photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

Aperture gets the boot

never trust a hippy. Or an MBA

in Apple Aperture , Saturday, June 28, 2014

So, Apple has admitted, in some roundabout way, that Aperture is finished. It hasn’t been announced on their website, indeed, it is still promoted and up for sale. No, somehow the news has been leaked in a very uncharacteristic way.

Nobody should be surprised by this. If Apple is consistent about anything, it is in dropping products or complete product lines without any second though for its customer’s investments. But with Aperture, it’s worse. Much worse. With Aperture, it’s customers are not just financially invested, but also creatively invested. This is the drawback of both non-destructive editing and proprietary digits asset management: you need to be able to trust that the software supplier you depend on is committed to long-term support. It was always a risky bet with Apple, and now it has proven to be the case. Apple is focused purely on short-term gain in increasingly dumbed-down disposable consumer electronics, and is fundamentally an untrustworthy partner. It is telling that the company has made no formal statement on its website, and shown absolutely no concern at all for its customers’ plight, and instead offers the insulting idea that it’s a fair swap to lose years of work for some rubbish piece of iCrap gloss in “the Cloud”. And in some cases, those customer’s entire business model rested on trusting Apple as a reliable partner.

I’m pretty sure that within the Aperture team there are people who well realise just how badly customers have been let down, but with Apple’s corporate Iron Curtain firmly in place, we’ll never know. And for the rest, from Tim Cook and all his anonymous MBA cohorts, we’re collateral damage. Long term I suspect it will be their loss.

So what went wrong ? When Aperture hit the market in 2005 it was unexpected and revolutionary. It was also a massive resource hog, and expensive - $599 - and that didn’t help it gain early market share. People assumed it was a Photoshop rival, and perhaps even Steve Jobs did too, with his antipathy towards Adobe, but it wasn’t. It was something completely new, an application designed specifically for the needs of photographers in the digital age. Looking at it as a Photoshop rival obscured the real marvel of Aperture, its photo management and cataloging tools. There’s still nothing to beat it on that front, in fact as far as I know, nothing even comes close.  Then there was the non-modal UI, which some people had (and still do have) a really hard time getting their heads around.  Basically, with Aperture, you choose the context to work in (Project, Album, Book, Website, Light table, Print) and all editing and management tools are available at all times. This is quite the reverse to all other applications, including Lightroom, where the workflow is firmly object(photo)-centric.

Aperture 2

This is a key and unique feature in Aperture: here, as I lay out a selection of images on a light table, perhaps to plan a print series, I can tweak each photo’s settings in-situ as I work. The UI is completely non-modal. Were it not for the Apple Iron Curtain, whoever devised this would be celebrated in the design community. And no, it wasn’t Jonny bloody Ive. Or indeed St Steve.

So Apple had a fantastic application on their hands. But apart from high profile launch events, they essentially put no effort at all into explaining it, or marketing it. When Adobe brought out their rival application, Lightroom, which was certainly a major step forward from Photoshop for digital photo workflow, but much, much less imaginative and ambitious than Aperture, they rolled out the full force of their marketing tools, including getting legions of industry stars and opinion-formers on board, they kept up contact between engineers and users - hell, we even knew who the key engineers were - and they maintained open Beta programs for each new version. Aperture, crippled by general Apple arrogance towards customers, had no chance. The few opinion-formers they got on board seemed to be used solely as marketing mouthpieces, whereas Adobe avoided the whole control-freakery scene. As time went on, Lightroom got caught up in the Adobe bean counters insistence on yearly upgrade fees, and so started to acquire bloat and useless features, without much improvement to the core application. Also, anybody coming to Lightroom from Aperture cannot help but feel manacled by the step-by-step workflow, which reminds me of the 1990s UI “room” concepts championed by Kai Krause. Nothing like Aperture’s unconstrained creativity. Lightroom felt like an engineer’s idea of what photographers wanted. Aperture felt like a photographer’s invention which could maybe do with a touch more engineering input, especially at version 1.

