Apple iPhoto (for iPhone) review

Pros

  • Beautiful interface
  • Good editing tools and effects
  • Photo organisation helpers
  • Impressive sharing options
  • Attractive "journal" photo scrapbooks

Cons

  • Limited features compared to some rivals

It will come as no surprise that one of the slickest iPhone photo apps comes from Apple itself. The company's iPhoto app for Mac OS X broke new ground in cool photo app interface features like skimmable gallery thumbnails and organising your pictures in "Events."

You get iPhoto for iPhone and for iPad with a single £2.99 purchase at the iTunes App Store. Of course, you can do a lot more with a tablet's bigger screen size, not to mention the much larger size and input capabilities of a desktop computer, but Apple nevertheless manages to make a lot of what makes iPhoto great available on its smallest screen.

The iOS version of iPhoto even adds a cool sharing feature you don't get on the desktop iPhoto app, the Photo Journals online photo galleries. It also takes advantage of iCloud Photo Streams, an extremely convenient way to get your photos to appear on all your Apple devices – and even on your Windows PC with iCloud installed.

Since it's what Apple calls a "universal" app, iPhoto for iOS works on the iPhone 4 and later, the iPod touch 4th generation and later, and the iPad 2 and onwards.

Interface

Nobody does interfaces as beautifully as Apple. However, occasionally the beauty and slickness of the interface design can actually make it less clear, until you get the hang of things.

iPhoto's remarkable user interface features multi-touch gestures for photo correction, brushes for applying effects onto specific areas of a photo. Some nifty organisation tools include the ability to identify similar photos with a double-tap, as well as to flag, favourite, or remove images. As with any good photo editor, iPhoto offers a simple button that takes you right back to your original image.

The home screen in iPhoto for iPhone looks different from that of the iPad version. Instead of the tablet's tabs, it shows five buttons across the bottom: Albums, Photos, Events, Journals, and Settings. The first shows your standard iPhone photo albums, including Camera Roll and Photo Stream. Tapping Photos displays a thumbnail grid of all the photos on your device, and tapping on any of these opens a full view of the photo, with a filmstrip of the rest in the album sliding along the bottom of the screen – or along the left if you hold the phone in landscape view.

An "i" button shows info for the photo at hand, including any comments on Facebook or Flickr if you've previously shared it there. A Settings option lets you turn on Help overlay tooltips that explain exactly what each button does. One button at the top right lets you quickly view the original image after any amount of edits.

You then tap the Edit button to start working on an individual image. This doesn't change the interface drastically, but just adds different buttons along the bottom, for Auto-Enhance, Rotate, Flag, Favourite, and Tag. But in front of all those there’s a suitcase button – representing your "toolkit" of photo editing tools. These include Crop & Straighten, Exposure, Colour, Brushes, and Effects. I would have preferred to see more than one Auto option, however, with different options separated out for brightness, colour, and so on.

Basic photo adjustments

Adjusting your photo's exposure is handled in a way that's innovative for the touch interface: A bar along the bottom represents the image from its darkest to lightest tones, and you can either use controls on this bar or swipe up or down anywhere on the image to increase or decrease brightness, and swipe right or left to do the same for contrast. It's sort of a histogram without the graph. The Apple-award-winning Snapseed for iPad uses a similar swiping approach, but both have the drawback of not letting you zoom while in this adjustment mode.

The artist's palette icon offers the four adjusters shown along the bottom – Saturation, Blue Skies, Greenery, Warmth. Just swipe up and down to increase or decrease saturation, and left and right to change hue. The tool is intelligent enough to adjust greenery if you start swiping on the grass, or warmth if you swipe on a person's skin. If you place your finger on sky blue, the option changes to darken or brighten the intensity of the sky – a nice trick.

A settings gear icon offers a healthy selection of white balance options – sun, clouds, shade, flash, face balance – or you can choose a neutral point in the image for a custom white balance. The face balance option can find a face in your photo and balance the rest of the photo based on that.

