Aperture users are bound to take a sneaky peek over the garden fence from time to time at its chief rival, Lightroom. Lightroom has some great editing tools and every release brings more. If only Aperture had automatic lens corrections, a Graduated Filter tool, Radial Filter, the perspective-correcting Upright tool and all the rest!
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By comparison, Aperture can feel like it’s stuck in some kind of development backwater.
But fancy editing tools are only half the story. These two programs have another, equally important job. Actually, I’m going to say it’s more important. They also have to catalog your ever-growing collection of images quickly and efficiently and yet still give you the flexibility you need to browse, search and organise your images in a way which suits you.
It’s not exciting, it’s not sexy, but this cataloguing and organising process is central to everything you do. Nobody pays it any attention, but it’s the thing that matters most, and here’s what I think:
Aperture got this right first time, and Lightroom has never caught up nor even shown any real sign of understanding the issues.
I think this is a crucial facet of the Aperture vs Lightroom debate.
Madness trigger #01: Projects versus folders
Aperture uses ‘projects’ as its primary container for images in your library. These may initially correspond to the folders on your hard disk, but they don’t have to. You can organise your projects into an entirely new structure without affecting your external folder structure.
In other works, you can organise your pictures how you like in Aperture, but if other programs need to access them on your computer, they’re still in the same place they always were.
Lightroom works directly with folders on your computer. These are its ‘primary containers’. It’s a simpler approach that has advantages – it’s easy to grasp what’s happening and you can move files and folders physically on your computer from within Lightroom.
But while the Lightroom approach might seem obvious, it brings an intrinsic limitation that affects the ways in which you can organise and browse your images…
Madness trigger #02: Albums versus Collections
In Aperture, projects are ‘exclusive’, like folders. A photo can only be in one project or another – it can’t be in two places at once. That’s why you you need albums, which I’ll call ‘inclusive’. You can add the same picture to as many different albums as you like.
Now here’s the key thing about Aperture – you can create albums within projects. Let’s say you come back from a full-day’s shooting or a vacation with hundreds of images of different subjects. What could be more natural than creating an album within the project for each subject?
Or maybe you decide some would look good in black and white, or some need a ‘toy camera’ effect? You might want to split those off into separate albums too.
Lightroom can’t do this. It can create albums (called ‘collections’ in Lightroom), but they’re managed in a completely separate way to folders, in a completely separate panel. You can’t add an album to a folder.
I’d like to know how Lightroom users cope with this. I’ve been using Lightroom ever since it was launched, so I’m no novice – and yet I’ve never been satisfied with this separation between folders and collections. I can’t find a way to organise my images that doesn’t mean working with two separate but parallel filing systems.
My instinct is to work with folders, but I’m more or less forced into using collections because the Folders panel is visible only within the Library module – everywhere else, only the Collections panel is visible.
Even this wouldn’t be so bad if only Lightroom’s stacking system was consistent…
Madness trigger #03: Aperture stacking versus Lightroom stacking
Stacking is a great invention. It means that related images are grouped together, so that every shot in a continuous sequence can be grouped as a stack, for example, and edited images can be stacked with the originals.
Aperture and Lightroom both do stacking, but not in the same way.
In Aperture, when images are stacked, they’re stacked EVERYWHERE. If you stack a couple of images in a project, they’re also stacked in every album, smart album or light table they appear in.
What’s more, you can choose different stack ‘picks’ for different albums – so if you have an album of black and white shots, you can make the black and white image in the stack the ‘pick’ that’s displayed when the stack is collapsed. Brilliant.
But in Lightroom, stacking is context sensitive. You can stack images in a folder, but that doesn’t stack them in the collections they appear in. You can stack images in one collection, but they won’t be stacked in another. And smart collections don’t support stacking at all.
Lightroom’s ‘localised’ stacking is a real headache – it’s often very important to know if an image is stacked with another, but where Aperture will always show you, Lightroom will often give you no clue.
We all work differently
I’m sure there will be a lot of Lightroom users out there who find it perfect for their needs. I’m not trying convince any Lightroom fans they’re using the wrong software. If I could make it work for me, I’d probably swap tomorrow.
But I can’t. I’ve got used to the way Aperture works and the things it can do, and I can’t go back.
So if you’re currently using Aperture, and wondering whether the grass is greener on the other side, be careful. It’s easy to be beguiled by Lightroom’s sexy image-enhancement tools, but it’s the organisational tools you need to pay attention to, because they may not offer the features you currently take for granted in Aperture.