Apple recently released the long-awaited version 3 of its professional photography management and adjustment software, Aperture. Aperture is a multipurpose application for doing cataloging, smart searches, touch ups, output, and printing. Developed by Apple, relying on input from the world's top professional photographers, it's very good at handling RAW format photos quickly and in a nondestructive manner. That means the originals are never touched. When you edit a photograph, Aperture makes a new version. This is not a duplicate file; it's a proxy that is filtered through the adjustments you make to it in a database. Thus, the originals are never touched, and you use very little disc space when adjusting photos since you are able to make many different versions of the same photo.
This major upgrade brings some very exciting new features—Apple boasts 200-plus. Many of these features are interface enhancements, others are function enhancement, and others still are totally new functions. I wish I could cover all of the new features and improvements, but there really are so many, and most of them are significant, the limited space of a product review doesn't offer nearly enough room. You can see a more-detailed list of the new features at www.apple.com/aperture/features.
I'll focus on the really meaningful new features in this review: Import, Full Screen, Faces, Places, Adjustment Presets, and Brushes.
To start, let me just state that the new features and improvements take Aperture to a whole new level of professionalism. From the simplified and more powerful importing, exporting, and searching to metadata and photo-book printing options, it's really a major upgrade, and I would say it's a must-have for any professional photographer, DSLR/Fusion shooter, as well as many professional studios that rely on high-quality still imagery for a variety of purposes. I began testing Aperture during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I spend every Mardi Gras in the French Quarter, taking photos and video footage and cataloging it all. I hope to put it all together into a multimedia project about the unique experience there soon. I can literally take hundreds of photos each of the 3–4 days of my stay there, so offloading flash and P2 cards and cataloging photos and video clips is a major task. I use Final Cut Server for my video clips; I use Aperture for my photos. Now, I can use Aperture to catalog my iPhone (and DSLR) video clips also.
This year, I started using a cell phone that can record video, which proved a challenge. Aperture 2 could import video from my iPhone 3GS, but it put it into a folder on my hard dive, not into the Aperture library, which was OK. Aperture 3 now imports the video clips directly into the Aperture library. It will import the audio/video taken by any DSLR that can shoot video clips, which will be handy for those who work this way-you can quickly import the clips and catalog them. These clips can be trimmed, with JPEG stills made from individual frames, and they can have metadata attached and searched, just like your photos. You can also assign external editors for audio and video clips now. For my personal preferences, I set Soundtrack Pro for my audio and Motion for my video external editors. And, of course, I've set Photoshop as my external editor for my photos.
I use Final Cut Server (FCSvr) to catalog all my video and audio assets, and I would like to put all my iPhone and video clips in it. Final Cut Pro (FCP) won't read the video files directly off of my iPhone at this time. This isn't a problem—I use Aperture to extract the clips and then tell Aperture to place them in a Watcher folder that FCSvr will automatically transcode and load from.
Importing my photos from my Canon Rebel DSLR proved much easier. I had no problem with the old Import window layout, but this one is much simpler and cleaner, and it allows me to set my import to the currently selected project or to a new project (which saves me the step of creating and naming a new project before I even see what I'm importing). If I wish to, I can store these physically inside the Aperture library or in an external folder (Figure 1, below).
Figure 1. Importing files to Aperture from my Canon DSLR
A new Import Settings drop-down menu lets me select only the metadata I want to deal with; there's also a new RAW+JPEG feature to import both (if your camera does a RAW+JPEG Preview file creation scheme). The Rename Files in the Import window is really nice, as is the Actions feature. Actions in the Import window lets you assign AppleScripts to the import process, which greatly expands what you're able to automate during the Import process. I also love the Backup Location feature when you import media. Aperture has a nice built-in backup feature for its own library, but this lets you back up only the files you're currently importing to an external location.
Another of my favorite Import features is that I can now apply an image adjustment preset to photos inside the import process. Say I have 300 RAW images on the card in my DSLR camera. Forty of them were taken in a specific room, where the lighting gave me bad white balance. I have a preset (either stock or my own custom preset) for that. I highlight those images, add the preset in the Import window, and import them. The preset is applied automatically-a great timesaving feature! The catch is that the adjustment is applied to the original. But you can open the HUD, or the Adjustments tab, and turn it off; it's not permanent.
