Apple Aperture

When Apple announced Aperture, it’s latest offering in the Pro applications, there was a lot of talk about a “Photoshop Killer.” I want to lay that one to rest right off the bat.

Review by Colin Smith

More Great Reviews

PhotoshopCAFE home

Apple Aperture

Review by Colin Smith

When Apple announced Aperture, it’s latest offering in the Pro applications, there was a lot of talk about a “Photoshop Killer.” I want to lay that one to rest right off the bat. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather than a competing product to Photoshop, Aperture compliments the workflow. I can’t imagine any serious photographer without Photoshop in the armory. Where Photoshop comes short is with sorting through large collections of photos and this is where Aperture shines.


In this review I have put Aperture to the test and I will tell you about my experiences without holding anything back. Personally, I see Aperture as the first step in the workflow. I would import, sort, organize and make some minor adjustments in Aperture and then head to Photoshop for the heavy stuff as well as any retouching. I am excited about Aperture because for the first time my images are organized and all in one place. In the past, I had images in various folders scattered across various disks and even some in iphoto. To complicate things even more, the internal battery on my camera died, so the date stamps were messed up on some images. If you have ever dug into the file structure of iphoto you will know what a nightmare this is. To be honest, I thought I was doomed to this mess of images forever, even deleting photos by accident. Face it, generally creative people are not the most organized.

The import feature of Aperture is nice, very nice. When you are importing images from the flash drive, camera, hard drive or CD and DVD, you actually get thumbnail previews before you import. The entire folder can be imported or just the selected images. A very cool interface shows you where you are importing to. Either create a new “Project” or add to an existing project. (More on projects soon). For iphoto users, an import utility that converts an iphoto library will save a lot of hassles. I did find that I still had a few duplicates that I had to sort through and delete.

Non-destructive workflow

Apple trumpets the invention of a non-destructive workflow. This claim seems a little like Al Gore inventing the internet, because all RAW images are non-destructive.  Apple does take the non-destructive workflow to a new level and it’s in this area Aperture shines. Images are imported as master folders called projects. Whenever we apply any adjustments, a new version is created. Unlike iphoto which bloats our precious Hard Disk space by creating copies of the images, Aperture creates a set of instructions which weighs in from 8-16kb. This set of instructions points to the original image and can be toggled or reverted at any time. This works on various file formats, not just RAW. The user can create as many versions as desired and make different adjustments to each without filling up their disk. This is good news for imagers. Even albums can be created with multiple images. These albums all point to the original so they add virtually nothing to the file size.

On the back end, all the images are placed into a single library file which can be opened by Ctrl+clicking on the library and choosing “show package contents.” Now the file structure is visible, showing all the projects and albums. Choosing “Show package contents” once again will enable you to view individual images and drag them to your desktop if you wish. You can only open Projects this way. This is a convenient way to organize your images in a single place although it’s very limiting. It would be nice if other programs such as Adobe Bridge could access these files. I have been told that Apple is working on a solution. Another drawback is that only a single library can be opened at a time. There is a workaround however; you can set the library location in Aperture’s preferences file. A re-launch will be required for the library to kick in.  I also hear rumors of an Apple fix in this area.


Your entire library can be backed up using a vault. Vaults can be created on Hard Disks or external drives.  Once created, incremental backups can be performed fairly quickly. This is fantastic and provides a real archiving solution. There is even a little bar that shows how much space is left on the disk and if you have run a recent backup. When Aperture launches, it tells you how many images are not backed up. Finally, I feel like I can sleep at night knowing that I will never again lose all my images during a crash. Multiple Vaults can be created.

Organization and sorting

Aperture has a lot to bring to the table in the area of sorting images. Apple has built in excellent dual-monitor support, with a customizable display on the second monitor. Mirror the main monitor, show individual picks full screen or show comparisons. The options are very flexible and you can even work in full screen mode with all the adjustments floating as HUD’s (Heads Up Display). Aperture makes good use of screen real estate. What’s missing? As much as you can customize your setup there are no options to save your workspace.

Scrolling through image thumbnails is fast and smooth. I scrolled a collection of over 5,000 images smoothly. I had to wait about 20 seconds for the images to load first. Once loaded, you can scroll using the scroll handles or the cool new shuttle slider. The more you move the slider the faster thumbnails scroll. Use the keyboard shortcuts U and L to scroll. Tap U to scroll up slowly in a teleprompter fashion. Tap it again, to speed up, each tap will speed up the scrolling more. Tap the L key to slow it down, keep pressing L and the direction of scrolling with change. I think you get the idea. Press K to stop scrolling. I really love this feature as it makes scrolling fun and easy. When the thumbnails scroll, you get low resolution proxies. It takes about 1 second for them to display as full res when the scrolling stops. In the original release this feature was a bit sluggish but core updates on tiger 10.4.4 fixed this problem.

