Apple Photos as a replacement for PSE on a Mac

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After two years of great frustration with Adobe over Photoshop Elements (PSE) on Macs I’ve decided to look into two potential alternatives: (1) the Apple Photos program that is included as part of the Mac operating system, and (2) running the Windows version of PSE under a virtual machine on a Mac.  Because others might be considering this, I thought I would post what I have found so far.

This posting will cover the Apple Photos program.  A separate posting will discuss my experience with running the Windows version of PSE on a virtual machine on the Mac.

I don’t claim to have compared all the features of PSE with Photos; I’m just looking at the major things that are important to me.   

Most of the features I use in PSE are available in Photos, but there are some important differences.  I’ll mention different ways of doing the same thing in Photos, and I’ll try to highlight (“Caution:”) where you either can’t do something in Photos that you can do in PSE or where you can but it’s very different or very difficult. 

I welcome comments and corrections from others who have investigated this, or even made the leap. 


  • Photos uses Libraries to store photos.  Each Library can have multiple Albums in it.  Albums within a Library can have a hierarchical folder structure.  A Library item (photo, video, audio) can be in more than one Album.

  • Libraries are like Catalogs in PSE.  There is no direct analog for what Photos calls Albums in PSE.  I think the best use of Albums is as the equivalent of Tags in PSE (see below for details).

  • You can have more than one Library.  To change the active Library in Photos press the Option key while clicking on the Photos icon.  You then get a list of available Libraries to select from, and the option to create a new one.  You can specify where a Library resides on your disk drive.

  • It’s important to know that there are two ways you can use Libraries in Photos and you must pick one of them.  (In Photos à Preferences you select or deselect “Copy items to the Photos library”.)

    • By default, Photos copies items you put into a Library to that Library’s catalog file.

      • Bad:

        • It doubles the storage taken up by the items because the original is left where it was and a copy is put into the Photos Library

        • The Photos Library is kept in one huge database file and if you have a lot of pictures that file will get very, very large

          • This increases the chance of file corruption

          • This makes it more difficult to back up as the file gets large

          • It duplicates, and therefore wastes, disk space

      • Good:

        • For people who want to share photos across their Apple devices or with others, using the default enables a lot of sharing features that happen automatically.  If you use the default you can even keep the entire Library in Apple’s iCloud, which makes it available to any Apple device you own (when you are connected to the Internet).  Of course, if you do this with a large Library you will have to pay Apple for iCloud storage.

    • The alternative (uncheck the box in Preferences) is to keep items in their original location and have the Photos catalog just refer to them.  Apple calls these items Referenced files.  (This is the strategy that PSE uses for its Catalogs.)  It’s what I would use because I have too many photos taking up too much disk space to use the standard Library structure.

      • Bad:

        • No automatic sharing

      • Good:

        • Catalog file is a more manageable size

          • But Photos catalogs are still large – almost 1GB for a Library of about 2800 pictures and videos (vs. under 200MB for the Mac version of PSE and the same photos)

        • No duplication of storage

      • Caution:  If you use Referenced files you will need to put your photos into a folder structure yourself when downloading them.   If I move to Photos, I will do this by creating folders in the Mac folder called Pictures for each Library.  Example: Pictures à Lib1.  Then I’ll specify that the Lib1 Library file be in the Lib1 folder and create subfolders in Lib1 for each time I download photos.  That will make it easier to back up individual Libraries (e.g, just copy all of Lib1 to an external drive), but it adds complexity when downloading photos.  There is no analog I have found for PSE’s automatically downloading photos to date-labeled folders.

      • A note on backing up: Apple’s Time Machine will correctly back up your photos and Libraries, but my practice is to also back up the photos and their Catalogs (PSE)/Libraries (Photos) separately.  That’s why I care that it’s straightforward to do.  Plus you can restore a Library (or move it to another Mac) by just copying the Library and all the photos.

    • Drag and drop works to copy photos from a Library to a folder, desktop, mail, messages, etc.

      • Note that if you drag and drop an edited photo it’s the edited version that is copied (as you would expect).  If you use File à Export you have the option of exporting the original instead.

  • Caution: Deleting a photo from a Library does NOT delete it from the hard disk.

    • Photos deleted from a Library go into an Album (in that Library) called Recently Deleted (a sort of trash bin) and are removed after about 30 days (each photo has its own timer) unless you delete them earlier from the Recently Deleted Album.

    • But for Referenced files (where the actual photo is on the hard disk, not stored in the Library file itself) the original photo on the hard disk is not deleted, even after the photo is deleted from the Library.  (That’s actually true for the default file storage in Libraries because it was a copy that was placed in the Library.)

    • You have to delete the photo(s) from the hard disk manually.

