Apple Aperture First Impressions

January 13, 2009 ·

Michael Reichmann

A Non-Review

Apple Aperture Screen Shot

To understand Apple’s Aperture requires that one understand Steve Job’s master plan. No – I don’t have a copy of Apple Document 05-12-007. That’s safely ensconced in Steve’s office safe, and only known in detail to three people other than him, each of whom is sworn to die, even under torture (ooop – no more torture allowed) before divulging its contents.

But, let’s try and guess what it says. Not difficult really, since much of the plan has been underway for the past few years. At its core is the intention to carve out and dominate the media-related aspects of professional computing; music, video, and photography.

The program is already a huge success. The IPod and ITunes command 70% of the music market worldwide. There is no PC or Mac specific market when it comes to music, since the IPod and ITunes are platform agnostic. And while the Mac has less than 5% of the worldwide personal computer market, it apparently owns about 30% of the marketplace among creative professionals in the video, graphic arts, animation, photographic and music segments of the marketplace.

A few years ago the then nascent market for non-linear video editing software had numerous pretenders; Adobe Premiere and Avid among the leading contenders. But in less than two years Apple’s Final Cut Pro has come to dominate that industry, and it’s Mac only. Now, even major $100+ Million movies are being edited on Final Cut and on Macs, so this means that Macintosh computers continue to spread like wildfire throughout the film community.

Aperture is clearly Job’s and Apple’s thrust at the photographic segment of the creative market. Music and video are now well in hand, and that leaves photography to be conquered. Also, keep in mind that Steve Jobs is reported to be a very enthusiastic photographer. It has to gall him to have to use Photoshop for his own personal work.

Photoshop is all but dominant, you say. Yes, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t vulnerable. Remember Lotus 123? Remember Wordperfect? Each had a virtual stranglehold on its product segment, only to see it slip away when something superior came along (Microsoft’s Excel and MS Word come to mind).

What Aperture is Not (Today)

Before looking at what Aperture is (or will be), let’s be clear about what it is not. Aperture is not an attempt by Apple to run a raid on Photoshop. As will be seen, the program lacks a great deal of functionality that would make this possible. But (and it’s a very big but), it has the potential to do many things that photographers need doing, and has the potential to do them exceptionally well. Jobs is an impatient man, but if nothing else he is strategic. Adobe would be wise to look over its shoulder – big time.

Objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they really are. What I mean by this is that while Aperture shows great potential, it really isn’t a product that I can recommend (or even use myself) on a day to day basis. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, it appears to be designed for future Macs. If you have a typical 2004 / 2005 generation Mac you will find running Aperture to be an exercise in waiting. I have a 1.5 Ghz 17″ Laptop with 2GB of RAM and two monitors. On this setup Aperture runs, but it feels much like a Windows app running under Virtual PC, if you know what I mean. In other words, not too quickly.

On faster machines I’m quite sure it runs better. A friend with a Quad G5 and 4 GB of RAM says that it runs quite nicely. I’m sure it does. But until there’s a $10,000 UbberMac on my desk I’ll just have to take his word for it.

Another problem is font size. Maybe its me and my middle-aged eyes, but a couple of hours with Aperture makes me want to visit my optometrist to see if I need better glasses. The fonts are small, the icons are small, and the overall feel is one of Apple trying to have shoehorned too much onto the screen at once. Maybe when I get my 30″ CinemaDisplay I’ll feel differently.

One of the major complaints against Aperture, which I resoundingly echo, is that it is a unitary database program. By this I mean that it keeps all of its files and data in one huge database. This has several implications. The first is that your entire collection of raw files, completed files, versions etc, can not be larger than a single hard drive. This is simply unacceptable for a professional application. I currently have more then two Terabytes of files occupying 10 separate drives, and I’m sure that most pros and active photographers have as much if not more – and growing weekly.

Yes, I know that you can change to a different database, but what if you want to search for, compare and re-catalog files that reside on different disks? Can’t do it. Bad. Really bad. Can you say “dumb design“?

Another issue is that your raw files are sucked into this database, and that’s where they live. Yes, you can first copy them to a separate directory and drive before ingesting them into Aperture. And, yes, you can extract them from Aperture. But, I am very uncomfortable having my files living inside a large unitary database. I really don’t see why a more modern relational database structure can not be adopted. It feels like Apple simply adapted their rather limited IPhoto structure when creating Aperture.

Consequently Aperture really has little utility for cataloging images. Without the ability to catalog files outside of its own limited environment, photographers are forced to use other cataloging programs, and these are incapable of reaching inside Aperture to index its files. All in all a bad situation.

Potential purchasers of Aperture need to understand that the program’s ability to read raw files is tied to OS X, the operating system. Unlike Camera Raw or Capture One, which can release updates pretty quickly as new cameras come to market, it appears that whenever new camera support is to be added to Aperture a new version of the operating system will be required. Given how frequently new camera models are coming to market this means that Apple will have to issue 3-4 OS updates a year to keep up.