Auto stacking

Auto stacking is one of the most intuitive features in Aperture. Use this feature to stack the images into groups of time bursts. For example, all the images taken within 3 seconds of each other will be placed into stacks (range is from 0-60 seconds). The stacks show as a single image and a number in the top corner indicating how many images in the stack. Click the number to quickly show or hide all the images in the stack. This feature can very quickly take a shoot of 100 images or more and whittle it down to a manageable collection of stacks. When first released, auto stacking was painfully slow. Apple released a free 1.01 update that now makes auto stacking lightning fast, even on a G4 powerbook.

Comparing images

Its very easy to compare images, thanks to all the comparison features. You can cmd+Click on thumbnails to throw the images up on the main viewer and look at them side-by-side. Choose compare and a single image will show along with any selected image. Click any thumbnail to compare the image or version with the comparison image.
3 up will show any selected photo along with the photo on either side. This works well for exposure bracketed images. For a close up view use the loupe tool. This cool tool that looks like a floating magnifying glass (actually a loupe) is fully customizable and shows a close up view of the area its moved over. It even works on thumbnails. You can change the size of the loupe or its magnification level. Keep your finger near the tilde key ~ this toggles the loupe on and off.

Metadata support is very good and allows you to add custom metadata such as Keywords, IPTC and other options like time zones as well as the EXIF data. The metadata can be accessed by the Metadata panel or by using the HUD. metadata can be copied from one image to another using the lift and stamp tools (they copy and paste settings). Metadata can be batched by selecting multiple images and choosing the “stamp selected images” button on the lift and stamp HUD. There is no support for metadata templates.

The light table is a really cool tool. Simply drag and drop images onto the light table and arrange as you wish. Scale and move, even overlap images to create layouts. This is an excellent sorting and arranging tool that works just like a traditional light table. As a bonus, you can even print your layouts.

While sorting, ratings can be applied to images. These are just like the ones you are used to in iphoto, with the addition of a 6th level, which displays an x instead of stars. X marks an image as a reject. As you can imagine, once you apply ratings you can search or display according to ratings. There are some powerful keyboard shortcuts that allow a lot of flexibility with ratings.

Combining auto stacks, comparisons, ratings and the loupe tool can get your images sorted through very quickly to find the picks to work with. These picks can then be copied to a new album or smart album. Smart albums will automatically update when new images that match their criteria are added to the library, very similar to collections in Adobe Bridge. You are now ready to adjust your images.

Adjusting images

There are several adjustment tools available that allow you to:

  • Fine-tune exposure
  • Adjust levels (using a histogram with midtone and quadtone controls; includes Auto levels and Auto contrast settings)
  • Set White Balance (includes an eyedropper for easy white point setting)
  • Crop
  • Modify highlights and shadow
  • Mix RGB channels for perfect black-and-white conversions
  • Reduce noise
  • Correct red-eye
  • Sharpen images (using Unsharp Mask or Sharpen Luminance tools)
  • Straighten images and horizons
  • Desaturate color levels
  • Change a color image to Sepia (with controls to set the degree of Sepia coloration)

Some of these tools work better than others, but a big drawback with Aperture is speed. These tools are anything but speedy. It will be interesting to see how it works on the new Intel-based machines with a native universal build. (Stay tuned, I will be testing and posting results when these things become available). I found that a performance increase in the adjustment tools can be gleaned by minimizing the amount of thumbnails displayed, this is a good time to create an album and make your adjustments to the images in the album.

I have compared several of the adjustment tools to those in Photoshop and some such as highlight/shadow produce good results, while noise reduction comes up wanting. Aperture can remove luminance noise but struggles with color noise. Best stick to Photoshop CS2’s noise reduction filter for this.
The white balance tool is nice. When you choose the eyedropper, the loupe kicks in, allowing a precise sampling of a gray area in the image. The color correction is good (a bug fix is included in the 1.01 update). One thing that’s missing is the basic presets such as seen in Adobe Bridge.

The grayscale conversion is nice and offers a feature similar to channel mixer and allows us to make a grayscale image from the color channels, this allows us to make crisp and clear grayscale images.

