Aperture 3: Is It Time To Switch?

By Gene McCullagh
February 21, 2010

Apple has finally released an update to its image processing software application. Aperture 3 arrived on the scene several days ago. With this release we photographer humans once again raise the question "Is it time to switch?"

The answer may not be as black and white (no pun intended) as it may seem. There are many factors that go into a decision about which application to choose. Either will be a major investment in time, learning, personal/professional workflow, and so on. So let's start with a little background.

I was a long-time Windows user and switched to Mac about two years ago. I still use both platforms but do prefer Mac. Obviously, as a Abode Certified Expert in Lightroom and one of the Adobe Community Professionals for Lightroom, I am a Lightroom user. I am not, however, an Adobe employee.

I'm also comparing Aperture 3 to Lightroom 3 Beta. In the past Adobe has always included more features in the final release than they exposed in their public betas so there may be things coming that we're unaware of right now. So there you have it. What follows is editorial in nature and, to the best of my abilities, objective. Let's get started...

Operating System

Aperture 3 is only available on a Mac. So if you are a Windows user there is no question to be answered here. Apple does not provide an alternative for you. And therein lies the first advantage that Lightroom has. According to the Professional Photographers of America 65% of Professional Photographers us a PC, 14% us a Mac, 11% use both, and 10% don't use a computer. The Digital Photography School has more recent numbers: 50% for PC, 40% for Mac, 7% Both, and 2% Other. Either way, that's a large number of photographers ignored by Apple.

Ecosystem

Both Aperture and Lightroom gain strength by being loyal to and well integrated into their respective ecosystems. And this is a matter of personal preference which will inform your decision.

If you are comfortable in the Apple ecosystem of iPhoto, iMovie, Final Cut, etc. then Aperture will make you feel more at home. It will seem more intuitive and the workflow will make sense to you out of the box. Lightroom will seem like an intruder. It won't integrate as elegantly in the Apple ecosystem.

If you are a fan of the Adobe ecosystem with Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Premier, InDesign, etc. then Lightroom will probably make more sense to you. In this ecosystem, Aperture is the intruder.

Both applications can play nicely with your other applications. Both handle integration well and have brilliant moments and clumsy moments. Your first question to answer is which ecosystem have you grown accustomed to.

Footprint

Aperture 3 is huge! It weighs in at 585Mb versus Lightroom 3 Beta's 68Mb (Mac) 120Mb (Windows) download size. Aperture's library and vault seem to grow exponentially as you work on images. Lightroom catalog barely grows at all while performing equivalent tasks. Many photographers working on the go on laptops are drive space conscious and Aperture 3 seems to pay no heed to limited drive real estate.

Responsiveness

Aperture 3 wins the import contest for speed. It performed much better than Lightroom 3 Beta. On the other hand, I found Aperture 3 sluggish in many other areas. Lightroom stayed speedy overall and didn't make me wait as much as Aperture did.

Responsiveness while working is more important to me than during import. I can let import run while attending to other tasks but I want speedy performance while I'm editing. Lightroom 3 Beta wins this one.

New Features

Many of the 200 features touted on Apple's website are merely catch up features to Lightroom 2.6. Things like presets and non-destructive localized adjustments are features Lightroom users have enjoyed for some time now. Given that it's taken Apple nearly two years to do this, I remain unimpressed.

Aperture 3 does have some outstanding features that the Lightroom team over at Adobe should pay attention to, however. Photo books in Aperture continue to be an amazing thing. The ease of creation along with some stellar templates make this a hands down winner for Aperture!

Another way out in front feature is Aperture's slideshows. Lightroom made some inroads here during the version 2.x time frame but it pales by comparison to Aperture's robust and feature rich slideshow implementation.

Photo books and Slideshow alone might tempt me to add Aperture to my tool set but it's not enough to make me switch.

Lightroom wins the website battle without question. Its Web module is far more flexible that what Aperture has to offer. Several developers I've spoken with commented on how they can easily develop website engine for Lightroom but cannot get cooperation from Apple to open up web development in Aperture.

Lightroom 3 Beta introduces custom print layouts. Its Print module yields superior output than Aperture. Aperture remains more flexible on the layout side.

Geo-tagging goes to Aperture with it's Places feature. Aperture 3 implements a very robust interface for working with GPS data. Lightroom does work with GPS data once embedded but is no where near Aperture in this regard.

Faces, while interesting, doesn't have much of a place in a pro application. I think it's amazing in the consumer iPhoto app but there are a limited number of situations where this technology is useful for the Pro.

User Interface and Workflow

This is an area of much debate. I think it goes back to which ecosystem you are more comfortable in. However, there are some points that should be addressed. Aperture 3 touts full screen browsing and image editing as an advantage over Lightroom. Sorry, Lightroom has had this for quite some time. Command-Shift-F (Control-Shift-F on Windows) puts Lightroom into full screen mode with all panels out of the way. That works in the Library Module as well as the Develop Module. You can set your panels to auto hide and show so the slip in and out of view quite easily.

Some Aperture users complain of having to scroll and scroll to reach tools in the side panels. Set the sections to Solo Mode and they will expand and contract as you need them. No scrolling needed.

Here is where I am biased by which ecosystem I've grown accustomed to. I find Aperture to be horribly disjointed and unorganized. The modular approach of Lightroom just makes so much more sense to me. I can easily jump here and there from the keyboard yet I can also concentrate on one logical task at a time when I need to. Aperture can do this but it takes some effort to get it organized and set up an efficient workflow. I'm sure devoted Aperture users will argue the other way but again, this is a personal preference item. The workflow has to work for you. If Aperture's approach fits you better then that's a good thing.

RAW Interpretation

Comparing Lightroom 3 Beta's RAW engine to Aperture 3's I found that Lightroom did a better job at processing RAW data. Adobe Camera Raw is the underlying technology for Lightroom and remains the industry leader here. Combined with flexible camera profiling and much improved noise reduction performance in the Beta, Lightroom wins on this.

Corporate Culture and Developers

I found that when I tried to use many plugins, Aperture required me to restart in 32 bit mode since the plugins weren't 64 bit. Other plugins just weren't compatible. While this will be addressed by developers in the coming days it raises an important difference in the corporate cultures at Adobe and Apple.

By being open and soliciting input from the user base, Adobe's public betas have gathered useful information and helped make the product superior. Additionally, developers have a chance to see what's coming and have adjustments made to their plugins so that on day one of the final release, compatible plugins are usually ready to download.

Apple's obsession with secrecy means that the general user population doesn't get any input until the product is released. Developers are kept in the dark so their plugins need to be updated after the release date for Aperture.

Adobe remains much more nimble at addressing Pro photographers needs. Lightroom has a much more lively development cycle with frequent dot updates and timely version upgrades. Apple just seems to not care. Why does it take nearly two years for a new version of Aperture to arrive? That's just not the kind of cycle I want to get involved with.

Wrapping Up

I am going to revisit the feature for feature comparisons later on after the final release of Lightroom 3. That will be more of an (and here comes another pun) apples to apples comparison. For now I will answer the question "Is it time to switch?" with an unequivocal no. Lightroom, even at version 2.6, remains a better application than Aperture 3.

As I mentioned going in... this is my opinion and not a statement of fact. I still recommend that you download the free trials for both and see what fits you better. More to come...


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