For example, I currently use a Canon 1Ds MKII, a Canon 5D and a Phase One P25 medium format back. Only the MKII is supported, but I found that files shot since I updated the camera’s firmware in late November ’05 are not. Strange.

I’ve left the question of raw editing till last. I have to say that I’m not overly impressed. Both Camera Raw and Capture One do a much better job in almost every regard, and faster to. It will also be unusual for any photographer to be happy with the overall level and variety of image control offered by Aperture, and therefore a trip to Photoshop will be necessary. Apple makes this fairly easy on the way out, but problematic on the way back because Aperture doesn’t understand Photoshop’s layers. (Layers on files coming back into Aperture from Photoshop are flattened, though if you re-export they are still there). Also, the Photoshoped file needs to reside inside the Aperture database for the whole system to make any sense without large numbers of multiple copies of files ending up all over the place. I wonder how many photographers are going to be happy with this.

Metadata and IPTC support is not very good, with no IPTC templates, and also the inability to export complete metadata to other applications or import it properly. Incidentally, if you are using Aperture and also the popular IViewmedia Pro 3 cataloging program, you should look at Annoture, a program that allows for the passing of metadata between the two programs.

There are other flaws and gotcha’s, almost too numerous to mention. For example, colour space and rendering intent are not accessible or changeable. And as a user of a RIP (Imageprint) I am unable to print using it. A real show-stopper. When raw processing there are no CA or vignetting adjustments, things that I have come to count on as “musts” in Camera Raw. Finally, there is no CMYK support.

Finally… finally, it appears that there is no plug-in architecture designed into Aperture. This is a huge oversight, as Apple can not hope to turn the program into all things for all people, whereas if it allowed for plug-ins an entire industry would have sprung up to add the capabilities that Apple left out – like an RGB value eyedropper, or a curves capability (commented on quite pointedly, I thought, in David Girard’s Ars Technica review).

Ice Sculpture in Antarctica
Ice Sculpture – Antarctica. December, 2005 Canon 5D with 24-105mm f/4L IS lens @ ISO 100

Summary – For Now

Rather than end on a down note, I should point out some things that Aperture does well. These include Versions and Stacks.

The underlying Aperture concept is that you only need to have your raw file; all other derivations are simply treated as Versions, and you can have any number of versions with little overhead. So, for example, when you create a version for the web, or a version for printing, or a version in monochrome, rather than these each being separate files, these is simply a new form of metadata that attaches itself to the underlying raw file (or JPG or whatever). This is a brave new concept, but one that I want to wait to observe for a while before adopting for my own workflow.

Stacks are a brilliant idea that allow you to “stack” multiple versions of the same shot together, saving screen real-estate. So, for example, if you fire a burst of an athlete jumping, sinking a put, diving into the water, etc, all of the associated frames are stacked, like playing cards under the best one. You can have the program create stacks automatically based on the file’s time stamp, or manually, with your Selects on top.

There are a number of other sterling Aperture innovations. I am particularly keen on the Light Table capability. Very powerful and useful. But glitzy features aren’t any substitute for bread and butter capabilities, and until Aperture gets fitted out with a full wardrobe of necessary items of apparel, fancy accoutrements will be like a lovely new tie worn over a shirt with a frayed collar.

In the end, Aperture promises more than it can deliver. Many early purchasers feel cheated, given how much was promised and how little was delivered, and at $500 rightly so. But if Apple were to ship a version of Aperture tomorrow that met my needs I’d adopt it in a flash, and given Apple’s track record I imagine that that day may well yet come. In the meantime I’m going to keep Aperture on my computer, will buy all of the updates and upgrades as they become available, and will keep you informed of what I discover as time passes. Someday may come sooner than we think.


It’s only fair, especially in light of this generally negative commentary, that I provide full disclosure. I have been, and still am a beta tester for some Adobe products, including Camera Raw. Furthermore, Thomas Knoll, the original author of Photoshop, and creator of Camera Raw, is a friend, has attended several of my workshops, and we have been shooting together on several occasions. I also have a friendship with Kevin Raber, the US VP of Sales and Marketing for Phase One, the publishers of Capture One software.

Having said this, I should add that I have no financial relationship with either company. I use Photoshop, Camera Raw and Capture One. Each has either been purchased at retail at some point, or has remained on my machines following a beta process. My copy of Apple’s Aperture was also purchased at retail.

As far as biases go, I am biased toward products that can produce superior results. I use Photoshop because it’s the best image processing program available. I sometimes use Camera Raw, and sometimes Capture One, both roughly equally, since each has its particular strengths and weaknesses. When Aperture is ready for prime time I’ll use it as well.

January, 2006

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Michael Reichmann

Michael Reichmann is the founder of the Luminous Landscape. Michael passed away in May 2016. Since its inception in 1999 LuLa has become the world's largest site devoted to the art, craft, and technology of photography. Each month more than one million people from every country on the globe visit LuLa.

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