The move to Aperture (or, The move away from everything else)

My plan was to write an in-depth review of Aperture, and provide some insight into my decision to choose Aperture over Adobe Lightroom. About half way into the article, I realized that I wasn’t doing much more than regurgitating all of the information that mattered (to me) from the outstanding reviews by Ars and O’Reilly, among others. If you’re here in search of feature reviews or comparisons, read these reviews, or ask the Internet for others like them.

In lieu of a review, I thought it would be useful (and fun) to document my past and present workflows, and explain the reasons for my move in light of this evolution.

The Beginning

For years, my workflow consisted of a relatively simple multi-application process:

  1. Import photos into a hybrid date- and event-based folder structure (YYYY/MM_EventName) using Windows XP’s Scanner and Camera Wizard
  2. Open Picasa and review photos, deleting the crap
  3. Make any drastic cosmetic adjustments using the GIMP
  4. Make adjustments to exposure, contrast, and sharpness using Picasa
  5. Upload to [some sharing site] using [some sharing site]’s crappy web-based upload interface.

Of course, for years, I was shooting with one of two point-and-shoot cameras and dealing exclusively with JPEG output. I also wasn’t applying keywords, copyright/credit, or any other metadata to my images. I was shooting, filtering, uploading and never looking back.

In early 2007 I purchased my Canon EOS 400D, and out of necessity this workflow changed (albeit not much):

  1. Import photos into a date-based folder structure (YYYY/MM/YYYY-MM-DD) using Canon’s EOS Utility
  2. Open Canon’s ZoomBrowser to review photos, deleting the crap
  3. Make basic adjustments to exposure, contrast, and sharpness within ZoomBrowser, then export adjusted images as JPEG files
  4. Make any drastic cosmetic adjustments using the Gimp
  5. Import photos into Picasa and apply keywords*
  6. Upload to [some sharing site] using [some sharing site]’s crappy web-based upload interface.

I was still using close to the same number of applications within my workflow, but on account of the JPEG export and keyword application, processing even small groups of photos was now eating up a significant chunk of my time. There had to be a better way.

Around the middle of 2007, I started shopping for a software solution that I could use to optimize my workflow and buy myself a little more free time.

The Requirements

In order of importance (descending):

  • Built-in image acquisition capability, with a configurable file and folder naming mechanism
  • Support for all common RAW file formats
  • A robust image editing and adjustment capability (the latter being more important, but the former being important enough that a good editing or touch-up capability could be the deal-maker for one application).
  • Crazy support for metadata manipulation
  • Ability to re-locate images on disk
  • Ability to move originals into and out of the application’s library as needed
  • Ability to take images off-line, while maintaining the ability to search for or browse the same
  • Ability to create dynamically updating albums based on image metadata
  • An extensible export mechanism, so that images can be submitted to on-line services without having to export JPEG or TIFF files first
  • An interface that takes advantage of multiple displays when available
  • Full-screen editing

I certainly didn’t pull this list of requirements out of thin air. I’d seen my share of photographic workflow software reviews, and I more or less knew what features were available. I just didn’t understand how similar features compared across applications, nor did I know which application was most likely to meet my requirements.

Lik many an amateur photographer before me, I quickly narrowed the field to two applications: Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture.

The Skinny

Both applications support–to varying but satisfactory degrees–all of the features on my must-have list. And I saw this coming. Both applications were designed by companies with a rich history of support for visual artists. Thus, my decision would be made based on the details of each feature’s implementation, and the overall polish of the applications, from the look and feel of the interface, to the performance and customization provided by import/export facilities. On to the high points . . .

  • Lightroom is useable on a dual-display system, but lacks the interface customization provided by Aperture.
  • I actually prefer Lightroom’s default screen configuration, but have since come to love the Aperture interface (more on that later).
  • Both applications have adequate image editing and adjustment capabilities, and both perform these tasks in a completely non-destructive manner. That said, Aperture’s full-screen editor and heads-up displays blow away the best that I’m able to get out of Lightoom.
  • The Lightroom interface is definitely more responsive than the Aperture interface. Select an action within Lightroom, and that action takes place. Right away. Whereas Aperture will occasionally present you with a pretty, spinning wheel. It’s not a drastic difference, and a little extra memory makes it (almost) a non-issue, but it’s worth mentioning.
  • Aperture makes management of original images a little less painful. If you’re in a terrific hurry, you can import your photos without regard for their destination on disk, and very easily re-locate them after the fact. I was somewhat disappointed with (or scared by) Lightroom’s affinity for its library. I don’t recall exactly what it was that turned me off, but I do remember feeling guilty for attempting to store my images outside of the library.
  • Both applications provide an extensible export facility, and both enjoy an energized user base that’s willing to devote time to plug-in development.
  • Both applications have powerful metadata manipulation, although I’m partial to the way that Aperture presents metadata groupings and allows for the definition of presets.

The Verdict (I know: The article title is a spoiler.)

Both applications more than meet my needs, but I find that Aperture is better suited to true workflow optimization. Don’t get me wrong: Lightroom is workflow. But it’s Lightroom’s workflow, not my own. And while all of my technical requirements are met by Lightroom, being able to access any of the application’s features from any point within the creative process is a huge win for Aperture. Directly related to this point, Aperture’s interface can be very quickly customized to the point that almost any portion of the interface that meddles with the desired workflow can be cast aside, never to be seen again.

The other win for Aperture is the tight OS X and iWork/iLife integration. Being able to call up Aperture albums within iMovie, Keynote, and iDVD is huge. I can organize all of my images just the way that I want them to appear in an exported product, and keep those albums in my proverbial hip pocket until I need to drop them into a media project. And when I want to make that addition, it takes seconds, and I don’t have to context-switch away from the application on which I’m focused. My initial goal was time savings, and time savings external to my imaging workflow application are as important as the time savings that I enjoy while manipulating the images and library itself.

Summary (For the impatient)

Both applications are capable, and both have their strengths and weaknesses. A lot of the traits that Lightroom users love, Aperture users dislike (or despise), and vice versa. In my opinion, it comes down to control. Some users like the fact that their workflow is neatly defined and enforced by their software, whereas others prefer that their software get the hell out of the way, so that they can do as they please. I definitely fall into the latter category, and Aperture very much suits my need for an application that provides me with the functionality that I require, when and where I require it, and otherwise fades into the background while I work.


* You can apply keywords to RAW files within ZoomBrowser, but these keywords don’t survive an export–they’re only useful as long as you’re using Canon’s image browser.

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3 thoughts on “The move to Aperture (or, The move away from everything else)

  1. What about integration with Photoshop (or the Gimp)? Can you do that, if, say, you want to use the Lens Distortion correction filter or something?

  2. @Mark: Aperture allows you to configure an external editor so that you can easily export versions for detailed changes. So, Photoshop or any other stand-alone app is no problem–it’s one of the core preferences.

    If you want to configure the Gimp as your external editor, it’ll depend on how you’ve installed the gimp. If you installed the Gimp such that it’s listed in Applications, then you can link it using the Aperture preferences. However, if it’s installed via MacPorts and is running via X11, you won’t be able to link to it directly (you’d need to export a version and open with the Gimp manually).

    There’s certainly a way to create an application launcher that would start Gimp within the X11 environment, but I haven’t yet attempted to set this up (simply because I don’t use an external editor often enough that I have to think about it).

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