Apple Aperture 3.3 review

Pros

  • Clear interface
  • Wide raw camera file support
  • Excellent output options
  • Support for Retina display MacBook Pro

Cons

  • Weak noise correction
  • No geometry correction tools

Aperture has largely sat still over the past two years, occasionally tightening up the code and adjusting to new Mac OS capabilities, while Adobe's competing Lightroom photo workflow app has improved significantly. Aperture’s latest point upgrade, version 3.3, does bring a few new interface tweaks, photo fixing tools, and native support for iPhoto libraries, but it still hasn't caught up with Adobe Lightroom in powerful, profile-based image corrections. And Lightroom is just the most important competitor in a growing field of photo-workflow software - ACDSee Pro, CyberLink's PhotoDirector and Corel AfterShot Pro.

Aperture's smooth user interface, Faces and Places features, plentiful output options, and good camera raw support do stand out, however. For Mac users who want a big step up in power from iPhoto, Aperture is a natural choice, and the only photo workflow app updated to support MacBooks with Retina displays and iCloud Photo Streams. But Lightroom goes further for the pro or very serious amateur, not only with its enforced workflow, but in the image corrections it offers, both basic and advanced.

Signup and Setup

As with all Apple software, Aperture 3.3 is only available through the Mac App Store. If you bought Aperture 3 on disc, you can upgrade through Apple Update. That means there's no longer a free trial download version, but when you buy the £54.99 app from the App Store, you'll be able to install it on up to five computers. Moving your photo editing from iPhoto to Aperture is easier than ever: Now when you first run the latter, you'll see a splash screen that asks if you want to use your iPhoto library for Aperture, without requiring an import of all the photos. In fact, with this update, your iPhoto (v9.3 or later) and Aperture libraries become one and the same. This will be key for Mac users with large iPhoto libraries. When I installed the update, however, a note told me that I wouldn't be able to use my library with previous versions of Aperture—no problem, I'm not going back!

I tested Aperture 3.3 on a MacBook Pro with Retina Display, a recent iMac, and a three-year old MacBook. Performance was obviously excellent on the Retina MacBook Pro. On the white MacBook with a 2.6GHz dual-core processor, the library update took five minutes, and then my MobileMe albums had to be moved. But performance during general program use wasn't so bad on the older machine, either.

Interface

Aperture's interface differs in a basic way from that of Lightroom (and most other photo workflow apps) in that it's not "modal." In Lightroom, the app has major task-related interfaces for Library, Develop, and more, while Aperture always uses the same interface. Its Inspector panel has tabs for Library, Info, and Adjust. This means you can navigate among your photos while making adjustments, without having to switch modes as you do in Lightroom. Some will prefer Lightroom's separation of tasks and enforcement of a workflow, while others will prefer Aperture's flexibility.

Aperture's find and filter tools do let you limit the thumbnail view in the library browser to very specific criteria, such as ISO or camera make or lens used, but Lightroom's search filters are snappier to use - you don't have to create a rule set the way you do in Aperture to get to the files you want. Just limiting the view to only video files should be much easier, as it is in many other photo applications.

Though Lightroom hasn't been customised for Retina MacBooks as Aperture has, you can simply view at the former's 1:2 proportion to see 1:1. And after a bit, I found that the Retina update wasn't such a big advantage for Aperture - I could work just as effectively in Lightroom, as long as I knew that 1:2 was actually 100 per cent view. And the Lightroom image looked sharper than the same raw image in Aperture at 200 per cent.

Version 3.3 makes some subtle but desirable changes to Aperture's user interface. The icons atop are now all monochromatic grey, and the colourful sharing icons (Facebook, Flickr) are now collapsed into a Share dropdown. This removes distractions from your image. But I still wish you could change the app's frame colour from the out dated-looking light grey borders. The answer to this is Aperture's full-screen view. In full screen, you can adjust the background shade of grey to black.

My final interface note is that Aperture makes excellent use of keyboard shortcuts - something those who process a lot of photos can appreciate. But, again, the competition also features strong support for shortcuts.

