Any Windows user who is serious about photography has one good option for software that will let him or her manage their collections and edit photos: Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. On the Mac, though, we also have a solid competitor and it's from Apple itself: Aperture 3.
The timing of the release of Aperture 3 is awkward. The next version of Lightroom is in public beta, but we think it's unfair to compare a beta release to a shipping product, so throughout this review, we'll be referring to the currently shipping version, Lightroom 2. (Lightroom 3 promises, among other features, watermarking, richer printing and slideshow capabilities, a sophisticated noise reduction engine, and the ability to add film grain.)
Aperture 3's big thing is with its iPhoto heritage and integration. While it was possible to import iPhoto libraries before, it was a particularly imperfect system; now, everything is correctly ported across, though the process can take some time.
And it's not just the import; throughout, Apple has tried hard to make iPhoto users feel at home.
There's little such help given to Lightroom users, and indeed, the process of switching from Lightroom to Aperture (or in the other direction) is a painfully manual one.
Metadata – EXIF, IPTC, GPS – should be retained, but you can kiss goodbye to your lovingly made adjustments. This alone means that few pros will switch wholesale from one to the other – though there's nothing stopping you referencing the same masters from both apps – and frankly, we get the feeling Apple's cool with that.
There are few Mac-using semi-pro and pro photographers in the world compared to the millions of potential sales from the existing iPhoto install base. It's a shame that so little help is given to Lightroom switchers, however, as Aperture 3 has a huge amount to offer.
It inherits Faces and Places from iPhoto. The former mixes face detection and face recognition to tag people in your photos automatically, which is useful for enthusiasts and commercial photographers alike not only when browsing their libraries, but also when building, say Smart Albums.
Places is the geotagging engine from iPhoto '09 that uses information on where photos were taken (embedded at capture by only a very few cameras, none of which, currently, are pro-level) to pin them to a map.
Here, though, as well as letting you drop un-tagged photos onto the map manually (reverse-geocoding them so that you can search for your pictures of Big Ben, for example, without having to keyword that in) it can use a series of waypoints from outdoor GPS devices (or iPhone apps such as Trails) to match up timestamps to geotag your photos for you.
It's smart, though; knowing that sometimes camera's clocks aren't set correctly, Apple has it so that you can place your GPX trail on Aperture's map and then drag a single photo whose location you know to that trail; it then offers to geotag all the others.
The third big new feature is Brushes, similar to Lightroom 2's Adjustment Brush. Rather than applying corrections globally, you can paint them on selectively.
Brushes support pressure-sensitive graphics tablets, and offers a range of modes including a Photoshop Quick Mask-like red overpainting that makes it easy to identify your retouchings.
All edits are non-destructive, and while it is possible to apply more than one instance of each adjustment, that feature is a bit hidden away. There's no way to paint on exposure adjustments (though you can do dodging and burning) and we miss Lightroom's graduated filter.
A suitable Mac
Aperture 3 now has a range of presets such as cross-process, a range of filtered black and whites, and white balance nudges. You can save and share your own, and import others; some pros are already selling presets packs.
Given sufficient hardware, performance is good. Our 2.66GHz MacBook Pro did stutter a bit with 4GB of RAM when dealing with big raw files, but when Crucial helped us stuff it with 8GB, everything went buttery-smooth.
Still, dealing with raw files is something that takes a lot of grunt, so if you're going to be spending a lot of time working with photos from an SLR or high-end compact, you'll need a capable Mac.
As 64-bit apps, both Aperture 3 and Lightroom can address more than 4GB RAM when running on 64-bit processors. We experienced some early stability issues with Aperture, but the 3.0.1 update seemed to nix them completely.
Aperture is better at getting your pictures out compared to Lightroom. As well as direct uploading to Flickr and Facebook, its printing and slideshow features are richer, and you can also create book layouts then send them to Apple – and even to a few vetted third parties to have them printed and bound.
Aperture feels predictably more Mac-like than Lightroom, and iLife/iWork apps' media panels can grab pics from Aperture much more easily. And as well as the workflow and cataloguing benefits of Faces and Places, we appreciate other pro-level features such as the ability to split a project off into a separate Library for an assistant, say, to work on, before merging it back into the master Library.
But if you've already built a Lightroom library, you'll waste hours trying to migrate to Aperture; for many, it won't be worth it. If you haven't yet implemented a photo workflow, or if you're an iPhoto user bumping your head against the limits of its abilities, Aperture 3 is wonderful.
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