The Photos app for macOS now supports plugins, which means that third-party software developers can expand the functionality of the app. Typically they do this to bolster Photos' own rather primitive editing and tweaking tools. In this article, we take a look at some of the best extensions for Photos.
As it happens, standalone plugins are relatively rare, and several of those reviewed here come as part of a larger photo-editing app, with the aim that you can call upon some of that app's functionality within Photos.
To enable a plugin, you'll first have to run the standalone app to authorise it for use within Mac OS X - a standard security requirement. However, you can then instantly quit it. To subsequently set up the plugin for use within Photos, open System Preferences, click the Extensions icon, and then the Photos heading at the left. Put a tick alongside the new extension. It will subsequently appear automatically when you click the Extensions heading while editing a photo.
Check out our other Photos for Mac tips if you want to find more ways to make the most of Photos.
This inexpensive tool is aimed mostly at the home user likely to be found mostly tweaking snapshots of people. As such it offers five easy adjustment tools: Skin Smoothing, Skin Tone, Teeth Whiten, Eye Brighten, and HDR. There's also an Auto Fix tool that attempts to judiciously apply all the tools on offer without your input.
The first four entries in the above list are brush-based tools, which is to say you draw over where you want the effect to be applied (teeth, cheeks, eyes etc), then adjust the various sliders to control the nature and intensity. Once happy you'll need to click the Apply button, at which point the effects are fully applied to the high-resolution image. We found the effects both subtle and effective, with results almost as good as when we sat for hours poring over images using something like Photoshop.
The HDR tool aims to create faux high-definition images, which are typically made by merging several different exposures together. HDR is perhaps intended for the likes of landscapes - or certainly photos containing some sky. Loading up some snapshots from a trip to Rome, we got some surprisingly good results in our tests and were able to perk up otherwise underexposed or downright mundane shots.
BeFunky Express is quick and easy to use, yet offers great results. As such, it's the quintessential Photos plugin.
Pixelmator has taken the Mac world by storm since its introduction some years ago, proving that Adobe Photoshop isn't all there is when you need a powerful image-editing app. Although not mentioned even in its App Store description, Pixelmator also includes a Distort plugin for Photos. This extends Pixelmator's Warp, Bump, Pinch, and Twirl (left and right) tools to Apple's image app.
All the tools are brushes, so you first adjust the size and strength sliders, then click and drag on the image. There's a Reset button and also a Reset tool, that can be used to selectively undo what you've done by again clicking and dragging.
Warp is like pushing a finger into wet paint. For example, if you wanted to make a tree look like it's bending in the wind then you just click and drag over it. Bump is like applying a convex magnifying glass to the section of the image where you click - what's underneath will bulge. Pinch is entirely the opposite, and shrinks whatever you click on. Twirl Left and Twirl Right require little explanation, and simply twist the image where you click.
All the tools work exceptionally well. Poorly implemented versions of such tools tend to blur the image, or otherwise cause unwanted artefacts, but here all the tools maintain image integrity extremely well and can be used equally for subtle tweaking (for example, using the Warp tool to shove a stray hair off somebody's face), as well as to introduce obvious special or fun effects.
It'd be wild if we suggested you hand over £28.99 for the entire software package just to get this plugin, but there's much more to Pixelmator: it includes other Photos-compatible functionality such as the ability to save images you edit directly to Photos. As such, all we can really say about the Distort plugin is that it's a very welcome bonus that comes with an otherwise terrific image-editing app.
FX Photo Studio
Although FX Photo Studio CK can run as an app on its own, its plugin for Photos essentially brings all its power into Apple's app. Not that this is an actual image-editing app, however: what you get is filters and frames, a là Instagram or VSCO on the iPhone. There's also a crop tool and adjustment/histogram tools but these mostly duplicate functionality already built into Photos.
The selection of filters is both extensive and excellent, and we came across several we've never seen before. Activating most of them offers at least one slider that you can drag to adjust the severity and/or nature of the effect. In contrast, the frame effects are a little cheesy, mostly imitating real-life wooden frames and the ragged edges of old photos.
Arguably the jewel in the crown of FX Photo Studio CK is the masking ability, which lets you paint over certain parts of the image in order to apply the effects or image tweaks only to that area. For example, you might mask the sky in a landscape in order only to apply one of the filter effects to clouds. Masking works very well, and is simple to use.
We're hard pressed to call it essential, and at £30 it's pushing the upper limit of what we'd like to pay. But FX Photo Studio CK is extremely good at what it does.
Like its sibling FX Photo Studio CK, which comes from the same maker and is also reviewed here, Noiseless CK can work as a standalone app or you can use it fully within the Photos app as a plugin.
As its name suggests, it has one purpose in life and that is to remove noise from photographs. This is necessary because digital photography doesn't cope very well with less than ideal conditions. Take a photo indoors without a flash, for example, and there's a very strong chance the photo will have noise - a grainy pattern when you zoom in. In fact, noise is so prevalent that the folks behind Noiseless CK reckon 74 percent of photographs feature it.
What Noiseless CK does is simultaneously simple but sophisticated. It uses smoothing filters to get rid of the noise, and then runs another filter afterwards to try and add back in the detail and definition that the first filter might’ve accidentally lost.
Noiseless CK offers settings from "Lightest" all the way to "Extreme", and at the latter end of the spectrum pictures can start to look a little like oil paintings. However, the lower settings are both much subtler and also more effective. In fact, we'd say we've rarely seen one-click noise-reduction filters as effective. And if any of the readymade choices don't cut it you can create your own via an array of sliders. This is as complicated as it sounds but experimentation is key.
