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Aperture 1.0.1

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Flashes of genius with room for improvement: that’s Aperture 1.0.1, Apple’s new professional digital imaging software.

Targeted at photography pros, Aperture combines powerful photo-management and cataloging features with basic image editing and excellent publishing and presentation capabilities. All this is wrapped in an efficient, elegant interface that glitters with typical Apple flair.

But no debut is perfect: Aperture 1.0 had some bugs. Apple’s 1.0.1 update (released on December 21) fixed some flaws, but several bugs and performance problems remain.

Aperture’s image-editing features can’t compare to those of Adobe Photoshop CS2 (   ; August 2005 ), and that’s intentional: Aperture was designed for photographers who want to spend more time shooting and less time managing image files and pushing pixels.

By that measure, Aperture succeeds brilliantly. But deciding whether it’s the right digital imaging application for you means understanding where its strengths and weaknesses lie—particularly if you’re already a Photoshop guru.

Start to finish

Aperture is designed to handle the entire workflow of a typical photography job: importing images from a camera or a media reader, sorting and culling through those images to find the best shots, polishing those picks as needed, and then printing or otherwise presenting or exporting the final photos.

Each of these operations takes place within Aperture’s single window (see the top screenshot). You can switch between various workspace layouts, each tuned to a specific phase in the workflow. (For an introduction to Aperture’s interface and features, see my first look at the application.) Aperture’s one-window design feels a bit cramped on smaller screens, such as a PowerBook’s. It’s more comfortable on at least a 20-inch display, and it’s a thing of beauty on the 30-inch Apple Cinema HD displays (   ; March 2005 ) that Apple sent to Aperture reviewers for a bittersweet one-month loan.

If you have two monitors connected to your Mac, Aperture’s horizons open wide. Several commands and keyboard shortcuts let you employ them in various ways. For example, you can use the second monitor as a simple extension of the first to view more photo thumbnails for sorting and culling images. Or you can leave the second monitor blank except when you display photos in Aperture’s Slide Show mode—ideal for client presentations.

High-end hardware

Aperture has stringent dietary requirements: you need a Power Mac G5, preferably a dual-processor, dual-core, or Quad model, with one of 11 supported video cards, which work with OS X’s Core Image technology to enable Aperture’s editing features. Like a growing number of Apple applications, Aperture relies heavily on your Macs’s graphics circuitry. (Apple’s Web site provides a list of supported cards and a downloadable compatibility checker utility.)

Aperture also runs on certain PowerBook G4 models, but its image-editing functions are sluggish. The program’s photo-management and publishing features are acceptably swift, though. I wouldn’t hesitate to use Aperture in the field to import, manage, and cull photos, but I’d long to get back to the G5 in my studio for making image adjustments. Apple acknowledges that Aperture’s performance on PowerBooks could be better.

Expert organizer

Aperture’s features for sorting and rating photos are superb. The Auto-Stack command, which groups shots taken within a specified interval, has no peer in Adobe Bridge ( August 2005 ). iView Multimedia has added a somewhat similar feature to iView MediaPro 3.0.1, but it lacks the slick elegance of Aperture’s implementation (see the middle screenshot).

As you sort and cull, you can rate photos, compare multiple photos side by side, and study details with an on-screen magnifying loupe (see the bottom screenshot). Photoshop veterans may be disappointed by Aperture’s lack of standard zoom-in and zoom-out controls, but I found the loupe and Aperture’s full-screen editing mode adequate for most photo scrutinizing—especially given the program’s limited editing capabilities.

For pros, a big part of organizing photos also involves supplying metadata, such as descriptive keywords and captions. Aperture’s metadata-management features are excellent; you can easily create and add keywords, apply one image’s metadata to a group of other images, search for images based on metadata, and much more.

Alas, the metadata story goes sour if you export an image into TIFF or Photoshop (PSD) formats, at which time Aperture omits some critical metadata from the exported file. This bug existed in Aperture 1.0 and persists in 1.0.1. If you’re a photographer who relies heavily on metadata, and you anticipate exporting images for use in other applications, this bug could be a deal breaker. On the other hand, if you plan to spend most of your time in Aperture, the bug may not affect you.