But essentially Aperture was completely out of place in Apple’s product line-up. A deep, non-glitzy application that demanded, but rewarded, serious commitment on the behalf of its users. Certainly no iOS or AppStore fluff. Indeed, although the Iron Curtain lets out no whispers, I really wonder if Aperture’s genesis lies outside of Apple, much like Final Cut. Perhaps Aperture also was initially a Macromedia project, and therefore might even share some DNA with Lightroom. Pure speculation, and I guess we’ll never know. Or care.

So now what ?

Well, Aperture is still working, and Apple has committed to maintenance support for at least one further OS X iteration. But the end is irrevocable, and that means that any work expended from now on in Aperture is wasted. There’s much talk of migrating to Lightroom, or whatever, but let’s be clear: you can migrate your metadata - ratings, stars, keywords - but that’s it. You cannot migrate any develop settings, or your whole library structure, your projects, albums, smart albums, light tables, books, etc. You might be able to migrate your keyword hierarchies, which for power users is a big deal. Certainly you can migrate these to Media Pro. I have 51,225 photos in Aperture. If I were to set aside the time to recreate all the non-destructive edits in Lightroom, I might as well give up photography.

So what are the alternatives ? I’ve tried most of them: my mainstream history goes something like this: Olympus Studio -> Adobe Camera RAW 1.0 -> CaptureOne 3.6 -> Iridient Raw Developer -> Lightroom 1 -> Aperture 2 -> Aperture 3. Along the way I’ve tried out pretty much all other options available on the Mac At present I use Aperture 3 for everything, except for Sigma Merrill files which I develop in Iridient Developer (which has indeed recently become much closer integrated with Aperture).  Prior to Lightroom, indeed prior to digital, I used what was called iView MediaPro, and is now called PhaseOne MediaPro, to catalog and manage my library. I’ve carried on using it for scanned files and Sigma files alongside Aperture, and I still consider a great tool. Indeed, many years ago I speculated that a merger between CaptureOne and MediaPro would be a combination to beat. Eventually PhaseOne did acquire MediaPro, but frankly they haven’t done a lot with it.

To replace Aperture 3 we need to consider two aspects (at least). RAW development, and Digital Asset Management. There are only two real options which cover both parts. Lightroom, which is fully integrated, and CaptureOne/MediaPro, which is more like a bunch of bits flying roughly in the same direction. Although I have no particular axe to grind with Adobe, and indeed have used (and paid for) Photoshop since v2.0, InDesign since v1.0 (and Pagemaker before that, indeed before Adobe acquired it), and a whole host of other Adobe apps, I just don’t find Lightroom very inspiring. But I can’t deny that it does the job, and is probably the sensible choice. CaptureOne, on the other hand, seems to be more driven by photographers than marketing, and v7 has a management component which clearly inherits conceptually from MediaPro, although just how C1 and MediaPro are supposed to be “integrated” still puzzles me. CaptureOne went through a very bad patch after v3.x. Version 4 was very late, all-new and something of a disaster. But now at v7 it seems to have matured.

I guess in the coming weeks, I’ll try the latest versions of both on a small library and make my choice based on what I actually see, which is how I came to choose Aperture. Ill write more about this in the coming days / weeks, maybe.

But what about Apple? I’ve been an Apple customer for over 20 years. I bought my first Mac (a Powerbook Duo) on a university discount scheme. I’ve never been a fanboy, although I got close to it in the dark years of the 1990s, and I’ve always seen pros and cons to buying Apple. These days it’s more through inertia and have a considerable investment in software and peripherals that I stick with Apple. And on the whole, indeed it does “just work”. In Management Powerpoint Bullshit speak, companies talk of being in a stakeholder, partnership relationship with their customers. Apple are not. Apple, in 2014, see customers purely as cash machines. Their total wall of secrecy and refusal to engage - and it was not always so, not by a long way - makes them, as a company, amoral and totally untrustworthy. Unfortunately the whole industry is going that way. We’re a long, long way from the Revolution In The Valley.


