Review of Apple Aperture


Click to enlargeI’ve been on a photography kick a bit here recently, as I’ve been doing so much of it lately, but indulge me for one more…

Anyone who’s used a digital camera knows that the quantity of images can become quite overwhelming over time. Freed of the cost constraints of shooting on film, we snap away and build up mountains of images that can become a real burden after a while. And if you shoot with an SLR then chances are you have to do quite a bit of post-processing to get the images looking the way you want them, as unlike point-and-shoots which are designed to produce bright and contrasty images right off, SLRs tend to be conservative in how they expose, allowing the photographer more control downstream to tweak saturation, contrast, color balance, etc.

I used to have a complex combination of applications I would use to achieve these two tasks: Apple’s Image Capture application to get the images off the memory card, iView Media Pro to catalog them, Iridient Digital’s Raw Developer to do processing of RAW images (I mostly shoot RAW, not Jpeg, as the quality and flexibility are better), and then Photoshop to do adjustments to Jpegs (since Raw Developer doesn’t work on Jpegs) or localized adjustments that don’t get applied to the whole image. Lastly, if I wanted to upload images to my Zenfolio site it was a laborious process of resizing, uploading, and then writing in all the captions and keywords on the site itself. It was a very time consuming workflow to say the least.

For the Paris trip I just took, for example, I shot over 1,000 images, and by some people’s standards that’s not very much at all. I regularly read forum posts of people coming back from a trip with several thousand images. Personally I’m not sure how they do that, and I guess I still have enough mindset holdover from film that I don’t shoot every single thing that I look at. But regardless it’s a lot to go through. And when the image files are over 15mb as they are from my Pentax K20D, which has a 14.6 megapixel sensor (that’s a RAW file, Jpegs are about 7mb), that’s a heck of a lot to chew through.

In the last few months I’ve started using Apple’s Aperture application to streamline the work, and boy has it made a huge difference. It has literally sped things up 5-7 times. Basically all the steps I described above are now handled in one application, and all the process speedbumps have been removed. The ingestion of images, manipulation of them (regardless of Jpeg or RAW), cataloging, and even uploading to Zenfolio are now done in Aperture. Furthermore, Aperture handles centralized storage of all the photos which makes the crucial step of backing them up much easier and confident.

Click to enlarge

It is a gorgeous application to look at, visually one of the most attractive I think, especially when working in full-screen mode. Like all of Apple’s pro applications it is a dark monotone aesthetic which keeps the focus on the images themselves. I find it less distracting to work in, visually, than Adobe’s competing Lightroom, and like that in Aperture the image can take up literally the full screen, while in Lightroom there’s always a tool bar or palette reducing the size of the image. The image above shows the full screen, but with all the control panels visible; with those hidden the image is edge to edge on the screen.

It is a beast of an application, in several ways. First, and most notoriously, it is a resource hog. It will chew up CPUs and RAM and spit them back out. It needs as much processing power, memory, and graphics card horsepower as you can throw at it. Version 2 is much better in this regard (I tried version 1 and hated it, both because of speed and because the interface was not that intuitive, but v2 has really improved that a lot too). Still, when you’re doing complex work on large image files, it can get bogged down a bit.

Second, it does have a learning curve. It’s actually not that difficult to get started with and do basic things, but there is a huge amount of power and customizability in the application that take a long time to get to know and put to use. It is much like Photoshop in this respect, though easier to get started with. Let’s put it this way: the manual for Aperture is over 500 pages long. I’ve used Photoshop for years and used to teach a class in it, and even after using Aperture for several months I’d estimate I still really only know how to do about 70% of what it can really do.

Also like Photoshop it has endless keyboard shortcuts that allow you to do a lot of things without reaching for the mouse, which really speeds up workflow. These take time to learn, but allow you to make quick work of sorting through a large batch of photos, rating them, culling the no-hopers, and moving on to fine-tuning.

Third, it’s database takes up a lot of room. Even the stripped down database I keep on my laptop is 16gb. This is because of the various previews and thumbnails, in addition to the images themselves that are all centralized in one place. But because of how Aperture works, you can create lots of variations of a single image (e.g. a black and white, multiple crops, different adjustments) with very little penalty as it does not duplicate the master image itself. Each variation is just a set of instructions about what to do with the master.

Click to enlarge

Two of the marquee features of Aperture are “stacks” and its loupe. The loupe mimics to an extent an old-time photographer’s loupe for looking at slides. It definitely has its uses, but in some ways it’s a bit gimmicky, and retrofits an old paradigm that wasn’t that great anyway (looking through a small magnifying loupe was a matter of speed rather than desirability). The other feature, stacks, also taken from the days when people would stack up related slides on top of one another with the “picks” sitting on top, allows you to group related images together, and collapse or expand the stacks. Each photo can receive a different rating and be treated individually, but collapsing the stack keeps the focus on the pick and saves screen space.

Aperture has terrific cataloging capabilities, more than I probably need. It’s keywording abilities are very flexible and powerful, though a bit confusing to start with. It took me a little while to find the best way to apply them quickly. It also has lots of options for grouping projects, and has smart albums similar to iTunes to let you group images of a related nature. The notion of “projects” is central to Aperture, and this is one term that makes it a bit difficult to deal with for a consumer, as opposed to a pro photographer. Pros have clearly defined projects that they work on, for clients or whatever, but for consumers that is not so much the case. Apple used the anachronistic “roll” paradigm in iPhoto, and projects are similar to that. But it took me a while to wrap my head around how to best think of projects, and there’s still times I find myself not really know whether to import a photo into an existing project or create a new one.

One great capability that I’ve just tried for the first time is Aperture’s book-making function. This lets you very easily create books of various sizes (hardback and softcover), drop your photos in to pre-made but customizable templates, add text, and then one-click order. Fed Ex just delivered my hardbound 50-page book today and I am very happy with the printing quality of it.

Click to enlarge

So if you’re looking to move beyond something like iPhoto, and you use a Mac (Aperture is Mac only, and I doubt that will change as it makes heavy use of OS X core capabilities), then take a look at Aperture. It’s pretty inexpensive as such things go at $200 and well worth the investment if you are finding yourself overwhelmed with your photo catalog.

Apple has a large number of good video tutorials that are worth watching.