Why I’ve switched from Apple Aperture to Adobe Lightroom 4.1

Let me start by saying that having used Apple’s Aperture for years, I’ve reached the conclusion over the last few months that it’s no-longer the best product for my imaging workflow.

This isn’t intended to be a comparison between Aperture 3 & Lightroom 4.1 nor is it a review of either product. Both can be found in massive quantities elsewhere.

I first came across Aperture almost by accident. Having acquired an early Canon dSLR, once the volume of images I was shooting with it started to increase it didn’t take me long to conclude that there really must be a better way to manage a digital workflow than relying on a collection of image downloaders, standalone RAW converters, image editors, noise reducers and image library / asset management tools. In the early days it was a case of finding the right combination of bits to suit your needs and then hoping they all worked together in some degree of consistency. Workflows tended to consist of firing up loads of individual tools, grabbing images from a memory card, filing them away somewhere by hand; using something else to review & perhaps apply metadata; using a RAW converter to process them into JPEG or TIF files; and finally cranking up Photoshop to make any finer-grained amends or tweaks that couldn’t be handled through the RAW converter. In terms of image management, I never really found a solution I was happy with so ended up filing images in a fairly basic date-based archive on disk (so that I could find images by date) and using various tools to try and index the metadata.

At some point in what now seems like the distant past, I switched over to a Mac for video editing & production when the available Windows applications didn’t really deal with AVCHD video particularly elegantly. At the same time I took the opportunity to reevaluate my photography workflow and it didn’t take that long to realise that there must be a better option than the collection of tools.. After some research I came across Aperture, evaluated it & ended up buying a copy along with all the subsequent upgrades.

Aperture – the solution!

Aperture seemed like the solution to all of my issues at the time. It provided a fast, non-destructive way to import, manage, review/select, edit, export & manage my images; working seamlessly with Canon RAW files without any need to “process” or convert them first. The amount of time this saved me was incredible as all of a sudden I could download images from my memory cards after a shoot, and leap straight to selecting & editing – all while preserving the original image data. I was hooked!

It soon became apparent however that Aperture had a few flaws, one of which was its performance with large image libraries and another was its fairly elementary image editing tools.

Performance was something that was fixable relatively easily by keeping the “active” library’s size (i.e. the library used for imports & working on your current stuff) as small as possible through relocating master RAW files out to normal folders on disk somewhere, but the image editing tools were something you were stuck with.

As Aperture was updated over the years I kept holding out hope that this would be an area Apple would work on & improve, but unfortunately while the tools & their capabilities gradually evolved over time they still left much to be desired with use of Photoshop inevitably increasing alongside Aperture. Aperture’s tools could handle many basic tasks but were fairly restrictive in terms of applying changes selectively to areas of an image and its noise reduction capability left much to be desired. They did the job, but barely..

A year or so ago I finally reached the conclusion that I needed to do something different and evaluated & bought the fantastic Nik Software plugin suite for Aperture. Finally, I had a complete editing solution which could handle 99% of my image processing needs without depending on manual editing with Photoshop.

At this point, my workflow for a large shoot tended to consist of ingesting images into Aperture direct from memory cards, selecting & performing any crops or image-wide adjustments using Aperture’s tools and then processing each image that needed further enhancement or special attention through the appropriate Nik plugin. I was also using Nik’s noise reduction tools in place of Aperture’s when required along with the excellent Silver Efex Pro for anything B&W or toned.

With the Nik plugins admirably filling a functional gap I continued using Aperture, relatively happily, but leaning heavily on Nik’s tools for any more advanced image editing, sharpening or noise-reduction needs rather than using the Aperture tooling. Aperture had basically become an image management toolset handling import / cataloguing and conversion to JPG with the Nik plugins being used for colour adjustments and anything over and above simple image-wide adjustments.

The great downside to this was a dramatic increase in storage requirements. Getting images out of Aperture into the Nik tools tended to require generation of massive TIFs for each processed image. Multiple edits & use of multiple plugins quickly produced multiple copies of the TIFs. Great in terms of time saving through use of the Nik tools, but not so great in terms of disk consumption or archival storage afterwards!

Aperture’s final days…

The final days for Aperture within my workflow arrived at the same time as my new Canon EOS 5D MK III camera. Aperture didn’t support the new RAW file format for the 5D Mk3, meaning that the only way I could process images was to first run them though Adobe’s RAW to DNG convertor (which they’d promptly released in beta containing support for 5D Mk3 RAW files, timed for the camera’s launch), and import the DNGs to Aperture. At the same time as the updated converter tool was released Adobe also pushed out a beta of Lightroom with native 5D Mk3 RAW support. Score 1 for Adobe.

