Apple Photos has some useful editing tools already, but with the launch of the El Capitan operating system, Apple has gone a step further with Apple Photos Extensions. These are equivalent to the the image-editing plug-ins used with Photoshop and Lightroom.

Software publishers have been keen to make use of this, and already there are a number of Apple Photos Extensions on the market. Some are installed automatically alongside desktop software, like MacPhun Tonality, for example. Others are sold separately, like DxO Optics Pro for Photos.

This walkthrough is for the Apple Photos desktop version. A similar system is in place for the iPhone and iPad versions, though the software choices available are different.

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Step 01: Check for Extensions

Start Apple Photos, double-click an image and then click the Edit button at the top right of the screen to open the editor. You’ll see all the Apple Photos editing tools on the right and, at the bottom, an ‘Extensions’ button. The opens a drop-down menu listing all the Extensions currently added – there’s one here already, ‘DxO OpticsPro for Photos’. To check if there are others installed but not yet added, click the ‘More’ option.

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Step 02: Activating Extensions

This opens El Capitan’s new Extensions panel. Photos should already be selected from the list of Extensions-compatible programs on the left, and the main window will display all the available Photos Extensions currently installed. To make them available in Photos, check the box alongside each one.

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Step 03: Choose an Extension

Back in Apple Photos, the Extensions button should now list all the new Extensions you’ve enabled. We’ll edit this photo in MacPhun Tonality…

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Step 04: Edit your photo

This takes you outside the Apple Photos window and into whatever app you’ve chosen – some apps just give you a selection of the tools available in the full-blown application, while others are like using the full program. This MacPhun Tonality Extension, for example, gives you the full power of the standalone program. Anyhow, we’ve finished editing this picture so we click the ‘Save Changes’ button, top right.

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Step 05: The edited picture in Apple Photos

This returns the edited picture to Apple Photos, where it replaces the original – or appears to. In fact Photos treats pictures edited with Extensions just as it does those edited with its own tools – it saves an edited version ‘over’ the original but actually keeps both.

If you ever change your mind and want to go back to the original, just open the photo for editing and click the ‘Revert to Original’ button top right.

Of course, this means you then lose the edited version – so here’s a top tip: duplicate a photo you want to keep an edited copy of first, with the command-D shortcut. It means having two files not one, but at least you get the original and the edited photo side by side.

You can even do this after you’ve edited the photo. This time, duplicated the edited photo, then open up the original for editing and click ‘Revert to Original.