Apple's ground-breaking, workflow tool for professional photographers has caused quite a stir in the imaging community. After working with Aperture for a year, I've decided that while it's not perfect, it has some incredible and exciting features that photographers can really use. Here are the 10 that top my list.

1- The Aperture Interface

Let's start with the obvious. Apple is hands-down better than anyone at building attractive interfaces. Whether you want to work in full-screen mode or in one of the preset window layouts, Aperture leaves the choice of how you display your images up to you.

Aperture uses a single window interface with three separate panes including the Browser, Viewer, and Projects panes. There are three preset options. The default is Basic; Maximize Browser makes the Browser the dominant feature on your screen and Maximize Viewer. You can hide or display single parts of any basic window and you have complete control over the size of your image thumbnails and the panes.

If you're fortunate enough to have two Apple Cinema Displays sitting side-by-side as I do, then you get even more access to your images due to Apple's brilliant use of dual monitors. Aperture has incorporated menu choices that give you unprecedented control over dual monitors. Under the View menu, see the item called "Secondary viewer" to select the behavior of your second monitor.

2- Non-Destructive Edits

When photographers switch from film to digital, one of their biggest fears is losing their negatives. It's very easy to accidentally overwrite non-protected digital files when you're first getting started with digital photography. Even long-time professional digital photographers occasionally encounter this problem.

Apple has addressed this concern by using a totally non-destructive editing approach within Aperture. You never alter the original RAW file. The file you import from your camera or memory card remains untouched. Aperture creates a text file representing a new version of each image you work on. Your changes only affect the new version. Aperture uses metadata to perform this magic. This means you don't need extra hard disk space for each version. This also speeds up the process since you don't have to wait for your software to convert the RAW image before you start making changes to it. In a feature unique to Aperture, you're working directly on RAW files without converting them.

3- Compare and Select Tools

Aperture's compare and select tools are the best available--period. With Aperture, you can quickly and easily display your images full screen, and at very high quality. You can use stacks (see below) light tables, albums, and several different image views to compare images. Aperture doesn't try to control your modality here. It's up to you. It's very flexible and reasonably intuitive.

I also love the easy, integrated way to rate images very quickly using onscreen buttons or keyboard shortcuts. You can organize and view images virtually any way you like and the previews come up quickly on my MacBook Pro.

You can select a single image or group of images and, with one keystroke, give them a rating, keywords, and other metadata. You can later sort or organize on any of these data fields.

4- Stacks

If this isn't Aperture's coolest feature, it's a close second. In my entire photo career, I have struggled with comparing nearly identical shots, trying to get the best image. Since most professional or semi-professional cameras started offering auto bracketing or shooting at eight frames a second, this has become even more important.

With Stacks, Aperture makes comparing and editing these similar shots easy. Stacks are similar images displayed in convenient groups. They are sequentially numbered and connected to a master file. You can automatically create stacks based on time intervals between shots or manually create them based on your personal selections.

You can auto stack images on import, or you can do it after the fact. It's also simple to manually pick images to place in a stack. Once the images are stacked, you can quickly sort through them, picking your favorite and promoting it to the pick of the litter. When you close the stack, you see only the selected image on top of the stack. (Visualize a deck of cards. Each card represents a photo. They are stacked on top of each other like a deck of cards, revealing only the top photo.)

The stack has an internal order. When unfolded/opened, the images are placed from left to right corresponding to top-to-bottom order. You may demote and promote images in this stack order via buttons or keyboard shortcuts. If you have several versions of an image, those versions also form a stack. By default, the latest image becomes the “pick” of the stack. You may also add images to a stack and extract images from a stack.

5- Super Easy Web Publishing

If you want to quickly make attractive web pages from your images, Aperture has the tools to help you do this using predefined templates.

Aperture only ships with six web presets, but they are all very good, and you can purchase additional templates from third-party developers. You can also build your own templates if you have a modicum of HTML and/or CSS experience. You can also customize the layout of images within the preset templates by simply dragging images around in the template.

Building a web site from your images can be as simple as selecting a group of pictures and clicking two buttons. You can build more sophisticated web journals, which allow you to add text, or you can build simple galleries using Smart Albums (see below). You can even build web pages that are dynamically generated based on search criteria you select.

If you have a .Mac account, you can publish your web pages with one click, or you can export them and use your favorite FTP client to upload them to a web server. One of the slickest features of Aperture's web publishing is the ability to keep an updated online portfolio without having to manually add images to your web pages.

If you apply keywords or ratings to your pictures, you can create a "Smart Web Gallery" query that specifies a particular rating or keyword that finds only your best images. From then on, any time you add an image to your Aperture Library that meets your selection criteria, it will automatically be added to your Smart Web Gallery album. Then, any time you want to put that updated portfolio online, all you need to do is republish to your .Mac account or use the built in Export Web Pages command.