Kinds of Blue

playing with options

in Photography , Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Although my principal tool for Raw file development is Apple Aperture, every now and then I play around with other applications, mainly Iridient Developer and Photo Ninja.  Each application has it’s own look and character, not unlike different film types in Ye Olde Days.  Aperture is fairly neutral, or at least I’ve trained it to be.  A little like Kodak Ektachrome. Iridient is even more neutral, very laid back. It brings to mind cool forests and fresh sea breezes. Not exactly Instagram. Photo Ninja is pretty wild.  It’s also very, very different in how it is set up, and is very clear that it knows best. Photo Ninja could be the Fuji Velvia of Raw developers.

Actually, the reason I got into another mini-round of comparing versions and messing around is that I was finding Aperture’s very weak noise reduction tools were falling short of what I needed on a high contrast shot from a few days ago.

But then I decided to unleash Photo Ninja on a couple of Antarctic iceberg shots, and, well, wow.

This is what Aperture, with some input from me, made of this shot:

Drm 20130123 6427

And this is what Photo Ninja made of it, straight out of the box:

Drm 100813 175136 pn

The Photo Ninja look to me has a very “American” feel to it. I don’t mean anything dismissive about that, it’s just that American landscape photographers tend to go for a stronger palette (although there are exceptions, for example my friend Ira Meyer, who generally goes for a more subtle tone in his excellent Antarctic work).

Photo Ninja also cranks up the micro contrast, which can be pretty impressive, but unfortunately, is all or nothing - there’s no way to mask it or dilute the strength in different regions as one can in Aperture.

Although sometimes I like what Photo Ninja gives me, in fact what I usually get from it is a hint of a different direction I could take the image in.  My personal preference of these two versions is the first, more muted one, which probably one of many reasons I don’t grab many people’s attention.  Whatever, I’m doing it for me, mainly.


RAW revisited, yet again

Boost is your enemy

in Apple Aperture , Thursday, November 01, 2012

I’ve recently gone through another of my periodic obsessions with testing RAW converters. My default choice remains Apple Aperture, partly because I’m committed it’s excellent organisation and management tools. However, there is no reason why I cannot use Aperture to manage my images while carrying out the RAW conversion in another application. Indeed, as I wrote a few weeks ago, I’ve recently started using Photo Ninja. I’ve also been using Iridient RAW Developer for many years, and indeed I’ve just paid what I think is the first ever upgrade fee they’ve requested. The new arrival of Capture One Pro 7 and DXO Optics Pro 8 also tempted me to give them a spin. Capture One was my first choice ages ago, when they were at version 3. They screwed up badly with version 4 and lost me - first to Iridient, then to Lightroom 1. And when, with version 2, Aperture became a realistic choice, I switched from Lightroom and I’ve stayed there ever since.

The thing is, whatever the interwebs and pundits proclaim, there isn’t really a best RAW converter (although there are some appalling products best not mentioned). They’re just different, a bit like film stocks were different. Even with all settings on zero, they give remarkably varying interpretations of white balance, colour and tone. And in fact it isn’t always that easy - or even possible - to get a basic, standard gamma conversion. Iridient seems to do it, and Aperture can be convinced to do so if you zero all the sliders in RAW Fine Tuning (especially Boost! Boost is - often - your enemy). It seems that DXO’s “neutral” setting does something reasonable. Photo Ninja really doesn’t do neutral, but that’s fine, it has a very different philosophy. CaptureOne, dunno, got bored trying, and I never touch Lightroom these days, for totally irrational reasons. And then there’s also the manufacturer’s software to consider, which we might assume is a good baseline. In my case, that’s Olympus Viewer, which is far from the worst out there, but I’m still glad I don’t depend on it.


