Aperture 3.3: The ApertureExpert Review
While ApertureExpert.com is already full of posts and tips on specific features in Aperture and the new Aperture 3.3, I also wanted to write a more standard review of the upgrade, to discuss not only what’s been added or changed, but also to address many of the comments and concerns I’m reading online. I’ve seen it referred to as “no longer pro” and as a step towards a forced iPhoto migration (to iPhoto, not from), a C|NET article called the most significant feature “support for AVCHD”, and one particularly well known photographer made a high profile exodus to Lightroom immediately following the 3.3 announcement. These observations are not only completely wrong, but frankly, bad journalism. Let’s get started.
As a full disclaimer to anyone reading this who isn’t a regular visitor to ApertureExpert.com, yes I’m going to be largely biased towards this upgrade because I have a financial foothold in this game. I make part of my living through this site, and therefore the last thing I want is for people to leave Aperture or otherwise trash it in the press. I’m also a former Apple employee who was intimately involved in the original launch of Aperture, so I may be better at reading between the lines than many. I’m a professional photographer, and use Aperture to manage my own photos, and have zero desire to switch to Lightroom. That said, I will be as un-biased as I can in this article — but it also means I’m going to look for the silver lining :)
I’ll start with some of the big, overarching topics, questions and misconceptions that are spreading around the interwebs, then I’ll dive into individual features after that.
Everyone, myself included, expected to see an Aperture 4.0 or Aperture X announced, well, now-ish. Of course that could still be coming, but this release is a 3.3, and that little number has a lot of people jumping up and down. So here are a few thoughts on the 4.0 vs 3.3 versioning.
- It’s just a number. Who cares what it’s called.
- By not making it a 4.0, it’s a free update. The Mac App Store model is set such that completely new versions are paid (and there’s no paid upgrade path for any app beyond dot-releases), so if this were a 4.0, you’d have to spend $79 to get it. By making it 3.3, it’s free. The version number model is largely obsolete now, and we should start getting used to that.
- Obviously there aren’t that many new features in this release, so if it were called 4.0, we’d have some pretty unhappy folks out there.
- However all of that does not make this an insignificant update. It took two years to get here, and the vast majority of the changes are under the hood. We’ll get into all that.
- What this release does do is lay the groundwork for some significant upgrades in the future.
Retina display support… so what?
I’ve seen this referred to as nothing more than eye candy, but that completely misses the point of Retina display support. It’s not about making a pretty UI, at all. It’s about seeing more of your photo at 1:1 pixels (100% zoom) then you ever could before. If you don’t know why that’s important, then you aren’t a professional photographer. Any photographer who does this for a living knows that you have to zoom into your photo at 1:1 to look for any retouching that needs to be done. Tiny things sensor spots, stuck camera pixels, or even a stray hair can be completely invisible when viewing the image at less than 1:1, because you’re literally looking at every second, or third, or fourth pixel (depending on how far you’ve zoomed out). Until you zoom in to 100%, you don’t know what’s hiding in there.
On the standard 15.4” MacBook Pro display, which is 1440 × 900 pixels, a 21 Megapixel photo at 5616 × 3744 zoomed to 100% means you can only view roughly 1/16 of the photo at once. To view the entire picture, you have to pan left to right four times, then down and back four more times, for a total of 16 “panes” of viewing. That’s a lot of scrolling. If that doesn’t sound like a big deal, you’ve never edited 100 photos on a deadline.
On the 15.4” Retina display, which is 2880 × 1800 pixels, that same 21 Megapixel photo at 100% is less than 4x the size of the screen. You only have to pan once to the right, and once down. Four “panes” instead of 16. That is massively important. You can see much more of your photo at once.
Now, extrapolate that out to the future of desktop displays. I’m currently sitting in front of a 27” iMac with a 2560 × 1440 pixel screen. One day this will go Retina, and that means something like 5120 × 2880. That is nearly the entire 21 Megapixel image at 100%, so very little panning at all. The implications of this are huge.
Finally, let’s not forget that this isn’t just about looking at more of your image at once. Aperture has to process 4x the data at once than it did before. I’m not a software engineer, but I think it’s safe to say that this was not trivial. I’m sure this required many, many engineering hours to achieve.
It’s becoming iPhoto Pro, isn’t it…
Features like the Unified Library, which means that the same library can be opened by both iPhoto and Aperture, has led some to believe that we’re being weaned off of Aperture. However, quite the opposite is true. While it is a nice convenience to be able to open your Aperture library in iPhoto, I don’t see myself or too many pros doing this. What it does mean is that iPhoto users can more easily move to Aperture. Apple wants users to buy Aperture once they outgrow iPhoto, and iPhoto is so candy-colored-glossy that if you want to get serious at all about your photo editing, you have to go to Aperture. Previously this was a major headache; now it’s completely seamless. As easy as it is now, I’m sure many will go from iPhoto to Aperture that otherwise wouldn’t have, or worse (for Apple), otherwise would have moved to Lightroom. There are more advantages to the feature which I’ll discuss below.
