Aperture 1.5

Last year’s debut of Aperture, Apple’s professional photographic workflow and management software, can be summed up in one word: bittersweet . Aperture 1.0.1 (   ) went further than any program in addressing the start-to-finish needs of advanced and professional photographers, but its strengths were offset by some design flaws, bugs, and stiff hardware demands.

Apple began damage control by releasing Aperture 1.1 last April. Apple also cut Aperture’s price from $499 to $299 and rewarded original Aperture users with a $200 coupon redeemable at the Apple online store.

Aperture 1.5 brings more versatility, improved image-editing features, and tighter integration with other software, including Apple’s iLife and iWork suites. Combined with the lower price, the new version’s improvements extend Aperture’s appeal to advanced amateurs who have outgrown iPhoto—and to photographers of all stripes who want a more-complete workflow application than Adobe Bridge or Photoshop Lightroom (which is still in prerelease form). Indeed, Apple now supports Aperture on all shipping (read: Intel) Macs. Aperture also runs on the 1.8GHz iMac G5 and on 15- and 17-inch PowerBook G4 models containing 1.25GHz or faster processors. Whether you’ll want to run Aperture on a slower Mac is an issue I’ll address later.

From import to output

Aperture is designed to handle every phase of the digital photography process: importing photos and managing a large photo library; selecting and sorting through large image collections to find the best ones; enhancing and optimizing images; and creating output ranging from prints to photo books to Web pages. (For background on Aperture’s design philosophy, see our First Look.)

Like many of Apple’s pro applications, Aperture relies heavily on Core Image, the foundation of graphics capabilities built into Mac OS X. Aperture uses Core Image to, among other things, decode photos stored in Raw format. You can directly open and manipulate Raw-format images without first having to process them using Adobe Camera Raw or similar software.

But Aperture’s reliance on Mac OS X for Raw decoding means that its updates for new cameras’ Raw formats come less frequently than they do for other programs. For example, Adobe often releases an update to its Camera Raw software within days or weeks after the debut of a hot new camera, such as Nikon’s D80 digital SLR. But Mac OS X updates incorporate far more than just updated Raw decoders.

Open library

Aperture 1.0 and 1.1 stored all photos in a central library, a scheme many photographers found far too restrictive. Aperture 1.5 is more accommodating. If you have an existing photo-filing scheme, you can have the Aperture library simply reference your photos—point to them from their current location instead of copying them to a centralized location.

This allows for far more flexible photo storage. For example, you can now scatter photos across multiple hard drives if you like.

When you import an image into a referenced library, Aperture creates a JPEG-format preview of the image and stores it in the main Aperture library. Thus, if a hard drive containing a set of photos is currently disconnected, you’ll still see the photo previews when browsing your library. And if you alternate between a desktop Mac and a laptop, you can keep your Raw-format masters on your desktop Mac while toting JPEG versions on your laptop for slideshows and client meetings.

A single project can contain any mix of referenced images and imported images. You can easily consolidate your master images into a single location using the new Consolidate Masters command. Aperture 1.5 also provides additional file management tools that make it simple to change the location of any master image while keeping its link to the library up-to-date. This means you can easily move images offline at the end of a project—say, onto a DVD or external hard drive—turning them into referenced images. The ability to move masters makes it much easier to work with your images across multiple machines, such as a desktop and laptop.

But unfortunately, Aperture’s approach to creating previews can cause significant slowdowns. Aperture is preset to automatically create a full-resolution preview of every photo in your library. Upgrade an older Aperture library or import an iPhoto library, and you’ve just sentenced your operating system to many hours of hard labor. Fortunately, that’s something you only have to do once.

By tweaking some preferences settings, you can defer the creation of previews and also specify that Aperture create smaller previews. Apple has published a tech-support document detailing how previews work. Apple could have done a better job of setting Aperture’s default behavior—or at least of warning users that creating previews for a large library is a task best left for overnight.

These image previews are the key to another new Aperture 1.5 feature: integration with Apple’s iLife and iWork suites. After installing the free updates to the iLife ‘06 and iWork ‘06 applications, you can browse your Aperture library within those programs. This lets you use Aperture photos in iWeb pages, GarageBand podcasts, iPhoto photocasts, and Keynote presentations. You can now drag and drop images from Aperture into the iApps (and the Finder).