Above is an example of Aperture’s default setting for the Olympus E-5 (right) and a “neutral” setting (left). In my experience the neutral setting is often the better starting point, especially when you want to work on shadows and highlights. Aperture’s default can easily blow perfectly good highlights. However the default is - initially - far more flattering and attractive. And sometimes it’s just fine, so long as you’re in control of the choices, not the software.

Here’s a screen shot from Aperture’s browser of a bunch of different interpretations of a RAW file, where I’ve tried, at least some extent, to get similar results, initially driven by Photo Ninja’s interpretation.

Raw variants

From left to right: Aperture, Photo Ninja, Olympus Viewer, Iridient

None of these are essentially good or bad. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve, what your aesthetic is, and how many comments you’re trying to get on Flickbook. And probably some applications work better for certain cameras than others. But what is interesting is to examine some of the differences in rendering. Photo Ninja, for example does a remarkable job at tonal separation in shadows, and enhancing micro-contrast. DXO, when it’s co-operating, delivers fantastic sharpening. Aperture, remarkably enough, does a great job on noise reduction, an area where it is frequently maligned (actually it seems that what it is good at is not amplifying noise). Iridient can squeeze out ultimate detail, but it needs careful application of its 4 different sharpening algorithms. As for default looks, the scale ranges between Iridient’s subdued approach and Photo Ninja’s “all knobs on 11” blast. Both can be good.

It’s interesting how many people seem to want their RAW converter to replicate the in-camera JPG. Am I the only one who sees a bit of a logic breakdown there ?

But… the really interesting thing is that the more I look at all these different results, the more I learn about how to replicate them in my primary tool, Aperture. There are some things which Aperture is really not top-notch at, in particular sharpening. However, sharpening can be applied using a plug-in, or via Photoshop. Aperture has some truly fantastic tint and colour correction tools, and it’s overall mode-less, photo-centric workflow is, in my opinion, way ahead of anything else on the market. Nobody else comes close.

Perhaps Apple might now react to the deluge of new releases from its competitors. Aperture 3 is now really ancient in Internet Years, and it could do with a few improvements. Better lens correction, much better sharpening, print tools which are actually designed to support how photographers work (setting a fixed output resolution and size, and sharpening at that setting, for example). But really there’s not that much wrong with it. Anyway, we won’t know until an update is released, if ever. I don’t think Apple’s obsessive secrecy is doing it much good in this particular market.

What I do think is important is that you pick an application and really, really learn to make it do what you want. It’s amazing that people will agonise over expensive lenses, massive amounts of megapixels, etc, and then allow some anonymous computer programmer’s idea of a default setting to dictate the look of their photos.


Iced by PhotoNinja

instant Kodachrome ?

in Photography , Wednesday, September 19, 2012

I have just uploaded a new gallery, simply called “Ice”. It contains a set of photos taken at various places and times, all featuring ice in diverse, and mainly quite abstract, forms.

Ice gallery

This set has been edited with a new RAW processor, Photo Ninja, the successor to the highly regarded Noise Ninja. I have to say I didn’t really expect to see much new in the world of RAW software at this point in time. I’m quite happy in general with Apple Aperture, although I keep an eye on Adobe Camera Raw, Capture One, and in particular Iridient RAW Developer. But none of these offer anything other than barely perceptible advantages over Aperture, if any at all. Aperture’s RAW engine is highly under-rated for some reason, perhaps simply Apple fatigue, although I suppose it depends on what camera you use. But for my Olympus & Ricoh files, I have no complaints. And the workflow is head & shoulders above anything else.

Photo ninja1

Photo Ninja’s quite minimalist user interface

So why bother with anything else ? Well, Photo Ninja is actually quite, remarkably, different. If there is one defining thing about it, it is that you need to go against habits and wise teachings, and let it do its thing. Once you set up a few preferences to steer it the right direction, its first attempt is usually pretty remarkable. Unlike other RAW processors, it has a real “look” of its own, which I suspect people will love or hate.  There is scope for plenty of fiddling, with a mix of standard and less standard controls (such as “illumination” which is a sort of contrast control that can be linked to exposure). But often I just come back to the auto settings - something I NEVER do usually. A huge amount of thought has gone into Photo Ninja’s automatic algorithms, and they should not be thought of as the usual “auto contrast” white / black point settings most rivals offer.

