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Apple's Aperture: How Does It Stack Up?

Screen capture showing Aperture's image management capabilities. Screen capture showing Aperture's image management capabilities.
© Courtesy of Apple

At PhotoPlus Expo in New York City last October, Apple Computer introduced Aperture, an application that had been dubbed “iPhoto Pro” by many Apple rumor web sites prior to the official announcement. Early impressions (largely based on demonstrations by Apple) were glowing in their praise for what appeared to be a revolutionary product. The innovative interface and smartly targeted feature set promised to greatly streamline workflow for professional photographers.

For years, pro shooters have been seeking a way to manage the critical “sweet spot” of digital photo workflow, and Apple is targeting that space. The company claims that Aperture “provides everything you need for after the shoot, delivering the first all-in-one post-production tool for photographers.” Specifically, Aperture promises to import photos of most types, especially RAW; organize large image libraries with robust search capabilities, including “deep metadata support”; help identify key photos with versatile compare-and-select tools; and provide robust image processing and correction capabilities.

Several applications already perform the individual parts of this job — from importing images to cataloging and correcting — reasonably well, but so far no single solution has been hailed as the ultimate application for managing digital photo workflow. Even Photoshop, the venerable Swiss Army knife of digital photo manipulation, is still primarily used for correcting, retouching and compositing photos, and less so for importing and cataloging them.

Now that Aperture has shipped, and real-world photographers are using it, the reality of what the software offers (and lacks) is becoming apparent. The bottom line is that Aperture 1.0 is a great tool for a specific subset of photographers now, but it’s not for everyone just yet. Aperture undoubtedly will come to hold a position of prominence among tools for pro shooters, but this may not happen until version 2.0 or later.
By assessing individual workflow components that Apple was targeting, it is easy to gain insight into how Aperture deals with each area.

Working with RAW images

It’s clear that, to achieve optimum image integrity, most pro shooters prefer to capture all the data that camera sensors can provide. Apple has not missed this detail: the latest Mac operating system, Tiger, has RAW conversion built in. Programs such as Aperture and iPhoto can leverage that power to import and convert RAW files.

The good news is that the vast majority of cameras that produce RAW files are supported by Apple, and those files can be converted easily by Aperture. The bad news is that the quality of these conversions may not compare favorably to other longtime RAW conversion programs, such as Capture One and Adobe Camera Raw.

Apple is a relative newcomer to the RAW conversion game and has not yet perfected its conversion algorithms.

Luckily, the company is working energetically to match the level of quality of the veteran conversion tools and has made considerable headway since the October launch. The conversions for the more popular cameras, such as the Canon EOS-1D Mark II, EOS-1Ds Mark II and Nikon D70, are becoming very functional. In the coming months, the industry can expect them to reach a level that even picky photographers will find reasonable.

Organizing image libraries

Aperture supports all the usual methods for importing photos — directly from camera or card, or dragging-and-dropping from a folder. The program copies the files and embeds them into what seems to be a central, managed database. This database appears to be a single, large library file but, in actuality, it’s more like a big folder with lots of subfolders and image files within it. Apple has shrouded this folder in order to prevent users from opening it up and inadvertently moving items. It’s possible to access the files within, but the Aperture browser is generally the preferred way to organize data.

Within Aperture, individual photos are somewhat like songs stored in an iTunes library. In iTunes, although you can still get into the files and folders on your hard drive and move MP3s around, this action can confuse iTunes and make access to songs more difficult, if not impossible.

This faux folder system is a bit slower than using a truly centralized database library, but it will work fast enough for those with the proper hardware setup.

The most important organizational point that you’ll need to consider is that Aperture will clump all of your photos into one big file. That means that you’ll likely need a gigantic hard drive on which to store your images. Unlike some applications that let you keep images in any folder or disc, and then have the cataloging program remotely refer to them, Aperture copies them all and stores them in one place. It’s not a bad way to go, but you’ll want to make sure that you have the storage space available.

Categorizing photos

Like iPhoto and other basic cataloging tools, Aperture lets you create albums, assign rating stars and apply keywords to selected images after they’ve been imported.

Even some critics of Aperture agree that the program has exceptional features to help you review and identify key images. After you assign keywords and other metadata to photos as they are imported, you can “stack” images manually, or Aperture can automatically group photos into stacks, based on how close together they were taken. If you have many similar shots, you can promote and demote the photos quickly so that the best pick is chosen rapidly. The versatile loupe tool enables you to zoom in for a closer look at any photo, anytime. The virtual light table feature allows shots to be moved, grouped and resized to determine optimal combinations of shots.

