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.

Organizing your images

Getting a handle on your photos starts with getting them into your library and then culling them into a manageable group of your best shots. As you might expect from the company that designed Mac OS X and the iLife suite, Aperture excels at letting you organize your photos. Its project-based structure is flexible and robust—and, when combined with smart albums, offers some very real advantages over Lightroom’s file-management system (see Projects Versus Collections ). However, Lightroom also has plenty to offer here, particularly if you already have a large collection of edited Raw files.

Importing Files Both programs use a Library file to store all the metadata, edits, and related details about your images, but you can choose where you want to store your photos (you can let the programs manage your files, create your own file structure, and even place images on an external drive). If you let Aperture manage your files, you’ll get the added benefit of automatic backups when you enable the Vault feature (see Back It Up ).

You can set up either program to launch when you connect your camera or storage card. Lightroom can go a step further and keep watch over a folder on your Mac, automatically importing images you place inside it. That’s helpful if you work on multiple computers and have a central photo library, or if you’re scanning photos from film.

If you’ve been using Adobe’s Bridge and Camera Raw programs to edit your Raw files, and you want to import both the original file and its associated edits, Lightroom is your only option (Aperture will import only the original image). Even then, you’ll need to make sure you’ve turned on the correct settings to make the transition (for guidance, see Importing Edited Raw Files ).

Taking a Closer Look Both programs offer a rich environment for viewing and evaluating images, including multiple zoom levels and full-screen modes that let you see images unencumbered by other panels. Aperture also offers a loupe that magnifies—up to 400 percent—a small portion of the image (you can set it to either move with your cursor or stay in a fixed location). This can be extremely helpful when you’re looking at a group of images and want to focus on a specific detail without having to zoom in and pan around; it was definitely one of the tools I missed most when I was working in Lightroom.

If you have multiple displays, only Aperture will let you take advantage of them for viewing and editing photos—for example, you can designate one screen solely for palettes and windows. And if you prefer to work in a free-form environment, Aperture is happy to oblige there as well. Its Light Table mode lets you resize and rearrange images. You can then save light-table arrangements as part of a project. Some photographers find this feature immensely useful, while others (myself included) rarely use it.

Applying Ratings Aperture has a five-star system for rating images, plus an option to mark photos as rejected; Lightroom offers five-star ratings, pick and reject flags, and a five-color labeling system. Lightroom’s flags are particularly useful when you’re first sorting through large sets of images. Although I used the color labels on occasion, I did so largely to work around some of the limitations in Lightroom’s Collections feature; it wasn’t necessarily a feature I missed in Aperture.

Finding Needles in Haystacks Both Aperture and Lightroom make it easy to rename your files and to apply keywords and other information—all of which can be invaluable as your library of images grows into the thousands.

The programs also offer a variety of ways to filter your library quickly. For example, you can find images based on keywords, ranking, and other text you’ve associated with them. Lightroom’s search box lets you find photos based on two criteria (text and date), while its Keyword and Metadata browser panels let you refine your results with more-extensive criteria—the camera you shot with, for example, or the keyword Flowers. Unfortunately, you can’t filter by keywords and metadata at the same time.

I found Aperture’s search feature much more helpful, especially as my library grew. It lets you search based on multiple criteria, and it can create albums and galleries from your search results so you don’t have to perform the same searches again.

Sometimes you simply need a new way of looking at your library to find what you need. Aperture helps here, too. Its List view works very much like the List view in iTunes; you can show or hide data columns and sort on a column by clicking on its title.

Stacking Images One of the best ways to keep your library under control—especially if you shoot in burst mode—is to group similar photos under a single image, creating a vir-tual stack. Both programs can create stacks automatically based on the time between shots, or you can create them manually. You can also pick which photo appears at the top of the stack. The programs then use this image in subsequent operations, such as editing or creating slide shows.

In general, I found Aperture’s stacking abilities much more robust and flexible than Lightroom’s. For example, the program lets you designate different images in a stack as the pick in different albums—so you can, say, use one image for printing and another for a Web gallery. Lightroom, on the other hand, places some frustrating limitations on where you can stack images. For example, you can’t create stacks when you’re looking at images in a collection or when you’re filtering by keyword—two situations when I most want the convenience of stacks.

Making adjustments

When it gets down to editing your images, both Lightroom and Aperture provide an impressive set of tools. In general, Lightroom’s interface for working with those tools is better thought out and more conducive to experimentation than Aperture’s. That doesn’t mean you can’t achieve the same results with Aperture, but you’ll have to work a little harder to get there.

Perfecting the Shot With either program, you can easily adjust exposure, white balance, and saturation, and perform other essential editing tasks. You’ll access these tools from panes on the right side of the screen (see “Editing Tools”). Aperture also gives you the option of opening your editing tools in translucent floating windows called heads-up displays (HUDs), so you can eliminate the panes and maximize your image-viewing real estate.

