Some thoughts on Aperture

Written by: Adam Christianson

Categories: Feedback

ApertureListener Stefan sent in these great comments and observations on Apple’s new pro photo app:

I just wanted to offer a few comments on Apple’s new Aperture app, the purpose and position of which, in particular with respect to Adobe Photoshop, seems to leave some questions open. I did not have any chance to use Aperture yet, so I cannot comment on any details. I am not a professional photographer, but I /do/ shoot RAW pictures with my Nikon DX70, so I have some experience with handling these.

It’s important to realize what RAW pictures are — the, well, raw information from the light-sensitive chip, with no processing applied whatsoever in the camera, ie. no white balance, no color correction, no (ughh!) sharpening, etc. A RAW picture corresponds to an unprocessed film in conventional photography. Hence, you have to “develop” it on your computer, applying white balance, color corrections — whatever you want to get the picture look as you want, again very similar to the conventional film development process in the lab.

Yes, you /can/ do this all in Photoshop, with the corresponding plug- in for RAW files. But you have to import the RAW picture into Photoshop, and during this import, all the basic “development” actions are applied, based on one distinct setting defined at import time. Once in Photoshop, the picture is not RAW anymore, it’s a PSD file, which you then can manipulate further.

With Aperture, as far as I can tell, and as with tools like Capture One (see below), you don’t have to convert the RAW file into anything, you directly work with the RAW file, and this in a non- destructive way, as all manipulations are just stored as processing actions, which only determine what you see on screen (and print later), but don’t change the file proper. And so you can “play” with different setting, go back and forth. With Photoshop, to apply a different fundamental “development” setting from the RAW file, such as changing the white balance, you’d have to make another import. (Of course, you can manipulate the PSD file, but quality-wise, this is not the same as using the base RAW picture. It’s like creating MP3 files of recorded music tracks before you do a new track mix — you would do the mix with the original recordings and only then convert the resulting mix-file to MP3.)

I /did/ use Photoshop to handle RAW pictures, but it is not what you’d call a smooth workflow. Each RAW picture naturally requires manual setting for the import — remember, this is like the “development” of conventional film, so you must, and want to, tweak things. But you first have to do the import (“development”) in order to decide if you want to keep a picture, in particular if you want to compare it in detail with others in the series, and if you usually throw away more than half of your shots in a first selection round, as I do, this is just a lot of unnecessary work. Yes, there are RAW viewers (like PhotoReviewer of Stick Software), and they help a lot, but the process is not integrated. I also use a great program called iView Media Pro of iView Multimedia for managing sessions of photos, and again, it helps, but does not give the level of integration that Aperture promises to provide.

And with all these solutions you’ll end up having the RAW file and the PSD file, plus any files of variants of your picture. It’s a file organization challenge, and of course it will eat up your disk space quickly (and the RAW files are not the biggest problem, with about 5 MB each for the DX70 with NEF, Nikon’s RAW format, which uses non- lossy compression, but all the PSDs or TIFFs with your variants of one picture are adding dozens of MBs. You could use a differential storage solution, such as monotone, darcs, or subversion, but this adds one more tool…).

In addition, some words about “RAW workflow” vs. “JPEG workflow,” as Aperture is announced to make RAW workflows as easy as JPEG ones. Well, no photographer seeking highest possible quality would have a “JPEG workflow” in the narrower sense: the first thing you do with JPEG photos — which you sometimes need to shoot also if you’re usually doing RAW, eg. if you’re about to run out of space on your memory cards for the camera — is to store them in a non-lossy format such as TIFF or Photoshop files (PSD). You’d never manipulate a JPEG file directly in Photoshop, as with each save to disk, you lose a bit of quality due to the JPEG’s lossy compression. So you see, /without/ Aperture (or Capture One), you always convert your files from the camera, whether RAW or JPEG, to PSD or TIFF as basis for your further processing, such as color correction. With an app that handles RAW files directly, this is not necessary, which brings about the foundation for the easy workflow that Apple mentions as Aperture’s main focus. Combined with strong file management functions, such as versions, for me /this/ is the appeal of Aperture.