The removal of the RAW Fine Tuning adjustment from the default set, the inclusion of the “Pro Auto Enhance”, and the expansion of White Balance to include skin tone white balancing is not taking anything away from the professional, it’s simply making it easier for the non-pro to get pro-quality results. And it’s makes it easier and less confusing for new users to move into Aperture. As someone who trains on Aperture, I’m all for anything that makes it easier to use. That means we can all spend more time working on actual photos and less time figuring out where the buttons are.
Naming convention changes, such as “Master” is now “Original” and “Metadata” is now “Info”, also make it easier for the newbie to understand. Heck, “Master” was confusing from the beginning, so I’m glad to see that change. Admittedly I’m not happy to see the Metadata changed to Info. But, it’s just a name.
Wait, I need Lion?!
Yes, you do. Aperture 3.3 requires OS X Lion 10.7.4. Which means all Snow Leopard users are out of luck. Why oh why would this be the case, you ask? I can see two clear reasons to make a requirement like this. These are speculation, but logical speculation.
- There are core technologies in Lion that do not exist in Snow Leopard, and Aperture 3.3 may require them. So, quite simply, it won’t run. Would you rather have increased performance, stability, and new features — or be limited by an outdated operating system that’s about to be two generations old? Lion is a cheap upgrade. Mountain Lion will only be $20. Time to upgrade.
- Forward-looking software is always designed with the best hardware in mind. If you’re a gamer, don’t you want games designed to do amazing things and take advantage of the latest and greatest hardware, even if you don’t own it? Apple wants to deliver the best technology it can, and that requires modern hardware. Of course the app has to perform on older hardware as well, but anything that can’t run Lion is pretty old by computer hardware standards, and the line has to be drawn somewhere. I have a 2009 Mac Mini that is running Lion and can run Aperture. The only Mac in the house that can’t run Lion is a MacBook Pro that my kids use, and that’s from 2007, I believe. Heck even if it could run Lion, the last thing I’d want to do today is edit a 21 Megapixel photo on that computer. A line has to be drawn, and by using the OS as the gatekeeper, it keeps too-old-hardware from running this modern software, and potentially giving the user a bad experience.
That’s it, Aperture’s dead isn’t it.
This is by far the most frustrating thing I keep hearing. Since Aperture 4 wasn’t released, then obviously, clearly, this is a “maintenance release” and Apple is getting ready to kill Aperture, right?
That couldn’t be further from the truth. Let us examine the evidence.
- Two years of engineering went into what on the surface is a free, minor update, yet as you dig in, clearly is much more. No sane company puts two years into something they will make no money on.
- The seemingly “minor” changes are mostly about compatibility and performance. Compatibility with the absolute newest, best, most advanced Mac that Apple has ever made — their new flagship model, the MacBook Pro with Retina display. And performance for all users of Aperture, where speed and stability have been improved dramatically in many, many regards. This is not something you do for software you’re about to kill.
- Not only is it built for the flagship Mac, Aperture is being featured prominently in Apple’s marketing and advertising for the new MacBook Pro. What’s on the top of apple.com/mac and all over apple.com/macbook-pro/features right now? A MacBook Pro running Aperture. What is the first app you see on the new television ad for the MacBook Pro with Retina display? Aperture. In fact there are only three apps shown — Aperture, Mail (to send a photo from Aperture!), and Final Cut Pro X. And in the ad, we actually go from Aperture to Mail to FCPX then back to Aperture. That is prominent placement. Apple would not be putting Aperture all over the place if they were going to drop it.
So, there you have my thoughts on the state of the app, and its future, which I am confident is completely sound.
Now, let’s get into the features. The first few are straight off the Aperture marketing page, followed by the less obvious changes. I’ve also included “Pro” or “Consumer” (or both) tags next to each main feature, as I gauge its relevance, simply because some people are saying this is not a pro upgrade.
Aperture and iPhoto Unified Library (Consumer)
As described above under “It’s becoming iPhoto Pro, isn’t it?”, the Unified Library makes it easier for users to migrate from iPhoto to Aperture. But it’s more than that. Many of us are in multi-camera households, and maybe even multi-computer households. If you use Aperture but your spouse prefers iPhoto and you share a computer, you no longer have to maintain multiple libraries. You can each run your app of choice, while looking at the same Library. Or if you’re each on different computers, you can easily merge Libraries from separate imports, or even export a piece of your Library from Aperture for iPhoto, and merge it back in later. This is fantastically powerful and flexible.
