Apple Aperture vs Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

With Apple announcing that development of Aperture, its professional photo application has ceased, it seems that the epic, almost ten-year battle between Aperture and arch-rival Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is in its final days. So it's worth looking at the current strengths of both professional photo applications to judge whether to stick with Apple or shift allegiance.

There is a new photos app on the Mac: read about Photos for Mac here.

Aperture vs Lightroom: The Interface

When it appeared in November 2005, Aperture shared much of the look and feel of Apple's pro video apps such as DVD Studio Pro. It hasn't changed that radically, but has been sporting a more elegant and minimalist look in recent incarnations, with the latest version (3.5.1) offering support for the Retina Display.

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Aperture's Places view allows you to associate images with location data

Aperture (£54.99) presents your work in a main central window, with a tabbed side panels for Library, image Info (including showing lens type and focus points) and Adjustments. A Filmstrip runs below the main window from which to select photos to work on. Tools can be selected from a menu bar in the Inspector or clicking keyboard shortcuts to summon a floating HUD window with tool sliders. Keywording and other tasks are also accessed via floating panels. Menu buttons offer customised views such as a grid browser or split views, and a fine detail inspector in the form of a large floating Loupe. Faces and Places are fairly recent imports from iPhoto, allowing you to associate images with facial patterns or location data.

Tasks in version 5.5 of Lightroom (£8.78 a month, with Photoshop) still follow the modular workflow established in the first public beta of January 2006, with each module accessed by a tab and the whole areas of the UI changing to suit. Thus you can use the Library tab to import and view images and add metadata in the form of keywords, or ratings such as flags or stars. Image parameters are adjusted and tools applied in the Develop tab and printing of images can naturally enough be carried out in the Print module. There are also tabs for viewing and, as with Aperture, you can present collections of images as a Book, Slideshow or Web page. There’s also a Map module, which like Places, allows you to sort and manage your photos by location. Constant at the base of every module screen is Lightroom's Filmstrip, which is again analogous to Aperture. There’s no equivalent to Faces, but with the amount of viewers in the Library Module alone, Lightroom also now supporting Apple’s Retina display, probably tops Aperture in the variety of ways to display photos.

To the right of each Lightroom module UI are panels for working with metadata, keywords and adjusting images. These vary according to the module.

On the right of each Lightroom module UI are panels for working with metadata, keywords, and adjusting images. These change according to the Module, so if you are working in Print say, the panel offers settings such as layout and media type. We feel it’s a more elegant UI feature than Aperture, which relies on floating dialog boxes for tasks like Books and Printing, but it offers only slightly less customisation.

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Aperture vs Lightroom: Asset Management

Aperture allows you to apply keywords to your images.

This is a prime feature for both applications. Aperture stores images in the Library, along with an ever-growing database of information about the photos you’ve taken, how you’ve adjusted them and a thumbnail for each. You can either choose to copy the image into the Aperture Library, where it is designated as a managed image, or keep it in its existing location (referenced image). Adjustments, keywording and cropping can be applied to managed and referenced images alike.

Lightroom is based around photos assembled into a single Catalog file. Your photos can be stored anywhere, because Lightroom’s Catalog is mostly just a record of locations, keywords and the (non-destructive) edits you’ve made. You just add photos as referenced images, but while ingesting it’s also possible to copy them to a new location, either as lossy DNG files or as a straight clone job, thus organising your assets.

Smart Previews in Lightroom

Standard Previews of the images being ingested by Lightroom begin to appear in the Library Grid view right away, but Lightroom 5 has also added Smart Previews. These are small proxy versions of the images that can be generated on ingest and can be used for editing even when the drive containing the original images aren't accessible by the Mac. Any changes made are synced with the original catalogue when it gets reattached. You can also choose to build and include Smart Previews in any exported catalogues, or just create them on the fly. Even with Smart Previews turned on, Lightroom will blaze through the import process. Previews and Smart Previews are stored alongside the Catalog file in separate data files, which over time can get very large.

Aperture has sped up its ingest process somewhat, using camera-generated previews for faster browsing of RAW files immediately after import. During image ingest, it checks the camera metadata for GPS co-ordinates or location data and associates this with the maps in the Places view. Aperture also checks images for facial information when ingesting and tries to match the people in your pictures with names you’ve previously matched to portraits. The default corkboard interface looks tacked on directly from iPhoto however and the utility, though a decent idea, seldom works well in our experience.

Every time you make an adjustment to a photo in Aperture or Lightroom, you can choose to make a Version or Virtual Copy of it respectively, an ideal method for saving multiple looks and ideas from the same core image. Lightroom additionally offers Snapshots, which are like named markers in the History of your adjustments, allowing you to instantly return to a previous state.

Lightroom's library module

Lightroom’s Library module offers a Folders panel, which displays where the images in the Catalog are referenced from, as well as the Collections panel. Collections are Lightroom's main organisational tool, allowing related photos to be grouped for quick viewing. Smart Collections can be automatically created based on criteria such as star ratings.

Aperture's Library tab

Aperture’s Library tab is very different. Each image imported into Aperture is stored in one particular Project, relating to the photo session or imported folder of images it came from. Projects can also hold Versions of images. You collect related images in Albums, which can also be stored in Projects. It’s a flexible approach, with the same image able to be referenced in many albums, without making duplicate copies.

As you add more managed images, the Aperture Library, stored by default in your Home>Pictures folder, can also get to be a significant size over time.

A stacking facility can found in both applications, able to clear up the UI by grouping (usually similar) files, manually or automatically according to criteria and piling them together. Aperture offers far more flexibility with Stacks, with Lightroom only allow stacking in Folders, not Collections.

