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Apple Aperture

The rookie: Can Apple's innovative approach to workflow software overcome its flaws?

By Andrew Rodney

(Editor's note: This is a more extensive version of the review that ran in the March 2006 issue of
Professional Photographer magazine.)

For years, photographers have had excellent software tools for manipulating and retouching their images, yet few products that fully addressed the agonizingly slow process of editing and processing RAW files from a typical photo shoot. With nothing more than a loupe and a light table, the task of editing and sorting thousands of 35mm slides is relatively fast process. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case when editing thousands of RAW digital camera files. Recognizing this, Apple Computer announced, with great fanfare, its first software product designed for professional photographers; Aperture. Apple’s Web site declares, "Designed from the ground up for professional photographers, Aperture provides everything you need for after the shoot, delivering the first all-in-one post-production tool for photographers."

By design, Aperture attempts to wear many hats, showing its greatest promise handling a process that, for lack of a better term has been called “image ingestion.” Ingestion is the process of moving digital images from camera to computer, examining and organizing them (sorting and ranking) with the ultimate goal of producing an edited set of hero photographs. At this point, adding metadata, such as copyright information and keywords would be applied.

Aperture was designed as a tool to organize images for easy retrieval, so it can be considered a digital assist manager (DAM). Once images are ingested and organized, Aperture can process RAW files for further manipulation and eventual output. Like most RAW converters, Aperture has tools for global image correction, cropping, sharpening, noise reduction and some limited spotting (cloning) functionality. Aperture provides tools for producing Web galleries, slide shows, proof sheets and booklets. Naturally Aperture allows you to export images to Photoshop and other applications. Aperture's goal is to provide these functions and more, in a modern design user interface that is intuitive, fast and efficient. Some have suggested that Aperture aims to compete with Adobe Photoshop, but I don’t believe this the case, at least with version 1.0. While Aperture can import and provide limited image corrections to JPEGs and other Raster image files, it simply can’t compare, nor does it try to compete with the multitude of tools found in Photoshop.

The product's performance gives us a mixed bag of results. Some of Apertures features are truly astounding and show great ingenuity in terms of design and execution. Other features are either broken, bug filled or simply designed with what may be a misunderstanding about professional photography and basic digital imaging. This review is intended to uncover some of the more impressive features found in Aperture and pinpoint some of the more severe shortcomings. Go to the March Bonus Content at www.ppmag.com for a more in-depth evaluation.

Good.
There are several unique features implemented in Aperture that makes handling large numbers of RAW files easy and efficient. Suppose you return from a portrait assignment with 1,000 RAW files shot in four different locations. Once your images are transferred from the camera to your Macintosh, you’ll usually first want to edit the best images from those you don't want your client to see. When that task is completed, you may want to build a Web gallery or a proof sheet of the best images to show to the client. Aperture excels at this editing process greatly assisted by a feature called Stacks.

Stacks work by grouping similar images into a group, allowing you to place your favorite image in that group, known as the Pick, above all others. Stacks take grouping images into the 3rd dimension, a process not practical in the analog world. With a mouse click Stacks can be condensed so the Pick is visible with all the other similar images hidden underneath, or expanded so you can see all the images in the Stack. Aperture can create Stacks manually or automatically. It provides automatic grouping of Stacks by examining the image date/time shot metadata with control over the time span using a slider control as seen in Figure 1. You can also create your own Stacks manually by selecting multiple images and selecting the Stack command. Using the example of four portrait locations and 1,000 RAW images, you could in theory end up with an edited photo shoot showing only four Stacks in the Aperture browser. A mouse click would expand all the other similar images in each Stack to the right side of the Pick, which was originally seen on top of each Stack.

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Figure 1. Here I have an expanded Stack of similar images. The Pick is to the far left and has a number 12 on top, indicating the number of images grouped to that stack. Notice there is a darker background around this group, indicting it is a Stack. If I click on the Pick, the other 11 images will slide underneath, showing only one image in the browser.

