A new—and overdue—Aperture

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With Tuesday’s release of Aperture 2.0, Apple reaffirmed its commitment to an important segment of the creative professional market by rolling out a welcome—and many would say overdue—product that can really benefit pro photographers. Apple also boosted Aperture’s to hobbyists looking to grow beyond the limitations of iPhoto.

Most significantly, the company has dramatically overhauled Aperture’s engine to offer dramatically enhanced performance throughout the application. That resolves users’ single biggest complaint—that Aperture was glacially slow, even on the fastest Macs, especially as your catalog of images grew. The first thing Aperture 2.0 does when you open it is offer to convert your existing Aperture 1.x library, and the difference is astounding. What once took Aperture a dog’s age to open on my MacBook Pro now opens lickety-split.

Aperture’s programmers have also employed some clever tricks to help photographers keep working even when other things need to happen. I can quickly review photos that I’m importing from a digital camera while they’re still downloading—Aperture 2.0 reads the JPEG preview embedded in raw images, rather than opening the raw image itself. Exporting, another time-consuming and needlessly modal activity, happens in the background too. Searching for photo metadata is faster throughout the application, and scales much better as the library of images grows larger.

Apple has also overhauled the raw digital image architecture Aperture uses to actually manipulate photos from the camera. The result is a host of new image retouching capabilities that I won’t get into too much detail here—but you can improve the look of your images in ways you couldn’t prior to this update, all using the same non-destructive workflow that Aperture has supported since day one.

In case you’re curious, Aperture utilizes a very clever system of filtering instructions to manage its image manipulation. That’s one reason that the software is non-destructive—it’s never changing the bits of your image itself, just the instructions it uses to display them for you. That’s also one reason why creating five or 10 versions of the same 10-megapixel image doesn’t gobble up dozens of megabytes of additional disk space.

One complaint that Aperture users have voiced for a while is how slow Apple is in updating its raw digital image file support. When a new camera is released from Canon or Nikon, users can wait months before an update is applied to the operating system to make those cameras work with Aperture.

That hasn’t changed in the 2.0 release, per se—raw file support is still an operating system-level function, unlike, say, Adobe’s Photoshop Lightroom, where it’s dependent on a plug-in architecture that Adobe frequently updates.

But when I spoke to him yesterday, Joe Schorr, Apple’s product manager for Aperture, said one of the reasons why this update took so long is because Apple has redesigned the raw pipeline from start to finish. That’s enabled some of Aperture’s new features (Aperture now supports raw 2.0 image profiles), and Schorr said it’ll give Apple more flexibility to add new support in the future. Schorr stopped short of promising me that we’ll instantly get new camera support, but it was clear to me in our conversation that Apple’s aware of this shortcoming and really wants to address it, so let’s hope they can as we push forward.

By dropping the price by one-third, from $299 to $199, Apple has made Aperture a lot more accessible to “hobbyist” photographers—people who have bought their first Nikon D40x or Canon Digital Rebel, a few lenses, and some high-capacity memory cards, and find themselves shooting a lot more digital photos than they used to. This makes Aperture a more effective upgrade product for people who find iPhoto too slow or too limited in features.

Is Aperture the last word in photo cataloging or non-destructive editing? Certainly not—many photographers have invested a lot of time and effort in other workflow systems, from intricate digital asset management products like Canto Cumulus to Adobe Lightroom to Microsoft Expression Media (formerly know as iView Media Pro). And chances are good that many will continue to use other products.

But by overhauling Aperture as Apple has, the company has simultaneously addressed many issues voiced by current users and tried to broaden the product’s appeal to users who might otherwise have not really looked closely at it. Hopefully that will lead more photographers—professional and amateur alike—to find Aperture as indispensable a workflow tool as those of us who have used it from the beginning.

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