In the darkroom

Aperture works with most common image formats, including the raw-format images that high-end digital cameras can shoot. And thus opens a raw can of worms: many early reviews and online forum postings slammed Aperture for delivering image quality inferior to that of Adobe Camera Raw and other converters.

The real story is more complicated. While Aperture supports numerous raw formats, Apple applied additional fine-tuning for certain high-end Canon, Nikon, and other digital SLRs. If you don’t use one of those cameras—if, for example, you shoot with a Canon PowerShot G6 or a Sony CyberShot DSC-F828, two midlevel point-and-shoot digital cameras that support the raw format—you may well see higher-quality images from Adobe Camera Raw.

After evaluating dozens of raw images from several high-end cameras, I give the raw-quality edge to Adobe Camera Raw. But it isn’t a slam dunk. Properly exposed images shot at low-to-medium ISO speeds look excellent in Aperture. But Adobe Camera Raw often delivers superior results with images that are poorly exposed or shot at high ISO settings.

And for those special-case shots, you can use Aperture’s Export Master command to send the original raw file to Photoshop. Indeed, with a few minutes of tinkering in OS X’s Automator program, you can set up a watch folder that automatically opens Adobe Camera Raw when you export a raw master to a specific folder.

Aperture’s editing environment is clean and straightforward. A full-screen mode hides nearly all controls, enabling you to maximize screen real estate. Image-adjustment controls appear in a floating panel called the Adjustments heads-up display (HUD). Aperture makes extensive use of these HUDs, and they work well, though I’d like to see more keyboard shortcuts in the Adjustments HUD.

When you edit an image, Aperture leaves the original untouched, simply recording the changes instead. This nondestructive approach makes it easy and efficient to create multiple versions of an image—rather than gobble disk space by duplicating it, Aperture just starts assembling a different set of editing instructions.

The program’s image-editing functions are adequate for basic exposure fixes and color adjustments, but for advanced editing—for localized sharpening, lightening only part of an image, or complex retouching, for example—you’ll want to use Photoshop CS2. Aperture provides an Open In External Editor command, which can automatically send an image from Aperture into Photoshop, or any editor of your choice. Your saved document will automatically go back into your Aperture library, but if you’ve added any layers, you will see only a flattened version within Aperture. Your original layered document is still there, and will appear layered if you send the document back to Photoshop. Importing an already-layered Photoshop document into Aperture is more problematic. When you send this document from Aperture to Photoshop, it will get flattened, though your original layered version will be preserved in the Aperture library, and can be exported to the Finder as a normal file.

Apple has published a tech-support document dealing with the Aperture-Photoshop connection. It’s helpful, but the bottom line is that there’s room for improvement in putting these two powerhouse applications on speaking terms.

Aperture’s output options are complete and then some (and more reliable in version 1.0.1). You can produce full-size prints or customizable contact sheets on your own color printer, order photographic prints in sizes up to 20 by 30 inches, and create books similar to those available in Apple’s iPhoto—though Aperture provides far more layout flexibility.

Macworld’s buying advice

So if you’re a professional or advanced-amateur photographer, should you build your photographic world around Aperture 1.0.1? Just as no single lens can address every photographer’s shooting needs, no single program can address every post-shoot requirement. While Aperture goes further than any other program in addressing the start-to-finish requirements of advanced photographers, it needs to play better with others and could use some additional bug fixes. However, if you require only modest image editing with occasional side trips to Photoshop, give Aperture a close look—provided that you have a well-endowed Mac and won’t mind dealing with a few growing pains as Aperture matures.

[ Macworld Contributing Editor Jim Heid is the author of The Macintosh iLife ’05 (Peachpit Press/Avondale Media, 2005) and its companion Web site. ]

Aperture’s single-window interface has several different workspaces, each tailored for a specific imaging task. On a 30-inch Apple Cinema Display, there’s plenty of room for Aperture’s various elements, such as the Adjustments and Metadata panels at right.Aperture’s Auto-Stack images panel (or heads-up display, in Apple parlance): Drag its slider, and Aperture groups, or stacks, shots taken within a specific time interval.With the program’s magnification loupe, you can take a close-up look at part of an image.
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