The weird world of Faces in iPhoto '09

Government sanctions notwithstanding, I've managed to reproduce. Twice, actually. A boy and a girl who are fraternal twins. (And, yes, I feel I must add the "fraternal" qualifier, as we get no end of "are they identical" queries from mall walkers, their logic addled by the wafting tastiness of Wetzel's Pretzels.) They are a whopping 13 months old. Needless to say, I have taken approximately sixty bajillion photos of the dynamic duo, mainly in a vain attempt to sate their grandmothers, both of whom refuse to move to Texas. Not that I blame them.

I've been using a digital camera for many, many years now. At least a couple more years than iPhoto has been available. And once upon a time, I had my own photo cataloging system down fairly nicely. A master folder for an event with two subfolders—one for hi-res originals and one for email copies. Of course, the problem was previewing all these photos back in pre-Quick Look days. So when I eventually bought (or was it borrowed) a new Mac that included the iLife suite, I went ahead and imported everything into iPhoto. And while I've never been happy with the amount of hard drive space it sucks up for its multiple versions of each photo cataloging scheme, it has been handy for sorting through my ever-growing oeuvre.

Let me stop here to answer a few questions:

  1. I know there are other cataloging programs out there. Personally, I'd rather use Aperture, but I don't want to buy it.
  2. I know I could store everything for free online via Flickr or Picasa. While I do post to Picasa, I'd rather keep everything sorted locally.
  3. The rash is clearing up nicely. Thanks for asking.

With the exception of the last couple of OS X updates, I've never been one to jump on an upgrade as soon as it comes out. I'm more of a dot-point-one kind of guy. But when iLife '09 came out and people started raving about the new iPhoto features like Faces and Places, I thought I'd give it shot. Besides, my PayPal account was still swollen with eBay sell-offs, so it was almost like getting it for free. Assuming I don't need that kidney later.

I've had iLife '09 installed for about three weeks now. Granted, the only program I've bothered running is iPhoto, so if you were hoping for a comprehensive review of the entire suite, well, methinks you've mistaken this space for This is a blog. I ramble. You point out where I'm wrong. I ignore you. We move on. And so the circle of the intertubes is complete.

The first thing I did after opening iPhoto '09 for the first time was—brace yourself, Pépe—wait. And wait. And wait some more. Because iPhoto is not what one would call snappy when it comes to analyzing 7,500+ photos and trying to figure out who is who. (For the record, I'm using a late 2006 MacBook Pro with a 2.16GHz Core 2 Duo, 3GB of RAM, and a 320GB hard drive.) How long did I wait? No idea. Something shiny on Facebook distracted me. Nor do I know if the prevalence of bald heads—both of the baby and grandfather variety—slowed down the analysis.

The fun began in earnest when iPhoto completed its initial pass and handed the reins over to me. I began by choosing a set for my daughter, Charlotte. iPhoto had already culled a couple hundred shots that it was fairly confident featured the undeniably adorable visage of The Bean. Then it had another couple hundred pics under the heading, "Charlotte may also be in the photos below." Hmm. "May" isn't generally a word I like to see in computer programs. I prefer my silicon-based logic more crystal than fuzzy. But I knew this was coming—I would have to train iPhoto to recognize Charlotte. And every other person whom I wanted it to sort according to their facial features.

And it wouldn't be hard. Just exceedingly tedious.

For each photo in question—including, for the first go-round, the shots iPhoto was fairly confident about—I had to click on it once to approve it as being Charlotte, or double-click to say, "No, you have mistaken my child for a poster of Winston Churchill." In fact, iPhoto thought Charlotte may have been: her brother (not surprising), one of my brother's kids (not too surprising), one of my sister-in-law's kids (a little surprising), and a random child from a photo I don't recall taking (a bit odd). And it turns out that iPhoto must be a PC program after all, as it refused to use racial profiling in identifying photos of my pasty- porcelain-skinned little girl—it thought she may have been a child of obvious African-American heritage.

I finished this task in about fifteen minutes, after which iPhoto was so kind as to offer me even more photos that may or may not contain Charlotte. Apparently, as long as I continue taking photos of her, I'll always be in some sort of Mobius strip of approvals. Sweet.

What's annoying is that Apple didn't make batch approvals/disapprovals possible. You can't shift-click on several photos or rows and give them a collective thumbs up. Nor can you take a photo you're disapproving and assign it to the right face. And tags are apparently meaningless in helping the program find faces. These seem to be quite glaring UI issues to me. And I'm sure they will either be fixed in a dot release or summarily forgotten about by Apple. Flip a coin.

All in all, the facial recognition works fairly well. I've since set up Faces galleries for our immediate family and the grandparents. I also have no real idea what I'm going to do with any of this. Maybe if the E! True Hollywood Story needs a bunch of photos of Gideon one day, I'll be ready to rock.

Now let's turn to Places. Places sorts your photos according to GPS location data. If you have a newer camera that embeds this data in your files, Places is super easy. If your camera doesn't have GPS built-in—and my Nikon D80 does not—using Places isn't that hard. And it's much less tedious than Faces. You still have to input locations manually, but you can do so in batches.

Once you've tagged your shots, iPhoto will display them on a world map—allowing you to either marvel at the extent of your travels or weep that you've barely made it beyond Joplin.

In the end, I think both Faces and Places fall more into the candy-coated side of the functionality spectrum. They're entertaining enough. They can be useful is certain circumstances. Maybe. But they don't seem to be must-have bits of technology. Must-have technology would've been something like automatic teeth whitening. If iPhoto can take the red out of a stoner's eyes, why can't it take the yellow out of a smoker's smile?

Now that would be worth 1/20 of my kidney. But as it stands now, I believe I could've held out until iLife '10 and put off straining my blood through a coffee filter one more year.



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