The alternatives to Aperture

Wade Laube
10 September, 2013
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Apple Aperture hasn’t seen an update for over three years, so where should photographers turn? Wade Laube breaks it down.


With the arrival of the digital era, photographers found themselves needing to store, organise and back up quantities of data like never before. Neg sleeves and filing cabinets were out and hard drives were in. The challenge was quickly answered by developers, including Apple, which responded with a number of workflow management applications.

When Aperture hit the market in 2005, it was arguably the first dedicated raw file processor of its kind. Unlike Photoshop with its one image at a time approach, and other raw processors of that era, Aperture was built to handle mountains of pictures and to process, catalogue, caption, keyword and output them too. Apple claimed to be offering us a product that would manage our workflow from start to finish (with side-trips to Photoshop along the way).

Importantly, it was able to do all of this while working directly with raw files – our digital negatives. Raw files offer much more creative control and an improved final product, but the truth is that in those days a great many photographers avoided raw on account of its added file size and the hit this took on their workflow. Time is money, so for many raw became the ‘special occasions’ file format. Aperture was here to change all that.

Running behind. Apple's photography software, Aperture.

 

How aptly it could fill this brief was the subject of conjecture from the start. Version 1 was far from perfect. For instance, it was very slow – so slow that Apple would lend top of the line Mac Pros to those reviewers who would write about it at the time. It was also buggy – to the point of feeling almost beta-like. Most importantly, however, the quality of its image renderings also let it down.

But this was clearly an idea with potential and these were just its early days. By the time version 3 came about, Apple had absolved itself of Aperture’s most critical shortcomings and produced something that many professionals were embracing

However, that was three-and-a-half years ago. Since then, all we’ve seen from Apple on the Aperture front is a series of point releases, while its prime competitor – Adobe Photoshop Lightroom – has moved full-steam ahead with two full versions, adding meaningful features, improving speed, enhancing image quality and building a substantial cross-platform user base along the way.

While Adobe engages with that user base directly, Apple, as always, remains stealthily quiet about its product plans. That kind of information vacuum worries many professional users for whom blind faith just won’t do. So given all of this, and in the absence of any hints from Cupertino, we recently stopped using Aperture and it was once we did this that we realised we no longer know a single professional who does.

The alternatives

So what are the alternatives? Well, there are dozens of programs that do part of what Aperture does but very few that fill the void it leaves entirely. The reality is there are just two gorillas in this particular room. For most users the shortlist is simple: it’s a choice between Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 and Capture One Pro 7 from Phase One.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5

By some accounts Adobe was working on an early incarnation of Lightroom as far back as 2001, but didn’t get the product to market until 2006, perhaps motivated by Aperture. Indeed Lightroom and Aperture overlap in many regards, such that a user of one will feel very much at home with the other. But there are significant points of difference both above and below the hood.

Lightroom employs a module based workflow, whereby a user activates either the Library, Develop, Map, Book, Slideshow, Print or Web tabs in order to perform actions like ingesting, enhancing or outputting their images. It’s this feature which generates the loudest gripes from users of Lightroom, as it’s simply less efficient than doing what Aperture does, which is to put the photograph itself at the centre of the user experience. It’s no real surprise that in user experience terms Apple still wins – even with software it has allowed to stagnate.

Adobe is the hands down authority in digital imaging software and Lightroom clearly benefits from the corporate knowledge gained from all of those years spent working on Photoshop and similar tools. Features like the Advanced Healing Brush and Distortion Correction are evidence of this and they’re also good examples of where Aperture gets left behind.

UI enhanced. The elegant Lightroom 5 interface.

 

When it comes to the bread and butter work of rendering raw images you would probably have faith in the company that brings you Adobe Photoshop and Camera Raw. Unsurprisingly, Lightroom won’t let you down. But as with all raw processors, mileage will vary because the result depends so much on so many variables, including ISO, colour palette, your camera model, the prevailing mix of ambient light versus flash and more.

Lightroom’s huge cross-platform install base means its user community is vast and so if there’s something Lightroom can’t do for you, market forces mean there will probably be a third-party plug-in or filter that can.

Capture One Pro 7

While Adobe’s work straddles the entire creative space, the people at Phase One focus their energies on cameras, raw files and extracting the finest images possible from them. So they’re very good at it.

Capture One Pro’s core role is to support medium format digital cameras including the company’s own system; however, DSLRs from Canon and Nikon are equally welcome. Users of all compatible cameras have available to them a product of the highest calibre.

When photography is your business the most valuable thing a raw converter can do is provide pictures that need the shortest time spent on them in postproduction. The faster they can be made client-ready, the better. In our experience this is where Capture One Pro has excelled by turning out raw conversions that are closer to a final product than anything we’ve seen from the competition.

Capture One Pro does a lot of things very well, by no means the least of which is tethered shooting. Photographers shoot tethered directly to a computer for several reasons, such as data management, focus checking and exposure confirmation, as well as to allow for easier collaboration between everyone on set. At this task Capture One Pro is the industry leader.

This involves displaying your pictures on a computer screen as soon as you’ve shot them, but there’s more to it than that. A focus mask for instance, points out with a semi-transparent coloured mark the portion of your picture that is sharpest.

Shallow curve. The Capture One Pro 7 interface is similar to Aperture, reducing the learning curve.

 

For portrait photographers this saves you the pain of learning too late that somehow your subject’s nose is in focus instead of their eyes. The ability to apply your filter of choice before an image is displayed is a simple but very handy tool, also.

Add some extra contrast to the mid tones or increase the saturation perhaps, all before the image preview is generated, giving your client the best possible first impression. After all, nobody likes to show an art director unfinished work. Of course, being non-destructive, your originals remain completely untouched throughout.

Those of us who have mixed tethered shooting with wireless technology know just how flaky and time consuming a pursuit it can be. To that end Phase One provides the most robust solution for wireless preview we’ve seen in the form of an iOS app called Capture Pilot. It not only receives image previews from the camera and displays them on your iPad, iPhone or web browser in real time, but it allows you to remotely control the camera too. Unlike many similar products, this one works.

However, for reasons beyond us, Capture One Pro takes an absolute age to export final images. We literally have to allow it hours to output JPGs or TIFs where Aperture and Lightroom would take minutes. But one complaint isn’t so bad.

What to choose?

We chose Capture One Pro to replace Aperture for the quality of its raw conversions and because its interface mostly mirrors that of the Apple product (therefore the learning curve we found to be quite minor). The result for us is the best quality final images with the least amount of time spent on them. It’s that simple.

Programs like these pack lots of functionality and we all give different weight to different features. To that extent we’ll all make different choices but chances are it’ll either be Lightroom or Capture One Pro.

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