Mac Skeptic: Aperture Takes Digital Photography Back to the Future

Apple has just begun shipping its $499 pro-level digital photography workflow and editing application, Aperture. I took the program for a spin and had a conversation with Joe Schorr, Apple's product manager for Aperture.

After publication, Apple contacted me and clarified how to use the features I had a hard time with in my evaluation. Corrections to my original review are in italics below.

Apple set out to create a program that lets photographers and photo editors work in ways reminiscent of film photography, with tools like the Light Table and Loupe. These allow you to look at multiple images in more flexible ways--such as being able to spread out your work and group, rearrange, and stack images as you go along--which even resolute digital-imaging partisans should appreciate. Other distinguishing features include Aperture's use of the RAW image file format for viewing and editing--the most information-dense type of file you can get out of a digital camera--as well as the program's ability to display multiple images side by side and to edit in almost any view.

Disclaimer: I am a point-and-shoot photographer with rudimentary graphic-design training, so I have not given Aperture the most rigorous workout possible. I did, however, get a sense of the program's interface and try out its major features.

Schorr discouraged the idea that Aperture is meant to be a Photoshop killer. Although the two programs have some of the same functions, Aperture is designed to appeal to a specialized niche--photography professionals who work with lots of very-high-resolution photos--while Photoshop is a general-purpose image editor with wide graphic-design applications.

Adobe Systems' Creative Suite 2, of which Photoshop is a part, incorporates similar functionality into its Bridge application. For example, it lets you preview and sort images. But Bridge is a hub for Creative Suite, and as such has lots of tools that are unrelated to viewing or manipulating photos. If all you need to do is work with photos efficiently, Aperture may have the tools that you need.

The two flashy features mentioned above, the Light Table and the Loupe, caught my eye right away. The Light Table allows you to arrange and resize multiple photos to see how they will look together, then print the group or export it as a PDF. Light Table works well for creating rapid mockups of a collage of pictures, or for viewing images at different sizes in groupings.

While this may be useful for showing a mockup to a client, layouts with both pictures and text seem more common and useful. Aperture's Book and Web Gallery options seem like they could be adapted for this purpose, but the program is no substitute for a page-design application.

The Loupe tool is really whizzy: It's a zoom that works on any image displayed, even thumbnails--you just drag it to pan around the image or slide it to the next one. This is exactly how someone would look at a set of transparencies or a filmstrip on a real light table.

The Full Screen mode is also dazzling: This view hides your desktop, showing the images you've chosen on a black background with a smaller, unobtrusive set of tools. It looks great, gives more screen real estate to the images, and really focuses attention on them.

Stacks are designed for comparing, rating, and choosing the best of a set of similar shots; you can have Aperture do an automatic grouping (an Auto-Stack) or choose the grouping yourself. Then Aperture provides a handful of views for quickly looking at the shots in a group together. With one click you can give a picture five stars (the best); there's also a one-click "reject" rating that marks photos as unusable. You can choose to hide (but not delete) all the rejects. After just a bit of experimentation, I found these sorting and rating tools quick and easy to use. If you are winnowing through the output of a professional photo shoot, these tools could be a big timesaver.

In addition, you can have multiple projects or views open at once, using Aperture's tabbed browser.

Aperture's Search tool is powerful and useful, if a bit quirky. Clicking on the magnifying glass icon (like Spotlight's) opens a dialog box where you can either type text into a search box or construct an advanced search by setting conditions such as keywords, star ratings, and date created. To search within a project or other subset of images, you must have that subset selected. Irritatingly, to search the entire library, you don't choose Library, you choose the preset Smart Album called All Images. This took a bit of trial and error to figure out, and seems unnecessarily complicated.

Actually, you use a separate tool to search the entire Library, by clicking the magnifying glass icon right next to the Library label in the navigation pane (not the one at the bottom of the window). I still think this is unnecessarily complicated, although it does have the advantage of not loading previews of every image in your Library.

One of the most promising features, quick and flexible batch tagging with keywords, did not work for me as advertised. Aperture provides several ways to assign keywords to pictures, including dragging and dropping, but I could only tag one photo at a time, no matter how I tried. Lifting and stamping (a fancy name for copying and pasting metadata attributes) did allow me to copy the keywords of one photo onto a group, but it was a tricky, multistep process.