Import and Organise

Importing 338 raw photo files from my Canon EOS 500D, each about 23MB, took just five minutes, seven seconds on the 2.3GHz Core i7 MacBook with 8GB RAM, but processing took another three minutes, 20 seconds. The same import on the same machine took Lightroom seven minutes, five seconds, so its whole process was a little quicker. On the weaker, older MacBook with 2.6GHz dual-core CPU and 2GB RAM, an Aperture import of 101 of these photos took just two minutes, 47 seconds, while processing took much longer - another seven minutes. During import in either app, I could change file naming, apply presets, apply metadata including keyword tags and captions, location, and copyright info. In Aperture I could even use an AppleScript action to go really customised - for example, you could apply a preset only to images with an ISO setting over 800.

Like most current photo-editing software, Aperture is "non-destructive," meaning it keeps a master of the original image you imported and saves your edits in a database. Any of your edited images is called a "version" (as opposed to the master - the original). Lightroom makes it easier to see a split view, with one side showing your original and the other your edited version. And while tethering my 500D worked flawlessly in Lightroom 3 beta, Aperture wouldn't play. I contacted Apple about this and assume it will support this most popular of DSLRs soon.

You can set Aperture to open and start importing automatically when camera media is connected, to split the import into a project per day, week, or 2-hour or 8-hour gaps. The default is to use raw preview images for faster viewing, but you won't see the final image quality initially, though it does display thumbnails , so you can quickly choose what to import. I also imported from an iPhone 4S camera, but I couldn't view full size before the import started, as I could with the raw files from my Canon 500D. I could even start making adjustments while import was going on, as I could in Lightroom. Lightroom shows a helpful progress bar during imports (and exports), giving you a visual idea of how long the process will take.

One advantage Aperture has over Lightroom is that it can work with Apple's iCloud, so you can see all your synced photos from iOS devices and other computers (even Windows computers and even raw camera files.)

You can import and display video in Aperture, but you can't edit it in any way. Lightroom lets you trim video, apply some lighting adjustments and effects.

Faces and Places

Though they may seem like consumer-only features, Faces and Places could actually be a plus for pro photographers, particularly wedding shooters who can easily organise hundreds of participant and guest photos using Faces. Once you teach Aperture who a face belongs to, the program does a good job of finding other pictures containing it, and you can see each person's images from the "corkboard" as in iPhoto. With version 3.3, Faces gets even easier to use: You can now drag and drop photos onto a person's corkboard entry. In my testing, Faces works nearly identically to the feature in iPhoto, and as in that app, it occasionally identified a non-face object as a face. The amount of teaching required for the program to know whose face is whose, and its inability to recognize profiles may limit Faces' usefulness to pros, however.

ACDSee and Lightroom have no face recognition, so if it appeals to you as a way to organise your photos, Aperture is your choice among high-end workflow apps. For casual photo buffs, iPhoto, Picasa, and Photoshop Elements can get you similar capabilities.

Nature, landscape, and sports photographers could certainly make good use of the Places feature, which can take data from GPS trackers (including the iPhone's) to automatically geo-tag the shots. Lightroom 4 surpasses Aperture in this, with the ability to import separate GPS data from a smart phone app and automatically place photos on a map. I had a lot more success with this in Lightroom 4 than in Aperture. In both apps, the mash-up with Google Maps is pretty impressive, letting you see the whole earth with pushpins for your photos. I do prefer how Lightroom's map lets you page through a mini slideshow of photos from a certain spot. To its credit, Apple has added a lot of local data to make it easier to pinpoint your shots.

Image Adjustment

Aperture offers most of the image-adjustment tools that pro photographers need (levels, curves, white balance, and sharpening), and, like Lightroom, lets you save presets for later use. One drawback in Aperture is that there's no history window for removing any specific action among your edits. All you get is an undo option in the edit menu, though it does offer to undo many actions back, and you can helpfully undo actions within adjustment groups, such as white balance and Exposure.

As in Lightroom, Aperture lets brush noise reduction onto and out of specific areas of a picture. But I had a much harder time brushing noise out of a sky in a dark photo in Aperture than I did in Lightroom - and I'm not alone in preferring Ligthroom's NR, judging by online forum postings. Aperture makes you adjust two sliders - Radius and Edge Detail - and getting the combination right with Aperture is much more difficult than using Lightroom's single noise-reduction slider. Chromatic Aberration was a similar story: I could effectively remove it in Lightroom (even with lens-specific profiling), but not in Aperture.

