Apple iPhoto ’09 Mini-Review: Faces Tell Many Stories

iPhoto '09 face recognition in action
iPhoto '09 face recognition in action

If you’ve had the chance to play around with Apple’s new iLife ’09, you no doubtedly have encountered some pleasant surprises with the updated iPhoto. No, I’m not talking about the useful geo-tagging or the integration with Flickr and social-media heavyweight Facebook… I’m referring to iPhoto’s amazing facial recognition which uncovers subtle things that make ya go hmmmm…

  • The people who shoot from the camera most often at family or group events don’t appear much in albums
  • iPhoto ’09 does a darn good job zooming in on individual faces and cropping close for previews, resulting in portraits that are sometimes more flattering than the original photos.
  • While training iPhoto to refine facial matches in a large collection, you may realize how closely your features resemble those of your relatives (as much as you may want to deny it)
  • You’ll finally understand why some people repeatedly mistake some of your friends for you.
  • After confirming a bunch of your own photos you may wonder why you always pose using the same silly grin or smirk
  • There are some people you know whose faces are never detected at all by iPhoto… Maybe you should look them carefully in the eye and ask them for proof of human sentience
  • Apple’s demos of iPhoto ’09 must have been running on a zillion gigahertz Mac… That or their demo iPhoto library had no more than 20 pics in it
iPhoto understands faces even from different angles
iPhoto understands faces even from different angles

With those considerations in mind iPhoto ’09 may sound like a crude beast of an app. Hardly. Apple engineers painstakingly integrated a powerful technology feature from Japanese firm Omron and tossed in more niceties like Google Maps geo tagging. As a basic photo organizer, iPhoto retains its simple system of smart albums and traditional keywording which eases the chore of finding photos in your collection.

Scrolls like butter

Though some features really weigh heavy in legacy hardware (this means those of you still on PowerPC Macs) multitasking works surprisingly well within the app. As long as you set some certain display preferences, namely uncheck Apperance > Border: Outline and Border: Drop Shadow, iPhoto truly “scrolls like butter” as Steve Jobs puts it.

Some facial expressions may trip up iPhoto
Some facial expressions may trip up iPhoto

iPhoto uses an extraordinary amount of CPU time during facial recognition processes but thankfully you can switch away to other parts of your collection and continue. Upgrading an existing iPhoto library was quick but the initial process of scanning my personal 10,000+ photos for facial features took over two hours (2.16 GHz MacBook Pro, Core Duo, library on a 7200 RPM external drive connected via Firewire 800). Some of the functional elegance comes at the slight cost of general performance if your library holds many pics.

Facebook and Flickr Integration

Social networks are huge and Apple understands this. Facebook alone has over 150 million users worldwide, more than 25 million of them interacting using mobile devices. You can upload individual photos, groups or sets of photos, and entire Events to Facebook. Once this is done with a few simple clicks, tagged faces will be seamlessly integrated with Facebook. In face, if extra faces are tagged from the Facebook network, it can sync those changes back down to your Mac’s collection if you wish. What about those folks who already have a thousand photos on Facebook outside of their Macs? Looks like they’ll be out of luck. The integration only occurs when the initial synced upload begins from iPhoto.

Auto geo-tags
Auto geo-tags

Flickr usage is less flashy but welcome nonetheless. Google Maps data is automatically read from GPS-enabled devices like the iPhone and geo-tagged images can show you where an image was taken. If the area happens to be well-known (something that ironically isn’t well-explained) then it is spelled out in the photo’s Information box. Otherwise you will get something generic like “Anaheim” when I really want it to say “Anaheim Convention Center”. Geotags are used extensively on photo services like Flickr to sort and categorize the vast libraries of online pictures, and are also integrated into event systems like, a service owned by Yahoo.

Useful shortcuts

While wading through photos making sure people’s faces were tagged, I discovered some keyboard shortcuts worth mentioning for your navigate and tag process. After selecting a photo and clicking Name, you’ll get the single photo view with rectangles around recognized faces. Some may be named, some are “unknown face”, and others may have a name confirmation question. Use these helpful keystrokes to speed up your workflow:

  • TAB will cycle the name rectangles between recognized faces
  • RETURN on an “unknown face” or an established name will let you edit an identity, letting you either type or select a stored name using a handy drop-down menu
  • If you TAB to a rectangle where iPhoto asks “Is this [name]?”, use RETURN to checkbox (accept) it or TAB to select the X (reject) icon then use RETURN to confirm
  • Use the left or right arrow keys to switch forward or backward between photos in Name view
  • When you’re through editing names for recognized faces, click Done to see the normal photo browser

Huge CPU spikes when processing faces
Huge CPU spikes when processing faces


I’m not sure how Apple will tune iPhoto in the long run to scale when collections swell to the tens of thousands or many years worth of photos… it’s apparent that you and I are expected to maintain and back up a giant, monolithic library on a single volume and pray your hard drive doesn’t fail. My advice is to back up your photo collections in two-year, overlapping increments or in chunks of 4 GB, whichever is collected first. This may save you headaches if a drive fails or Time Machine is inadequate, but will split your library. Serious photo collectors will want to invest in a giant storage solution like a Drobo with DroboShare to house a family library. Recent versions of iPhoto will let you choose a library from an arbitrary volume, even one shared over a network. There is no offline data support, however, so if need access to split repositories, you may need to look for something more powerful (and likely much more expensive). It would be nice for Apple to include a feature to import old, burnt-onto-disc iPhoto libraries which can be then re-exported to disc with updated info like geo-tags and face data.

Great fun overall

Even with its occasional quirkiness, Apple has greatly improved iPhoto with the addition of facial recognition. The subtle refinements show in things like the slideshows, where subjects’ faces are automatically centered in the video frame. Note: If selected faces in a vertical photo are spread out, slideshow will not show the entire photo and you may not see faces at all. Confused? Trust me, you’ll spot the quirk sometime, unless Apple catches this first. Speaking of slideshows, iPhoto ’09 includes some exciting new styles with equally impressive soundtracks, some of which obviously draw from Jobs’ ties with Pixar. The printed books feature has also been reworked and will allow embedded Google Maps which is nice for family trip albums. Apple definitely has a winner on its hands with iPhoto ’09 and makes for a no-brainer purchase as part of the wildly successful iLife suite.