Imaging enhancements

Aperture 1.5’s digital darkroom adds two new tools to Aperture’s slate of adjustments . An excellent Edge Sharpen adjustment sharpens an image based on its luminance (brightness) data. It’s ideal for sharpening the eyes in a portrait without also accentuating digital camera noise, for example.

Aperture 1.5 also adds a new Color adjustment that lets you selectively adjust a photo’s colors—changing a blue background to green without affecting the other hues in the photo, for example.

Another editing enhancement is the ability to save any adjustment setting as a preset that you can apply to other images with a click—a handy convenience that only some of Photoshop CS2’s filters provide.

Aperture’s loupe is greatly improved in this new version. You can now switch to a centered loupe that works more like a real loupe, magnifying the portion of the image that it’s positioned over, rather than using an offset. The new loupe sports a pop-up menu that lets you specify zoom percentages and other settings. Best of all, you can now detach the loupe from the mouse pointer. This enables you to stash the loupe in an out-of-the-way place on your screen, and then point to a specific part of the photo to magnify it.

Aperture 1.5’s loupe is a big improvement for exploring image details, but I’d still like to see Apple add more zooming options for the entire image. You can view your image in only one of two magnifications: a fit-in-window view and a 100-percent view.

While I’m scribbling my wish list, I’ll also ask for Photoshop-like keyboard shortcuts for each adjustment parameter: including the ability to incrementally raise or lower adjustment settings by pressing arrow keys with or without the Shift key. Clicking Aperture’s tiny arrows and dragging its sliders are tasks too taxing for my war-torn wrists and eyes.

Metadata import

Aperture 1.5 provides presets that make it easy to add metadata to photos—information stored along with photos, such as their exposure information, text captions, and search keywords. You can do this automatically when you import them, if you like, or as you work on them.

Moreover, if you export a Raw image, you have the option to include its metadata as an XMP-format sidecar file—a separate file that contains only an image’s metadata. The option worked well in my tests—the exported metadata, even Aperture star ratings, appeared in Adobe Bridge. (Note that Aperture 1.5 has a subtle bug that can affect the contents of the XMP sidecar files that Aperture creates (as noted in an Apple tech note ).

But, Aperture 1.5 can’t import XMP sidecar files. That’s a significant drawback for photographers who have large libraries of Raw images with corresponding XMP sidecar files. There are workarounds, but they’re less than ideal. Apple acknowledges the importance of being able to import XMP sidecar files, so hopefully XMP import will appear in a future update.

And speaking of importing and exporting, Aperture 1.5 now provides support for plug-in modules that enable you to export images directly to a variety of online services such as Flickr, Getty Images, iStockphoto, and more. I tested a pre-release version of the Flickr export module for Aperture, and it worked well.

In the trenches

There are other bugs. The most serious one surfaces if you try to update an earlier Aperture library that contains folders or projects whose names start with a period (for example, .filename). When updating the library, Aperture 1.5 will interpret these folders as hidden files and may put them in the Trash. Apple has published a tech support document that describes this potential nightmare.

You won’t find that topic or much of anything about version 1.5 in Aperture’s printed documentation. Right now, only the Getting Started manual is provided in hard-copy form; the rest of the documentation—over 600 pages worth—is scattered across several PDFs.

Aperture 1.5 also has problems reading DNG-format files created by Adobe DNG Converter 3.5. (DNG, short for Digital Negative format , is a universal Raw format advocated by Adobe and others.) DNG files created with earlier versions of DNG Converter import fine. Apple says a fix is forthcoming.

By and large, Aperture 1.5 performed reliably in my tests, but it may be wise to wait until Apple releases a maintenance update before putting the new version into use in a production environment—or at least plumb the depths of the Aperture support area and discussion forums to verify that you won’t be bitten by any bugs.

