Aperture 3 is a huge step up from the previous version, adding pretty much everything that used to be the sole territory of Adobe Lightroom’s (particularly in custom adjustment presets and brushes), and even a couple of nifty features from iPhoto 09—Faces and Places. For Mac users who want a big step up in power from iPhoto, Aperture is a natural. For the ultimate in high-end editing of images, Adobe’s Photoshop retains its crown, of course. But among an extremely capable field of pro photo-workflow software (Adobe Lightroom and ACDSee Pro in particular), Aperture’s smoother user interface, plentiful slideshow and photo book output options, and top-notch camera raw file support raise it above the lot.
Programs in Aperture’s class are all about “workflow.” The progression is generally from importing and organizing to adjusting and editing to outputting your photos to print and web. Lightroom and ACDSee take the approach of segmenting each of these phases of the workflow with different “modes” in tabs or buttons. The progression makes sense much of the time, but there are times when you may just want to jump around and be able to say, start importing while you’re editing.
A key difference between Aperture and its competitors Adobe Lightroom and ACDSee Pro ($169.99 direct, ) is that Aperture is non-modal, meaning you don’t switch between functions like Lightroom’s Library, View, Develop, Print, and Web; you can perform any action from its single Inspector panel. The tabs on this panel for Library, Metadata, and Adjustments, along with the interface’s buttons and the app menu, give you access to everything in the program at any stage of the process. I prefer Apple’s approach; while I understand that the modal approach will be comfortable for many photo pros, Apple has proven with Aperture that a well-designed non-modal interface can still maintain organization without constraining your options at any point in the process.
Navigating Aperture’s easy full-screen view, with optional “heads-up” display for the Inspector, becomes second nature pretty quickly. This new full-screen capability makes it easier to show nothing but your big glorious photo. Lightroom still has three levels of “fullscreen” and requires extra steps to hide all the panels and toolbars. However, neither Aperture or Lightroom let me undock the panels (except in Aperture’s full-screen view) the way ACDSee did.
Aperture also lets you view your library large thumbnails in full screen mode, and Aperture’s thumbnail-size slider makes adjusting thumbnails’ size easier than in Lightroom. Aperture also has a nice zoom with the mouse-wheel option not found in Lightroom. Another feature lacking in Lightroom but available in Aperture is the virtual Light Table; this lets you arrange photos in different sizes in a single view and save them as one PDF or JPG.
Import and Organize
When you import photos from a memory card, Aperture saves files in its own area as “managed” photos, only accessible by Aperture, but you can save the images to a regular disk folder and have Aperture treat them as “referenced” files for editing. Any edits will be saved in Aperture’s database, but the master images remain where you placed them on the drive. You can also export a managed file to a disk file visible in Finder. The raw import settings for my Canon EOS Rebel T1i turned out beautiful images. And the software can perform some image processing as it imports, such as applying adjustment presets, and even Apple ActionScripts that you can download from enthusiast sites.
Like most current photo-editing software, Aperture is “non-destructive,” meaning it keeps a master of the original image you imported and saves your edits in a database. Any of your edited images is called a “version” (as opposed to the master—the original). I think Lightroom makes it a little easier to take snapshots and view before/after comparisons, though you can do this in Aperture through menus. Lightroom also makes it easier to see a split view of one side showing your original and the other your edited version. And while tethering my T1i worked flawlessly in Lightroom 3 beta, Aperture wouldn’t play. I contacted Apple about this and assume it will support this most popular of DSLRs soon.
Aperture lets you organize your images in several hierarchies—at the top level, your Library contains Projects, which can be subdivided into folders, albums, and Smart albums. Stacks is a feature in both Aperture and Lightroom that lets you group related photos, and both can auto-group photos into stacks based on the shots’ timestamps. Aperture makes a bigger deal out of stacks, giving the feature its own menu (Lightroom offers a choice under its Photo menu). And Aperture has a nice expanding animation when you reveal a stack’s photos.
Aperture offers all the extensive metadata support you could want—camera and EXIF, ratings, captions, keywords, and much more—including support for the standard IPTC Core spec. One thing I’m used to is right-clicking to get properties, but that’s not an option in Aperture. For my Canon T1i, Aperture could show me the focus points, but Lightroom couldn’t. A very complete filter dialog lets you view just photos that meet the criteria you want, though in a minor quibble, Lightroom makes it easier to filter by EXIF info such as which lens you used.
Aperture also now displays video and lets you do basic trimming. I do wish it were easier to filter the library view by just video, though. The video editing is really sort of like what you get on the iPhone;very basic. But it can be useful for slideshow presentations, and it’s more than you get it Lightroom 3, which only displays videos in the betas I’ve seen so far
Faces and Places
Including the iPhoto Faces and Places features is a huge plus for pro photographers, particularly wedding shooters who can easily organize tons of participant and guest photos using Faces. In my testing, Faces works nearly identically to the feature in iPhoto, but it occasionally identified a non-face object as a face. Once you teach it who a face belongs to, the program does a good job of finding other pictures containing it, and you can see each person’s images from the “corkboard” as in iPhoto. ACDSee and Lightroom have no face recognition, so if that appeals to you as a way to organize your photos, Aperture is your choice.
It’s very easy to see how useful the Faces feature could be for a wedding photographer sitting with a bride who wants to see all photos that a certain bridesmaid appears in, or any combination of members of the wedding party, for that matter.