Photo ninja3

Photo Ninja’s tool list. Note its ancestor, Noise Ninja, is present & correct

Photo Ninja is a version 1.0 release and it does seem to do some weird things on the odd occasion. One of the images in the set it did something very weird indeed to, so I’ve used the Aperture version CORRECTION: I take it back. It was user error on my part. Nothing weird at all. Speaking of Aperture, Photo Ninja integrates with it extremely well and supports multiple round-trip editing of the original RAW file. I don’t believe anybody else has worked that one out. So you can retain Aperture’s excellent workflow and management features whilst using Photo Ninja as an alternative convertor.

Photo ninja2

Photo Ninja’s default setting on the left, Aperture 3.2’s on the right. It’s been said that Photo Ninja has a “Kodachrome” look.

You can get a free demo of Photo Ninja, so I suggest that if you’re interested, you just try it. If nothing else it will give you a new perspective on your images.  The photos in the “Ice” set are the first I’ve published in a long time that were not processed in Aperture. I’m not yet sure I’d want to use Photo Ninja exclusively, but I’m certainly going to keep it around.


revisiting RAW

Yet more options….

in Apple Aperture , Monday, October 31, 2011

Prompted by a series of posts by Mitch Alland, I decided it might be interesting to take another look at a RAW processor I’d not seriously considered in the past, Raw Photo Processor, or RPP.  RPP is not your usual run of the mill RAW processor.  It concerns itself only with the initial steps of translating the RAW file into a finished photo, and, unlike others (the author claims - I’m not 100% convinced), recalculates from the raw data for each applied edit.  It works a bit differently from a user interface perspective too, foregoing sliders for direct numeric input, and in most cases refreshing the preview only on demand. However, it isn’t as hard to use as it seems on first glimpse.

Mitch Alland reports that “it’s been a revelation because RPP does a much better job in raw development than Aperture: it simply produces better resolution and better color”. So it seems worth taking it for a spin.

Here’s a comparison of a file output from Aperture at default settings (above) and from RPP, with a contrast curve applied in Photoshop, below:

Snapz Pro XSnap001

As you can see, the white balance is significantly different. I’m not sure which is “right”. The RPP version is very neutral, but I couldn’t say for sure if the Aperture (actually, in camera) version is capturing an accurate cast. RPP white balance works well on Auto, or Custom, but In Camera is a bit strange.

As for detail, well, yes, I’d say that RPP visibly delivers a touch more, but it’s not going to be noticeable to the average audience.

RPP also delivers more image. On this Olympus E-P2 shot, Aperture outputs a 4032 by 2034 pixel image -which is to Olympus’s specifications. RPP recovers more, providing 4090 by 3078. I believe the “extra” pixels have something to do with calibration, but apparently they do contain usable image data.

The big difference between basic RPP and basic Aperture processing, disregarding white balance, is Aperture’s Boost slider. Basically, RPP delivers a file with Boost set to 0. According to Apple, Boost applies a camera-specific contrast curve directly after RAW demosaicing. It is actually remarkable what a difference it makes - this, effectively, is the “look” or magic sauce of a RAW converter. Of course it’s a subjective judgement as to whether this is a good thing or not.  RPP gives you the best shot it can at providing you with the basic ingredients, and it’s then up to you to make the most of these in subsequent post-processing, be it in Photoshop, Aperture, Lightroom, or whatever.

It’s difficult to make a quick judgment on the real-world merits of RPP, but using it gives you a clearer idea of what’s really going on behind the smoke and mirrors, and potentially it might just give you a quality edge.  In any case it’s a useful tool to have. And it’s free - although donations are appreciated.


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