Apple Releases Aperture 3

Aperture 3 is Finally Here
Apple announced today that the long awaited update to Aperture, its professional image management software, is now available. Aperture 3, boasting over 200 new features is a major upgrade to Apple’s premiere asset management application. Topping the feature list, are Places and Faces (the Geotagging and Facial recognition features introduced in iPhoto ‘09), localized image corrections, and support for audio and video. Aperture 3 is available immediately for purchase at $199 for a new license, or $99 for users upgrading from a previous version. A free trial is available for download.

Although I have been a longtime user of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom since it’s early beta days in 2006, I also own a license of Aperture 2 and have always preferred its interface philosophy. Aperture 2 was launched in February of 2008, and with little news of further development of the software since that time, many devotees were left to wonder if Apple had abandoned its flagship professional photo application. One major issue for Aperture users is the fact that the software relies on the Macintosh operating system for decoding RAW images, and this has resulted in a significant lag time for supporting new cameras. For example, Canon 7D RAW images were not viewable in Aperture until several months after the camera was shipping. This has posed a significant problem for early adopters, enough that many of them jumped ship to Lighroom, which utilizes the continuously updated Adobe Camera RAW engine. Another issue for many users has been stability. When I was toying with the idea of using Aperture as my primary image management solution, I had a catastrophic crash when trying to import several thousand images. Restoring from Aperture’s “vaults” - its method of backing up the library - was a complete failure. So that was enough to give me the jitters about using Aperture as my primary solution. But other users have encountered issues that are much worse, as Wetpixel Editor and Publisher, Eric Cheng attested to in a journal post about how Aperture blew up on him. His experience should certainly give one pause.

First Impressions
But enough background and gripes about prior versions, how does Aperture 3 stack up? I had a chance to download and install Aperture 3 on a trial basis, and test out some of its new functionality for a few hours. So far, I am very impressed with this update.

Aperture 3 is the first of Apple’s pro apps to be rewritten in 64 bit, to take advantage of the new kernel in Mac OS 10.6 Snow Leopard. I did not notice incredible performance gains during my perfunctory testing, although I do not usually boot into the 64 bit kernel, so it would be less likely to notice while running in 32 bit. It bodes well for the future though, and finally brings parity with Lightroom which has been available in 64 bit for some time now.

As predicted, Apple incorporated the popular Faces and Places features from iPhoto ‘09. It’s interesting to see that innovation often percolates from Apple’s consumer apps up into their professional products, and this is especially true with the iPhoto and Aperture products. Faces is a rudimentary form of artificial intelligence that attempts to recognize people in your photo library and tag them with a name. You train it to learn the faces of your family and friends, and it gets better as you use it more often. I’ve used it with iPhoto over the past year, and have found that it works relatively well, but is of limited utility for me. Places is a feature that is significantly more interesting to outdoor photographers. Places is Apple’s implementation of geotagging, alllowing you to assign coordinates to photographs and display them on an interactive map. Aperture uses satellite, road and terrain map data from Google, and it’s gorgeous. I love this feature in iPhoto, and Apple has made it much more robust in Aperture. Places allows you to import geotagged images and see them on a map immediately, which is great for images taken with a smart phone, but the vast majority of images we take are not with cameras that have GPS capability (yet). Apple has done a great job allowing you to import GPS tracks from dedicated GPS receivers directly into Aperture, and view them on a map along with your photos. You can use that track data to geotag your photos, or you can just drag and drop them onto the map to assign the correct coordinates. Until GPS enabled cameras are ubiquitous, this is geotagging done right. You can view a map with pins representing all of your photos, there is a pull-down menu listing countries, states and cities where your photos are taken. I’ve used a lot of different software to try and geotag my photos - from HoudahGeo to Photo Mechanic - and none of them make it this easy. Apple has really nailed it with their implementation of geotagging.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for other areas of metadata management. While I was pleased to see full support for the IPTC standard, including complete contact information for the photographer, I am so disappointed that Aperture still fails to support hierarchical keywording. This makes tools such as the Marine Life Keywords much less useful, as child keywords do not automatically inherit their parent keyword tags. I will definitely still be using Lightroom for my keywording. Another disappointment is the lack of support for star ratings from Adobe applications such as Bridge or Lightroom. It’s troubling to see Apple insist on creating its own island, harming interoperability between applications as a result. In the end, it will only hurt the adoption of their application.

Editing photos is streamlined, with new support for presets. You can use some pre-canned presets, or create your own and preview them with a snazzy flyout that shows how your image will be affected before you apply it. Aperture has also added a Brushes feature, very similar to the local corrections available in Lightroom. Brushes can be programmed to apply different effects to regions within a photograph, and have an auto-masking function. The great thing is that this is applied nondestructively, and keeps the images in their RAW format. But I have to say, these seem like a me-too features after Lightroom has included them since version 2.

Great News for Multimedia Shooters
The other huge bonus with Aperture 3, and what I consider to be its most significant feature is the ability to import video and audio, and to create multimedia presentations. This is huge news for the growing number of owners of vidSLRs such as the Canon 5D Mark II, 7D, and 1D Mark IV, Nikon D90, D300s and D3s, as well as dozens of other compact and micro four thirds cameras that shoot video. Up until now, asset management for this mixed media has been a huge problem, as there was no easy solution to deal with the different files. Aperture 3 provides a great way to work with multimedia, as it allows photos, video, and audio to coexist in the same library. You can easily set up smart collections to sort by file type, and the library view allows you to play back and trim video clips right within Aperture. Even better, Aperture 3 allows you to create rich multimedia slide shows with a mix of music, stills, and video. After a day of shooting with a vidSLR, you can ingest your files and have a multimedia presentation put together in minutes. Unfortunately, the current options for export are fairly limited, and third party hardware accelerators such as the excellent El Gato turbo.264HD are not compatible, so render times can be quite long. I hope this is addressed in a future update.

I will need to test Aperture much more over the coming weeks before making final judgement, but all in all, version 3 is a very compelling update, especially for its geotagging and multimedia support. I will probably stick with Lightroom for my primary workflow, but I am going to give serious consideration to use Aperture to manage my portfolio of finished images.