Both applications allow you to have multiple Libraries or Catalogs on your system. However Aperture has a more dynamic attitude, letting you easily export sets of albums and projects as libraries and also switch between such libraries, with no need to quit and restart. Lightroom, which tends to depend on a single Catalog at a time, has to quit the application before loading another.

Aperture's storage choices

In case disaster strikes, Aperture offers a Vault, a secure location containing an exact copy of a library, including all managed images and image references. Any number of such backups can be configured, so you could have an onsite and offsite vault for security. As you add to the Library and create new projects, Aperture automatically tracks the changes to files that have been backed up to a vault, even one that’s offline.

With Lightroom, the Catalog file is backed up on application exit, but you’ll have to back up any edited images separately. You can however package folders of images, complete with referenced Catalogs, for archival purposes.

Aperture vs Lightroom: The Tools

Image fine-tuning is easy with Aperture's Adjustments tab.

Aperture's Adjustments tab is where the image fine-tuning happens. All the main adjustment parameters are present, such as Curves, Exposure, Highlights/Shadows and so on, while a toolbar gives access to straighten, red eye and crop. There are also some great tools in the Adjustment panel, notably the advanced White Balance tool. This offers automatic adjustments based on the best choice from three modes, which can also be applied individually: there’s Skin Tone, which is highly efficient for levelling out portraits, landscape-focussed Neutral Gray and the fine-tuning Temperature & Tint mode. There's also a one-click Professional auto enhance tool and enhanced Highlight and Shadow recovery tools.

With each Adjustment you have the option of a fine application tool palette, so you can brush in or brush out the effects to a select area- pen and tablet users can use pressure to control the strength of the brush. Aperture also offers Quick Brush adjustments, such as Polarise, Dodge, Burn, Halo/Noise Reduction, and Skin Smoothing, which you brush on and then adjust the parameters. A Detect Edges setting identifies and isolates hard selection edges when brushing, working a bit like the Refine Edges setting in Photoshop’s masks. Quick Fixes and Preset Effects are also available, with Aperture offering a fly out preview of how the image will look.

Lightroom offers a limited but very useful Quick Develop area in the Import module, and you can apply picture adjustments based on camera mode and model as you ingest, both saving time on primary adjustment stages.

Lightroom's Develop tab is where the main digital darkroom work takes place.

The main digital darkroom work takes place when you click the Develop tab however. Here you’ll find tone curves, hue/saturation sliders, exposure, contrast and the other image editing stalwarts – and an adjustment brushing facility is available here too. Lightroom also has access to far more presets, from a huge third-party market.

Both applications offers similar spot-healing ways of dealing with imperfections, though Lightroom’s Visualize Spots option can invert the image to let you view smaller and less-visible imperfections. In both cases, an image can be sent out for further editing in Photoshop, as a Tiff or PSD file, in a choice of colour spaces, though Lightroom aces this by also offering to open Catalog images as Smart Object, HDR Pro, Panoramas and as Layers in Photoshop

Both Aperture and Lightroom allow RAW images to be processed.

Processing RAW images was always the other key reason to invest in Aperture or Lightroom, and both handle the process well. Aperture has great automatic processing, while Lightroom offers finer control over sharpening and noise reduction.

Where Lightroom starts to pull away from Aperture can be seen in the Lens Correction panel. Although Aperture offers tools to tackle lens problems such as vignetting and chromatic aberration,  Lightroom can take advantage of Lens Profiles to additionally (and automatically) reset perspective settings and aspect ratios using the Upright tool, reduce lens errors and crop the image to remove any white space. There are other superior Lightroom tools too, such as the linear Graduated Filter and new Radial Filter, which can highlight parts of an image with a vignette or apply local colour correction with an elliptical selection.

Aperture vs Lightroom: Connectivity and sharing

Aperture is very tightly integrated with iCloud

Apple integration is strong in Aperture. As well as Flickr and Facebook sync and integration with SmugMug, it share cross-application support with iPhoto for opening. The ability to work with Apple’s iCloud Photo Stream also raises Aperture’s game, allowing access to all the images that are uploaded automatically to iCloud from your connected devices and libraries. The linked Photo Streams appear just like another project in your Library, with the ability to seamlessly import images into Aperture.

Lightroom exists for iOS allowing images to be shared across the cloud.

Lightroom is a multifaceted application. It also offers social media export (Adobe’s own Behance, FaceBook and Flickr) but Adobe's licence also allows you to run Lightroom on two computers, though they can't both be active at the same time. It's also cross-platform, not only available on Mac and Windows, but on iOS too in the form of Lightroom Mobile. This evens up the score with Aperture somewhat and represents a more powerful mobile photography tool than Photos on iOS.

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OUR VERDICT

When it appeared, Aperture made an impact with its strong organisational powers and integrated Camera Raw import. The price is still attractive for such a rich tool, especially if you don’t want to sign up for the Adobe subscription plan to get Lightroom. As for Lightroom, the initial public beta test ran for more than a year, allowing Adobe to refine the product according to user feedback. It also put a free tool in the hands of a very large number of professionals, so gained a substantial user base right away. That adherence to user feedback has continued, with a Lightroom public beta now a regular occurrence and development showing no sign of abating. Development on Aperture, especially in terms of editing tools, has failed to keep up. Aperture is still a great product, particularly for digital asset management, but you might not want to invest in something at the end of its life. Even without Aperture’s doom-laden prospects, the more innovative Lightroom still outclasses it.

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