Advanced White Balance (Pro + Consumer)
The original Temperature and Tint controls are still there, so anyone claiming a loss of these features hasn’t bothered to click on the drop-down menu. The new Natural Grey and Skin Tone settings are nothing short of amazing. We first saw these in iPhoto for iPad, and I for one was gagging to get these in Aperture. I immediately opened up photos I’ve never been able to get a satisfactory white balance on, and with just a few clicks saw a version of my photo I’ve never seen before. Skin Tone white balance utilizes face detection to choose to switch to that mode automatically (Faces must be enabled for Aperture to determine a human is in the photo, and switch to the Skin Tone option — or you can set it manually if you don’t use Faces). Plus, you can now brush in white balance, which is huge! White Balance may actually be my favorite improvement in Aperture 3.3.
Improved Highlights & Shadows (Pro)
This is another feature that has gotten a lot of flack. The old Highlights & Shadows tool had two primary sliders — Highlights and Shadows — and five secondary advanced sliders, including Mid Contrast, plus four more. These advanced sliders were largely required to eliminate the halo effect that could very easily be achieved by over-using the primary sliders. The new Highlights & Shadows tool includes only three sliders — Highlights, Shadows and Mid Contrast. So on first glance, it appears that functionality has been removed.
However the new H&S tool is not a simple upgrade (or downgrade), nor is it a simple removal-of-features. It’s a completely new tool, with completely new algorithms that include the ability to pull out-of-range data into the photo, which the original tool did not. The mid contrast slider can be used on its own (with impressive results), whereas before it only functioned if you first adjusted the highlights or shadows. Overall it’s easier to get great results, and in many cases you get better results. The tool is quite simply better. Yes, there will be fringe cases where you could have gotten a better effect with the old tool, but guess what — the old tool is still there. The code has to be there, because any photo that was previously adjusted with the legacy Highlights & Shadows tool needs to have access to it (just as every RAW decoder, since 1.0, is still in Aperture as well). It’s easy to get it back — I wrote a tutorial on that here.
It’s worth noting that while the sliders in Highlights & Shadows go to 100, you can actually drag in the numeric input and get the Highlights up to 150, and both the Shadows and Mid Contrast up to 200.
Professional Auto Enhance (Pro + Consumer)
This single button applies an “auto adjust” of up to five adjustments simultaneously — White Balance, Exposure, Enhance, Curves, and Highlights & Shadows. If you look closely, Enhance and Highlights & Shadows don’t even have an auto button, so this effect gives you something extra right there. But notice I said it applies “up to” five adjustments. Depending on the image, some of those may not be applied if Aperture doesn’t determine that they are needed. And the results are usually very, very good. You can batch apply this auto enhance effect to as many photos as you like. You can even automatically apply the effect on import. If you don’t like it, it’s a single click to revert to original (using the new Revert to Original button, it’s even easier to do than before).
Some people complain that this automation is frivolous and unnecessary in a professional environment. That is armchair professionalism talking. Anyone who does this for a living knows that time is money, and the faster I can get my photos looking great and out the door, the better.
I will confess that I’m not a fan of the icon (it’s a magic wand), as that is very amateurish looking — god forbid a client sees me click a magic wand icon. (Hint: give it a keyboard shortcut, and they will think you are a magician!) Plus I think it was silly to move the gear menu to the bottom of the Adjustments palette, since that’s no where near the histogram that it controls, and also since there’s plenty of room for it next to the Auto Enhance button (the Effects menu button is bigger than it needs to be), but that’s minor. Also you can right-click on the histogram itself to access many of the controls that are in the gear menu.
Fast Browsing Camera Previews (Pro)
This improvement is difficult to appreciate until you actually import a large card full of images and are on a deadline to get them out the door. The speed improvement on importing and browsing is nothing short of phenomenal. First, some background.
When Aperture 3.0 was released, it included a new feature to utilize the “camera preview” on RAW files. Almost every RAW file created has a JPEG “preview” file embedded into it. This is what you see when you are looking at the back of your camera; you’re not looking at the actual RAW file. Aperture 3 for the first time actually used that JPEG file at the time of import. It would extract the JPEG from the RAW and present that on screen, then in the background eventually replace that camera JPEG with its own generated JPEG preview. This made import feel dramatically faster than Aperture 1 and 2, even though the complete import process actually took longer. The advantage was you could see your images faster, and that was what was important.
