Aperture: Real workflow for professional photographers

While on hand for Apple Computer Inc.’s big professional announcements on Wednesday, I saw a demonstration of Aperture, its latest software offering for the professional market. A lot of people immediately began comparing it to Adobe Photoshop, but there is no way to compare this to any other application out there. This application is truly unique. Aperture replicates, in the digital space, the way photographers for years have worked in the analog world.

My experience with photography dates back to the days of a metal-body Pentax, 400ASA black-and-white film and DK-50 developer solution (for that extra contrast) when printing up photos. I would roll the negatives in a changing bag, then cut them, make a contact print and study each shot with a magnifying glass or a loupe. Then I would pick one or two favorites and make multiple prints at various exposures and with different filters, and finally pick the best of those prints. When making composition books, I’d spread the photos on my kitchen table and try to group them into pleasing arrangements.

Of course, this all took a lot of time — and each print cost quite a bit, especially when using RC papers!

I wanted to reminiscence a bit to remind you what the photographic process was like before everything went digital. Certainly, until yesterday, I myself had forgotten. Thanks to Apple, we can now bring that process back — without any of the problems of the old days and with many of the new creative touches now available in the digital age.

I cannot say this enough: Aperture is the application for the photographic creative process. It is not an image manipulation tool like Photoshop, and it is not a toy like iPhoto. Aperture is a professional application from top to bottom that works with the photographer’s process. This program puts the technology where it belong — out of the way in the background — and allowing the creative process to take precedence.

To start with, the application works with the RAW format used by all major professional camera manufacturers, so no file conversion ever needs to be done. You just import picture files and start working.

Next, it offers a feature called Stacks, which recognizes the time stamps on your photos and separates the sessions where there is a significant time difference between shots. Essentially, it can tell where the end of each “roll” is. All of the meta information about the file is stored and is easily accessible — plus you can add information like ratings that can then be used to sort and choose files. I cannot stress how intuitive and flowing the interface for all of this is.

Aperture has a built-in loupe tool for examining each photograph. No more click-and-zoom. And moving between photos is seamless and intuitive. Very detailed color correction tools are included, and you have the ability to copy and paste the adjustment metadata from any image to another. So, if you color-correct one shot in a roll and want to apply that temperature setting to an entire series, two clicks (one copy, one paste) and the work is done. How much would you pay? Don’t answer yet.

One of the best features of all is the use of nondestructive editing. That’s right, nondestructive editing. Your original files are never touched. All of the changes are stored in a database of some kind — I’ve not actually used the program on my own machine, so I don’t know more — and applied in real time to the view and output of the file. This means you can have multiple versions of a shot in Aperture, but only the original file on your hard drive. At any point in the creative process, you can undo any changes you’ve made to the image, including crops.

The demo I witnessed used large, 12MB RAW files, and the program never skipped. Granted, it was working on one of the new dual-core, dual -processor Power Mac G5s, so I don’t know yet how quickly it will function on an older machine. But I suspect that on any G5 desktop or even a G4 laptop with sufficient RAM, Aperture should be quite snappy.

Next in the process is layout composition, and for this Aperture has a feature called the light box. The light box functions, well, like a real light box; You put your photos on it and arrange them. Alignment tools are available, or you can go free form. You can throw them in piles, and Aperture will separate the piles neatly. Print-quality PDFs can be made straight from the light box to use as proofs, or those arrangements can then be dragged into photo book compositions.

The composition books in Aperture are professional looking, and contain none of the hokey stuff that comes in iPhoto. The photography artist, freed from the tyranny of sameness, can also alter the arrangements. Prints can then be made of these arrangements or sent to Apple for output as a book — much in the same way that’s done using iPhoto. Apple officials at yesterday’s demo also mentioned that the DPI output of these books has been increased for Aperture, although they did not offer details.

The layout and composition tools can also be used to quickly create a Web site of chosen photographs. Thumbnail sizing is effortless, and image titles are taken from the metadata automatically — although you can choose which field is selected on the fly. The application is also multimonitor-aware and aesthetically speaking, a Power Mac G5 running dual 30-in. Apple Cinema Displays is a pretty cool setup.

At the end of the creative process, Aperture includes an archiving feature. So there you have it: the entire professional photographer’s workflow managed seamlessly, all for $499 retail. Personally, I cannot wait to get my hands on the application for some real-world testing on a new dual-core, dual-processor Power Mac G5, an older Power Mac G5 and my PowerBook G4 laptop.

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