like, then buy them from Apple. If you think the prices are a bit steep, though, you can use the process as a layout tool and then export the finished design as a pdf for printing.

iPhoto '11 for Mac review: Social networking and sharing features

The options when sharing your photos with friends and/or the general public were updated from iPhoto '09 to iPhoto '11 too. There are now snazzy templates available when emailing photos, incorporating your chosen snaps into postcards, collages and other layouts. As we keep repeating, though, while it's a nice enhancement, the problem with visual updates is that they date so quickly.

Less superficially, iPhoto '11 features closer integration with social networks. You can upload to Flickr directly, or turn one of your photos into your Facebook profile picture. Face tagging works back and forth on Facebook, too, so your friends may do some of the tagging work for you, and you can easily alert friends when they've been tagged.

iPhoto '11 for Mac review: What's the best photo suite for Mac in 2013?

There's loads of photo software for the Mac, but here are some of the alternatives to iPhoto that you might like to try:

And some would throw Photoshop Elements into the mix for the editing side of things, but it's a rather different kettle of fish - much more about the editing and not at all about photo organisation. Still, if that's your priority, Elements could be right for you.

So which is the best option for organising, sharing and lightly editing photos? That, of course, depends on your needs.

Despite our misgivings about iPhoto's increasingly dated looks, its interface is a real strength. And few of the above alternatives are as user-friendly as iPhoto. But despite being far more difficult for a beginner to get to terms with, Lightroom does have an interface that will be reasonably familiar to Adobe fans. It also has stronger editing features than iPhoto - but if advanced editing is what you're looking for, you shouldn't be anywhere near iPhoto. Lightroom is likely to set you back anywhere from £60 to £100, compared to iPhoto's £10.49.

At the other end of the scale are the freebies. (Of course, being free isn't much of an advantage over iPhoto for most Mac users, since iLife is effectively free when you buy a Mac or MacBook - or rather, the cost is factored into the price you pay.)

Reputable freebies are always worth a try, just to see how the user experience works out for you, but we'd be inclined towards Picasa most of all. As well as costing nothing, it's got more functionality than its Apple rival; then again, it's not as slick to use.

XnView is a decent option but we felt that the effects lack a bit of control, and again, we didn't like the interface anywhere near as much as iPhoto's. But this may be a matter of personal preference.

Overall we'd say the best options are iPhoto and Picasa, and we'd strongly recommend that you give both a try; fortunately one is free and the other comes with new Mac purchases, so that shouldn't present a problem. Read the links above for more information.

iPhoto '11 for Mac review: Buy now

iPhoto '11 for the Mac is available on the Mac App Store for £10.49. Click here to buy now:

Follow David Price on Twitter | Follow Macworld UK on Twitter

See also:

iMac reviews | Mac mini reviews | Mac Pro reviews | MacBook Air reviews | MacBook Pro reviews

Editing and annotating images with Preview

How can I upload photos from my camera to my iPad?

Are Snapchat photos really deleted, is Snapchat safe for kids, how to save Snapchat photos, and more

OUR VERDICT

We're constantly hearing rumours that the next iLife is on its way (surely iLife '14 can't be far off?), but in most respects iPhoto '11 looks good for some time yet. The main bit that's started to creak is the skeuomorphic visual styling, whose pine bookshelves and corkboards have been rendered instantly prehistoric by iOS 7's breath of graphical fresh air. If we had Tim Cook's ear for a moment, then, we might advise a quick update to iPhoto's appearance, but functionally this remains a fine organising, editing and sharing tool for your photo library.

Find the best price