Hoping to capture a chunk of the professional digital-photography market, Apple has released Aperture, a £349 image cataloguer and Raw converter with limited image-editing capabilities.
While not intended to compete head-to-head with Adobe Photoshop, Apple is hoping that Aperture will lead some Photoshop/Bridge users to re-think their current workflows, and use Aperture for organising, basic editing and output, turning only to Photoshop for more sophisticated edits and retouchings. But, while Aperture packs some innovative interface elements, it is marred by inflexible file handling, some curious omissions, and weak output quality.
At £349, Aperture is plainly not intended for the casual hobbyist. The program is meant to be used by a professional. It's a serious tool, requiring serious hardware, and is aimed pretty squarely at users who shoot in Raw format (though it provides full support for JPEG files, Photoshop documents, TIFF files, and any other still image format currently supported by QuickTime 7).
In the video cards
One of Aperture's main selling points is its promise of real-time editing. Rather than altering the original pixels in your image when you make an edit, Aperture simply stores a list of the edits that you want to make to an image. Any time the image is displayed on the screen or output to a file or printer, your edits are applied to your original image in real time.
This non-destructive approach to editing makes it simple to revert to your original file at any time, or to easily create multiple versions. Because new versions contain nothing more than a list of edits, a new version of an image takes up very little disk space.
However, real-time processing doesn't come cheap, and Aperture has extremely stiff hardware requirements that demand a fast processor and high-end video card. No matter what CPU you have, if you don't have a supported video card, Aperture will not run on your system.
So, before you buy you need to read Apple's specifications very carefully, or run Apple's free compatibility checker (www.apple.com/aperture/specs.html), that will examine your machine to determine if it's Aperture-capable.
Aperture is designed to handle your entire post-production workflow from start to finish. Like iPhoto, Aperture can automatically copy images from your media card or camera, in addition to importing images that have already been copied to your computer's hard drive.
Also, like iPhoto, Aperture insists on copying all imported images into its own internal library. While many users have expressed concerns that Apple is tying up their images in some weird proprietary format, you can easily open the library package and dig out your images if you need to. When you import, images are copied from your source media into your current library, which can contain up to 100,000 images.
Your Aperture Library is divided into Projects, which can contain images, folders, web galleries, books, and other organisational constructs. When you import images from any source, they are automatically placed into the currently selected project.
Once you've imported your images you can begin to sort and arrange them, making your selects, adding metadata and keywords. Comparing and rating images is Aperture's strongest facility, thanks to an interface that diverges from the usual document-based model of multiple windows containing individual documents.
In Aperture, when you select a project, all of the images in that project are displayed as thumbnails in the Browser pane. Click on a thumbnail and you are presented with a larger version of the image in the Viewer pane.
What's particularly cool about this approach is that because images are not confined to windows, if you click on multiple images in the browser, they will all be displayed in the viewer. This makes it a snap to immediately view several images side by side. Because of this capability, sorting and comparing is much easier in Aperture than any other image cataloguer or editor.
Images can be put into Stacks, simple groupings that you can define to keep related images together. You can create a stack by just selecting multiple images and choosing the Stack command. Aperture can also create stacks for you using a unique Auto-Stack feature which groups together all images shot within a specific time interval. If you regularly shoot bursts of images, or bracketed sets, Auto-Stacking will automatically group your images together into collections of bursts.
Special sorting tools make it easy to select the best image in a stack. In Stack mode, you can select an initial image – called “the Pick”– against which you can compare all of the other images in the stack. When you select another image in the stack, it appears next to the pick. If you like the new image better, you can swap the images to define your second image as the new Pick.
A few other well-conceived tools round out Aperture's comparison features. At any time, you can hit the F key to go to a full-screen view of your image. All interface elements are hidden, and your image is scaled to fit your monitor, with no controls save for a Dock-like scrolling filmstrip at the bottom of the screen. If you have multiple images selected when you hit the F key, they are sized to fit side by side in full-screen mode. At any time you can hit the Z key to view an image at full size, and if you are currently viewing multiple images, they will be zoomed to actual size.
Finally, for examining a section of an image at 100 per cent, Aperture provides the Loupe tool, a simple magnifying glass that shows a round, magnified crop of your image. You can change the size of the Loupe tool, as well as the amount of magnification. It even works on thumbnails of images, making it easy to quickly examine a close-up of any image anywhere on the screen.
Unfortunately, because Apple wants you to use their cool-looking Loupe tool, they left out the basic zoom in and out features you'll find in Photoshop and just about every other image editor and cataloguer on the planet. Standard command-plus and command-minus zooming would be very welcome.
