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Aperture

by Rob Friesel

ApertureTaking the Aperture plunge…

After about four years and approximately nine thousand digital images collected, processed, managed, and shared via iPhoto, we’ve more/less out-grown it around this house.  Yes: this coincides in large part with the DSLR upgrade and the desire to shoot RAW but iPhoto just didn’t seem to be cutting it for us.  But was Aperture really going to fill our needs?  Or was it going to be overkill for this here hobbyist, this admitted amateur?  Did the perceived 120% I needed out of iPhoto translate into 10% of Aperture?  75%?  53.68%?  I had no illusions about taking 100% advantage of Aperture1 but I wanted to at least get an idea of our utilization level before going all the way.

And so did the 30-day free Aperture trial period come in to the rescue.

Our first order of business — before even “wasting time” on the trial — was to get a sense of what our main objectives would be.  What were our goals when it came to Aperture?  The easy answer was to take advantage of the CR2/RAW output of the XTi.  In a nutshell, I was unconvinced that iPhoto was “doing anything special with my RAW photos2.  OK: Goal #1 is to take full advantage of my RAW files.  But more so than that, iPhoto wasn’t giving me the “punch” on the images that I was really looking for.  Most of the time I could get 75% of the way there.  But iPhoto’s control over the adjustments and corrections wasn’t fine-grained enough, wasn’t focused or targeted enough.  And I hated having to then bring the images into Photoshop3 to “finish” them.  OK: Goal #2 is to get all of my photo editing/re-touching needs under the umbrella of one application.  And as long as we’re talking about goals for the trial: iPhoto seemed to be straining under the weight of my library.  Over the years we had come up to the 9-10,000 photo range.  Maybe it was just the version; maybe iPhoto 6 wasn’t cutting the mustard but an upgraded version would.  But some simple research seemed to suggest that even if upgrading iPhoto solved that problem, it still wouldn’t necessarily give me the powerful editing tools I was looking for.  OK: Goal #3 is to have an application that can better handle/manage my 10,000+ photo library.4

So we downloaded and installed the trial.  We ran the trial on our trusty ol’ “Malkovich”: a 20-inch 2 GHz iMac G5 with 2 GB RAM and a 250 GB hard drive.  Malkovich has a 500 GB FireWire hard drive (“Craig”) tethered to it for Time Machine back-ups.  As I mentioned above, we are starting with a base of about 9,000 photos from iPhoto.  We shoot primarily from a Canon Digital Rebel XTi but also from a Canon SD6305.  No one in this household is a professional photographer; a couple of avid amateurs with their fingers poised on the shutter perhaps, but no one’s paying us for these images.

Initial impressions.  About that first week…  Solidly positive first impressions.  Though I am not convinced that Aperture actually loads faster than iPhoto, it sure appears to load faster.  Doesn’t take too many bounces in The Dock for it to open up.  Maybe I’m just distracted by the little splash screen?  But once inside the app, it feels much snappier and more responsive.  I was able to scroll through my images much faster.  Even the superfluous visual effects seemed to be smooth and didn’t bog down the machine.  Again, these aren’t scientific results; I don’t have any benchmarks or carefully measured observations.  But let’s remember: Malkovich may not be an aging dinosaur of a machine but it’s no cutting-edge monster anymore either.  So I was impressed that this famously resource-intensive application didn’t slow the entire machine to a crawl.  (Not that it didn’t have some responsiveness quirks but more on that later…)

Our first round of imports went well.  I enjoyed the level of control that Aperture gave me over what did and did not get imported.  I liked that when it saw a RAW and JPG file with the same name, that it knew to bundle them together.  This was a tremendous improvement over iPhoto.  Speaking of which: I had mixed feelings about how Aperture handled importing my photos from iPhoto.  On the one hand, the import UI made it easy to figure out my options.  It took a long time to import them but I expected it to — we were talking about 9,000-ish files here.  What bummed me out afterward was that I suddenly had hundreds of folders in Aperture.  Granted, those folders were all clustered under the one “iPhoto Library” folder but there was folder after folder, named with numbers, containing one or two images.  I realized that these were supposed to correspond with Rolls but I’m thinking my iPhoto library got corrupt along the way because there was no rhyme or reason to it all.

The first stabs at using Aperture went well, too.  My familiarity with iPhoto’s UI and controls (not to mention a few years of Photoshop experience) helped me to know where to start.  Considering that I hadn’t viewed any of the tutorials yet, I would say that several of these first attempts6 went very well.  Even as an amateur7 I felt right at home with the granular and sometimes esoteric-sounding controls.  Brightness, Recovery, Vibrancy, Definition…  I dove right in and managed to get some satisfactory results.  Not necessarily exemplary or professional results but definitely images that satisfied, definitely better results than anything I’d gotten out of iPhoto.  Once I got them uploaded though, they seemed a bit on the dark side.  Granted, we shoot a lot of photos indoors and even at ƒ/1.8, there isn’t always enough light to get a good exposure.  But still…  Why would the images look nice and vibrant in Aperture and then look dark and washed-out after they’re up on Flickr?  Flickr’s processing?  I’m not buying that — lots of folks have lots of nice bright, vibrant images on there.  As I worked more with the application, I started to get better, more consistent results — but I still haven’t gotten it all figured out.

