Switching to iPhoto from Picasa

When I switched to Mac from Windows one of the programs I missed the most was Picasa, Google's free photo management tool. Picasa and iPhoto are very similar and perform many of the same functions, including photo editing basics like red-eye removal, cropping, straightening, etc.

Back in March I talked about the basic differences between Picasa and iPhoto. Since then I've acquired my Mac Pro, shut down the Windows machine that used to be my primary photo archive and moved everything to iPhoto. That has presented some interesting challenges.

For many years I had established a pretty standardized model for storing and managing my photos, necessitated to a large degree because I didn't have a photo management tool other than the Windows file system and Photoshop for the first few years. My system was quite simple: I had a folder for each year and within each year I had a folder for each day. A typical folder structure looked something like this:

When I would take new photos I would grab the memory card, put it in my reader on my PC and then just move them to the appropriate folder based on the date the photos were taken. This eliminated naming issues if the auto-generated file names rolled over (an issue in the early days) and gave me a pretty easy way of finding things based on date.

Picasa was great because it supported this model. All I had to do was tell Picasa to monitor my Photos directory and everything under it and Picasa took care of the rest. Everything was indexed from there and all I had to do was copy the files off my memory cards and on to the hard drive.

Switching to iPhoto
iPhoto supports two models for storing photos: they can either be copied into a single library "file" that iPhoto manages or they can be left in their original directory and referenced from there.

Copying the files into iPhoto's library is the default behavior. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, this will double the size of your photo library if you use this option and plan on keeping the photos on disk. You can of course just delete the photos from their original location once they are imported or even use iPhoto's ability to suck them right out of your camera.

The other option is to leave the files in the location you started from and have iPhoto reference them from there. You lose the ability to embed ColorSync profile information if you go this route and you really don't want to move those files around once iPhoto knows about them. This is the method I'm using for a couple of reasons.

Sharing Photos on my Network
While Mac has become the platform of choice in our household, my wife and son are still clinging to Windows machines and I still have a couple Windows boxes that are used occasionally, along with an Ubuntu system to round it all out. Sharing photos with all of those machines is pretty important.

If you copy your photos into iPhoto's library you can share them from there, though there is a catch; you have to keep your copy of iPhoto running at all times (in order to share) and the people that want to access the photos must have a Mac and run iPhoto.

Given my multi-cultural network of machines that is not an option. As a result I have a volume on my Mac Pro that contains all of my original photos. This folder is shared on my network in Read Only form so that anyone on the network, regardless of OS, can see them.

The other reason I do this is because there is a pretty good possibility that at some point I will use something other than iPhoto on my Mac to manage my photo library. It may be Aperature, Lightroom or even the rumored Mac version of Picasa. Keeping my files in a neutral storage location—all 21,000 of them—ensures I won't have any problem getting them into my next tool. Even if that next tool is the next version of iPhoto.


tai said...

I personally use a mac mini as a media center, and also as host to my iTunes and iPhoto libraries. I merely keep my iPhoto library with all the photos contained within it on an external drive connected to the mini, and told iPhoto that the location of its library was on a networked drive.

This works very well for me, my library is always the same whether i access it on my laptop or on my desktop, or on the mini via VNC, and it frees up hard drive space that i need for other things on my macbook. Reading the entire library via network is surprisingly fast, and even quite usable while away from my home, given a decent internet connection.

I don't know if this would work if multiple people would be accessing it simultaneously, but otherwise it's a great solution.

David Alison said...

@Tai: In our house I am the "official librarian" of our family photo collection. My wife and kids occasionally access the library when they need something for a project they are working on or to scarf up a picture for a Facebook post. Their needs are very limited and just having a shared directory where they can scan through it quickly, regardless of OS, has worked great. Each person will handle this a little differently and fortunately iPhoto is flexible enough to handle it in a variety of different ways.

tai said...

Of course, I completely forgot about the part about you getting your first mac a couple months ago and having PCs and Ubuntu around and whatnot. I've been living an entirely mac lifestyle (at home, at least) for a long time, and it's easy to forget about such things.

I'm personally terrible at keeping things organized in file structures, both on computers, and in real life. iPhoto and iTunes' automatic organization has been a real blessing for me. I had files scattered everywhere before, and now everything is neatly organized without me having to intervene.

It's great to hear that iPhoto is flexible enough to meet the needs of such different usage patterns!