Another awesome feature is the Digital Loupe tool. When active, you can move it over any thumbnail of any RAW file in the Aperture browser to produce a greatly enlarged preview as seen in Figure 2. Finding tiny flaws among a group of similar images, such as someone who’s eyes may be closed or slightly out of focus without having to fully process the RAW file is one of these features you soon find you can’t live without! The size of the loupe preview as well as the zoom ratio can be changed via keyboard commands. If instead of the Loupe tool you wish to view a larger zoomed preview, simply type the Z key and the current image view shows at 100%. You can now pan around the image at this zoom ratio with the aid of the small navigator window. Aperture makes comparing and selecting the Pick a joy by allowing you to configure its viewer to a compare mode. Select what you believe is your favorite shot within a series of similar images and it stays in place while you click on other similar images to compare. You can easily update the your new favorite Pick as you continue the comparisons. Place your favorite on the top of a stack with the others or discard those that don’t make the cut. Using the keyboard commands, it is easy to add ratings to your images. You can even apply a Reject rating to hide the image from the others as you continue to evaluate your best image selections.

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Figure 2. After clicking on the Loupe tool, I can move it over any thumbnail in Aperture’s browser to produce a high resolution (in this case 100%) view.

Adding metadata like your copyright, keywords, and other important bits of information is fast and easy in Aperture. Using the Lift and Stamp tool, you can grab this data from one image and place it into other images in a single step. The Batch Change command allows you to add metadata from lists you can create, as well as keywords and captions, all at once. In short, the process of comparing and selecting your image Picks, adding ratings, keywords, and other metadata within Aperture can potentially save hours of work compared to other products on the market.

Aperture has some useful and quite powerful layout tools that are designed for photographers who may not have access to page layout software. You can build Web galleries and books by dragging and dropping your images into templates. You can create what are called Smart Albums or Smart Web Galleries, automatically populated by designated images that fit certain parameters you assign, such as a specific rating. Aperture allows the creation of multiple albums from any image you import into its main library.

If you’ve worked with either iPhoto or iTunes, you’ll understand the album creation process. From that photo shoot of 1,000 images, you could make an album for each portrait location, and then make another four albums representing your client’s favorite picks, and yet another album for those images you want to provide to the models.  In this scenario, Aperture only accesses a single RAW file, but you can place what appears to be a copy in any number of albums. These albums only contain pointers to the original RAW file, which is contained in the Aperture Library. If you alter, delete or move an image from any album, its Master RAW image is still in the Aperture Library. The original RAW file can be deleted from this Library but only when you actually select this Master RAW file and purposely inform Aperture to remove it.

Since all your original files are contained in the Library, finding images from within Aperture based on the myriad of metadata is very fast. Some users have complained about the difficulty of locating individual images from outside Aperture due to this database Library structure. I understand how some users might want to place their images anywhere they wish but there are compelling advantages to placing files inside a central database. Backing up the Aperture Library is possible by creating what is known as a Vault. Note that as you continue to add more and more files into the Library, both the Library and all resulting Vaults can become very large in size. This means that you must store the Library/Vault on a single drive. If you shoot thousands of gigabytes of images, this alone could be a major deal breaker. In the future, let's hope Apple comes up with a plan to split this database into manageable chuncks while still retaining a way to find files in other databases.

Bad
Aperture's image correction tools can’t compare to those in Adobe Photoshop nor are they designed to. A better comparison would be the global correction tools found in Adobe Camera RAW or other stand-alone RAW converters. Aperture’s correction tools include tint and white balance, saturation, exposure, and even a shadow/highlight command. The lack of curves is disappointing, but the Levels command provides a four-way slider, which aids in manipulating a range of tones (Figure 3).

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Figure 3. On the right side of the interface is the adjustments pane. The Levels command provides four sliders (top and bottom) that can be adjusted to apply tone corrections with a bit more control than seen in most Level commands.

There is nothing earth shattering in the tone and color correction provided, including monochrome and sepia tone effects, but you should have no difficulties producing a global color appearance you prefer. My biggest complaint is a lack of an RGB info palette. There is no numeric feedback available, and after working for nearly 16 years in Photoshop and other image manipulation packages, this is serious omission.

