Aperture vs. Lightroom: The new digital darkroom

When Apple introduced Aperture (   ) in late 2005, the program was a revelation. By beefing up the simplicity of iPhoto with intelligent image-management and photo-editing features, Apple jump-started a whole new product category for professional photographers. The result was a workflow tool carefully tuned for use with the ever-increasing number of digital SLRs and the Raw files they create.

Adobe quickly followed up with its own photo workflow program, Photoshop Lightroom (   ), letting it simmer in a yearlong public beta before releasing the finished version in February. Now that both programs are available, the question on many minds is “Which application reigns supreme?”

The answer isn’t clear-cut. While both Aperture and Lightroom perform the role of image manager and photo editor admirably, each program has plenty of unique features that set it apart. To determine which program is best for you, you’ll need to assess your work style and then choose the one whose features best support that process. I’ll lead you through the most significant differences and help you decide which will benefit you most.

Built for photographers

In many ways, Aperture and Lightroom represent a new breed of photography software. Designed for the serious digi-tal photographer who takes hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures, the programs focus on streamlining the entire photo workflow—from importing and sorting images, to editing and refining your best shots for print, the Web, or any other medium you choose. The programs also offer photographers a number of other benefits.

Back to Basics The vast majority of digital photos require just a small portion of Photoshop’s broad editing capabilities: adjusting tones, correcting color, cropping and straightening, applying sharpening or noise reduction, and gray-scale conversion. Aperture and Lightroom bring these essential tools front and center while removing the distraction and complexity of less critical features. However, they’re also flexible enough to allow you to integrate Adobe Photoshop when necessary (see Finding Photoshop’s Place ).

Equal Treatment Aperture and Lightroom make working with your camera’s Raw format as easy as working with JPEG and TIFF files. In fact, they convert Raw files on-the-fly, so there’s no extra step.

Freedom to Experiment Perhaps best of all, the programs are nondestructive; they don’t actually modify your original image. Instead, they save your changes—whether those include a crop, a gray-scale conversion, or a color change—in the application’s Library file, essentially a database. Then they instantly replay those adjustments when you view or work with the image. So you can always reverse your changes, no matter how far into the editing process you are.

This approach also saves disk space, since you can create multiple versions of your images without duplicating the original file. Instead, the program simply duplicates the list of edits associated with the file. As a result, you can have multiple edit lists for any image, any one of which you can apply to the original image.

Freedom versus structure

Although Aperture and Lightroom both attack the same problem, they aren’t clones. In fact, they differ in some fundamental ways. The most significant difference is in the way each program approaches workflow.

Apple clearly believes that inspiration can strike at any point in the process, and Aperture refuses to get in your way. Its process is seamless. If you want to remove dust spots while ranking images, you can.

Adobe, on the other hand, takes a structured approach to working with files. Lightroom has five modules—Library, Develop, Print, Slideshow, and Web—each of which plays a specific role in the workflow process. When you’re in a module, you have access only to the tools and operations deemed relevant to that part of the pro-cess. Although moving between modules is easy, the experience can be frustrating—especially since some of the limitations on what you can and can’t do in each module seem arbitrary. Having to stop and switch to another module (sometimes even a different view within a module) can pull you out of what you were working on.

Lightroom’s modal structure will seem most comfortable to photographers who prefer to accomplish one task before starting another. If, like me, you prefer to jump around, you’ll likely find Aperture’s free-form approach more intuitive and less constricting.

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