Speed bumps

As for performance, I tested Aperture on a dual-2GHz Power Mac G5 with 2GB of RAM (with an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card containing 128MB of video RAM). Macworld editors ran additional tests on a variety of Macs, including the 2.66GHz Mac Pro with 1GB of RAM (and an Nvidia GeForce 7300 GT graphics card containing 256MB of GDDR2 SDRAM), the 2.16GHz Core 2 Duo 24-inch iMac with 1GB of RAM (and an Nvidia GeForce 7300 GT graphics processor with 128MB of GDDR3 SDRAM), a dual-2GHz Power Mac G5 with 2.5GB of RAM (with an ATI Radeon 9600 Pro graphics card containing 64MB of VRAM), and a 2GHz Dual Core Power Mac G5 with 2.5GB of RAM. Macworld tested the last system with two graphics cards—an Nvidia GeForce 6600 LE video card with 128MB of GDDR SDRAM and an Nvidia Quadro FX 4500 graphics card with 512MB of GDDR3 SDRAM.

The upshot: Whether Aperture performs acceptably depends on your tasks and your images. Aperture’s image-management features—importing images, sorting and selecting them, assigning keywords, and so on—work smoothly, even on older, slower Macs, such as my G5.

Making image adjustments is a different story. When you’re manipulating large, Raw-format images, Aperture 1.5 can crawl on older, slower, and non-Intel systems. On my dual-2GHz Power Mac G5, the Straighten tool was unacceptably sluggish with 10.2-megapixel Raw files—the slider moved in fits and starts, making the whole process feel like I was trying to sprint under water. On the Intel-based 24-inch iMac, it performed more acceptably, though it was still sluggish and tended to stutter and jump. On the 2.66GHz Mac Pro, however, the new version of Aperture was generally smooth and responsive, even with only 1GB of RAM. Minimum Aperture 1.5 specs require 1GB of RAM for all but the Mac Pro, though 2GB of RAM is recommended for all systems and is the minimum requirement for the Mac Pro.

Version 1.5 gives you a choice of working with your Raw images with the preview on or off (it is on by default). However, leaving it on may cause slowdowns in performance with high-octane maneuvers like the Straighten tool.

Graphics cards also made a difference in Aperture’s performance. While the card I tested with (ATI Radeon 9800 Pro) is listed both in the “Minimum System Requirements” and the “Recommended Configuration,” Apple has clarified that the recommended VRAM is 256MB as opposed to the 128MB I am using, though this is not specified on the Web site at this writing. Our tests confirmed, however, that if you want Aperture to function responsively and in real time, an Intel Mac and/or a high performance graphics card helps a lot. Apple suggests an ATI Radeon X1900 XT (a Mac Pro upgrade) or the Nvidia GeForce 7800 GT (a G5 upgrade). We noted a great performance boost when we subbed the Nvidia Quadro FX 4500 card for the Nvidia GeForce 6600 LE card in the Dual Core Power Mac.

Aperture’s performance sometimes tends to slow down as you add additional adjustments. Apply several adjustments, and each adjustment’s sliders and controls may become less responsive. With JPEG-format images, the performance drag is far less significant—but then you lose the advantages of working with Raw-format images. In this case too, turning off the preview can help with performance.

Aperture’s innovative, non-destructive approach to image editing remains both a strength and an Achilles heel. Aperture never alters an original image but merely records and “plays back” the changes you make to it. That invites experimentation: create 10 different versions of an image without using 10 times the disk space. But it also may invite a trip to the local Apple Store to buy a maxed-out Mac Pro in order to get the job done expeditiously.

Macworld’s buying advice

With version 1.5, a free upgrade to all previous versions, Apple addressed most of the design shortcomings that have kept many photographers away from Aperture. There’s still room for improvement. Aperture needs to be able to import metadata from XMP sidecar files. It needs more image-zooming options and keyboard shortcuts for adjustment parameters. It also needs more printed documentation. If you plan to use Aperture primarily to import, cull, and organize photos, and you rely on Photoshop for image editing—by all means consider the latest version. Aperture 1.5 also deserves a close look if you’ve outgrown iPhoto and you primarily shoot in JPEG format. But if you hope to realize the full promise of Aperture—performing non-destructive edits on large Raw-format images—be sure your Mac is up to the task.

[ Senior contributor Jim Heid specializes in digital media and is the author of The Macintosh iLife ‘06 (Peachpit Press, Avondale Media, 2006) and its companion Web site.]

Aperture’s magnifying loupe lets you scrutinize areas of an image. In Aperture 1.5, the loupe is more versatile than in earlier versions. At the far right of the window are Aperture’s adjustment filters, including the new Color and Edge Sharpen adjustments.

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