On the flip-side of the “too dark after uploading” issue, of course, is how easy it is to go overboard.  Speaking (again) as an amateur, it’s great to have all of these powerful adjustment tools at your fingertips.  I have definitely managed to “save” a few under- or over-exposed shots through some creative manipulations8 but it’s not always easy to know when to stop.  Sometimes I’ll spend 30 minutes working on a well-framed but incorrectly exposed image and then I’ll compare it to the master and something is not quite right.  Maybe the flesh tones look good but the green of a plant in the background is too “neon”.  Or maybe the colors are “popping” too much.  Or maybe it’s just unsalvageable and you wind up with something that’s just as washed out as before but now it’s just… brighter.

Details and more impressions.  Though my first impressions were great, I wasn’t exactly sold after the first week.  It seemed worth getting all the way through the trial period to execute all those side-by-side, pound-for-pound comparisons.  So, I attempted to nit-pick Aperture to death:

  • Versus iPhoto, it sure seemed a lot less crashy.  Not that Aperture didn’t crash at all.  But I can only recall one crash during the month-long trial, as opposed to the weekly and sometimes daily crashes that iPhoto would give me.  Granted, I always blamed iPhoto’s crashy-ness on the thousands upon thousands of images I had tried to cram into it.
  • Versus iPhoto, Aperture has a pretty different workflow for uploading to Flickr.  I had gotten accustomed to selecting my images in iPhoto and just dragging them out and into Uploadr.  This doesn’t work for Aperture.  Images will appear in Uploadr but they turn out to be proxies, references to the previews in Aperture and not the photo versions themselves.  It took me a couple of attempts to figure out that I needed to select my images ➟ export versions ➟ select those versions in the Finder ➟ drag those into Uploadr.  It adds a little bit of time (especially the “export versions” step) but I’m much more satisfied with my final output.  I found the FlickrExport plug-in (and the freebie Lite version) but have yet to try it out.
  • Fullscreen mode.  Awesome.  But more/less the complete opposite of iPhoto’s fullscreen mode.  Did anyone else notice this?  By default, Aperture has the “film strip” on the bottom and the tools on the top.  iPhoto 6?  “Film strip” on the top, tools on the bottom.  The first week or so was confusing; I kept going up when I meant to go down, etc.  I realized later on that I could change the positions of these tools.  But by then I’d gotten used to it.
  • “Delete photos after import.”  Aperture doesn’t.  I’m told this is OK and perhaps even preferable.  We’ll see.  But I wasn’t expecting this little nuance either.  I’ll accept it as just “different”.  It’s not a deal-breaker.  Especially not since iPhoto kept failing in the middle of import jobs anyway.
  • Responsiveness.  Like I mentioned above, for the most part, I perceived Aperture as much more responsive than iPhoto.  It seemed to scan through large batches of images very fast.  It responded quickly to mouse-clicks and keyboard commands.  Even the superfluous visual effects were fluid and appeared without delay or stutter.  But every once in a while, Aperture would just… choke.  Beachball.  These were not fatal crashes.  Usually, I’d have invoked some large batch operation (e.g., “delete” 9,000 referenced iPhoto images, apply fifteen adjustments to 150 photos at once) and though Aperture was dutifully carrying out its assigned task, it also refused to allow me access to the UI.

I tried to eviscerate Aperture.  I really did.  But I have to say that it passed the important tests.  I reflected on those goals.  Did it allow me to “do anything special” with my RAW-formatted photos?  Yes, quite a bit of fine-grained control.  Did it put all of my photo editing needs under one application’s umbrella?  For the most part, yes.  I have had quite a few 100%-satisfied photos get uploaded using nothing except Aperture.  And the batch controls make it a snap to apply the right fine-tuning to a bunch of images all shot under the same conditions.  Lastly, did it handle/manage my 10,000 or so photo library better than iPhoto?  This was the toughest one…  My perceptions say yes.  Time will tell if this continues to be the case.  But so far: yes, it’s doing wonderfully.

