Switching From iPhoto to Lightroom

In my previous post about taking more photographs I mentioned that I recently switched from iPhoto to Lightroom. In this post I thought I’d go into more detail about why and how I made the switch.


I had used iPhoto for at least nine years. As a tool for organising my photos I thought it was pretty good but it was quite limited when it came to editing tools.

iPhoto can do all the basic cropping, level and colour adjustments but not much else. And whenever I did make any adjustments, iPhoto made a copy of my image file. Back in the old days, this was the only real way of working but once I saw the way Aperture, Picasa and Lightroom worked, by saving any adjustments as metadata and then applying them on the fly, I couldn’t help thinking iPhoto was a bit old-fashioned.

iPhoto was becoming very sluggish. I had been running iPhoto ’06 for a long time and updated to ’09 last year. I read a lot of reviews for the later versions criticising them for being slow, and my laptop is six years old, so I decided to leave it at ’09. Even then it wasn’t as responsive as I would have liked.

I had tried using Aperture a few years ago but it seemed like overkill for what I wanted and it didn’t make much sense to me. I would have been quite happy just switching to Picasa but when I tried to use the ‘import iPhoto library’ option, Picasa would complain that my iPhoto XML was corrupt.

I gave up trying to switch for a while and just stuck with iPhoto but I kept hearing things about Lightroom around the web. It seemed to have beaten Aperture to become the default tool of choice so I thought I’d give it a go.

The Lightroom interface is a little daunting when you first open it. All the panels are contextually aware, so only appear when you are in the relevant modules. There are basically only three modules that I ever use: Import, Library and Develop. The workflow is pretty straightforward. Use Import to add photos to the Lightroom catalogue, Library to organise them (keywording, labels, titles, deleting, grouping etc.) and Develop to edit them.

The editing tools are massively more powerful than those in iPhoto. They cover most of the basic adjustments you might use Photoshop for. There are colour curves, gradient masks and even brushes you can use to apply effects. And because the changes aren’t actually baked into the image, you can create multiple versions of your photos without having to duplicate the file.

Lightroom is much better at dealing with RAW image files too. This has encouraged me to shoot RAW more often, which isn’t good for my limited hard drive space but allows me to get even more from my images.

Having so many edit tools in the very application I use to organise my photos means I’m much more likely to use them. Since switching to Lightroom I have gone from only occasionally tweaking my very best photos to quickly adjusting almost every photo I take. This has meant a lot more of my photos have gone from ‘meh, it’s ok’ to ‘that’s not bad actually’. I have also found myself thinking harder about what would improve the images.

The libary behaves in a similar way to iPhoto. The biggest advantage I’ve found is that it allows nested keywords. This means you can have many more keywords without getting overwhelmed by them. I’ve actually found myself using keywords more than naming my photos.

The one thing Lightroom misses that I liked in iPhoto is Events. By default, Lightroom groups photos into folders for each day of shooting. This is fine, but if you have a week’s worth of photos from a holiday, they are split up. Lightroom does have Collections, which are more like albums in iPhoto. They take a lot of manual organisation and are arranged in alphabetical order.

Overall, Lightroom helps me get more from my images. When I was using iPhoto I tended to import them, delete the very worst ones and then leave the rest alone. Now I edit almost all of them, which makes me think harder about their worth. I actually think I end up deleting more photos but making the most of the ones that I keep.

Before colour adjustment in Lightroom

After colour adjustment in Lightroom


There is no ‘import iPhoto library’ option in Lightroom. I did find a video tutorial that showed one workflow but it seemed like a hack to me.

It seemed the only real way of getting my photos into Lightroom was to first export them from iPhoto. I did a few tests and it seemed that if I exported ‘as original’, iPhoto spit out the original image, without any of the adjustments or keywords. If I wanted to include adjustments and keywords, I had to export the images as new .jpg files, which meant recompressing them all. Neither of these options were what I wanted so I hit Google and found Phoshare.

Phoshare exports your iPhoto library to a folder structure that can be read by other applications. If you also install the ExifTool library Phoshare will embed all of iPhoto’s metadata, keywords, faces etc. into the files.

I had a problem with my iPhoto XML. I think there was an invalid character in there somewhere. I narrowed it down to one particular Event, my trip to Cuba. I think there must have been a special Spanish character in there somewhere that was causing problems. I exported that Event manually and then deleted it from my iPhoto library.

Once that was sorted I exported the rest of the library with Phoshare. My local drive didn’t have enough space for two copies of all of my photos so I had to export them to an external drive. After checking the export had worked completely, I had to move the iPhoto library to the same external drive and delete it from my local drive before I could import the Phoshare output to Lightroom.

This process worked pretty well, but not perfectly. I have found a lot of duplicated files where I had modified the images in iPhoto. This hasn’t happened for every modified photo, so I’m not sure what happened there. I’m also missing Event data. Any descriptions that I’d added to the Events rather than the photos haven’t been transferred over. I think I’m going to have to reload my iPhoto library and spend an afternoon rebuilding the Events as Lightroom Collections.


I had been thinking about leaving iPhoto for a long time before I did it, but I’m glad I finally did. Lightroom has encouraged me to do a lot more with my photography and as a result I feel like I am taking better pictures.