Close-up on Aperture

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When I heard that Apple was going to make an announcement to coincide with the PhotoPlus Expo in New York City, I expected to see an advanced version of iPhoto. What I got was something so much more exciting—a pro-level application that promises to finally make working with raw images as easy as working with JPEGs.

Aperture, which will be available in November for $499, provides tools for managing, sorting, comparing, editing, and publishing your photos. It’s aimed at professional photographers who need to manage hundreds—if not thousands—of photos from a shoot. The program supports most major file formats, including JPEG, Tiff, and Photoshop files. But its biggest selling point—and the one Apple is clearly proudest of—is its support for Raw files. By working with the raw data that the camera’s sensor captures, you can delay essential photographic decisions, such as white balance, until post production, giving you more flexibility in refining the image’s color and tone. Aperture lets you work with a Raw file from import through printing without having to convert the data to another format and without permanently altering the original image. All of your edits are non-destructive, which means you can turn them on and off at will anytime in the process.

Although Aperture is still a work in progress, Apple invited several members from the media to its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters for a demonstration of the new program. Here are some random notes from the quick tour we received:

• Aperture has a versioning system built in. When you import a photo, the program creates a digital negative of the file, which never gets altered. As you apply corrections and image effects, Aperture notes the changes without permanently applying them. When you’re ready to print something, you tell Aperture to export the image and apply all of the settings you’ve specified over the course of the file’s life in Aperture.

One benefit of this, according to Apple, is that Aperture can track several different versions of the same file (one black-and-white, one color, and so on) without significantly increasing the demand on disk space. It doesn’t duplicate the file, it just tracks different sets of image filters for each version of the same image. You can see the master image at any time by hitting a button.

Apple is not positioning Aperture as a Photoshop killer —at least not in this version of the program. You can open Aperture files in Photoshop, make changes, and then return to Aperture. According to Apple, you will also be able to open layered PSD files in Aperture, however you won’t be able to access those individual layers (if you return to Photoshop, the layers should all still be there).

One note about the movement between the two apps: When you move to Photoshop, Aperture exports a version of the image with all of your current effects applied. If you reimport the Photoshop-edited file back into Aperture, it’s like starting from scratch. The program creates a new digital negative and works from there. You can’t jump back and change any Aperture settings you made before going Photoshop without also losing any of the changes you made in Photoshop. So you lose some of the benefit of the non-destructive editing every time you make the leap.

• It sounds as though Aperture will resemble its distant iPhoto cousin in at least one way: how you manage your files—or rather don’t manage them. Like iPhoto, Aperture organizes and tracks your files for you. I haven’t seen what the file system looks like at the back end (iPhoto annoyingly sorts its files by date). But Aperture’s interface appears to group files into projects that you define.

• Aperture also includes advanced options for creating books and Web galleries. Not only do photo books created through Aperture offer higher resolutions than what you get from iPhoto, they also give you more flexibility to customize the design and layout. The Web gallery also offers easier customization and outputs HTML files that you can then post on any site, not just .Mac. You can even create “smart” Web galleries that filter images according to your criteria—such as rating—and then update automatically as that criteria changes. You can also order prints of your photos.

• According to Apple, you’ll be able to automate Aperture via Applescript or Automator. You can also apply correction settings to multiple images by simply dragging and dropping the effect.

• By the way, there’s no Save command in Aperture. As you make changes, those changes are recorded in a SQL database.

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