Right now, I use Capture One LE from PhaseOne to do the RAW “development,” which I think is the program (or kind of program) primarily challenged by Aperture, not Photoshop. It also directly works on the RAW files, ie. without any conversion, allowing to quickly kick out unwanted shots before doing any white balance or whatever processing. All manipulations happen in a non-destructive way, just storing the manipulations in a separate file, like Aperture (Capture One uses an XML file in “plist” format). These instructions are then used for 1) displaying on screen and 2) producing TIFFs or JPEGs at the end of the workflow to produce prints or web pictures or whatever you chose to present your work. But also with Capture One basically you need only keep the original RAW files, plus the stored manipulation actions belonging to it, and only create any other format when needed.

Interestingly, Capture One is in the same price range as Aperture, with a Limited Edition (LE, that’s what I have) for about 100 USD though. Capture One is by no means as powerful as Aperture, as far as I can tell, with respect to features like grouping, light table, versions, and file/picture organization, but has a professional-grade RAW viewing and conversion engine, and allows a pretty smooth workflow, just staying within the realm of RAW.

To conclude, I think Aperture is really filling an existing gap, as claimed by Apple, with some unavoidable functional overlap with Photoshop, but leaving the latter enough room to breathe in the field of picture manipulation. However, I’d expect that quite a few photographers won’t need to use Photoshop anymore so often for their daily work, as you can produce appealing pictures just in Aperture by basic manipulations such as color correction and cropping. At least for me, this kind of operations are the most often used, and I don’t spend hours with tweaking single pictures — either a shot is basically good, or I dump it. But I guess here everyone has their own objectives and ways of working! :-)

In any case, I don’t think Aperture is for someone who uses iPhoto today /and/ is satisfied with it.

There are 9 comments on Some thoughts on Aperture:

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  1. Corey Atad | Oct 23 2005 - 09:51

    Wow. That pretty much explained it all to me. Great post.

  2. Nick Circosta | Oct 24 2005 - 01:15

    Dito :)

  3. Bruce | Oct 24 2005 - 08:10

    Thanks for the in-depth explanation. I can tell that I’ll be linking many people to this.

  4. Maedi Prichard | Oct 25 2005 - 01:35

    Makes the mind at ease.

  5. Bill Burcham | Oct 25 2005 - 06:39

    Aperture is beautiful. I’m particularly interested not only in the application itself but the approach and quality of the promotion around it. The movies about Aperture on are extremely effective. This is due to the fact that Aperture is well designed and executed, but it’s also due to the quality of the demos and the production on those demos.
    Does anyone know the tools used to produce those movies? Is Apple using a commercially available screen capture tool? I’d love to have pan and zoom like that plus the little magnifier.

  6. Ash | Oct 26 2005 - 03:54

    I really want this program, alongside a digital SLR camera and 15″ powerbook!

  7. Dimitri | Oct 28 2005 - 09:01

    Not sure what was used to produce those excellent movies but Camtasia Studio has most of that functionality, including pan and zoom.

  8. Stephen C. | Oct 29 2005 - 01:20

    As has been said before, this is an excellent post; very useful and informative. As someone woring on a photo major I think Aperture is a very interesting development in the digital photography world and will likely be an app. that I will be useing extensivly. I can’t wait to try it out. Does anyone know when it’s slated to be released?

  9. Mrs. Lacy | Nov 03 2005 - 10:31

    Great post, Stefan! Between your explanation and the videos at Apple site I learned so much more about Aperture than before. I agree, great job, Apple!

    Originally, I thought it was more of a Photoshop app than anything. But seeing that it includes the capabilities of iPhoto and from what I’ve seen of Capture One all in one program . . . I want it!!! What a powerful tool it will be to our photography division.

    BTW, Stefan. I also shoot with a Nikon D70 and have recently used Nikon Capture Editor for my RAW files. The color and quality of my RAW files in Nikon Capture Editor is so far superior to Photoshop, though I’m not yet happy with the Editor tools. Plus, you can only save as a Nikon Capture Editor NEF, jpg, RGB and CMYK tif.Thus, I losing the abilities to use the RAW tools in Photoshop.

    I’m curious about Aperture’s sensitivity to Nikon NEF’s. If it is comparable to the color and quality, I will be more thrilled. If it can’t translate Nikon NEF’s, I’ll be more disappointed.

    Has any other Nikonians compared?