Culling photos from a big shoot such as a wedding is a process that typically takes hours. For me, the photo cull is a boring task that’s best tackled with Netflix and some snacks. But, can artificial intelligence turn that hours-long process into a few minutes? PhotoRefine A.I. Photo Manager is an app that uses artificial intelligence to ease the bore of the cull. Using A.I., the app groups photos together, then searches for the sharpest one. But, mixing artificial intelligence with art is a precarious teeter-totter. Can A.I. really find your best shots?
When I first downloaded Optyx. I didn’t expect to really like the app. I was worried that, by integrating A.I., I would be losing the ability to pick a photograph based on emotional impact alone. But, Optyx works best with some manual input — and doesn’t really judge a photo beyond anything but sharpness. Optyx may have just found the perfect balance between speed and overlooking too many great shots.
Optyx was bought out by Zenfolio, where it was added to its suite of tools and renamed PhotoRefine. That also means it’s part of the Zenfolio subscription — which is great for subscribers but perhaps not so great for photographers who only want the A.I. culling software. But, Zenfolio has added a bunch of features, including considering the “happiness” in a photo, and refined the user interface.
Like Optyx, PhotoRefine won’t turn hours of culling into seconds. But, by flagging and color coding photos, it’s easier to quickly cull photos looking at small thumbnails rather than zooming in to see what photo is sharpest, or which one has everyone’s eyes open. Like any A.I., it’s best when mixed with some human input, but simplifies sorting through bursts and similar photos.
TOO LONG, DIDN’T READ.
PhotoRefine does a good job of looking for sharpness and avoiding closed eyes. The sharpness tool works well some of the time, but it doesn’t like photos with a lot of bokeh. The manual culling tools allow a good blend between the speed of A.I. and the eye of an actual human. It’s a good app for burst shooters, but photographers who only take a shot or two of the same subject won’t save time.
PROS AND CONS
- Finds your sharpest photos
- Groups similar shots automatically
- Allows for a mix of human and AI culling
- The user interface is improved.
- Another app to import to. Sigh.
- It’s not sold as a stand-alone program anymore.
- I wish it would use zero stars on bad images instead of one.
I used the PhotoRefine app on my 2021 MacBook Pro.
PhotoRefine is based on several A.I. features. Here’s how Zenfolio says the software works:
- Focus detection: The app looks at each face to evaluate for sharpness, choosing shots with the sharpest focus on faces.
- A.I. Autocull: This feature groups similar images together, so you can easily pick the best of the bunch.
- Fast previews: PhotoRefine says that previews are fast so that you can also manually cull faster than Lightroom’s previews load.
EASE OF USE
PhotoRefine requires logging in at the start and sometimes even after the program has been left alone too long. There’s no option to remember your username and password. But maybe it sensed my annoyance at having to type my login information twice in one day because the next day it didn’t ask me to log in. After opening the program, it also has to analyze the photos, and large albums take a while.
PhotoRefine starts out much like any RAW file manager — you must import your photos. The process starts by creating a new shoot, then adding your photos. This process is similar to Lightroom and Capture One. 150 photos took about 5-10 minutes, but 650 took about half an hour.
PhotoRefine, however, analyzes photos as it imports. The sidebar lists choices on how loosely to apply groupings, whether to group exposure bracketing and the workflow for auto rating.
Each workflow can be customized a bit. You can choose what you want the color ratings to indicate, such as sharpness, emotion, or open eyes. For the star ratings, you can prioritize sharpness, eyes, face focus, and face happiness.
After the import and analysis, the app groups similar photos together, assigns each a star rating and color rating based on the options selected.
So how well did PhotoRefine work?
The app groups everything and selects something from each group. I had a few random photos because I bumped my camera’s touchscreen. PhotoRefine still chooses one of those photos. While it may be annoying to unstar bad photos, it is less likely that you miss a happy accident or a technically bad but artistically good photo. I wish the settings had the option to automatically rate bad photos as no stars. I also wish I could tell the program to only use one five-star rating in the group so I don’t have to re-rate so I don’t edit two almost identical images.