Moving forward.  We are now drinking the Aperture Kool-Aid.  I had a feeling we would after we got about ten days into the trial; it was at that point that I thought: Apple should just give away iPhoto like they do with iTunes; make their money off the prints and the photo books and greeting cards and all that other schwag.  Seriously: compared to Aperture, iPhoto is pretty junky.  Putting the two side-by-side, Aperture is worth its $199 price tag while iPhoto isn’t even worth its ≈$20 slice of the $79 iLife Suite’s pie.  At $199, Aperture is pretty damned accessible to the “serious amateur” and you get so much more mileage out of it when it goes head-to-head with iPhoto.

The big question I’m left with however: Storage?

To slightly paraphrase what CK probably said best:

Aperture  more storage ➟ Drobo9

I don’t necessarily know if Drobo is the answer.  But I’ll have to think of something.  When I first started dumping photos into Aperture, I was surprised at how efficient it appeared to be — it seemed to be half the size of iPhoto’s library.  “Even with those 9,000 images imported from iPhoto?  That’s amazing!”  Until I realized that Aperture was referencing those 9,000 or so images from where they already “lived”.  And just like that I realized how quickly we were going to run low on disk space10.  Marking “Rejects” in Aperture and periodically purging them will no doubt help to slim things down.  But earlier this afternoon I started to consider if it would be possible to put a 1 TB drive into that iMac G5 and/or if I’d just be better off investing in a few more FireWire drives…  As we speak, Malkovich is busy re-importing the iPhoto library into the Aperture library this time.  I sense an up-coming purge in iPhoto but there’s the impractical nostalgic part of me that knows it’s not going to be so easy to get rid of them all.  So many memories…

UPDATE: After the Great iPhoto Re-Import, I must say that I’m a little disappointed with the automation.  I’ve found numerous instances of missing photos.  One iPhoto album that contained 65 photos (for example) only had 10 photos after it was imported into Aperture.  Now…  Manually importing the missing photos isn’t that big of a deal but now I feel like I need to audit the list to make sure that we got all of the important ones.  Oh well — it’s not like they were lost — they were still in iPhoto, after all.  Small price to pay…?

UPDATE 2:  I’ve noticed that there is a pretty big speed difference whether you’re running Aperture on a G5 or an Intel-based Mac.  Anyone else notice this?  I’m sure there are some other factors at work here but comparing the speed and responsiveness of Aperture on Malkovich (the G5 iMac mentioned above) versus on BenNevis (a 1st generation MacBook Pro) — it’s almost like it’s a totally different application, it’s so much faster.

  1. I have some sincere doubts that I’ll ever shoot while tethered, for example. []
  2. Original Tweet here. []
  3. But apparently Photoshop 7 doesn’t seem to want to run under 10.5, so we reached a standstill on that front anyway. []
  4. I know what you’re thinking: “You’ve said 9,000, 9-10,000, and now 10,000+ photos.  Which is it?”  Um…  All of them?  When I started my Aperture trial, we were around 9,000 photos in iPhoto.  Then Holden was born.  You’d be surprised how many photos you can take with a baby around.  Or maybe you wouldn’t. []
  5. The XTi is vastly superior but much harder to get into your pocket. []
  6. Original photo posting at Flickr. []
  7. A more technically minded, more experienced, more advanced amateur — but an amateur nonetheless! []
  8. And comparing the “final” version to the master…  Sometimes the difference is simply incredible. []
  9. Original Tweet here. []
  10. And to think there was a time when 250 GB seemed like a huge capacity disk? []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

4 Responses to Aperture

Erin says:

I’m sort of an Aperture “rebel” and still use a lot of my same iphoto habits i.e. I don’t keep everything and simply reject it. I delete the ugly stuff and only keep the really good images. And being able to shoot in raw and edit so minutely has saved me on countless occasions of “oops!” photography. Glad you’ve liked what you’ve tried so far!

found_drama says:

@Erin: hehe… I guess part of my problem (update to follow) is that I wound up flat-out KEEPING so many photos. If it didn’t get deleted “in camera” then it got dumped to iPhoto and stayed there. I’m really going to need to break myself of that habit — RAW images from the XTI are easily five times larger (on average) than the JPGs we’d been getting from the SD630. I might wind up burning DVDs of rejects… A bunch of different strategies on the table right now but the issue remains the same: how can I keep all the best plus a lot of the “good” shots without burning up the entire drive?

storage is cheap but it ain’t THAT cheap…

Melissa Donovan says:

As a new Mac user who has only used Windows Explorer to catalog photos, this is pretty interesting to read, even though I don’t understand every detail. I’m way more of an amateur photographer than you!

I guess Mac gives away iPhoto now because mine came with it already installed. I haven’t used it yet but I’m looking forward to playing with it and seeing how it can handle all my photos and images.

found_drama says:

@Melissa: I suppose you have a point there… That iPhoto is given away (“included”) on new hardware purchases — I’d forgotten about that little detail.

Enjoy your new Mac! (And thanks for stoppin’ in here.)

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