Aperture or Lightroom = Neither!

Apple’s Aperture and Adobe’s Photoshop Lightroom introduce a new workflow for photographers. Rather than use two or three separate applications Aperture and Lightroom promise a one-stop-shop. So which one is best? Well, neither.

This goes against current trends where most experts are suggesting one of these apps will be the dominant software for photographers in the not-too-distant future. This is wishful thinking. Only the marketing teams at Apple and Adobe truly believe this new category of software is the silver bullet digital photographers desperately desire.

Image Browser
Let’s first look at what digital photographers currently have to do after photographing. We need an Image Browser, a RAW Converter, and Cataloguing program. With an Image Browser (Photo Mechanic, etc) you get the images from the camera to the computer, back-up, sort, assess, delete, rename, move, write IPTC data, etc. The basic file management stuff we (used to) do over a lightbox.

The RAW Converter (Adobe Camera Raw, Phase One Capture One, etc) lets you tweak the images and convert them to a file format suitable for your client. This is the processing stage and has the most affect on image quality.

The Catalog program (iView MediaPro, Extensis Portolio, etc) keeps track of where images are stored. Just like a filing cabinet full of film there needs to be a way of finding and retrieving images efficiently.

Both Aperture and Lightroom can do the basic file management: download, backup, sort, delete, rename, etc, that our Image Browser does. However they do it slower. Much, much sloooower. They need to build and store thumbnails and previews even for files destined for the trash can. Better Image Browsers dedicated to the task of reviewing images will cache thumbnails and previews on the fly, and use the embedded JPEG inside RAW images for immediate assessment. Image Browsers are also very fast at writing metadata into files without requiring you to export a new version of the file.

One aspect of Aperture and Lightroom that appeals to visually aware people like photographers is the interface. Features like a loupe, zooming, dragging images around, feels intuitive because it’s what we did with prints and slides. These groovy effects are very intensive tasks for the computer to handle so you will need a high spec machine, more so with Aperture. Put Photo Mechanic on the same machine and it will feel like a F1 car whereas Aperture and Lightroom handle more like a Bentley, very comfortable and stylish but slower.

RAW Converter
Now you have edited your images down the best and need to convert them from RAW to JPEG or TIFF. Again both Lightroom and Aperture have integrated RAW Converters. Lightroom uses Adobe Camera Raw (the same as Photoshop) and Aperture uses Apple’s own converter which relies on the Mac operating system. Which one offers the ‘best’ RAW conversions is subjective but the consensus so far is Lightroom.

While they are both very good RAW converters they are not the best for every image. Yet they both force you to use their own RAW converter. There are workarounds but they are difficult and break the smooth workflow Aperture and Lightroom promise. Bottom line is you had better be sure you love Adobe Camera Raw or Apertures’ rendering of your RAW files because that’s what you will be using from here on in.

My experience of over ten years shooting RAW is no single application is the best RAW converter, just as there was no universal film all photographers used. How would you feel about shooting Kodachrome 64 for everything?

Quite apart from the quality of the converted image there is also the workflow. For photographers who capture large volumes of images and need to get a result quickly there are more efficient RAW converters such as Bibble and Phase One Capture One.

Aperture 1.5 offers better cataloguing tools than Lightroom 1.0. It seems like Adobe put the brakes on the Digital Asset Management (DAM) side of Lightroom during the public beta, perhaps to concentrate on the RAW Converter tools and get it to market as soon as possible.

Nevertheless neither Aperture or Lightroom can compete with mature DAM applications such as iView and Portfolio. The most important thing to remember is whatever DAM software you use eventually you will move to another application so you need to get your data out easily. Ideally store the information inside the file as IPTC that other apps will read (including RAW Converters and Image Browsers).

Exporting to XML or even text file(s) are options only if other DAM applications can understand the data. You don’t want to hire a software programmer every time you migrate to another system. Better DAM applications make it easy to move your data from a competitors program. I’ve changed DAM apps at least half a dozen times in eleven years.

Dedicated DAM software is simple to customise. You should be able to make custom templates for features such as printing, HTML export, and scripting. Even if you don’t want to do it yourself there will be many other users that share their customisation. Like many colleagues my own workflow centres around iView MediaPro. iView lets me quickly find a collection of images then export them very quickly and easily to the web, in an email, as a contact sheet, or convert to another file format – all with my branding. OK both Aperture and Lightroom will also do this but even for a geek like me it’s far too complicated to customise.

Cataloguing software is designed to work with offline images. With iView and Portfolio it is very easy to work on catalogs using different computers, i.e. the database is portable. In the case of Portfolio a catalog can also be shared by multiple users concurrently (if you have the funds). Aperture, Lightroom and to a large extent iView are single user applications. However I frequently work on iView catalogs on multiple Mac and Windows computers.

While it may not affect some photographers many of us also use DAM applications to catalog non-photographic images such as our websites, graphics, documents, movies, sound files, etc.

I’m not suggesting there isn’t a use or market for Aperture and Lightroom. Certainly their sales figures suggest otherwise. What I am stating is neither Aperture or Lightroom is the panacea digital photographers want them to be. At present no single application is going to successfully do it all for you. There is no Swiss Army Knife software for photographers. By the way have you ever tried using a Swiss Army Knife in preference of a real tool?

Do use Aperture and Lightroom for RAW conversion (I do) and if it works for you as an image browser (I don’t). Just don’t hedge your bets on either application for the long term Digital Asset Management and cataloguing of your valuable images. Eventually you will need to move on and then you will need another Image Browser, RAW Converter, Cataloguer.

There are still real benefits for the modular, three pronged approach to a photographers’ workflow. When someone builds a better mousetrap you can update that component, be it a faster Image Browser, better RAW Converter, or more efficient Cataloguing application.