The Histogram is equally useless in providing useful editing feedback, since it is based on Aperture's internal color space, instead of the color space the rendered RAW file will be encoded into. Unlike Adobe Camera RAW, I have no idea if edits and color space selection are effective based upon the pixel data I’ll end up with once the RAW processing is completed. I prefer to select my working space based on the gamut of the scene data with feedback from the Histogram, something Aperture can’t provide.

The sharpening and noise reduction tools are very crude and I found them best left untouched. I was somewhat surprised to find a Red Eye Reduction tool in a product that is designed for professional photographers.

Apple has played up the fact that your original files are never touched or damaged by editing but this is true of all RAW converters. The RAW file is simply the data source a converter uses to render a new pixel-based color file. What is somewhat unique about Aperture is its Library structure and how it treats existing rendered images that you wish to edit. Imported images, RAW or rendered, are considered “Master” files and are never touched. Any alteration within Aperture takes place on a Version that Aperture first creates. With RAW files, editing is just a set of instructions that will be used to render a true pixel-based image should you either export the file or use the Open with External Editor command.

You can have a dozen different Versions in Aperture representing a dozen different corrections, crops, and other alterations, but only one RAW file exists in the Library. With existing rendered files such as PSDs or JPEGs, corrections are made on a copy of the original file; a new Version is created and stored in the Aperture Library and linked to the Master. Once you decide upon the corrections you wish to apply to render a RAW file, (or an existing rendered image file), you will likely wish to edit it further in an image editor like Photoshop or simply end up with a standard TIFF or PSD file to provide to a client. Before Apple updated Mac OS to 10.4.4 (two months after Aperture’s release), all the metadata you applied in Aperture was stripped out any file exported or opened with the Open with External Editor command. This is clearly a bug that should never have made its way into a shipping product.

If you import a layered PSD file into the Aperture Library, that layered file will exist intact because Aperture always works on a copy of an original (the Master). Should you open that imported file from Aperture, this Version is flatted without access to the original layers! There are a few workarounds for retaining and working with the original layered file, but it's convoluted and unnecessary process. In addition, this adds significantly to the total size of the Aperture Library. Also be careful of another nasty bug when moving from Aperture to Photoshop and back. If you click on a Master and ask to edit it in Photoshop, and then just after doing so return to Aperture and select Undo (or Command Z), Aperture will delete that version forever. So much for nondestructive editing.

Multiple rendered and saved versions imported from Photoshop are full-sized, pixel-based TIFFs, PSDs, or JPEGs and will greatly increase the size of the Aperture library. This library appears as a single large file, but is really an OS X Package (a grouping of files). Should you wish to muck around inside this package, OS X allows you to do so, but this isn’t recommend as you can end up breaking the links between Master and Versions. Instead, use Aperture to find and export any Version or RAW original you wish to utilize outside of Aperture.

The bad news? When you use the Open in External Editor command, you have no control over the bit depth or color space of the file! If you ask for a .PSD, you end up with a 16-bit image in Adobe RGB (1998). If you ask for a TIFF, you get an 8-bit file in Adobe RGB (1998). I often need a wider or narrower gamut RGB working space, something I determine based upon the Histogram. The Export command does allow you specify a size, bit depth and output color space (RGB or Grayscale), but you have to use the Open in External Editor command if you want to link the new Versions with the original Master within the Aperture Library.

There's also no way to specify an output resolution. Aperture always defaults to 72dpi. You still retain all the original pixel density, but it usually results in a little more work later when you want to specify an output size for printing.

When you export a file, you can select any RGB output color space based upon any ICC profile you have installed on your Mac, but you cannot control the rendering intent. All conversions use the Relative Colorimetric intent, a major omission from a company that put color management on the map.