Notably missing, however, is any kind of mask tool. It'd be nice to be able to mark off areas of shadow, for example, for special treatment. We were also a little annoyed at the maximum 200% zoom level. When examining a photo for noise, you really need to zoom in significantly.
The asking price of £53 is a lot for an app that has a single task in life. On the other hand, Noiseless CK is both very effective and quick.
This is a plugin with a simple goal, which is to let you edit an image you've stored in Photos' library in any external editor that happens to be installed on your Mac. Crucially, however, when you click File > Save (or tap Cmd+S) in that app, the image will be automagically imported back into Photos.
External Editors' usefulness doesn't stop there. Once it's selected from the Extensions list, you can also click File > Paste to paste in whatever image is in the clipboard, or even drag a new image from a Finder window on top of Photos. Both these actions will replace the existing image with the new one.
Because Photos considers what you're doing as editing, the original image will still stick around so at any point you can click Revert to Original. Any data attached to the image (that is, metadata), such as the location it was taken in, is also preserved when you edit the image in a third-party app.
The plugin can also help convert into JPEG any RAW photos you've imported into Photos, although you'll need to use a suitable third-party RAW-compatible editor.
External Editors does the job well and at 99p we couldn't really complain even if we wanted to. If you have a third-party image editor already installed and want to swap out to it occasionally while viewing your photos collection then it's simply a perfect choice.
DxO OpticsPro for Photos
Some digital cameras can optionally output RAW images, which are literally all the image data from the sensor behind the lens with no processing or compression applied. Although these images are typically huge in file size, some people choose to edit RAW images because it allows much more control. The white balance isn't set, for example, so you can choose your own. With a RAW image there's a lot more data to work with, so you have correspondingly more options to correct a badly exposed picture.
macOS and therefore Photos is compatible with RAW images but offers no tweaking options beyond those afforded to any kind of image. DxO Optics Pro fixes this by offering a handful of ultra-easy to use tools that correct common photographic errors.
For example, you can fix white balance and under/over-exposure, as well as remove noise from the image. The ClearView option is able to remove haze from images, something that - when used - appears to be almost magical in improving outside shots taken at early or late in the day.
One of the curious features of DxO Optics Pro is the chance to correct typical faults introduced by cameras and lenses, such as distortion and chromatic aberration. This is possible because DxO Optics Pro has a database of such faults and uses the metadata in the image to look up what can be done - something we think is pretty clever!
Virtually all of DxO Optics Pro's features are single-click options, and this isn't an app where you can get lost in a montage of sliders and dials. This is arguably a good thing and in keeping with the spirit of Photos' editing tools, but if you want a powerful RAW image tweaker then you'll have to look elsewhere.
Affinity Photo is one of the most popular image-editing apps available in the Mac App Store, and purchasing it brings access to six very interesting and useful plugins for Photos. Alas, there isn't space here to discuss them all, so we've picked out arguably the most useful: Develop.
As its name hints, this plugin is designed to bring the traditional darkroom mentality to Photos, in an attempt to rescue images that have problems like poor exposure and/or bad focus.
It does this via a series of sliders for Exposure, White Balance, Shadows/Highlights, Noise Reduction and so on. The sliders don't have any units or numbers on them, and in this way Affinity pushes the user towards an experimental approach. In short, you just drag the sliders to see what happens to the image, and stop when you find a setting you like.
There's no masking brush available, so any changes you make are applied to the entire image. It would've been nice to be able to mask off the sky from the ground in a landscape image, for example, if one of them isn't too badly exposed.
There's a large slider that you can drag across the image to show before and after views, and this is useful to ensure that you don't go overboard with your adjustments - a quick glance at the original can provide a kind of reset button for your eyes.
As with the Pixelmator plugin mentioned earlier, we can't seriously suggest you spend £48.99 buying Affinity Photo just to get this - or even all six plugins. However, if you're looking for a high-quality standalone photo editor then the fact you get six pretty superb plugins for Photos may well help open your wallet.
The name and price of this app indicate it's a professional tool, and the fact that it was co-created by photographer Trey Ratcliff underlines this in red. Mr Ratcliff is a professional photographer who specialises in high-definition (HDR) images, and presumably Aurora HDR Pro is intended to provide the kind of power he likes to wield.
And what a lot of power there is. At the right of the interface are a whole host of sliders that let you adjust the image in various ways. You can even create layers to multiply the effects you create. As with most photo-editing tools, getting the most from Aurora HDR Pro is largely a matter of dragging the sliders to see what happens. With so many choices it can be a little overwhelming at times, although a histogram graph at the top of the screen provides a more sciency way to see the effect you're having on the image.
Luckily for more modest users, a whole host of presets are available and these are shown as thumbnail previews along the bottom of the screen. Aside from using these as one-click solutions, these are also good jumping-off points for both understanding what the adjustment sliders do, and for making your own tweaks.
As well as boosting images with a HDR-look, Aurora HDR Pro can also be used to create Instagram-like filters to give photos a retro feel, for example.
Like other products reviewed here, Aurora HDR Pro can be used either on its own, because it installs as a standalone app, or as a plugin for Photos (amongst other apps).
There's a lot to like with Aurora HDR Pro but, wow, £80 is a lot to pay if you simply want to expand Photos' built-in image-editing power.