· technology ·

I've been meaning to write about my experience with Aperture for a while, but other stuff got in the way. I also wanted a chance to really work with it for a while, especially in the light of various rather negative reviews that circulated after its release. I should also say at the outset that in three respects, I'm probably not a typical Aperture user, so my opinions should be weighted with these things in mind:

  1. I'm not a professional photographer, just a keen amateur.

I had originally hoped that I might be able to install Aperture on my 12" PowerBook, but it seems that the installer checks for the minimum specifications of the hardware (a recommended graphics card and more than 1 GB of RAM), and won't install on lesser machines. There are various ways around both the graphics card limitation and the RAM limitation, but I decided not to bother. It works just fine on my iMac G5 20", and the big screen is much nicer for editing photos anyway.

Aperture is a vast and somewhat complex application, partly because it has a huge number of different ways to do things and organise your workspace (the number of different options for arranging your workspace over multiple monitors is awe-inspiring on its own). So while it's generally a fairly intuitive application to use, there are moments when you might have to dig into the manual or explore the interface a bit more deeply to get the finer points. However, the flexibility of the thing is wonderful; you can jump between viewing, sorting, editing, cataloguing and printing images in a very natural way, and you can choose which kind of workspace you prefer for each of those tasks very flexibly. I like viewing my freshly imported photos as large as possible with a dark background (something which was always tricky in iPhoto without creating a slideshow), and that's easy in Aperture. However, if you prefer seeing an overview of your thumbnails plus a large version of your selected image, or comparing similar images two, three, four or n-up, that's OK too.

There are masses of keyboard shortcuts for many of the commands, and in common with other Apple Pro apps like Final Cut Pro, they tend to be single key presses (like 'v' to toggle the main image viewer, or '`' to toggle the loupe), rather than chords involving command, option or control keys. Once you've got used to the shortcuts, it makes for a very speedy and efficient workflow. One particular set of commands I like a lot is the 'shuttle' trio of the j, k and l keys; when you're viewing the thumbnails in the main view or in the full screen filmstrip, you can hit j or l to scroll them smoothly forwards or backwards, then k to stop when you get to the region you want. It sounds clunky, but it's a much nicer experience than repeatedly stabbing the page up/page down keys or using the scroll wheel.

The feature that makes Aperture a winner for me is the Version. Whether you are editing RAW files or other image formats like JPG or TIFF, Aperture doesn't touch the originals after you've imported them. Any changes are saved in Versions which are essentially just a list of the changes applied to the original, and thus only occupy a tiny amount of disc space. Masters and Versions are kept together in a 'stack', keeping things tidy and making it easy to compare your edits. I've found this very liberating, creatively speaking, because when you can create new versions with such a low overhead, there's very little to hold you back from experimenting wildly.

While not replacing Photoshop for power users (not that they were ever intended to), the editing features in Aperture seem quite powerful enough for my uses. In particular, I like the monochrome tool, which is a greyscale channel mixer, couched in terms that photographers are used to. You can apply pre-set red, orange, yellow, green or blue filters, or remix them to get exactly the effect you want. It seems to work pretty well, and I find it much easier to use than the channel mixer in Photoshop.

All in all, I'm very happy with Aperture. The recent 1.0.1 update improved many small but slightly irritating bugs, and there are rumours that future updates may address some of the other complaints people have had. Meanwhile, Adobe has released a beta of Lightroom, which I haven't tried. Ultimately, I think that this competition can only be good for the users if it pushes both companies to innovate and improve their respective applications. We shall see.