Worse
As a RAW converter Aperture produces results that are both good and bad. The default color rendering from virtually all the RAW files I imported was very pleasing. All RAW converters have to examine the RAW data, which is essentially Grayscale, and render via some default a color preview before we can even decide if we wish to alter the color appearance. It is here that virtually every RAW converter is in a no-win position, as you can’t please all photographers all the time. While Aperture's default color was very attractive, requiring few if any corrections, the resulting processed data exhibited noise and other artifacts in shadows that I didn’t find in Adobe Camera RAW, Bibble Pro or RAW Converter (a very nice OS X standalone RAW converter). No amount of tweaking would fix this.

I suspect that even with the sharpening controls turned off, there is far too much sharpening applied during RAW conversions. Internet forums are filled with Aperture users who are unhappy with the quality of their RAW conversions. Apparently editing and exporting JPEGs fare better for some reason. The RAW processing engine Aperture uses is built into OS X and can be updated during new builds of the operating system. OS X 10.4.4 was released two months after Aperture, but I detected no change in the RAW processing on Canon EOS 350D (Digital Rebel XT) files I tested. I certainly hope Apple examines the quality of these conversions and continues to compare them to other RAW converters because at this point in the product's evolution, the quality is not impressive.

I haven’t addressed the performance issues with Aperture because on one hand, Apple can show blazingly fast processing speeds assuming you have a state-of-the-art Macintosh, like a quad processor G5 with oodles of RAM and a high-end graphic card. Much of the labor-intensive work is handled by an Apple technology called Core Image, and the Graphic card plays a role in processing speed. There is a minimum hardware configuration, so not everyone on the Macintosh platform can even run the product (See minimum system requirements, below). Apple supplied a Quad processing G5 for this review, but I decided instead to see how the product ran on a 1.67mhz 15-inch PowerBook with 2GB of RAM because that's the Mac I’d be using in the field. Some operations were very fast, some painfully slow. The point is, if you want to run Aperture, keep in mind that the user experience will vary greatly based upon the hardware. Frankly, if the RAW conversions took five times longer than they do now but produced quality files twice as good as I can achieve in Adobe Camera RAW, I’d be happy.

There are plenty of other issues with Aperture that make it a less then ideal product in its current form. Testing through qualified beta sites could have found these, and a slew of other equally serious bugs in Aperture, well before it shipped. The above-mentioned bugs (among others) didn’t get fixed even after Apple released version 1.0.1 less than a month after it was introduced. All software has bugs. Many version 1.0 products lack some features we expect. In the case of Aperture, there are just too many of both issues, which give the product a rushed to market  feel. While using Aperture, I’m often asking myself “what were these guys thinking?” This is a shame because Aperture has great potential, an attractive, modern user interface, and some seriously useful features. However, with the bugs and the poor RAW rendering, I’m hard pressed at this time to recommend anyone spend $500 on the product. Hopefully new updates will address the most serious bugs and improve the RAW processing. If so, Aperture could be a major software contender for professional photographers using the Macintosh platform.

Minimum system requirements for running Aperture
One of the following Macintosh computers:

  • Power Mac G5 with a 1.8 gigahertz (GHz) or faster PowerPC G5 processor
  • 15- or 17-inch PowerBook G4 with a 1.25 GHz or faster PowerPC G4 processor
  • 17- or 20-inch iMac G5 with a 1.8 GHz or faster PowerPC G5 processor

Not supported on Intel-based Mac computers with Rosetta; a Universal version to be available before the end of March 2006
Mac OS X version 10.4.3 “Tiger” or later
1GB of RAM
One of the following graphics cards:

  • ATI Radeon x600 Pro or x600 XT
  • ATI Radeon X800 XT Mac Edition
  • ATI Radeon X850 XT
  • ATI Radeon 9800 XT or 9800 Pro
  • ATI Radeon 9700 Pro
  • ATI Radeon 9600, 9600 XT, 9600 Pro, or 9650
  • ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 or 9600
  • NVIDIA GeForce 6600 LE or 6600
  • NVIDIA GeForce 6800 Ultra DDL or 6800 GT DDL
  • NVIDIA GeForce 7800 GT
  • NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500

5GB of disk space for application, templates, and tutorial
DVD drive for installation