The app did a great job at finding the sharpest shot in a group of photos. I generally take a few shots of the same pose to ensure a sharp image or use bursts to get the best expression. PhotoRefine was able to find the sharpest photo among those shots. However, it doesn’t really like bokeh, and if one person is in focus and one person is out of focus, it will be labeled red. Similarly, my close-up photos were all labeled red because of the very shallow depth of field. Several groups were all labeled red.
Because the app uses two rating methods — colors focus on single selection criteria and stars are based on a list of prioritized criteria — culling from thumbnails is easier. At a glance, I can see that two photos were marked as the sharpest, but one has the higher star rating because the other had closed eyes.
PhotoRefine doesn’t consider the lighting in the photo — which means it’ll still find silhouettes for you, intentionally or not. When working with a flash that didn’t quite keep up with bursts, it sometimes selected darker photos rather than the flash-fired images. It now recognizes facial expressions, and it did well with finding a smile versus a frown but didn’t differentiate between a fake “say cheese” and a genuine smile.
While the perfect cull would include lighting, finding the sharpest shot allowed for a blend of automatic and manual culling. PhotoRefine is good for finding the sharpest shot of a similar pose. But it’s great when then mixed with a little human oversight for the best moment. Once the program culls the photos, you can easily go through each group and check the picks to see if there’s a better expression or a shot with better lighting.
Once photos are grouped, you can view them in a few different ways. You can view everything or collapse the groups and click on them to see which photos are in the group. The user interface was overall better than the previous version that I tested.
Photographers who shoot lots of bursts will see the most benefits from using PhotoRefine. It’s a great app for finding the sharpest shots in a group. It’s not great at finding the best lighting or facial expression — and honestly, that’s probably best left to actual humans anyways.
Does it actually save you time? It could, but only if you walk away from the computer and do something else while the system is analyzing the photos. Where PhotoRefine helps is by making it easy to cull just by looking at thumbnails and by organizing groups together. A few things would help the program take even less time. I would love to be able to customize the settings so bad photos have no stars rather than one. I would also love to be able to tell the system how many photos you want in the end since many photographers promise their clients a certain number of images.
- PhotoRefine is great for quickly finding the sharpest photo in a group of similar shots.
- The app automatically groups similar shots together.
- PhotoRefine still includes manual culling tools, and since shots are already grouped, and previews load fast, it’s fairly quick to tweak the picks yourself.
- The app doesn’t consider lighting — or rather, it might, but it doesn’t do a great job at it.
- Using a program like PhotoRefine means you’ll have to import twice.
- It’s not available as a stand-alone program anymore.
PhotoRefine is imperfect — but it blends A.I. and, well, actual human input. The app didn’t do the entire cull for me. But, by grouping similar shots and finding the sharpest one, PhotoRefine allowed me to speed up the culling process and still find the shots that speak to me.
Some of the app’s imperfections — the inability to pick the best light, for example — create an ideal part A.I., part human cull. But, other flaws I would love to see corrected in an updated version of the app. I would love to have the option of giving some images zero stars. The ability to choose how many photos are five stars would also be helpful.
It’s also another program that you need to import your photos to. You’ll want to upload the photos, then walk away and come back later. It would be great if PhotoRefine could somehow make a plug-in for Capture One and Lightroom that worked without importing the photos a second time. If you don’t want to wait for photos to load, Photo Mechanic creates contact sheets quickly, though of course, you have to go through and choose the picks yourself.
PhotoRefine is a good option for photographers that regularly use burst mode and take a few variations of similar shots. If your photos are mostly technically fine, to begin with, it’s going to be less useful. It’s a great, though not quite perfect, a tool for quickly finding the sharpest shots in a burst series. It’s a plus for Zenfolio users, though I’m not sure that I myself would sign up just for the A.I. culling. It’s $7 a month added on to the $8 and $18 subscriptions but included in $36/month ProSuite. Photographers that only take one or two shots of the same subject won’t really save time with PhotoRefine. If you shoot a lot of bursts, try the 14-day free trial to see how PhotoRefine fits in your workflow.
I’m giving PhotoRefine four out of five stars.