Gimme iTunes for pictures!

If you want to manage your photos on your Mac, there are generally two ways to do so. The first one involves manual copying of the pictures from your camera’s memory card to a destination on your harddrive. The second one is by using Apple’s sophisticated picture management program iPhoto.

iPhoto offers a lot of very, very neat features. Its ways to quickly browse trough thousands of images it impressive. You can quickly “skim” over a group of pictures by rolling your mouse over the image that represents the group, resuling in a quick glance of all the pictures that are in it. Besides these image viewing and organizing features, iPhoto offers a lot of other neat functions, like the ability to quickly publish photos to an online MobileMe gallery, sharing pictures to and from other users on your local network, perform simple image correction tools, directly order printed materials like photo books, and the creation of very nice and sophisticated slide shows.

But most importantly perhaps, iPhoto is deeply integrated into the Mac OS X experience, and as a result into a lot of other applications. Every program on the Mac that allows you to do something with an image (such as adding an image to a web page in iWeb or pasting a picture in a Word document) generally offers you access to OS X’s media browser, directly showing you thumbnails from iPhoto, ordered in the same way as they are ordered in iPhoto itself. Furthermore, the iPhoto library directly syncs to the iPod and iPhone, and is available for viewing from Apple’s media playback application Front Row.

The latest version, iPhoto ’09, adds even more compelling functionality to this mix. It offers face detection and recognition, allowing you to identify who’s on a picture so you could later make selections of pictures for viewing or other purposes, based on who’s on them! Another new feature allows iPhoto to look for geographical information stored in the picture files by cameras (and phones) that contain GPS hardware, and let you select images based on the location where they were taken. If the pictures don’t contain this geodata, you can easily enter this information by hand.

Clearly, there are a lot of reasons to choose iPhoto as your primary image management tool. However, there is one little thing that has kept me for a long time from giving in to using iPhoto. It does not allow me to order my files in folders on my harddrive in a structure that I myself defined. Everytime a picture is placed in iPhoto, it is copied to iPhoto’s internal library. These photo files are not (easily) reachable in the file system. This wouldn’t be that bad if iPhoto itself offered me the possibility to create folders, subfolders and event names, and order my pictures in exactly the way that makes me happy. Instead, iPhoto creates “events”, which are essentially day-based time frames of pictures, and puts all these events on the same level. There is no way to structurize these events into sub groups, like “holidays” or “birthdays”. If you do a lot of shooting at very different occasions, you find that being able to categorize your pictures is absolutely necessary.

And yes, I know that I can instruct iPhoto not to copy the pictures from their original location into its library, but in that case iPhoto is still not able to take this folder structure into account. It will still show all “events” at the same level, essentially eliminating the need for iPhoto. And the “albums” that you can create only offer dynamic links to pictures that are stored in an “event”, so for example deleting a picture from an album still does not alter the image in the original “event”, so there is no way to keep an event in a folder without risking “sync” issues.

Compare this to how iTunes works. All the music in iTunes is ordered into a hierargy that is several levels deep. First there’s the music genre, then the artist’s name, then the album’s name, and finally the song’s title. What’s even better: Once you select “Keep iTunes music folder organized” in iTunes’s preferences, the program will automatically create folders based on the artist’s name, and folders within those folders based on the album’s title. Naturally, the actual music files are placed within that final folder, and the file even gets the name of the song. It serves both need that I have when organizing my music on my computer: it neatly displays my songs in a structured way in a very nice music playback application, and it offers me quick access to my song files should I need those files for one purpose or another. I don’t have to do a thing to get this result: just popping in a CD and copying its contents to iTunes makes this music immediately available in both iTunes and in my file system

I want the same for my pictures. Why not give iPhoto a “browser” similar to iTunes, and let me put event into categories (compare to genres), and even sub categories (compare to artist), and let me select my pictures that way. And when I downloaded the pictures from a memory card and assigned them to their appropriate destination in iPhoto, I want the files to be placed in a similarly named set of folders on my hard drive. I want both quick and convenient access to my pictures in iPhoto and every other program that supports the media manager, and I want to get quick access to my photo files in the file system, should I want to.

One could even go as far as thinking of adding iPhoto-esque functionality directly into the Finder. Think of being able to make “smart folders” in OS X based on iPhoto’s face and location indexing. When I’m in a folder that contains pictures, why not add a couple of buttons to the Finder window’s button bar that allow me to view a slide show or publish them to my online photo libraries (doesn’t Windows do this kind of “context sensitive” buttoning in the file explorer?).

Back to my personal sitution. Last year, I moved all of my photos into iPhoto, well aware of its limitations, trying to convince myself that the advantages should outweight my loss of manual ordering of files. It was hard. I kept looking at the MobileMe galleries, iPhoto’s impressive slide shows and the convenience of always having my 10 latest events on my iPhone. But I was very much waiting for the imminent release of iPhoto ’09, hoping that it would add some iTunes functionality.

But it didn’t. Now that I have played for some time with the new face recognition features, and the nice geotagging capabilities, I decided that this was not enough. Perhaps I am an organizational control freak, who’s unwilling to give up his traditional ways of working. Anyway, very soon I will begin transfering my iPhoto pictures back into folders of my choosing, becoming reliable of OS X’s Preview app again. Apple’s way of doing pictures sadly turned out not to be my way.