I missed an important feature here. In order to have your changes (any changes, including keywords) affect more than one image, you have to make sure Aperture is not set to affect just one. Because you can have multiple images in your working window at once, and because sometimes you want to apply batch changes (like keywords) and sometimes you don't (in the case of star ratings or an image adjustment, for example), there is a control for changing one or all. The button that does this is a plain rectangle, labeled with a tool tip that says "Toggle Primary Only." Neither of those is intuitive--I guess my expectation that an interface should teach me everything about itself is unrealistic. Without a personal walk-through of how to use this feature, I'm not sure how long it would have taken me to figure it out.

Apple touts Aperture's nondestructive editing, saying that each edit you make is saved in a version, rather than modifying the original image. Ideally, this means that all the edits are individually reversible. Aperture implements this by putting an Undo button on each Adjustment toolbar--but I couldn't find a way to show different versions of my image, the way you can with Photoshop's Adjustment Layers. Also, once you undo a change, you can't redo it.

It turns out that in Aperture there's versions and then there's versions. I assumed that each edit I made to an image silently generated a new version of the file that I could search for and open, but it doesn't work that way. If you want to make a copy of an image to work on, you have to explicitly do so, with the Duplicate Version command. Then you see two copies, with two file names, in the navigation pane. You can also set a preference to create these kinds of versions as you edit, but it's not turned on by default. You can show or hide adjustments to an image that you've edited, or look at the original (the "Master image") without undoing your changes. The check boxes in the adjustments pane for showing/hiding edits are unlabeled--I don't know if Apple's UI rules prohibit it, but a tool tip would have helped with this. And there is a command to redo your last change: You can choose it from the menu bar or with a keystroke combination, but there's not a button for it in the adjustments pane, as there is for Undo.

Aperture's Delete Versions command, which seems like it should undo the last edit you made, gives a scary warning message saying it will delete master images, and then it deletes the image entirely. If you want the photo back, you have to reimport it from the original source (hope you didn't erase that camera card!).

Actually, you only get this dialog box if you're about to delete the only version of an image in the Library. If you've made any copies, er, versions, one of those will be affected, not your Master image.

In the short period since Aperture was released, some users and reviewers have complained about RAW files looking noisy in Aperture. I'm not qualified to weigh in on this debate, but since the way the original RAW file is rendered affects all the iterations that come after, getting a clean image is critical. The RAW format converter used in Aperture is part of OS X, so any changes to the RAW converter will come with updates to the OS, not the application.

Aperture's system requirements are pretty rarefied: My 1.5-GHz G4 PowerBook with a gigabyte of RAM barely makes the cut, and the recommended system configuration is a dual-processor G5 tower with 2GB of RAM. However, a professional photo studio that routinely processes massive volumes of very large images would consider multiprocessor G5s to be standard equipment.

In addition, Aperture requires OS X 10.4.3 or later. This is because the program takes advantage of recently upgraded elements of the operating system, including Core Image and CoreData.

Pro-level digital cameras shoot in RAW formats (there's no one universal standard), and serious photographers use it to have the most latitude in image editing. Working smoothly with these ginormous files takes serious graphics-processing horsepower, and it's one of Apple's claims to fame for Aperture.

Loading the large RAW image files on my PowerBook took anywhere from about 4 seconds to as much as 10 seconds (to load a very large file in Full Screen mode). I found the delay tolerable, but in a production environment I would find this too slow.

When editing large RAW images at 100 percent resolution, I felt some sluggishness when waiting for the tools to respond, but again, it was tolerable for casual use. One way to speed up edits is to copy all the modifications from one image to a batch (as you can do with Photoshop).

I expected the Loupe tool to be resource-intensive, but I only noticed slowdowns when zooming in on thumbnails, while Aperture loaded all of the image data for the segment I wanted to look at. The Loupe worked smoothly with open images that were already completely loaded.

The only time my PowerBook hung in Aperture was when I tried to preview a large Light Table. On the whole, I didn't feel like performance was a problem: I found Aperture enjoyable to work with and wasn't frustrated by slowdowns.

Aperture strikes me as a sort of executive-level tool: It won't replace Photoshop for graphic artists who do extensive and intricate image manipulation, but art directors and photo editors who decide which images to put in a publication will probably like it quite a bit, and not balk at paying to have both programs. It's somewhat more of an open question as to whether pro and semipro photographers will embrace Aperture; I think it will depend on whether they find the editing tools robust enough.

As for us Joe Point-n-Shoots, we'll mostly find it too rich for our blood. I'm hoping that Apple puts the pretty stuff from Aperture, like Full Screen mode and the Loupe, into a new version of IPhoto so we can all enjoy it.