Aperture was initially criticized regarding the EXIF data tags applied to imported photos. It appeared that applied EXIF data would be stripped out of photos when users exported the images for use in other programs. Some felt that Apple was trying to make Aperture a “roach motel,” where photos could come in but could not be moved out effectively. Apple has corrected this problem, so the latest versions of Aperture retain EXIF data on export.

Image processing

Apple says that its new product is intended to complement Photoshop, but Aperture does include the most critical corrections that photographers might want to perform. White balance controls; tonal and color adjustments with levels; retouching with a spot-and-patch tool; and noise reduction and sharpening capabilities are all included.

While most of these tools are serviceable, they all seem to fall short of their Photoshop counterparts, and it’s surprising that Aperture has no equivalent for Adobe’s Curves command. Fortunately, one can easily tell Aperture to open a selected image in an external editor (such as Photoshop) and manipulate it there.

One of Apple’s innovations here is that the corrections in Aperture are “non-destructive.” Any changes made are recorded as instructions to be played back on the original source file when needed, and not actually performed on the file itself. In other words, any edits are applied to the file only when one decides to export them for use in another program, or when it’s to be printed. Aperture always works hard to maintain the data integrity of the original master image, and to keep your hard drive free of multiple versions of the same image.

Another useful innovation is Aperture’s ability to apply one or more corrections, including retouching, to multiple images using the Lift and Stamp feature.

Speed and performance

One of Aperture’s most frequently cited drawbacks is the truly serious computing hardware required. The specifics are listed on Apple’s web site, but it’s safe to say that the program has been designed for only the latest desktop CPUs.

Comments in forums indicate that G5 desktop machines with less than 2 gigabytes of RAM — more specifically, PowerBooks — will find Aperture simply too resource-hungry to enable mission-critical work. This means that until faster PowerBooks arrive, field photographers likely will not want to process images with Aperture until they can get to a desktop machine.

Only the largest of monitors (20 inches and above) seem to provide sufficient real estate to effectively navigate the software. In fact, Apple recommends that Aperture be run on a Quad system with a 30-inch LCD monitor (or several monitors; the demonstrations at PhotoPlus Expo had four 30-inch monitors attached) for optimal performance.

There is a huge audience of film shooters who want to transition to digital, but don’t want to spend hundreds, or thousands, of dollars on training and years of effort to become Photoshop experts. Most of these shooters just want to be photographers, not professional pixel pushers. Aperture does offer a path for at least some of these shooters.

Potential competitors

One frequently asked question is, “Is Apple going after Photoshop?” The stock answer from both Adobe and Apple is that Aperture and Photoshop are more complementary than competitive, and that there’s plenty of room for both in the market. Most pundits parrot that official line.

A fairly cozy relationship may exist today, but these products definitely cover similar territory in both feature sets and target audience. This overlap will only increase over time as Photoshop and Aperture gain more features. Apple certainly will add more editing and creative capabilities to Aperture, and Adobe will continue to insert additional workflow enhancements into Photoshop.

Another critical question to ask is, “Is it conceivable that someone would buy Aperture and then decide not to buy Photoshop?” The answer today is probably a (very) tentative yes; at first, a select few will find Aperture sufficient to meet their needs. This number will only increase over time as the product improves, suggesting that despite all the happy talk, these two programs are on a collision course.

Apple is clearly serious about servicing the creative market as a whole, and specifically the pro photo arena. Given its commitment, and the rapid fixes that it issued to address bugs and limitations in the first release, I am confident that Aperture will grow to become a valuable workflow tool. At this point, RAW shooters using cameras for which Apple has updated the converters should feel comfortable testing Aperture 1.0, assuming that they have the hardware required to operate it effectively.

In the future, I anticipate that Aperture 2.0 will be a widely accepted tool among photographers.

Steve Broback
Story Author: Steve Broback

Steve Broback is the founder of the Blog Business Summit and the Web Community Forum conferences. He is also the coauthor of Publish and Prosper: Blogging for Your Business (Peachpit Press, 2006.) He also co-founded Thunder Lizard Productions, (a technology event production company) in 1991, which became a subsidiary of Fawcette Technical Publications in 2000.

At Thunder Lizard, Broback orchestrated some of the most successful technology events of the last 10 years focusing on Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and Macromedia DreamWeaver. He also produced TLP’s Web Design World, Macromedia Web World, and other events with attendees numbering in the tens of thousands.

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