Apple claims to have improved Aperture's highlight and shadow adjustments, but I found the latter lacking compared with Lightroom's equivalent tool. Taking a dark outdoor photo with sunset sky, I could bring out grass and building detail by cranking up Lightroom's shadows adjustment, but Aperture just produced a washed-out result. In straight exposure adjustment, Lightroom gave me more headroom - four stops instead of Aperture's two, so I could really crank up a highly underexposed photo.

Aperture 3.3 also introduces a new Auto Enhance button. I'll usually try a photo app's auto corrector tool before tweaking the settings to get some ideas for what to do. And even though Lightroom's equivalent tool is limited to "tone," it did a far better job making most pictures look better than Aperture's more all-encompassing Auto Enhance. The highlights adjustment was also updated for Aperture 3.3, but it has an odd setup: The slider starts out all the way to the left, and that's the brightest setting. Instead of being able to increase the highlight intensity, you can only reduce it. Lightroom lets you do either, and is consistent with how sliders work.

For photos containing human faces, the program switches the white balance to Skin Tone, which did give people a more lifelike, warm, rosy look. And if that wasn't enough, a "warmth" slider let me push this up even further. But the limitation of white balance options to just two, Skin Tone and Neutral Grey, along with auto and a choice for specifying colour temperature in degrees K, is less accommodating than Lightroom's choices of six light source types plus using the camera's setting. Oddly, the Effects dropdown did offer light source-based white balance options, even with a helpful preview box. Both apps let you brush white balance settings onto specific areas of a photo, which helps with shots containing multiple light sources.

One type of correction completely missing from Aperture is lens geometry correction (aside from what the app may do at the raw conversion stage). If you want to fix distorted perspective introduced by wide or long lenses, you'll have to turn to Lightroom, which can automatically correct geometry based on the detected lens and focal length, or ACDSee Pro, which also offers geometry corrections. Aperture does, however offer a Devignette adjustment, to fix darkened corners, though this tool doesn't know about your lens and camera characteristics.

Sharing and Output

Aperture's sharing and output options are robust, including strong slideshow, online, printing and photo book choices. You can also email directly from any photo view. For slideshows, once you choose from 14 well-designed templates (including a geo-tag-enabled travel theme), you can output to a standard video file. Uniquely, you can even time how long each image in the slideshow will display. You can then add canned music from Apple or your own MP3s. The precise slide timing means you can match the pictures to the music, give more important shots longer viewing time, or time your slideshow for a presentation.

Aperture offers a lot of printing flexibility, as well: You can save custom layouts, resize boxes and borders by dragging, exposure compensate for printers, and add watermarks. You can choose any number of images to appear on a page, and specify row and column spacing. Lightroom, though, offers just as much control over printing. The app also offers a wide selection of soft proofing profiles, letting you see how output will turn out without actually having to print.

But most people these days want to get their photos online. The big Share button atop Aperture's window offers email, Photo Stream, Flickr, and Facebook options. Once you grant the program access to your online galleries, Aperture (like its little brother iPhoto) has a nice treat: It will show everything in your online galleries within the program, when you select its entry in the Library panel. You can also see online comments about the photos in the Inspector panel's Info tab.

Unfortunately, I couldn't edit Flickr photos in Aperture and then sync the edited versions to the online versions, but I could drag them to a project, edit there, and then drag back to the online gallery. Lightroom only shows photos you've uploaded from the app itself, so Aperture does offer a better window onto your online galleries, but Adobe's competitor does let you edit a photo in the Flickr upload set and update the online version. In Aperture you can upload your photographic creations to Apple iCloud Photo Stream, but of course, that doesn't offer any Web galleries. Both apps offer a plug-in architecture whereby you can add even more output sources.

Verdict

If you're deep into the Apple ecosystem and serious about digital photography, Aperture should probably be your workflow software choice. This is especially true if you just dropped over £2,000 on a new Retina MacBook and want to work with digital photography on it (which, I can tell you, is a dream) then you owe it to yourself to get Aperture. It's also your choice if connection with iCloud Photo Stream images, compatibility with a large existing iPhoto library, and face cataloguing are important to you, or you just prefer a non-modal interface.

But you should also be aware that you won't be getting editing tools as capable as those in Adobe Lightroom 4, with its specific lens-based corrections for geometry, vignetting, and superior corrections for lighting, chromatic aberration, and image noise. Even basic fixes like the auto-fix, shadows, and highlights worked notably better in Adobe's application. And although at Lightroom costs nearly twice as much as Aperture, its superior tools mean it’s the better choice for most.