Aperture vs. Lightroom: The new digital darkroom

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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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