    • Caution: I find this the major problem with Photos vs. PSE.  Almost every time I download photos there are some that I don’t want to keep.  PSE makes it easy to delete them completely; Photos makes it hard.

      • The only good news here is that Apple actually supports their software, so you can at least ask for an improvement in this feature

PSE features and their equivalent

  • Tags

    • Photos has Keywords, which you can place on photos like Tags.                 Even though they seem like Tags, they aren’t.

      • Caution: There is no hierarchy for Keywords within a Library.  In PSE Tags can be nested – e.g., you could have a category called people and nested under that a Tag for each person.  Same with places, events, etc.  In Photos there is no hierarchy or nesting of Keywords.

      • Caution: Adding keywords is clunky at best (lots of keystrokes; multiple windows to deal with).

      • I’m not sure yet what keywords are good for.  Maybe you could use them to correspond to the star ratings in PSE.

    • The Photos concept of Albums is a better equivalent to Tags.  Albums can have a folder structure (hierarchy) and photos can be in more than one Album.

      • Caution: A folder structure (nesting) only works for Albums that you create.  It doesn’t work for the standard Albums that Photos creates (People, Places, Videos, Memories, Panoramas).

      • Photos creates standard albums for People (see below), Places (using GPS data on the photos), Videos, Memories (it looks for several pictures of what seems like the same event), and Panoramas.  You can also list by date very easily.  There is also an Album for the most recently downloaded photos (but not for every download, as in PSE).

    • Photos does automatic people recognition (you can’t turn it off), and it works well.  You can use that instead of Keywords or Albums for people.

      • Photos suggests groups of photos with the same person and you can put a name to the person (and it’s Apple, so identifying a person is integrated with your Contacts list if they are there).  It also shows you faces it doesn’t recognize and you can ignore them or tell Photos that they are an already identified person or a new person.

      • People recognition doesn’t recognize pets.  So you’ll have to create an Album to identify photos of your dog.

      • There is a search bin on the main screen of Photos that works well.  You can search for combinations of people, Keywords, etc.

      • Because a photo can be in more than one Album, a photo can identify more than one person.

  • Can you adjust the time stamp on a group of photos?

    • Yes, the time you set will apply to the first photo and the rest will get the correct relative time.  I do this a lot when we come back from a trip and need to adjust for the time zone where the pictures were taken, and/or need to synchronize the time on two cameras.

  • Can you create slideshows?

    • Yes, but the capability isn’t very robust.  In my opinion, it sucks.  But that’s also true of the slideshow editors in PSE 13 and PSE 15.

    • Canned “themes” only.  No pan and zoom control; no transition for each slide; no control over multiple photos on one slide

    • If you do slideshows with any complexity, you will still need a separate slideshow program

      • The only good news here is that Apple actually supports their software, so you can at least ask for an improvement in this feature


  • The built-in editor is pretty good.  It does automatic enhancement of lighting/contrast/brightness, rotation, cropping, effects filters, manual adjustment of lighting/color/black and white, spot healing (similar to the PSE editor spot healing tool), and red eye removal.

  • If that’s not enough, there is good news: there is a 99-cent plug-in (called External Editors for Photos) that allows you to use the PSE editor (or any other editor) for more complicated stuff.  It works very smoothly.

    • Caution: In my testing I have found that using the PSE editor in this way only works for the first edit of an original photo.  If you try to edit a photo that has already been edited (either with the built-in Photos editor or with the PSE editor) with PSE then it edits correctly but is not saved by Photos.  I’ve noted this problem to both Apple and to the developer of External Editors for Photos.

  • Photos that are edited have a special icon on them so you can tell they are edited.

  • Caution: Only the last edit is saved.  You can always revert to the original, but not to a previously edited version.

    • There is no concept of version sets

    • So, for example, if you want to adjust a photo AND create a color and b/w version you will need to duplicate it and turn one into the adjusted color version and the other into the b/w version.  This is pretty clunky if you’re used to using version sets in PSE.

Bottom line:  Apple Photos is not a direct replacement for Photoshop Elements.  In addition, I haven’t been able to find an automated way to migrate PSE catalogs to Photos.  So even if you do start using Photos, plan on keeping PSE around for your older photos.  However, Photos does have a lot of capabilities that overlap with PSE.  I would consider it a viable alternative to PSE if your usage fits the right profile: you don’t have very large numbers of photos (thousands, not tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands) and/or you want to share photos a lot (either with yourself on other Apple devices or on social media) and/or you don’t make heavy use of version sets and/or your editing needs don’t make much use of the advanced feature of the PSE editor.  Or maybe you are just too annoyed at Adobe because they don’t really support the PSE product (especially on Macs), in which case you’ll switch to Photos or something else anyway.

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Randy Levine

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Posted 1 year ago

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