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Aperture 3

Most Mac users will know that Apple has two photo editing applications – iPhoto and Aperture. The first of these comes preinstalled on every Mac, is packed with undeniable cool features, is easy and good fun to use. The second has always been a more serious, sensible affair: Aperture’s interface is minimalist and grey – no colourful cartoon-like icons here. If offers numerous ways to edit RAW files indestructibly with powerful tools; iPhoto has more friendly controls that seem to say “Play with me! You might like it!”

That’s how it’s been for ages: iPhoto for amateurs; Aperture for professionals. Until now. The latest release of Aperture is targeted firmly at existing iPhoto users. The interface is less daunting and almost cheerful in places. Features like Faces and Places, which is uses face recognition and GPS technology to organise images, are straight from iPhoto ’09. You can also share pictures on the internet via Flickr and Facebook straight from the application – no plugins required.

This isn’t to say that Aperture 3 has nothing to offer the advanced enthusiast or professional, it’s just that even Apple’s marketing for this release is focused almost entirely on getting the beginner or amateur to upgrade from iPhoto.

Apple say there are over 200 new features in Aperture 3, but before we get stuck in and look at some, it might be helpful to quickly recap over what Aperture does. At its heart, it’s a database that stores images and allows them to be edited non-destructively. This means that you can make 20 edits to a photograph, then go back and change the first one in the sequence without affecting any of the others. Adjustments are stored as instructions in the database and applied in real time to the images. It’s an efficient and highly creative way of working.

Aperture also allows you to keyword your photographs and organise them in projects, folders and albums. You can search thousands of images according to all manner of criteria (rating, keyword, location, date, mare model, etc.) and output them in different formats, from simple JPEG and TIFF files to websites, slideshows, online prints and photobooks. This functionality comes at a price, though: you need a fast computer to run Aperture, and lots of RAM.

Faces and Places are two new ways to organise your images, although we’ve seen them before in iPhoto. Faces uses face-recognition technology to identify people in your pictures. When the application has found a face, the user tags it once with a name. Aperture then applies this tag every time it finds that person in another photograph.

In my real world tests using Aperture 3, Faces took quite a while to find all the faces in a library of just over 8000 pictures, and it then took a while to tag them all with names too. It’s then possible to choose a name and see all pictures containing that person… at least in theory. In my test, a large number of pictures (some only landscapes!) confused the application (“Laura may be in these pictures”). If you have the time to spend on Faces, I can see the technology being useful, but it seems it does need training.

Places organises pictures according to where they are shot, obtaining this information from either a GPS device, an iPhone or by the user entering information by hand. A set of GPS coordinates is translated into a real place name by a database in Apple HQ, so 51.508˚N 0.0993˚W turns into the Tate Modern in London. You can then pull up all pictures taken in a particular location with a couple of clicks, and refine this search by time, camera, rating, etc.

Aperture 3 now allows pixel-by-pixel editing using its new non-destructive brushes. These are similar to layer masks in Adobe Photoshop, allowing the user to brush in or brush away adjustments. Automatic edge-detection can be turned on and off, and works well where there is enough contrast to clearly define an edge. Aperture 3 also supports graphics tables for fine-control work.

Most adjustments can be applied this way, including the new Curves and Chromatic Aberration tools and the Skin Smoothing brush. The only problem is when Aperture’s performance sputters – which it does regularly on big files. The brush has a tendency to stick and then skip ahead – frustrating when trying to carry out fine-detail work.

With all this comes a new look and feel. Controls are generally bigger and less cryptic. Full-screen view is much improved too, offering a path navigator for finding images quickly, and a view that lets you see your whole library at once. Vanishing Adjustments head-up display: just hold down Shift while dragging an adjustment slider and the HUD disappears so you can see your image is also a neat touch.

Users may now work with more than one Aperture Library without resorting to workarounds. Previously you would have to hold down Option while starting-up the application to force the creation of a new library. Now you can use a command in the file menu without closing Aperture.

Adjustment presets, another welcome addition, makes it now possible to group saved presets for individual tools. Apple have already supplied Cross Processing, Black & White, Toy Camera and a number of quick fixes, but you can also make your own presets, and swap them with colleagues. In fact, search for ‘Aperture 3 Presets’ and you’ll already find a few.

Something we’ve not really seen in Aperture yet is support for the growing number of video-enabled DSLRs out there, but this is now here. Aperture 3 can catalogue HD video footage in the same way as still images, and even allow you to trim clips and add multilayer soundtracks. When combined with the new slideshow functionality, which has been rebuilt from the ground up, the results are spectacular. Most impressive.

The Light Table and Photo Book design parts of the application stay roughly the same, although it is worth noting Apple are now allowing a number of third party book manufacturers to offer products too. This is currently being aimed at the social photographer, with big names like GraphiStudio and Queensbury allowing pages designs to be put together in Aperture. I can’t wait to see where this goes, and hope to see companies like Blurb being incorporated too.

The quality of the RAW conversions from Aperture 3 is much improved thanks to a new processing engine. Gone are the strange coloured artifacts in specular highlights, and noise reduction seems much better too. Speed of performance is a more variable affair, though.

Aperture is a hardware-hungry application and as such you’ll need a good machine to run it, with a good graphics card too. The program draws on your graphics card’s power to help it out, so if you have one of the newer breeds of MacBook Pro laptops that has different graphics card options, make sure the faster one is switched on.

Some adjustments seem to require more power than others. If you apply adjustments suck as Definition to an image, and then add a couple of edits using a brush, Aperture’s speed drops frustratingly. I advice you have plenty of free disk space, as much memory as possible, a good graphics card and no other applications running in the background.

Although this is a welcome update of Aperture, I can’t help but think ‘about time Apple’. It’s a shame there is little in the way of real innovation here: we have seen the more amateur-targeted features (Faces and Places) before in iPhoto, and the features that will appeal more to the professional and advanced enthusiast we’ve seen before in Adobe Lightroom. Lightroom has offered users adjustment brushes, presets and a sophisticated slideshow system since version 2. It’s a much faster program too.

That said, there is much to like in this update of Aperture. It’s more creative than its rival and is a hugely intelligent approach to organising your pictures. If Apple can sort out the poor speed issues, Aperture 3 will be a thoroughly capable workflow solution for the photographer of all levels.

Available from: Amazon • Apple • Mac App Store • Apple US • Amazon US

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Reviewed by Matt on 01 March 2011

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