Being (relatively) happy with Aperture I downloaded the Lightroom (LR) beta with a view to seeing how it compared, and was plesently surprised to find a fresh, modern tool which effortlessly coped with everything I threw at it. Importing 5D Mk3 images to Lightroom seemed much easier than playing around with converting everything to DNG, and after a few tests I found myself very happy with the native output from LR4 – producing brilliantly clean images at virtually any ISO from 100 to 12,800. Obviously the 5D Mk3 helped with this but in contrast, processing the same images through Aperture produced results missing much of the detail present in those from LR.

It took a few days to properly find my way around LR, but after that point switching back to Aperture started to feel more uncomfortable every time I used it. Tasks that were effortless in LR took much more time in Aperture, and where the native tools in LR were able to handle 95% of my retouching needs I found myself relying on the Nik plugins to achieve similar results with Aperture. As a result, it wasn’t long before I was working virtually exclusively with LR and actively avoiding using Aperture.

Given the functional gulf between Aperture 3 & Lightroom 4.1, I opted to delay finalising my decision to switch camps until June 2012 as Apple traditionally announce new releases of their major applications at their annual Worldwide Developer Conference. Despite massive expectations by many professional Aperture users that Apple might finally release a Lightroom-beating Aperture 4, Apple instead released a fairly minor, point release update (Aperture 3.1) rather than anything more significent. Perhaps demonstrating a change in approach for their professional imaging division, Aperture 3.1 did little to close the gap instead focusing on minor changes like an improved colour balance tool, support for Apple’s fantastic new Retina display Macbook Pro and merging both Aperture and iPhoto to use a single library format. Seemingly no effort was made to resolve some of the greatest complaints about Aperture or to bring the product up to the same level as Lightroom – leaving it remaining a long way behind LR in terms of usability & functinality. I have no idea if this was deliberate on the part of Apple but they’ve essentially conceded the market for professional image processing tools to Adobe.

I’m sure Aperture will continue to sell plenty of copies, especially to those who are perhaps pushing the limits of IPhoto’s capabilities where Aperture is a significent (and now simple) upgrade. However, for pro’s at the moment it’s essentially a dead-end product which Apple do not seem to be interested in growing. Many will probably start to draw parallels at this point between Aperture and Final Cut Pro X, which was seemingly refocused towards the consumer/iMovie end of the market rather than traditional professional NLE video editors.

Adobe Lightroom; Aperture’s successor

The end result is that when my trial expired, buying LR was a simple decision; one made even easier by being able to acquire it as part of my Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. It’s now become my primary workflow tool of choice, providing a streamlined reliable tool to manage my images across multiple storage devices into a single catalogue – providing rapid search regardless of storage along with non-destructive editing tools to rival Photoshop.

Its native editing tools are more than able to handle the vast majority of my retouching needs, and at the moment I’ve yet to purchase a cross-grade for my Nik plugins to use them with LR. So far, while perhaps using the Nik tools would have been slightly quicker than using LR, I’ve been able to do everything I’ve needed to without much in the way of effort. I imagine it won’t be long until I do move the plugins across as I miss some of their capabilities but right now, using LR4 without them is much more preferable than Aperture!

One of my initial fears around switching to Lightroom was the process of migrating my image libraries from Aperture to LR. Despite many comments on the web about how difficult this process could be, I found it to be pretty simple. I made sure I’d relocated all of my Aperture Masters (i.e. my RAW files) out of the Aperture library to a normal folder on disk organised into a simple year/month/day & event structure, and simply pointed LR at the root of that folder structure. LR then quickly imported images into a new catalogue, and made them available nearly instantly for search or image processing. Naturally this process didn’t import any of the adjustments made in Aperture, but given that I rarely need to re-process old images this does not present a problem. Should I need to use an old image for some reason, I’ll simply reprocess it in LR.

While this process was running, another of Aperture’s limitations was brought into stark contrast with LR. One of the greatest annoyances when it comes to manging an image library with Aperture is its inability to do more than a single task at once. Move some files around; it stops (with a progress dialogue on-screen), and you have to wait for it the move process to finish. Start a large import; it stops; update the Vault, it stops… etc. LR by contrast simply keeps working. You can run multiple imports, multiple file moves, multiple export jobs; all at the same time. Use it for a while, and you start to realise just how much difference this can make to your workflow.

In conclusion, if you find yourself sat on a fence with an established Aperture library, I would highly recommend that you move your master images out of Aperture, and give Lightroom a go. If nothing else, unlike Apple & Aperture, Adobe seem to be genuinely keen to develop the product; improving it with every release and actively engaging with the vibrant user community to help keep it moving in the direction everyone wants it to.

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