Newcomers to digital photography will likely find Lightroom’s editing features more user friendly. Although Aperture’s PDF manuals provide lots of detail about using the program’s editing tools, looking at these tools for the first time on screen can be intimidating.

A unique feature in Lightroom is the Targeted Adjustment tool, which lets you click and drag within an image to adjust specific tones. You can use it with five types of adjustments—tone curve, hue, saturation, lightness, and gray scale. For example, to change the saturation of specific colors in a photo, you would select the Saturation panel’s Target tool and then click on an area that has the color you want to change. Click and drag upward to see the saturation of those colors increase; drag downward to decrease their saturation. It’s remarkably intuitive.

When it comes to eliminating small imperfections, Lightroom’s Remove Spots tool is easier to use than Aperture’s Spot And Patch tool. However, you won’t want to use either of them for much more than a few spots. For more extensive or complicated problems, you’ll probably need to move to Photoshop.

Editing Tools: When you click inside Lightroom’s Histogram pane (top) ( A ), you can directly edit tones within an image by dragging left or right. As you change the tonal parameters, the Histogram pane updates in real time. With the Targeted Adjustment option selected ( B ), you can click and drag on tones within an image to change their values. Although you can’t click and drag within Aperture’s histogram (bottom), it offers most of the same capabilities. The Levels pane ( C ) lets you adjust five tonal points—black, gray, white, and two quarter tones—in your image.

Saving Time When you’re dealing with dozens of photos from a single shoot, Aperture and Lightroom can help you save time by letting you copy adjustments from one image and apply them to others. Both programs let you choose which adjustments to copy; for example, you could choose to copy a photo’s crop and exposure compensation, but not its saturation change. Although both programs accomplish the same results, I much preferred Lightroom’s approach, which mimics the Mac’s Copy and Paste commands, to Aperture’s Lift And Stamp tool, which can be confusing and isn’t as flexible.

If you regularly make the same edits across multiple photo shoots, Lightroom and Aperture can save you some time here as well, by saving your adjustments as presets. Aperture saves separate presets for each type of adjustment—for example, one for exposure and another for color balance—while Lightroom can combine multiple adjustments into a single preset. However, if you create a lot of presets, you may find Lightroom’s approach unwieldy; the program saves all presets in a single panel. In the long run, I found Aperture’s per-adjustment approach cleaner and more practical.

Exploring Your Options Because Aperture and Lightroom store edits separately from an image, creating multiple versions of an image is easy.

Lightroom also offers History and Snapshot features that work together to let you create multiple views of the same image. The History tool lets you move backward through a sequential list of your edits so you can return to an earlier part of the process, while the Snapshot feature lets you save a sequence of edits so you can return to the results, even if you’ve already moved back in the image’s history and taken a different path. While these features are a nice addition, they can also be confusing, and it’s easy to get lost in a series of changes. I found that creating a virtual copy of a photo was a much more intuitive way to work.

Compensating for Hardware Lightroom also has a few camera- and lens-correction features you won’t find in Aperture. The Chromatic Aberration panel, for example, lets you fix the color fringing created by some lens and camera combinations, while the Lens Vignetting panel can lighten the corners of a photo that was shot with a lens exhibiting those defects. You can also apply custom color-calibration parameters to all the Raw images taken with a specific camera under certain lighting conditions, a feature borrowed from Adobe’s Camera Raw. Some users—studio photographers, for example—will find this feature useful; most people will never touch it.

Publishing your photos

You probably don’t want to just look at the photos in your library; you want to be able to print them, create slide shows for clients and friends, build Web pages, and more. You also need the ability to get your edited images out of the program and onto CDs or DVDs, into e-mail messages, and uploaded to online photo services. Aperture has a bit more range and flexibility in this sense than Lightroom, but both programs cover the basics fairly evenly.

Creating Slide Shows Both Lightroom and Aperture let you build slide shows of your work. Lightroom’s Slideshow module offers a nice variety of options—you can add backgrounds, display EXIF and custom text, include borders or shadows, and even add music from your iTunes library. Unfortunately, you can export slide shows only as PDF files; it would be nice to have an option for either QuickTime or Flash output.

Although Aperture’s slide-show features lack the depth of Lightroom’s, they’re fine for most purposes. You can choose from a group of presets or create your own and add music; but the only EXIF data Aperture will display are badges indicating the edits you’ve made. Aperture makes up for some of these limitations by offering tight integration with the latest versions of Apple’s iMovie HD and iDVD programs (part of the iLife ’06 suite); your Aperture library and projects automatically show up in both programs, so you can take advantage of movie-editing and DVD-creation tools to create stunning slide shows that you can export to multiple formats.

