By Michael Frye
It was one of those moments when you think, “Of course. Why didn’t someone think of this before?” I was at Photo Plus Expo in New York in 2005, watching a demonstration of Apple’s new Aperture™ program. I’d been shooting digitally for two years, and I was seeing a tool designed to solve one of my biggest problems: how to sort, edit, and organize the vast number of digital image files I was producing. Aperture was designed to work with Raw files, and featured tools like “stacks” that could quickly sort similar images into groups for comparison, and a “loupe” for zooming in and checking sharpness. It had basic image processing tools, including a way to retouch dust spots.
Photoshop has long been the image-processing gold standard, but here was an application that might allow me to do everything from editing to printing or building a web page without ever touching Photoshop. I was anxious to try it, but initial reports of slow performance made me hesitate, especially since Apple didn’t offer free trials. Then in February 2006 Adobe announced a public beta release of its competing product, Lightroom™.
I’ve since tested each update of Lightroom, and finally broke down and purchased Aperture (just before they began offering a 30-day free trial!). Here are a few thoughts:
To me, Lightroom is much easier to learn. With Aperture I’ve often delved deeply into the manual or online help to learn things that should be obvious. Lightroom doesn’t have a manual (it’s still in beta) but I haven’t needed it.
Both have many good features, but Aperture clearly has more of them, including the stacks, loupe, and retouching tools. The Light Table is also a great idea, allowing you to make and print completely custom pages. Maybe the final version of Lightroom will add similar functions, but we won’t know until that day comes. Of course, these extra features add complexity and account for some, but not all, of Aperture’s steeper learning curve.
Owing to the difficulty of working directly with Raw images, neither program is zippy, but the latest (beta 4) version of Lightroom renders changes a bit faster than Aperture 1.5 on my Intel-powered Macbook Pro.
Image Processing Tools
Lightroom is more sophisticated here, offering Curves where Aperture only has Levels, camera calibration, and corrections for color fringing and vignetting (if you’re familiar with Adobe Camera Raw, the tools are similar in Lightroom).
Aperture only works with Macs, and only the latest and most powerful ones at that, so Windows users are out of luck, and many Mac users will have to upgrade their hardware.
Neither program is a clear winner. They both have advantages and disadvantages. If you want to avoid using Photoshop and don’t need the most sophisticated processing controls, Aperture is probably the best choice, as it just does more. The lack of any way to way to retouch dust spots in Lightroom (at least so far) limits its use as a standalone program. If you intend to bring most images into Photoshop anyway, and want more sophisticated raw conversion tools, Lightroom might be a better choice. For now, I’m using Lightroom to edit and do Raw conversions, but finish the processing in Photoshop. I use Lightroom’s color fringing correction on about half of my images, so that feature alone makes Lightroom a better choice for me. And I’m not ready to delete Photoshop’s muscle from my workflow.
Lightroom, Aperture, and Photoshop will continue to evolve and add new features. And other tools will emerge as well. Maybe we’ll have another collective moment where we go, “Why didn’t someone think of that before?” As more choices become available, we will all face decisions about whether to adopt these new tools as part of our workflow, or stick with what’s worked in the past. These will never be easy choices.
It helps to get other people’s opinions. But what works for me might not work for you. Free software trials are great, but nothing is really free: you still must spend time learning the program.
The whole process of researching and trying new tools has simply become part of our job description. No one likes spending hours learning new software, and you certainly can’t try everything. But if a new program offers the real possibility of improving your productivity or the quality of your output, you can’t afford not to try it.What do you think about Aperture or Lightroom? And what about learning and adapting new tools into your workflow? I’d really love to hear your thoughts.