Aperture vs. Lightroom: The new digital darkroom

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.

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