A nice set of new features is found in Aperture's Full Screen modes. If the Projects icon is highlighted under the LIBRARY heading, you'll see a representative image of each project. You can drag your mouse left and right over each Project image to scan that project's photos, just like scrubbing through a clip icon in FCP's browser. Hit F (the Full Screen keyboard shortcut) and the top toolbar and info tabs to the left disappear. Now you have true full screen, which makes browsing very pleasant (Figure 2, below). I don't even need my glasses to see tiny icons anymore!
Figure 2. Full-screen browsing in Aperture 3
Double-click on an individual project, and you're switched to only the photos in that project, with the same pleasant full-screen browsing experience. The top left of your screen shows the path to your project, a "Back to Projects" button. In a project, browsing full screen, you can double-click on a photo to see it in full screen. Mouse over the left side of the screen, and a column of the project's photos shows up to help you navigate. You can also use the left and right arrow keys to move from photo to photo, or use up and down arrows to go row to row.
Hit H to bring up the Inspector Heads-up Display (HUD) to do image adjustments, to add/modify metadata, or to navigate. Double-click the image to return to the full-screen browser. It's fantastic being able to move around in full-screen mode, taking full advantage of your high-end monitor at all times. Simply hit F again, or Esc, to return to the standard Aperture interface-very fast, very pleasant, very easy. I love this new feature! By itself, it would have been worth the wait.
Faces is another of Aperture's exciting new features. Aperture 3 can actually begin to learn people's faces, allowing you to search for and group specific people by their facial characteristics across all projects. You select a photo, name a face in it (Aperture can autofill names from your address book), and, by a process, confirm and reject other photos Aperture thinks that face may be in. It eventually learns the face and will become more accurate fairly quickly.
Then, when you go to the Faces Library (Figure 3, below), you can double-click an image of someone to see all the photos Aperture has determined that person's face appears in. It's a very handy feature that takes only a bit of work to get up and running. It can be limited to scanning a single project or the whole library, and it can be turned off or on. Names can also be exported with photos as IPTC metadata. You can also create Smart Albums based on Faces data or in combination with other variables.
Figure 3. The Faces library
Places is a very nice feature I'll use a lot. Since I do a lot of nature photography, I need to track not only date and time but also location. Before the upgrade, I had to use keywords. Now, I can use GPS data to add mapping metadata to my photos. There are several ways to do this. If you have a GPS capability, such as an iPhone, the GPS data is available, and Aperture can show you the location on a Google map right out of the gate (Figure 4, below).
Figure 4. Adding mapping metadata to photos with GPS capability and a Google map
If your camera can't record GPS data on its own, you can manually assign a location by searching and navigating the Google map, which is very easy. Then, drag and drop the photo to the appropriate location. A location pin is added to the map, and the GPS metadata is added to the photo. If a photo shows up in the wrong location, you can click the Move Pin button and drag the pin to the correct location. Poof, it's done-very easy.
You can also import a GPS Tracking Log from a GPS device or from a GPS tracking app on your iPhone. This log is an industry-standard database file. Aperture displays the track, or "route," traced from the Tracking Log data onto the Google map. You can then assign the photos you've imported with Drag-and-Drop to the appropriate locations along the GPS track. Again, the GPS metadata is automatically added to the photo.
Finally, since Aperture supports iPhone GPS metadata in its own photos, you can use this handy little trick for cameras that don't have GPS abilities. In the Places Library, in the GPS drop-down menu, select "Import GSP From iPhone Photos ..." and choose the iPhone photos to create locations on the Google map. Then, drag and drop your photos from your non-GPS-able camera to these points, and they adopt that GPS metadata.
With this trick in mind, when you go out on location to shoot with your DSLR, take your iPhone with you. Let's say you're doing a series of fashion shoots at various locations, or you're location scouting for your newest indie film project. Before shooting off DSLR high-quality shots, take one "GPS marking shot" with your iPhone. Then, start that location's DSLR shoot. Back in Aperture, use this trick to easily assign GPS data to each location's group of photos.