Making Prints Although first-time users will find Lightroom’s Print module much prettier and seemingly more expansive than Aperture’s Print dialog box, you can accomplish many of the same tasks in either program (see “The Printed Page”). Both let you create customized layouts that you can save and reuse, build contact sheets that place multiple images on a page, print single images at specific sizes, and automatically resize and reorient photos to best fit a particular page size. However, only Lightroom can place an image anywhere on a page—helpful when you’re reusing paper or printing an image for matting and framing.

The Printed Page: Lightroom’s Print module (left) is extremely flexible. You have extensive control over the placement of your images on the page and which metadata you wish to include. Aperture’s Print dialog box (right) lacks Lightroom’s style but is nearly as flexible. And only Aperture supports on-screen proofing.

Both programs let you specify color profiles when printing. If you’ve calibrated your system, it’s worth noting that Aperture offers on-screen proofing (available throughout the application), so you can see what your image will look like on different types of media.

One feature in Aperture that really stands out, though, is the Book mode, which lets you design and publish impressive showcases of your work. Although similar to iPhoto’s book feature, Aperture’s version is much more extensive. With its wide range of book types, pinpoint placement of text and images, and more, it feels like a miniature page-layout program. Many users, myself included, find the Book mode invaluable, and the absence of a similar feature in Lightroom is a definite con.

Building Web Pages Lightroom and Aperture offer many of the same features for building Web galleries from your photos. They each offer nicely designed templates, which you can adjust in a variety of ways, including choosing the image data to present, adjusting image size, adding titles and copyright information, and altering background colors and borders (see “Web Galleries”). However, you can’t create your own templates or add your own branding to the canned templates in either program. For that, you’ll have to export the photos into your existing Web workflow. Lightroom can create either HTML- or Flash-based galleries, while Aperture is limited to HTML.

Web Galleries: Lightroom lets you create galleries using either Flash- or HTML-based templates. Aperture doesn’t have Flash templates, but it offers two types of HTML templates: Galleries, album-based collections of images, and Journals, which are similar to Weblogs.

Despite their similar features, each program offers a vastly different experience in using those features on a day-to-day basis. Aperture’s project-based structure really shines here, especially if you create a lot of Web output. Every Aperture project can have multiple Web galleries (or more blog-like Web journals), each with a unique identity. And returning to a Web project to add new photos or alter settings is quick and easy.

Making updates and managing multiple Web projects in Lightroom is a bit more challenging. While it’s easy to create a nice-looking Web gallery from a selection of images, you’ll have to go through some gymnastics to add images to that gallery down the line. Whereas Aperture lets you save a Web-specific album as part of a project, with its own settings, Lightroom doesn’t save any Web-specific information with its collections or subcollections. As a result, doing something as simple as adding a pair of images to a gallery you created two weeks ago can turn into a trial: you’ll have to find the collection of images you used, hope that your Web settings remained the same (and use presets to change them back if they haven’t), and rebuild the gallery. In Aperture, it’s as easy as dragging the two images into that project’s Web gallery. In the end, while I liked Lightroom’s Flash templates, I found myself missing almost everything else about Aperture’s Web features when I was working in Lightroom.

Exporting Images If you need to get your images out of your library to use with other applications or services, both Aperture and Lightroom can do the job. You can export images in any of the supported formats and at various sizes. You can also save your export settings as presets. Aperture goes a bit further: it has an export plug-in architecture that works with a number of commercial and free services, letting you easily upload your images to stock photo agencies, commercial printing services, and even photo-sharing sites such as Flickr.

Which is right for you?

Aperture and Lightroom are both well-designed applications. Aperture will appeal most to photographers who largely compose in-camera and want an application that will make quick work of culling images. The program offers better options for importing and storing your photos, and its project structure is better tuned than Lightroom’s collections- and folder-based approach. While the simplicity and power of Lightroom’s Develop module may seem like a big deal, in reality I was able to get the images I wanted from both programs. When you factor in Aperture’s excellent Web and Book modes and integration with Apple’s iLife suite, it’s clear that this is the more mature product. It may take you longer to feel comfortable in Aperture, but once you are, you’ll be happy with the breadth of its features.

That said, Lightroom is no slouch. For a version-1.0 program, it offers an impressive collection of features. Despite a few rough edges, Lightroom gives you much of the same functionality as Aperture, and has an excellent image-editing engine with an intuitive and effective set of tools. If you already have a structured workflow, and pixel editing is your primary concern, Lightroom may be the better fit.

Projects versus collections

The most significant difference between Aperture and Lightroom is the underlying structure they use to store images in your image library (not to be confused with your Library file, where the programs store edits and other changes).