B16A2 said...

I use a similar photo storage structure as you, sorting each set by a dated folder. I had a problem with iphoto, and even aperture, where even I had set the program to leave the original files in their own folders, simply opening a picture in the program would copy over the picture as if it were modified, so if I opened up a 1gb folder and made it into an album in iphoto, it would replicate the entire 1gb in its own folder. Again, this is with the import to iphoto setting off. Is there something I am missing? Aperture did the same thing, simply viewing a picture made aperture make a copy of it on the hd. I ended up abandoning both programs because of the frustration of watching my free hd space dwindle as I looked through my pictures. What am I missing?

Alpha7 said...

There's an easy workaround to store your pictures within iPhoto and be able to share them on your network. Control+click "iPhoto Library" in your pictures folder. Select "Show Package Contents." Control+click the folder named "Originals" and select "Make Alias." Place the alias in your pictures folder and now you can access and share all your photos directly, without having to open iPhoto. You can do the same with the the "Modified" folder and see your pictures that have been edited with iPhoto.

vulpine said...

You're slipping into my baliwick, now. I work with photographs and other images quite frequently in the line of my business.

While I use a combination of several different applications for reviewing and editing my collection, including iPhoto, Aperture2, Photoshop and PSBridge, my main image cataloging tool is GraphicConverter from Lemkesoft in Germany.
I admit that GC doesn't do everything Picasa does (like search for and memorize the locations of all your photos) it does allow you to find, catalog and copy/move images from one place to another as well as giving you a rather complete lightbox capability and some basic editing capabilities. The drawback (if you can call it that) is that it costs about $35 to register. However, you can use it for free if you don't mind the 1-minute 'nag window' asking you to register it before it opens. As far as I can remember, no features are disabled for not registering it, but by paying the $35 you get automatic notification of updates and upgrades; which are usually free to registered users.

One way I use this app is to 'lightbox' on one monitor and open a large-scale Preview on the other. It also contains a duplicate file finding routine which can locate duplicate images either on an exact-copy basis or a 'similar image' basis that even flags images of different sizes but are otherwise the same, allowing you to choose which one or ones to keep. In all, probably the best image cataloging tool available for the Mac that I have found. It may be worth looking into.

Buckley said...

David: Since I switched to MAC from Windows a few months ago your blog (and fellow reader's comments) has been a pleasure to read.

I also recently had a similar problem with what to do with my pictures that were in the typical Windows file/folder structure using the date the photo was taken. A few weeks ago I spent some time trying a bunch of MAC photo solutions and eventually settle on one I liked.

First I tried iPhoto. I didn't want to copy the files into the iPhoto library and I wanted to keep the files in their current folder structure so that I could easily share them with non-MAC machines and so that I would be protected should I easily want to migrate the photos to some other program. In the end using iPhoto by simply linking to the files in a separate folder structure was a failure because after importing them into iPhoto (again linking to them, not copying them) when I vetted through my photos deleting the ones that did not turn well I noticed that the preview JPG in the iPhoto library would be deleted but the original JPG in the original location outside of iPhoto would still be there. I do not want to cull through hundreds of photos when I first plug my camera into the computer so this was a deal killer for me. This would mean that my photo collection would be huge because I usually delete a lot of pictures that do not turn out well. Some people do this on import but I like looking at the photos full screen first and sometimes I keep a bad picture when I realize that none of the others have turned out as well.

I then tried Aperature which I liked but ultimately it had the same problem that I mention above for iPhoto in which you can link to photos in an external folder from the aperature library. Importing the pictures and deleting them from their original locations was again a problem.

I then tried Lightroom and I have come to really like it. It is sleek and very similar to iPhoto in many ways. What I like about lightroom was that I could link the library to an external folder and all I need to do after connecting the camera to my machine to download the photos is load up Lightroom and click on the parent folder in my catalog and select "Syncronize Folder" from the menu. Lightroom them automatically imports any photos in any of the date sub-directories that it does not already have. The nice thing is that this program is fast and sleek and allows me to vet through hundreds of photos, deleting the ones I do not like and the photos actually delete themselves from the external location and not just the preview. I had to google how to set up an easy way to export selected photos into an email to send to friends but in the end after 2 minutes I have better control over shrinking photos to attach to email than iPhoto (which has a decent Export feature but the standard Email feature is limited).