Nature, landscape, and sports photographers could certainly make good use of the Places feature, which can take data from GPS trackers (including the iPhone’s) to automatically geo-tag the shots. Aperture’s geo-tagging is ahead of Lightroom’s, which requires a plugin to import GPS data. The mashup with Google Maps is pretty impressive, letting you see the whole earth with pushpins for your photos. And Apple has added a lot of local data to make it easier to pinpoint your shots.
Image Adjustment and Optimization
Aperture offers all the image-adjustment tools pro photographers need (levels, curves, white balance, and sharpening), but now lets you save presets for later use. Before version 3, you had to lift and stamp edits between open photos. Lightroom has offered custom presets, and photogs have complained about their absence in Aperture. One drawback in Aperture is that there’s no history window for removing any specific action among your edits. All you get is an undo option in the edit menu, though it does offer to undo many actions back, and you can undo actions within adjustment groups.
Aperture’s adjustment brushes have one really cool new feature: edge detection. This lets you brush an effect onto a similar area of the image, like a background or sky, without affecting adjacent objects. It’s similar to Lightroom’s brush’s “Auto Mask” option. Aperture adds a Polarize brush, and lets you colorize your changes so it’s easy to see where they’ve been applied, even if they’re subtle.
One thing that’s more a feature of Aperture’s non-modal Inspector is that you can view all your images’ thumbnails and apply adjustments to them all at once. In Lightroom, you have to make your adjustment in the Develop tab, copy the settings, then switch to Library view and paste them after selecting, though you could avoid some of this with Lightroom’s Quick Develop in Library view. Aperture even goes farther in helping you apply both adjustment and metadata to more pictures, with its handy lift and stamp buttons.
The fixers available in some entry-level products are also available in both programs: red-eye correction, leveling, blemish removal, but both with more control and better results. However, some things found in consumer apps require going out to other software, such as panorama creation. In more advanced operations like lens chromatic aberration correction and de-vignetting, Aperture’s results in my testing surpassed what I could do in Lightroom.
Both Aperture and Lightroom support plugins, including the industry standards like those from Nik Software, Human Software, and onOne Software. These are essential for professional photographers. Lightroom offers a slightly bigger community of preset and plugin contributors, but you can likely find what you need at Apple’s Aperture Plugin page. And Aperture plugins work inside the app, rather than simply sending an image to a basically external editor, as Lightroom plugins do.
Both Lightroom and Aperture make extensive uses of multithreading, and performance is snappy in both, even on my two-year-old 2.4GHz MacBook with 2GB DDR2 RAM. The first measure of speed is how long it takes the app to start up. Both Aperture and Lightroom took just 4 seconds to be ready for work. Importing from media was a somewhat different story. Importing 81 20MB raw image from an 8GB SanDisk Extreme III SDHC card took 1 minute and 52 seconds, but it continued processing and loading for 4 more minutes, during which response was sluggish. Lightroom 3 Beta 2 took 4:53, but the app was completely finished after the import. In both apps, however, you can start working on images as soon as they’ve been imported without having to wait for the rest of the import to complete.
The real speed issue for these apps is the time it takes to display and perform an adjustment or effect on a huge raw file. And again, in both, performance was not lacking. Loading 20MB image files was a wash on my MacBook, both taking from 4 to 6 seconds for the same set of photos. Loading a 20MB image would often take two seconds longer in Lightroom than in Aperture, but I was able to apply a tungsten white balance to 80 photos in Lightroom much faster than in Aperture, but when viewing the images full size it turned out that the effect had yet to be applied. Same for applying maximum sharpening to 40 photos, which in Aperture took 2:25, and Lightroom reported being done in 10 seconds or so, but when I went to view the supposedly modified pictures full-size in Lightroom, the effect had to be applied, making loading take longer. Again, I prefer Aperture’s approach, which lets you start working faster.
Output options: Slideshows, Printing, and Books
Aperture’s newly enhanced slideshows actually let you specify the time each image will display, rather than setting all photos to, say, 4 seconds. This way, you can really match the pictures to the music, give more important shots longer time, or time your slideshow for a presentation.
Printing in this version offers a lot of flexibility, as well: You can save custom layouts, resize boxes and borders by dragging, exposure compensate for printers, and add watermarks. You can choose any number of images to appear on a page, and specify row and column spacing. Lightroom, though, offers just as much control over printing.
Aperture has some fantastic capabilities when it comes to designing books. Not only does it let you choose from preset or custom templates and flow in all selected photos, but you can use plugins from professional book publishers to match the formats they use. It also includes blog and web site templates, which you can export either directly to MobileMe or to a folder with all the files necessary to send to your web server. Again, Lightroom has as much or more going for it for web templates and includes an FTP uploader, but Lightroom doesn’t give would-be photobook publishers anywhere near as much help As Aperture. And in a final ease-of-sharing touch, Aperture sports big buttons for direct uploading to Flickr and Facebook right up top, and you can email a picture from a right-click menu.
Finally, you want to keep your digital images safe, and the program’s Vault feature makes archiving your photo collection easy and automatic. But this only works for managed files and the adjustments to referenced files. Lightroom has a similar backup option, so this one, too, is a close call.
It’s a tight race between Aperture and Lightroom. Both have excellent raw import, image adjustment including brushes, and plugin support. Aperture has come a long way in this release in equaling Lightroom’s presets and adjustment brushes. If you shoot a lot of people or are moving up from iPhoto, Aperture makes a lot of sense. If you insist on using Photoshop or Windows, Lightroom, with its easy roundtrip editing, is the clear choice. A lot of it will come down to style. But with all the image editing power and greater ease of use, Aperture gets the Editors’ Choice by a nose.