Projects Aperture stores photos in a hierarchical, project-based system. Every photo must reside in a project (when you import photos, you can choose to place them in an existing project or create a new project). Each project can have multiple albums, light tables, Web galleries, and Web journals associated with it—letting you create nearly endless combinations. You can also share photos across multiple projects.

If the Projects panel becomes a bit cluttered, you can impose more structure by grouping projects or albums into folders. This is particularly handy when you have multiple projects associated with a client.

Aperture’s project system becomes even more useful when you combine it with smart albums and smart Web galleries, which let you build dynamic groupings based on specific criteria—such as rating, keywords, EXIF data, import or shot date, and so on. When you add images to your project, any new photos that meet the criteria of a smart album or gallery automatically get added. Likewise, Aperture will remove an image from the group if its metadata changes and it no longer meets those criteria.

Aperture’s project structure is powerful, intuitive, and flex-ible. You’ll find it particularly appealing if you tend to group your work into discrete categories and want your image library to reflect that.

Collections Lightroom’s management features are much simpler. The Library pane lets you see all of your images, while the Folders pane offers a visual representation of how the images are organized on your hard drive. To create custom groupings similar to Aperture’s projects and albums, you’ll use the Collections pane. As with Aperture, an image can appear in multiple collections. And Lightroom’s Quick Collection feature helps you round up photos for a collection (press the B key to mark an image as part of a Quick Collection).

Unfortunately, some of the things you can do when looking at your entire library—creating and manipulating stacks, for example—aren’t possible when you’re looking at a collection. And although you can create subcollections—to group together images you’ll use in a Web gallery, for example—you have to create and update these groupings manually; Lightroom doesn’t provide the automated functionality of smart albums and galleries. You also can’t save Web or slide-show settings with a collection, as you can do in Aperture.

Finding Photoshop’s place

Adobe and Apple have both been careful to state that Lightroom and Aperture aren’t intended to be Photoshop killers. But do you really need to have both Photoshop and one of these programs? The answer depends on the type of work you plan on doing.

If I have Aperture or Lightroom, do I need Photoshop?

Despite all the editing features in Aperture and Lightroom, there may be times when they aren’t enough. Here are a few reasons to keep Photoshop or another pixel-based editor close at hand:

Selection-Based Editing The biggest reason to use Photoshop or another external editor is for the ability to create selections and apply pixel-based edits only to those areas. Lightroom or Aperture can’t do that; when you edit an image’s tones, you are adjusting all of the similar tones in an image.

Sophisticated Retouching Aperture and Lightroom can remove spots, but their tools are designed for occasional work; if you do heavy-duty retouching, you’ll need Photoshop’s Healing Brushes and Clone and Pattern Stamps to get the job done right.

Layering and Compositing I’ve been scanning Polaroids and building collages from my images, and Photoshop’s layering features are absolutely necessary for that type of work. Additionally, Photoshop’s layering options and modes are still your best option for fixing truly problematic images.

Filters Since neither Aperture nor Lightroom currently supports external plug-ins and filters, Photoshop is your only way to access these tools.

If I have Photoshop, do I need Aperture or Lightroom?

For some longtime Photoshop users, especially those who already have well-established workflows with Adobe Bridge or an asset-management program, it might not be worth investing in Aperture or Lightroom. After all, if you have a system that works, adding a new tool isn’t necessarily going to make things more efficient for you.

Bridge 2, part of Adobe’s new Creative Suite 3 package, includes some important new features, such as stacks, and some general performance enhancements, all of which make it more appealing and usable—especially if you regu-larly do extensive editing. However, it doesn’t approach the tight integration of asset management, image editing, and exporting that Aperture and Lightroom offer. For most people starting fresh, Aperture’s and Lightroom’s workflow approaches will make more sense.

Back it up

Even if you are letting Aperture or Lightroom manage your image library, you still need to maintain backups of your images—both the originals and the associated Library file.

The Library File You can set Lightroom to automatically back up its Library file by turning on an option in the program’s preferences. Aperture’s Vault backup feature is similar, but it doesn’t kick in automatically. You can keep multiple vaults on different hard drives—good for creating duplicate backups—but you have to create them and remember to update them on your own.

Photos If you have chosen to let Aperture store your photos in its Library file—which is the default behavior—the program will back up your originals as part of any vaults you set up. But if you have chosen to manage your files yourself, you will need to remember to back up the files.

Lightroom won’t automatically back up your image files. However, when you import images from your camera’s storage card, Lightroom gives you the option of creating copies in an alternative location. Although Aperture won’t do this out of the box, you can replicate this behavior with the help of Automator actions (go to www.automator.us/aperture for a complete list of Automator actions for Aperture).

[ Rick LePage is Macworld ’s editor at large and the editor of the Creative Notes blog. He is also an editor for the Complete Digital Photography Web site. ]

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