The hidden features in Apple's latest iPhoto update

In the most recent update to its iPhoto application, Apple Inc. offered up a relatively noninformative description of the changes it had made: better "overall stability" and fixes for "minor issues in a number of areas, including Faces, Places, photo sharing, and slideshows."

What Apple didn't spell out in its release notes is that the update includes a slew of enhancements -- some of them quite useful, if not immediately obvious -- to the latest version of iPhoto, which was unveiled in January at the Macworld Expo. In particular, Apple cranked out improvements for the app's cool facial recognition and location/geocoding features known, respectively, as Faces and Places. I'm already a fan of iLife '09 and have used the iPhoto features for the past few weeks.

But many iPhoto users may not yet have tried them out or even be aware of the recent changes. So here are the details.

Detect/Rescan for missing faces

One of the problems with Faces in its initial release is that it occasionally wouldn't recognize a person's face as a face. This was particularly common in photos where someone's face is turned to one side or was shot in low light, or in slightly blurry photos. In this update, a contextual menu item (available by right-clicking or control-clicking) on a photo allows you to tell iPhoto to rescan the picture and detect missing faces, being less stringent with its recognition algorithm. The result is that Faces will be more likely to detect, well, faces.

The feature is a big improvement. There were easily dozens, if not hundreds, of photos in my iPhoto library where one or more faces weren't recognized when I first tried out iPhoto. One important point is that this feature works on a photo-by-photo basis, meaning that you can use it when a face is not recognized. Doing so, however, doesn't adjust the algorithm used to scan your entire library, which could result in extra hits of nonface objects being accidentally detected as faces.

In a similar vein, if iPhoto initially identified something as a face -- and you used the "x" icon in the face box to tell the software that the object was not actually a face -- rescanning those photos for missing faces takes you back to square one: iPhoto will re-identify the objects as faces.

Recognize manually added faces

In addition to rescanning for missing faces, the original option of manually adding a missing face is still available. This option allows you to draw a box around a person's face and tag them when Faces doesn't recognize them. (Even with the new-and-improved rescanning option, there will be times when it still fails to identify a face.) While this allows you to tag people's faces with their names, in the original release of Faces, it didn't help iPhoto recognize that person in other photos. With this update, Apple has extended this option.

Now, when you manually add a missing face in a photo, Faces will rescan just the contents of the box that you draw around that person's face using less stringent guidelines than the default. This allows the application to learn from the faces you've added -- a powerful addition, both in terms of recognizing faces in general and in learning who people are in your library.

Tagging misidentified people

One of the best ways to train Faces to recognize people is to first tag a good sample of each person and then look at the Faces list for them. iPhoto won't display the photos you've tagged, but its guesses about photos that may contain that person. This view allows you to simply click once or twice on each photo to indicate whether these guesses actually are that person, making it easy to quickly identify someone and train iPhoto to recognize the person better.

While this tool isn't new, in the original release you could only confirm or reject iPhoto's guesses. Now you can use a contextual menu on one of iPhoto's incorrect guesses to do more than simply reject the selection; you can also correctly tag the photo as someone else. It might sound like a small change, but it's a huge improvement when it comes to quickly training iPhoto to recognize people.

Improved Address Book integration

iPhoto now integrates with Mac OS X's Address Book and offers autocompletion of names based on your contacts. This is similar to the way Faces operated before, except that until now, the autocompletion options were limited to people you'd already named in iPhoto. (Those names are still included in the autocomplete results, but so are any matching names in Address Book.) And as a visual cue, any names originating in Address Book are indicated by an Address Book icon.

This is a great feature, and it really should have been in the initial iPhoto release. If, like me, you've already tagged a number of faces, there is no way to combine the database of people created by iPhoto with the results pulled from your contacts. That means if you've already tagged someone -- and they also happen to be in your Address Book -- you'll now see two results for them when you go to tag them in another photo. Thankfully, that's not an issue for any new photos.

But I'm hoping that the next iPhoto update will include a tool for managing or merging names of people tagged in Faces.

Places and Points of Interest gain

Faces isn't the only part of iPhoto that saw changes. Places also got some important updates, the first and simplest of which is scroll wheel support for zooming in when you're using map views. Apple also seems to have expanded the points-of-interest database that allows you to view not just a location but specific landmarks -- for example, Times Square -- when browsing with Places and/or adding location information to photos that do not include geocoding data. (Photos taken before the advent of camera phones or digital cameras with GPS capabilities wouldn't have geocoding information.) It seems logical that Apple will continue to build and refine this database over time.

More importantly, the dialog box used to manage custom Places -- those that are not part of the greater points-of-interest database, but which you identify (like "Grandma's House") -- offers more options. It can be accessed from the Get Info dialog for any photo and now allows you to view custom Places by name, modify them, and view them via Google Maps.

While iPhoto already allowed users to work with custom Places, accessing the option and using it was awkward and made assigning locations to photos cumbersome. Since a lot of people will likely use a number of custom Places -- either with photos that include geolocation data or by adding location information for existing photos -- this is a helpful and needed tweak.

Third-party tools that allow you to add geocoding data to photos are available for Mac OS X, even if you're adding information to images after they have been imported into iPhoto. When iPhoto was first released, adding location data to a previously scanned photo didn't update the location information in Places. A new contextual menu item allows you to rescan a photo for data added after import or if you chose not to scan for location data when updating the iPhoto library. Although it's not something every user will need, this is a nice feature for those who use third-party geocoding tools.

Places also now supports entering direct longitude and latitude data when adding location information to existing photos. Services such as Flickr and iTouchmap allow you to retrieve this information, and it can be helpful if you used a GPS device separate from your camera when taking photos -- particularly if you were away from a known intersection. With the latest update, iPhoto can accept the addition of direct location data and includes address support via Google Maps or existing points of interest.

Final thoughts

I was already a fan of iPhoto, and many of these unannounced updates make it an even more impressive app -- particularly the updates to Faces and the new custom Places interface. So, if you're an iLife '09 user and you haven't installed the update, definitely do so. Even if you're not doing much with Faces and Places now, as digital data becomes ever more mobile, I expect you'll find them useful in the months ahead.

And if you're already sorting through thousands of photos of friends and family looking for someone in particular, or if you like geotagging pictures or sorting photos by location, the updated version of iLife '09 can save you time. Now that you know what to look for, have fun.

Ryan Faas is a frequent Computerworld contributor specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. You can find more information about him at RyanFaas.com.

This story, "The hidden features in Apple's latest iPhoto update" was originally published by Computerworld.

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