6- Vault

Have you ever lost digital images to hard disk error, computer failure, or other digital gremlins? If so, you know the pain that a data loss causes. Aperture has built in the best backup protection I have ever seen in a photo software program. It's an idea that's long overdue, and it's called the Vault.

The Vault is Aperture's solution for archiving an entire image Library. It creates what computer geeks call a "mirror" image of your Library on an external device, such as a FireWire-based external hard disk. You can have more than one Vault, and Aperture alerts you if you have changes or new images that have yet to be archived by a series of colored warnings. Red means you have new images that have yet to be archived. Yellow means that you have made changes to existing files and that these changes need to be archived. Black means all is well, and you don't need to take additional action.

If you have a data failure, you can simply connect your Vault to your computer and restore your Library. I tested this feature (once by design and once by accident) and each time, the Vault saved my bacon.

Apple advises that you have at least two Vaults: one for your office and one to take home.

NOTE: If you decide to take advantage of Aperture 1.5's ability to provide offline manage image management, any images that are stored as referenced files will not be backed up into Aperture's Vault. Your previews, metadata, and versions will be stored in the Vault, but you must physically back up your master image files manually or risk data loss.

For this reason, I suggest that Aperture newbies start by letting Aperture manage your Library until familiar with the program. You are always free at a later date to start managing your image library offline.

7- Loupe

Remember putting your slides on a light table and then looking at them through a loupe to see which ones were the sharpest? I miss that sometimes, but I won't now that Aperture has brought us the Loupe Tool.

The Loupe Tool is a resizable tool that instantly shows images at 100 percent magnification. It can increase in magnification up to 1600 percent. You can use the Loupe Tool anywhere in Aperture on any image, in any view, even thumbnails in the Browser or Projects panel. You can use this tool to evaluate a single image or use it to run across a series of images to view their respective details.

I like the Loupe Tool because it's very fast and always available. If you can see an image in Aperture, you can use the Loupe Tool to view it at 100 percent. What's really amazing about this tool is that it works on un-decoded RAW images!

To use the Loupe Tool, click the Loupe icon. It's the fourth tool from the right on the upper right-hand portion of the toolbar. Press Shift Command + or – to zoom in to the pixel level. Click the Loupe Tool icon to put the Loupe away.

And here's a fun little trick you can do with the new Centered Loupe tool. You can hold down the tilde (`) key for one second and cause the Loupe to snap to the position of your cursor, as long as you've set the Loupe to "focus on cursor." But that's not all. Press and hold the Option key to zoom back out for a quick regular-sized view of your image.

8- Light Table

Speaking of light tables, the light table is something that nearly all photographers are familiar with. In Aperture, the Light Table is part of the software interface. You can use the Light Table to create free-form arrangements of your pictures. You can save the Light Table and even have multiple Light Tables as part of any project.

Suppose you want to group some pictures together for a wedding album. You can open any project in the Aperture Library and then click the New Light Table From Selection icon on the toolbar. You can name the Light Table and then use it to create your album layout. You can resize, drag, and otherwise move the images around anyway you want. You can even print the Light Table as a proof.

Photographers coming to Aperture from the film world will be instantly comfortable with Aperture's Light Table feature. It's a feature I use every day.

9- Fast, Easy, Powerful Key Wording

Where Aperture really sets itself apart from the competition is the way it powerfully, yet quickly and simply applies keywords to an image or group of images. These keywords can help you evaluate the content of your images.

You can easily identify your pictures using your choice of preset keywords provided in the keyword interface or custom sets of keywords you create on your own. You can use keyboard shortcuts or Keyword Buttons located below the Viewer. You can also apply keywords via the Keywords Heads Up Display (HUD) by simply dragging them on top of the image(s).

Aperture's key wording system is completely hierarchical and very customizable. Once you've added the IPTC-compliant keywords, you can search on these keywords any number of ways and quickly find images, even in very large libraries.

10- Smart Albums

The first time I saw Aperture's Smart Albums at work, the only reaction I could think of was one that is akin to the way I felt when I saw my first Porsche--I wanted one. Well, I have the Smart Album, but I'm still working on the Porsche.

Smart Albums are Aperture's dynamic collections of images based on user-defined queries. So, instead of searching manually for images and selecting and dragging them into a folder to work on later, you can simply do a search and have Aperture automatically build a Smart Album of those images. The key is that they are dynamic, meaning they are created on the fly based on your search criteria. You can search on anything you can think of, from the lens or camera you used, to keywords, dates or even f-stops. An album is automatically generated that you can print, export, send to a book or use to make a web site.

This is metadata searching at its best. It's as if Apple read my mind and knew exactly what I need as a professional photographer to build a quick selection of images.

A New Approach to Workflow

Aperture redefines the way photographers work with their images once they press the shutter button. Aperture is not only a new application, it defines a new space: the complete photo workflow tool. So if people have trouble quantifying or describing Aperture, it's understandable. Either way, Aperture still has plenty to offer professional photographers who want to spend less time in the digital darkroom and more time behind the camera.


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