The one think Lightroom does not have is the "Ken Burns Effect" for its slideshows. To solve this once in awhile my family will import a bunch of the new picture folders into iPhoto. We import without copying and we make sure to only import folders that have already been vetted so our overall photo library does not get too huge.

Also I should mention that I tend not to add keywords to my photos. After trying a few program to import my photos from my camera to my computer I have settle on using "CameraWindow" which comes with Canon cameras (even though my Canon has been given away and I only use a Nikon now). I tried the "ImageCapture" and "iPhoto" camera import programs but in the end I find the "CameraWindow" must more efficient since it can be configured so that I just hook up my USB, turn my camera on and it automatically downloads my photos to the date directory structure and deletes the photos on the camera when finished without a single touch of the mouse or keyboard. This way I can come in, hook up and turn on the camera and immediately walk away, when I come back a minute later I unhook the camera and everything is finished and ready. The other two pieces of import software required some keyboard/mouse input and could not be set to automatically do what I do with CameraWindow (of course they are better if you want to attach keywords at the time of importing them from the camera).

I have now really become to how fast Lightroom is and how easy it is to browse and select photos in various ways.

Chris Howard said...

David, what's your workflow for uploading pics from your camera? Are you storing them on the HDD before adding to iPhoto? If so, are you using Image Capture or some other app or just dragging and dropping?

I've always thought about doing it the "Picasa way" but been worried it would make me more disorganised in how a store my photos - they end up all over my HDD. So any management tips would be appreciated! :) Maybe there's even a blog post in there.


rafael said...

I'm a newbie Mac user as well. Just switched from a PC with Windows about one week ago. I also used Picasa on my PC.

I'm using a new 2.4GHz MacBook. Yesterday I ventured into iPhoto and the first thing I tried to do was install the Picasa Web Album Uploader with installs a plugin into iPhoto. I'm not seeing the Export to Picasa feature in iPhoto's File menu nor in the Share menu.

I've verified that the plugin is actually installed by "Get Info" on the iPhoto app, but can't figure out why the feature is not actually shown in the app. I saw one other person with this problem on the Picasa Help Google Group.

David, if you try installing this Picasa Uploader and iPhoto plugin, I'd be curious to see if you have this same problem.

David Alison said...

@Buckley: some great comments in there, especially on Lightroom. I think the management of digital photos is going to continue to grow as an issue; between dirt cheap memory and digital cameras capable of snapping off 10 photo bursts the sheer volume of photos can be overwhelming. I went on the field for one of my son's high school lacrosse games and in one half shot over 300 pictures.

When I was a kid we used to put the good pictures in photo albums and the bad ones—where people were not centered properly or the exposure was just off—into a big card board box. I used to find rooting through those old reject pictures as interesting as the ones that were in the photo albums.

I have found that if the photo is an obvious poor shot I tend to delete it directly off the camera while still in a shooting session.

@Chris: Here it is in all the gory step by step detail: I grab the Compact Flash out of the Canon 30D or the SD card out of my 1100IS and pop them into an external reader attached to the Mac Pro. I then open two finder windows, one with the memory card, the other with the large HD I use for bulk photo storage. If a folder doesn't exist for the block of photos I need to move over I create it, then Command-drag them over to the new location, which moves the files.

I then go into iPhoto and add the new folders in. While this sounds like a lot of work I only do it every couple of weeks because my memory cards hold so many photos. It takes maybe 5 minutes to do from start to finish.

I've long considered creating a little Ruby script or maybe taking a stab at Automator to handle this but just haven't found the time or energy to do it.

@Rafael: After seeing your comment I went up and installed the Google Picasa uploader. It installed without any problems. Next I went into iPhoto and selected a group of photos, then selected File / Export from the iPhoto menu.

The tabs that I see are File Export | Web Page | Picasa Web | QuickTime. Selecting Picasa Web gives me some additional options for new or existing. I tried it on a small selection of photos and it worked perfectly.

I hope this helps you figure out what the problem is. If you still can't find it try uninstalling the plugin, restarting the machine and then install again, making sure you do not have iPhoto running when you do the install. Good luck!

Michael said...


If you've got a 30D then I don't imagine you're the sort of person who'd leave it in idiot mode.

But if you're using Picasa and iPhoto then I'm assuming (perhaps erroneously) that you're shooting JPEGs.

Storage is so now so cheap that I'd strongly encourage you to consider shooting RAW.