Apple's goal with Aperture was to produce a tool that performs most of the functions that photographers need to perform in a typical post-production workflow. To that end, Aperture provides some very basic image-editing tools.
First off, are the Exposure, Brightness, Saturation, Contrast, and Tint for Raw processing. In addition, white balance can be adjusted using separate Temperature and Tint sliders.
A special Heads-up Display palette, or HUD, provides a single repository for all of the edits that you might apply to an image. A histogram is displayed at the top of the HUD, and each successive edit is stacked below. For some reason, Aperture's histogram does not show data loss or compression as you make edits - implying that edits are lossless. This is nonsense, of course, and the lack of data loss display is a bit frustrating.
In addition to the basic editing tools, Aperture includes a Levels adjustment, red-eye correction, sepia tone, a channel mixer for performing black and white corrections, a Highlights and Shadows adjustment, straighten, noise reduction, and sharpening.
Aperture's editing features are not as strong as its sorting and comparing tools. Its white balance control provides a slightly narrower range of temperatures than Adobe's Camera Raw; the Sharpen filter is basic, and noise reduction is simply mediocre. However, because of Aperture's non-destructive, real-time processing, any edit can be altered, removed, or added at any time.
Aperture lacks any kind of masking control so there's no way to constrain the effects of any of these edits to only one part of an image. A curves control would go a long way toward making up for this deficiency, but Aperture doesn't include one. Instead, the Levels control provides the option of displaying additional quarter-tone sliders, which allow you to define the equivalent of an S-curve. This is fine for simple contrast adjustments, but a far cry from a real Curves tool. Because there are no masking tools, or dodging and burning tools, performing localised brightness changes is pretty much impossible. It's surprising that Apple thinks localised correction is not an everyday editing chore.
Recognising that you'll often want to edit your images in Photoshop, Aperture provides a facility for moving an image to another program, either as a PSD or TIFF file. Curiously, for some reason Aperture strips out all EXIF metadata upon export, an annoying bug that's difficult to work around.
Aperture can export TIFF or Photoshop documents, and provides good web-page generation (it would be better if Apple let you define your own web designs) and fully colour-managed printing options. A new book printing facility scores big over iPhoto's books with more layout options, and higher-quality printing.
All these options are nice, but marred by the fact that Aperture is simply not very good at performing Raw conversions. We consistently found demosaicing errors, noise problems, and colour that was a little flatter than what we could get from the same file in Photoshop Camera Raw. Many Nikon users have reported additional troubles, such as shadow areas turning into solid black.
We also had no luck importing DNG files into Aperture. Files converted from a Panasonic Lumix LX1 were displayed as “incompatible” and DNG files converted from a Canon EOS 20D consistently crashed the program. This is too bad, since Aperture doesn't natively support as many Raw formats as Photoshop CS2. Output quality is a tremendous issue that Apple needs to address immediately.
Workflow and performance
Apple hopes you'll use Aperture for your entire post-production workflow, but because of some missing features, you'll most likely use it alongside another image editor. Unfortunately, because Aperture insists on copying all data into its library, getting the program to play smoothly with other applications is very difficult. Apple says it chose this approach to prevent broken links between Aperture's library and your media, but this scheme is a huge workflow liability.
The biggest drawback to Aperture's library paradigm is that it precludes cataloguing off-line media. Once your hard drive is full, you're out of luck (Aperture libraries cannot span multiple volumes). You can create a new library on a different drive, and change your Aperture preferences to point to it, but you won't be able to view images from multiple libraries simultaneously. For users who want to view and search images that have been archived to CD or DVD, Aperture is of little use.
Another workflow hassle occurs if you want to move a Raw file out of Aperture for processing in another Raw converter. Aperture will output a clone of the original Raw file, but you'll then have two copies on your drive, and you'll have to go through an extra step to put the processed results back into Aperture.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment with Aperture is performance. It is simply too slow. Though Apple claims it can run on a G4 PowerBook, you'll spend a lot of time looking at spinning rainbow cursors. We performed the bulk of our tests on a 2.7GHz dual G5 with 4GB of RAM and a GeForce 6800 Ultra video card. Many features were nearly unusable – Auto-Stacking 635 images left us with a rainbow cursor for six minutes – and most of the editing sliders were twitchy and difficult to use.
Aperture provides an astounding array of features and output options. Its comparing and sorting tools are top-notch, but its limited editing suite, poor output quality and bad performance are real liabilities. Perhaps its biggest weakness is its iPhoto-like library, which forces you to keep all your images on one drive. For heavy shooters, or photographers with very large image libraries, Aperture doesn't make much sense. Hopefully, Apple will quickly address these issues in an update.