RAW Conversion

I have noticed in some reviews that state that Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) raw conversion is superior to Aperture. After running some comparisons, I have found that this is not the case. ACR and Aperture do handle conversion differently and thus in some case ACR is better and in some cases Aperture is better. I ran a comparison for sharpening, with ACR default settings and noticed that they were about the same. I then turned off all sharpening in the Lens tab of ACR. I noticed that the images were softer in ACR. After talking to an Apple product manager, my suspicions were confirmed; Aperture does apply some sharpening and color saturation by default. There is no way to turn this off for now. Images of sunsets were clearly better in Aperture because of the saturation in the yellows.  Bear in mind that I am talking about default conversion with camera settings and no tweaking. Once you make adjustments, its possible to make images in both applications more or less the same. Photographers who have correctly set exposure and color balance, you will be very happy with the RAW conversion in Aperture and you will be able to work with the images very quickly.

Aperture and Photoshop

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Aperture is a great tool for organizing and sorting your images and it can handle some image adjustments. To get the very best out of your images, I recommend using Aperture as your first stop, to import, organize, sort and archive images, and then use Photoshop for your heavy image work. There are several ways that we can work with Photoshop and Aperture together. Set Photoshop as the external editor in preferences. Choose an image thumbnail (or several thumbnails) Press Cmd+Shift+O and the images will be opened in Photoshop. Work on the images as you usually would. Choose save and close and new versions will be created in Aperture. Although Aperture has no layer support, the layered image will retain its layers. It will be viewed as a composite but if relaunched in Photoshop the layers will remain intact. If you try to adjust a layered Photoshop document in Aperture, a new version will be created.

Images can be exported to a new location as either originals or versions. Originals can be RAW, jpg, PSD (layers intact)  or Tiff and these are the original images. This is good news; your images are not lost in a proprietary system. Versions can be exported in a variety of formats than can also be opened in Photoshop and contain the adjustment made in Aperture.

The place where compatibility falls down between Photoshop and Aperture is RAW. You cannot share a RAW file with both programs. The RAW image must be processed and converted in either Photoshop or Aperture. Too bad that there is no way for Aperture and Photoshop to share an XMP file with the adjustments. We will just have to wait and see if anything develops in that area. Sources at Apple have hinted to me that Apple may make the conversion code open source and thus a solution could be developed in the future.

More than printing

Going beyond simply printing, Aperture helps you to output your images in several ways. Let’s look at the web first. Images can be exported really quickly as low res for emailing; this is a great time saver. Web galleries and photo journals can be created very easily. Aperture builds all the layout and code for you. There are some nice templates to choose from (Apple always excels at nice-looking templates). The web pages can be uploaded to a .mac account with a single click or exported for uploading to your own web server via FTP.

You can create hard cover books from your photos. This work a lot like the feature in iphoto, except you have a little more flexibility in Aperture. Choose the photos and let Aperture make the layouts. Customize and tweak the layouts, add captions and headers and you can order a book online. I haven’t tested the online orders to see the quality of the books, but it sure looks like a nice feature.

Wrapping it all up

Over all I am happy with Aperture and it’s a tool that is really needed to complete the digital workflow. In the real world, it’s helped me to finally organize all my photos (no easy task) and now I don’t have to worry about where my images are. Let me give you a sample workflow: At macworld, I shot the keynote using my new 200mm Canon lens with Image Stabilizer.  After the event, I copied all the images from my camera into Aperture (using a USB cable – so it was a slower than usual process). I then sorted the images, adjusted a couple and applied some non-destructive cropping to some others (I was quite far back in the room). I then created a web gallery and uploaded the whole thing to my .mac account. While some envious mac users were watching over my shoulder, my photos of the event were live on the web less than an hour after the event, all without leaving the room. You can view the results here:

I really like the concept of Aperture and it’s a fun program to use. The interface is really easy to use and super sexy-looking. I would like to see some performance improvements, especially in the real time adjustments. I would also like to have the option for multiple libraries as well as the ability to create custom presets for adjustments and workspaces.

Overall, I give Aperture a 4 out of 5 and recommend it for professional photographers, especially studio photographers.

Apple Computers
Est. Street price $199

visit the Aperture page


Free Events with Colin Smith and Apple

Mastering Digital Photography with Aperture and Photoshop
Join’s Colin Smith as he discusses how photography hobbyists and professionals can utilize both Aperture and Photoshop CS 2 to create, edit, and organize their digital photographs
. Free Seminars!

Monday, Feb 20, 7:00 p.m.: Apple store, 3rd st Promenade - Santa Monica
Monday, April 24, 7:00 p.m.: Apple Store - The Grove - Los Angeles
April 10th 4PM : Apple Store - Beverly Center - Beverly Hills
May (Date not yet confirmed) : Apple Store SOHO - New York