Cropping and straightening is also cleverly implemented. You can pinch and zoom within a set crop frame, or resize the frame with or without preserving the aspect ratio. But neatest of all is the ability to level by holding the iPhone at an angle after tapping on the compass-like control below the photo – this is done by taking advantage of the device's accelerometer. You can also just twist two fingers on the photo (the way most people will probably do it).

Effects and brushes

Both the Effects and Brushes tools open up a nifty looking selection of, well, tools. Brushes sprouts up realistic looking paint brush images, while Effects, which we'll discuss first, brings up a fan-like set of colour swatch sticks.

Effects come in seven groups: Ink, Warm & Cool, Duotone, Black & White, Aura, Vintage, and Artistic. Let's look at the last first, since it sounds interesting. Each effect can be adjusted with some kind of touch gesture. For example, the vignette effect lets you use two fingers to control the centre point and extent of the darkening effect, while gradient effects lets you swipe one finger up or down to position it. Unfortunately, there's only dark-edge vignetting; fading to white at the edges would be nice to have as well.

The oil paint and water colour effects are just on or off affairs, but they did a pretty impressive job nevertheless. Since I last used the iPad version of this app, the tilt shift has been improved and now lets the user change the angle of the focus bar with a two-finger gesture, the way Snapseed works. Aura was a cool effect, making a picture look nearly black and white except for the strongest colours. The Vintage options were effective but limited compared to what you get in Snapseed.

Apple's iPhoto for iPhone offers local edit brushes for repairing blemishes, red-eye, saturation, desaturation, lightening, darkening, sharpening, and softening. These are incredibly simple to use and the blemish and soften tools in particular produced excellent effects, but I had trouble getting the red-eye removal to work. In comparison, iPhoto on the Mac removed red-eye automatically in the same test photo.

The edge detection option for the brushes is a big help, and it's something not offered by Snapseed. Photoshop Touch's brushes do have an edge aware mode, but that product completely lacks red-eye removal. One disappointment with iPhoto was that some of these corrections, such as sharpening, were only available in brushes, and not as a whole-photo adjustment.

Journals and sharing

Once your photo's all dolled up how you want it, you can share it directly to Facebook, as well as to Twitter, email, and Flickr. You can also send your work to any other app on the phone that supports JPG files – on mine, the SkyDrive, DropBox, and Photoshop Touch apps were all ready and willing to accept the test photo file.

But a couple of unique sharing options are also on the table: You can directly "beam" a photo to another iOS device in the vicinity, or you can build an appealing "Journal." The key factors in getting beaming to work is that both iOS devices need to be running iPhoto, and both need to be on the same Wi-Fi network (or in Bluetooth proximity), plus you need to enable photo location in iPhoto's settings. After an initial delay, a beamed photo successfully arrived in my iPad's Camera Roll.

Six designs get you started with the attractive Journal photo collections, with varying light and dark backgrounds and borders. But not only can you use mosaics of photos in your Journals, but you can add text, notes, a calendar, maps and even a weather tile with the date and location taken automatically from the photo. You can edit where and how big the photos appear with click-and-dragging and pinch gestures. Journals are a lot of fun to build and enhance, but I did run into some trouble when trying to move photos between multiple pages.

When you're done, you can share them over a web-based iCloud page, and send email invitations for your contacts to view the Journal on the web. The online albums are as well-designed and navigable as you'll see anywhere. From your Journal home page, you can share multiple Journals. One caveat: I couldn't edit a Journal created on one device on another, even though both were signed into the same iCloud account.

A final note on performance: I was mightily impressed with the responsiveness of this photo editing app even on the iPhone 4S – I never had to wait for an effect to take place, or the image to be updated.

Verdict

iPhoto is certainly one of the most stylish, easy to use, and impressive iPhone photo apps around. For consumers who want to organise, correct, and enhance their photos, and then share them in a variety of ways, iPhoto for iPhone is a great option.

It doesn't offer quite as many image enhancements as Snapseed on iOS, though, and iPhoto's ultra-beautiful interface can sometimes get in the way, compared with Snapseed's more utilitarian but still very touch-friendly one. Still, iPhoto is an undeniably great app for the iPhone, and well worthy of our Best Buy award.