Now however, via a new preference to use “Camera Previews” (the alternate preference being to use “Standard Previews”, which reverts to the pre-3.3 method of importing), when you import photos, the camera JPEG is used and kept, and Aperture preview generation is deferred until you actually load an image — and that’s only if you have Preview generation turned on. If it’s off, you will always see the camera JPEG while waiting for the full RAW decode. This means that you can start making selects based on the camera JPEGs virtually immediately after clicking the import button. Most professional cameras generate full-size JPEG previews, so you are potentially looking at full size images to make your selects.
This is largely how Photo Mechanic works, with one major exception — Photo Mechanic makes you wait until all the images are off the card before you can browse imported photos. Many photojournalists I know who are using Aperture still used Photo Mechanic to import because it was so fast. They would then import their selects into Aperture. Now, they can go straight to Aperture and still have that amazing speed. You have to try it to truly appreciate the speed difference.
It’s worth noting that if you have Aperture’s preview generation turned off, every time you select an image, you will first see the camera JPEG, then shortly thereafter see Aperture’s rendering from the RAW file. It’s quite likely that you will see at minimum a gamma shift as the RAW render snaps into view. Most of us have seen this behavior after import (as the camera JPEGs were replaced), but now we’ll see them when we click on an image. If you have preview generation turned on, then you’ll only see this once.
Another improvement is that Aperture will cache the next RAW file in the list while you’re working on the one before it, so when you do advance to it, chances are it will already be drawn.
Improved Performance and Stability (Pro + Consumer)
It’s only a single line in the marketing bullet list, but this is hundreds of fixes. Every user so far has reported a snappier, more stable Aperture since the upgrade. No matter if you use Aperture once a month or all day long, this is of course a beautiful thing.
Monochrome Interface (Pro)
I’m calling this a “Pro” feature because it’s only going to make things harder on consumers… and to be honest, I think it’s harder on many pros, too. The new UI is largely devoid of any color, which does make sense in an app where critical color correction can be influenced by the existence of any other colored objects on the screen. But honestly, if your correction is that critical, you can go full screen and drop the entire UI away. In my opinion, which is shared by many others, this was unnecessary and actually makes it harder to find things at a glance. The blue Albums vs the purple Smart Albums were a nice visual differentiation. The colored toolbar icons were easy to identify. Now, they all tend to blend together.
Maybe my perspective will change over time, but unfortunately I’m not a fan. About the only positive I can say is that it does look more professional, and the old Aperture now does look a bit… cartoonish.
Vignette + Devignette (Pro + Consumer)
This is a small but welcome change. There were (and still are) two adjustments; Vignette and Devignette. However now they are combined into one, giving Vignette a negative slider to devignette an image. You should never need to add the Devignette tool again (it’s still there for pre-existing photos).
UPDATE 2012-06-14: There is a difference after all between the Vignette and Devignette. Devignette is applied before the crop, so as you crop an image, there’s no difference to how the devignette is applied. The Vignette adjustment, now featuring a negative-vignette capability, is applied after the crop.
32-bit support dropped
Yep, Aperture 3.3 drops 32-bit support so any old 32-bit plugins will no longer work. But to be fair, Aperture went 64-bit with 3.0 two years ago, and Lion is 64-bit with 32-bit support, but Mountain Lion will be 64-bit only. It’s time to move on. If your favorite plugin still hasn’t been updated, then I think it’s safe to say it won’t be. They’ve had time.
There are other small updates, such as added support for AVCHD Video, the ability to set the desktop photo from within Aperture, and the ability to manually rearrange projects in the Project view. You can now change the background brightness for the browser in full screen mode, your online albums are displayed in a friendly icon view, and you have a most recent as well as a last nn months (adjustable) collection under the new “Recent” section in the Library tab. This tab also looks more like iPhoto, for those making the transition. For those using Faces, you can drag unnamed faces to a Faces collection to add them, as well as reorder the faces in the Faces view.
There is also an undocumented improvement in the Referenced File manager; Aperture seems to find the photo you’re looking for somewhat automatically as you click on the enclosing folder.
My overall impression…
No, it’s not a 4.0, and yes, I was hoping for more — but this is a very robust and important upgrade. It lays the foundation for a much bigger release down the road, and gives us a glimpse of where things are headed. There are, without question, features many of us are anxious to see and hope are in the next release, such as improved noise reduction and sharpening, built-in lens distortion correction, a gradient tool, better pressure-sensitive tablet support, a built-in store for Effects/presets (yeah, that one’s for me!), iPad integration, and many more things I’m probably not thinking of right now. And yes I’m aware that Lightroom has many of those features already, but this isn’t a comparison article. The two apps constantly leapfrog each-other, and we all know that Lr played catch-up in the latest release quite a bit.
What it really comes down to is, “can I do my job with Aperture 3.3?”, and the answer is of course a resounding YES. I can not only do my job, I can do it better and faster than I could a few days ago. And this will only get better.
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