To make this even easier, you can assign GPS metadata to a full project, which assigns it to all the photos in that project in one fell swoop. You can also create Smart Albums based on Faces data or in combination with other variables.
Aperture's new Adjustment Presets feature is great for those who need a little help getting started in adjusting photos. Keep in mind that Aperture is a photography cataloging and "adjustment" tool, not a compositing tool like Photoshop. When doing adjustments to photos, such as white balance, straightening crooked shots, vignettes, de-vignette, sepia, color/tint balance, exposure, etc., if you weren't really familiar with the filters and their settings, you used to have to start from scratch, doing a lot of experimenting. Since a large portion of Aperture's userbase does not include professional photographers, Apple has added presets (Figure 5, below). Each filter has its own presets to choose from. These can give you a great start in applying the adjustments you want to achieve.
Figure 5. Color adjustment presets
In the Adjustments HUD or tab, there is a Presets menu. When mousing over the various presets for color, exposure, black & white effects, and so on, a thumbnail representation of the currently loaded photo appears, giving you a quick look at what effect that preset will have on your photo before you even apply it.
You can also apply your own set of adjustments and save that as your own custom preset. In the Preset Editor, you can duplicate a Preset before editing it and then remove specific filters from it. When you have really nice custom presets done, you can export your Presets for use on other systems or for backup purposes. You can also import Presets that your friends and colleagues may have created for you.
Brushes are fantastic. They're a much-needed addition to Aperture, especially since you can brush "in" an adjustment (adding the filter settings to an area) or brush "out" an adjustment (removing the filter settings from an area). Brushes also have a Detect Edges setting that helps constrain the Brush's effect to a specific area. Brushes can be used with most filters from the Action menu for those filters, and the Brush HUD has many parameter adjustments to control what parts of the image get affected and how they are affected (Figure 6, below). Brush options include Mids, Highlights, Shadows, Invert, a feather to smooth brush effect edges, an eraser to remove brush effect from specific areas after the fact, and so on. Brushes give you a great deal of control over the adjustments you perform on a photo.
Figure 7. Making adjustments in the Brush HUD
Quick Brushes in the Adjustments menu, or in the Adjustments HUD or tab, give you quick access to common tasks such as Dodge, Burn, Saturation, Tint, Contrast, Blur, and the like. This new feature lets you very easily touch up a photo without combing through all your stock filters and third-party plug-ins.
If you're upgrading to Aperture 3 from v. 1 or 2, you'll want to repair your current Library's database first. Apple highly recommends this step, and so do I. Hold down the Option + Command keys while launching Aperture (or a specific Library), and run Repair Database. Then quit Aperture and run the v. 3 upgrade. Secondly, once you've upgraded to v. 3, run your Software Update (in the Apple menu) to update to
v. 3.0.1, which fixes several small interface bugs. I highly recommend that you do this right off the bat.
Aside from these upgrade steps, the time Aperture will take to update your Library, and the time your iPhone will take to sync to your updated Aperture Library, it's generallly a solid and smooth upgrade process. If you see any glitches at all after this, run the Repair Database utility again after the update, and you should be good to go.
Of course, there are a couple hundred other enhancements and new features in Aperture 3 that I simply don't have space to cover here. But I'll just mention a few: There's a better-looking toolbar and menus, faster performance in all areas, streamlined workflow, colors and tags for labeling and marking photos, and enhanced searches-the list goes on and on. To find out more, I recommend the video tutorials Apple has on its Aperture site located at www.apple.com/aperture/how-to.
Aperture 3 is a much-anticipated and much-needed upgrade that brings Aperture to a whole new level of speed, manageability, and usefulness. Be aware that if you upgrade from an older version of Aperture, it will have to convert your whole library, so allot up to an hour for that (depending on the number of photos you have).
It will also update the photos for your iPhone, which will cause them all to reload when you next sync your iPhone. But these processes are in order to work toward better-quality photo previews, management, and adjustment abilities all the way around. All in all, this is a very worthwhile app and a very worthwhile upgrade at a very reasonable price.
Ben Balser (benb at bbalser.com) is an Apple Certified Master Trainer and Support Professional based in Louisiana. He produces media, consults for studios, and teaches media production nationally.