Once you're in Lightroom RAW makes things easier, not harder. Really. And whilst I haven't used the other products you've mentioned, except whilst trying to help friends set their libraries up, I feel after having read your blog 'cover to cover' (switched to Apple nearly three months ago) that once you try Lightroom you're highly unlikely to go back.

When the camera guesses right JPEG is fine. And if you really know photography and your camera backwards (like David Hobby of then JPEG's fine. But for the rest of us the ability to easily recover poorly exposed or poorly colour-balanced RAW photos in Lightroom in a way that JPEGs could never handle the transistion is brilliant. Looking back at favourite old JPEGs that can't be so corrected, no mater how much work in Photoshop you put in, makes me sad I didn't shoot RAW sooner...

Thanks for the great blog. It's been fun to learn from - and with - you.


GrumpyGranpa said...


Like you, I am old Windows user who has recently begun working with Macs. In fact, I go back far enough that my first computer was a CP/M Kaypro! Anyway, I find your blog extremely helpful and very interesting. In my current life I am a Systems Integrator and Systems Administrator. My largest client has a mixed network of Macs and PC's so getting comfortable on a Mac has been a big help. I also find the Mac hardware to be truly "elegant" compared to most PC's...and I even build my own! The Mac Pro is based on an Intel 5000 series server motherboard which makes it truly robust, stable and fast. I also appreciate their thermal design. A server using this motherboard howls like a banshee when first powered up. The Pro hardly makes a sound.

Since most of my customer base is on Windows, I have to stay current on that platform but I really enjoy using my little MacBook. I have XP running on a VMware Fusion virtual machine so I often just take it with me onsite. That certainly raises eyebrows in an all Windows environment. Think I have even made a couple of sales for Apple, since Vista is heartily disliked around here.

rafael said...


Your reply about Picasa's iPhoto plugin did help! For some reason I was expecting the Picasa export option to be directly in the File or Share menu. I just didn't dig deep enough. I had already tried reinstalling and all that yesterday :-)


David Alison said...

@Michael: I do use the 30D in creative mode, though usually when I'm shooting something that the camera can't handle on it's own. If I'm out shooting action shots of an athletic event I've found that the sports mode is better at dealing with changing conditions than I am. It's the low light modes and when I'm trying to do slightly blurred action shots that I drop into creative. Here's a small sample.

I've found that with the 30D, and even the 1100IS when I need a small, portable camera, that I rarely have to do adjustments. I've gotten pretty good at predicting lighting.

All that said, I've always just shot large JPEG, never bothering with RAW. Based on what you've written I'll put it on my list of stuff to check out though - thanks for the great tip man!

tinyfly said...

David, when you switched to iPhoto from Picasa were you able to keep your captions, star ratings, and stuff?

I can't get iPhoto to see that stuff that I entered in Picasa.

David Alison said...

@Tinyfly: No, unfortunately I could not transfer that information.

rredhead said...

OK, I realize that I'm late to the party, but... I've been reading the iPhoto v. Picasa saga everywhere on the web. I have 2000 photos from January to June of this year, and I've been taking digital photos since 2003. So, that should give you an idea of how many pictures I have. I'm hoping that Picasa really will come out for the Mac. However, until then, I can just manage my photos in iPhoto. I want to try it out before I buy another piece of software.
All of that said, I cannot find a way to add a folder to the iPhoto "watch list" so-to-speak. I have photos in the Pictures folder, but iPhoto doesn't see them. If I "Import to Library" then I'll copy all of them, which is not something I really want to do.
The ironic part of this is, I bought a Mac because I do a lot of photo and video work (and because I detest Vista). But I may not be able to work with my photos the way I want to. Oy!

David Alison said...

@rredhead: This is the place where iPhoto and Picasa are so different. iPhoto likes to take over the management of your photos rather than observe them in a native directory (folder) like Picasa does.

If you add photos to an existing folder you will need to import that folder again; iPhoto does not monitor the folder like Picasa does. If you select the option under Preferences / Advanced to not copy the files into iPhoto then the pictures will remain in the their original position UNTIL you edit them; that act copies them into the iPhoto library.

You may want to consider one of the 3rd party tools for managing your photos. I've managed to get iPhoto working for my needs but I've had to adapt in order to make it work.

rredhead said...

