Apple’s Aperture; Digital Camera Image Management, Processing, Editing, And Output—All In One

With so many digital SLR cameras sold in the last few years it was inevitable that programmers would put together solutions to serve all of the needs of photographers in a comprehensive application. That Apple would be out front with their slick and powerful Aperture application, I think, caught some off guard. But considering all the independent activity in conversion support software for raw digital camera files, some of which I have reported on recently, Aperture should have been no surprise. Regardless, it is probably a good move for Apple, and it provides both professional and serious enthusiast photographers with capabilities that may ideally suit their needs.

Importing Images

Click on an arrow pointed down in the upper left of the Aperture screen and go to a CompactFlash card or CD-R with raw camera image files and the contents quickly appear as thumbnails. There is a stacking slider in the middle bottom that automatically produces divisions based on the time images were taken to put them into logical groups. You can then select, highlight, and click the Import button and Aperture will quickly send them into the Project you have designated. The left-side column is your Aperture internal image/work directory.
All Photos © 2006, David B. Brooks, All Rights Reserved

So what is Aperture? It is an application designed to provide photographers with the tools and processes for dealing with digital camera files. In a way, Aperture's tools and processes are designed as a digital metaphor to what photographers have done for years after shooting and processing film.

Even though Apple presents a single, integrated application using the same interface, there are different views that relate to each of the steps in the process. The first of course is download or acquisition from the camera or card reader or even a CD or DVD. The second view and function is possibly the most elaborated and complex; it deals with the selection, editing, inspection, and evaluation of images, plus the culling of images that are not keepers. Appended to that function is a database for rating and identifying images. This uses metadata that's associated with the image file but also can use keywords and classifiers added by the photographer for search and identification/organization purposes.

Once a selection of keepers is made, identified, re-named, and organized from a shoot, which Apple calls a Project, each individual image can be viewed large individually, comparatively, or in groups. There are also a host of Aperture editing tools in a free-floating box that can be used to optimize the images to their fullest potential.

Another Aperture work space view emulates a large light table for slides and transparencies. It provides the ability to select from the thumbnails in a browser environment, from which you can arrange, size, and lay them out in freeform fashion. The Light Table arrangement itself can be a kind of output in the form of a print, an Acrobat PDF, an e-mail, or web page in HTML.

Work Space

In the Aperture Project view thumbnails of all the downloaded and processed images in the Project are accessible in a browser window at the bottom. Click on a thumbnail and it is displayed in the main work space window above. The relative size of both browser and work area can be adjusted by moving the bar that separates them. There are three button icons at the top right of the screen. One is for the mouse pointer placed Loupe that gives a close-up magnification of the detail in all parts of the image in the work space. Another icon button pops up the Adjustment HUD window on screen, or the "I" Icon button puts a column on the right side of the screen with a smaller adjustment window on top. There's also an information window with data, including metadata below it.

Aperture supports a full range of output options. It can be used as the communications center for clients or associates or as an output center. It can generate individual prints, a slide show, or even a press-printed book using Apple's online Aperture support services.

Using Apple's Aperture
For purposes of this review Apple also sent an Apple G5 Quad (four processor) computer and two 30" Apple Cinema Displays. The G5 came loaded with Aperture and all kinds of sample image files. Two really big LCD displays side by side is an impressive way to show off what Aperture can do, but it overwhelmed my modest workroom and I did most of my evaluation using the G5 Quad and one 30" display, as well as my own year-old G5 with a 21" CRT with Aperture installed. Of course the Quad and the big 30" LCD Cinema Display was incredibly fast and impressive, which I am sure was Apple's intention, but Aperture functioned as effectively and not all that much slower on my more modest G5.

With the digital camera raw conversion utilities previous to Aperture, you had to first convert from the proprietary format to a standard RGB image file format like Adobe PSD or TIFF to be able to work with the images, that is, to edit and correct them. Aperture functions a little differently. In Apple's words, "Raw images are maintained natively throughout Aperture without any intermediate conversion process...Aperture's nondestructive image processing engine never alters a single pixel of original photos."

So what you are actually seeing on screen and editing is a proxy so-to-speak, and what you change is recorded as an instruction attached to this proxy. This is only incorporated in an export of the now-changed file, which is called a Version, or in output like a print of Acrobat .PDF. This unique way of working in an application with raw camera image files explains why Aperture acquires downloads and puts them into its work space unusually fast, especially with a four-processor G5, but also with my older and less powerful Mac.

Time, of course, is the essence of Aperture. It is highly efficient in gathering a collection of exposures, and then in aiding you in selecting keepers. It is also very fast in batch re-naming, if desired. One way that you do this culling is by applying a star rating system to individual images. From my perspective the rating system works well with big, redundant collections of exposed frames, I have my doubts, however, that adding keywords and other identification data for searching will be worth the effort unless you are doing a stock photo library, or you are a pro with a very large volume of images and an assistant to do the keyboard pounding. Otherwise, the time invested is just an overhead expense that detracts from the bottom line and takes one away from being behind a camera.

Adjustment HUD

Using my personal Mac G5 instead of the Quad and the 30" Cinema Display, the lower resolution of a 21" CRT provides less screen real estate to display as many thumbnails and the Adjustment HUD window takes more space. But switching to full-screen mode better utilizes the screen space to do image adjustments. The HUD provides a histogram on top that shows the image data and its placement in Aperture's color space. The auto buttons for Exposure and Levels are below, followed by the main adjustment sliders for exposure, saturation, brightness, and contrast. The three circles below that support making eyedropper selections of black, gray, and whitepoint. The second histogram is a Levels adjustment dialog, which has a quarter-tone capability so you can fine-tune clipping and adjust lightness and darkness. This is not limited to overall image adjustment, but can also be used with the mid-tone, shadows, and highlights. Of course there is a color temperature and hue slider, as well as sliders to further adjust highlight and show brightness levels, and a sharpening set of sliders.

With raw format digital camera images, the core of the processing is color correction and the adjustment of image values to produce an optimal image file. Apple, I believe, assumed correctly that professionals and serious enthusiasts prefer to make the corrections and adjustments to their own unique, individual requirements and do not want an automated cookie-cutter solution just because it is easy. Apple has provided a floating control window, a HUD (Heads-Up Display), included in the Inspector window that displays image and metadata information. The adjustment controls include the usual "list of suspects," such as the basic adjustments of Levels, Exposure, Highlights & Shadows, White Balance, Sharpen, as well as utilities to correct for redeye, spot and patch, straighten, crop, reduce noise, and a monochrome mixer to convert to black and white, plus a sepia option.

There are also auto functions that provide quick short cuts to adjust Exposure and Levels. The Exposure adjustment essentially moves the raw image gamut to an ideal center of the work space gamut, and the Levels auto adjustment senses the image gamut and expands it if smaller to fill the Aperture color space. With the latter a Histogram provides the user with the ability to adjust the limits and select any clipping that is desired, as well as moving the midpoint gray value to adjust image brightness. In addition, the Levels/Histogram interface offers a quarter-tone option that also supports adjusting the midpoint between gray and black and gray and white points.

The HUD also offers a single pixel eyedropper to select the white, black, and mid-tone gray points so you can bring them to a neutral color balance. You can also shift that color balance to any desired value in the color range, with three circular spectrum displays with a center adjustment node. The remaining adjustments are by means of sliders. An adjustment of one image can be saved or applied automatically to any selection of images in a Project. To make the perceptual function of the HUD adjustment effective, Aperture provides the option of performing the task in full-screen mode.