ARGH! All of the third party tools seem to be so expensive. I love the trial I've had of Shoebox, but that's $80. Still no official word as to when we can expect Picasa for the Mac. I'm not sure what to do - convert to iPhoto entirely and submit to it? keep my folders as I like them and sort it all out later? keep my photos on my Windows machine? (YUCK)
Actually, all of my photos are on an external drive, but that needs to be connected to my Win machine. (No more hard drive space, and I have to use the thing for work for now.)
Thanks for writing about this though. It's great information!

Jack said...

I switched recently and had not imported my old photos to iPhoto, while I have used it for anything new. After reading this interesting article and the responses, I used Parallels and Win XP to download Picasa 3 (beta) and point it to my old photos even though they're on the new Mac volume.

The new Picasa seems to be better than ever, and I guess I'd rather fight than switch ;-) It's too good to let go of, for all the reasons above. With parallels, you just have to put up with the slight hassle of having two OS's running simultaneously, but I think it's worth it in this case.

David Alison said...

@Jack: The biggest thing to keep in mind is how well iPhoto integrates with your other Mac applications. The best part for me was the integration with my new iPhone, allowing me to select albums that I want synchronized so that I can take them with me and show to friends and family. But it also integrates with other things too, like your desktop background, screen saver, etc.

It did take me a long time to adjust after using Picasa but I'm now so comfortable with iPhoto I don't really notice.

That said, if and when Google releases a Mac version of Picasa I'm going to be one of the first in line to check it out.

Ant said...

Man, am I glad I found this site.

I've been using a Mac for a few months now and, like you, love keeping an open mind when approaching new ways of doing things, whether it be applications or entire operating systems.

iPhoto seems great. On a Mac. If all you are using are Macs. But like you, I also have machines running XP, Vista, Windows 7 Beta, Ubuntu, Kubuntu, OpenSUSE, and even BSD (a lot of those are old machines people have given me that I just play with to have fun and maybe learn something). Losing the folder architecture when importing floored me. Couldn't get Live Mesh to share the iPhoto Library (not going to pay $99 a year for Mobile Me [yawn]). Finally got Live Sync to share and update the iPhoto library across all my machines, but gone are the folders that all other programs use to organize my files. Sure, I could go through and retag them all for the native application I happen to be using... but what's the point of tagging twice?? Frustrating to be sure.

I've heard Picasa Beta for Mac is out. Anyone had any luck with this? I love how iPhoto integrates so wonderfully with the rest of the Mac OS, but until it learns to play nice across the board, it'll probably be a no go for me...


David Alison said...

@Ant: Glad you like the blog. I'm putting together a post on Picasa for Mac right now. Should be up shortly.

David said...

@David Alison: I planning to switch to iPhoto from Picasa which I am currently using on my PC. I have an extensive library of photos with all faces recognized and assigned to people. Is there a way to import your tagged faces from Picasa to iPhoto? Thanks.

David Alison said...

@David: Not that I'm aware of. On the bright side iPhoto has a very good facial recognition feature and—given of course the size of your library—be able to get the faces re-recognized fairly quickly.

Rod Urand said...


Just read your post. I like what you wrote. I am just making the switch but I want to keep Picasa for the Mac and iPhoto.

I am running into three problems:

1. iPhoto does not monitor folders like Picasa does (so a photo downloaded does not get imported to iPhoto

2. If I delete a photo of my ex-wife in iPhoto, it stll shows up in Picasa (and vice versa)

3. I love my Picasa folder structure but iPhoto does not seem to care about that.

What am I doing wrong?

David Alison said...

@Rod Urand: Though I have Picasa for Mac installed on my primary Mac, I don't use it any longer, deciding that iPhoto worked better for me, especially when integrating with other applications.

1) No, right now iPhoto only "sees" pictures that you manually add or that exist on a removable device that is attached while iPhoto is running.

2) iPhoto stores photos very differently than Picasa. Even if you have iPhoto notcopy photos you add into your library but keep them where it finds them, any edits you do to the photo will break that.

3) See #2 above.

Very hard to keep both active and ultimately probably not worth the effort.

Jamie said...


I've got most of my photos in Picasa, and I would like to switch to iPhoto, but I haven't found a way to transfer over all the photos I've starred. My folder structure in picasa is year/month, and I would like iphoto to sort similarly. Any hints? My main issue is the loss of starred photos. The only way around it at the moment has been to only export starred photos to iphoto, but my cameras still sync with picasa. Any help/advice appreciated.