My DAM quest, it is over!

I made the switch to Mac OS X mid 2007. And shortly after that, I finally bought myself my first DSLR, something I’d wanted to do for almost a decade since I first laid eyes on the Nikon D1. I knew it was going to re-spark my love of photography, and so I knew I was going to need a good way of keeping up with my photos. Before I’d made the switch, I’d been keeping up with the competition heating up between Apple’s Aperture, and Adobe’s Photoshop Lightroom. So when I got my DSLR, I grabbed the trials for both Aperture and Lightroom, and gave them a go.

Since that day, I’ve been flip-flopping between them. I literally would shift my entire workflow from one to the other, roughly every 4 to 6 months. I always preferred Aperture’s UI and workflow, but Lightroom had the features I wanted. And whenever I was using Lightroom I always missed the Photoshop-like spot healing/clone brushes that both Aperture and iPhoto shared. And of course the lack of integration with the iLife Media Browser didn’t help Lightroom’s case, either.

About a month ago, my not unusually large catalog of ~20k images (which only consisted of mid2007-2009 photos, older ones had not been imported yet) was just getting to be too much for Lightroom 2. Slow, slow, sloooooooow. I tried to remedy it by breaking up the catalog into year long archives. It helped the speed tremendously, but I discovered one fatal flaw: my collections/smart collections got borked because they were holding images that now were no longer in the current catalog.

With no word (as per usual) from Apple on whether Aperture 3 was even being considered, I started looking for alternative DAM software. Convinced, as I was, that I’d rather just have something that cataloged my media, and leave the editing/tweaking to Photoshop. “Just use Bridge!,” you might say. I have, and I don’t like it. It’s always been incredibly sluggish, and I’ve used every version from CS2 to CS4. I’ve never been happy with it’s performance.

I tried everything from Nikon’s own Capture NX, to Bibble Pro, to LightZone (JAVA?! RUN AWAY! It was stupid slow), and even tried out a port of digiKam from the Linux world. I even contemplated just using iPhoto again. Nothing was making me happy, and in a moment of desperation, I even installed Picasa. I’d used it on Windows before I switched, and I remember liking it. Imagine how shocked I was that it handled 20k+ files like a champ. But it’s integration with Photoshop was non-existent, not to mention with the rest of the system, iLife, iWork, etc.

After a few weeks of trying new software, I finally broke down, and just re-installed my old copy of Aperture 2, wrote my Lightroom metadata to the files, and command-option dragged my folders into Aperture (this imports them as referenced files so you can still use your existing organizational structure, and each folder becomes a project). It handled the ~20k photos superbly.

To bring in all my keywords, star ratings, flags, and labels, I had to get a little creative. Before writing all the metadata to the files in Lightroom, I went through and sorted by each star rating from 1 to 5, and gave all 1 star pictures a keyword of “1 Star.” Rinse and repeat for 2-5. I then sorted by all flagged photos, and wrote a “Flickr” keyword, as I only flagged photos I had uploaded. And finally for all the photos I added a color label to, I added a “Label: [color].”

Once those were written to the files, and I was in Aperture, it was merely a matter of doing a quick search for each of the “Star” keywords, and applying the appropriate amount of stars to the images. For the flagged photos, I created a Flickr smart album that collected all photos tagged with “Flickr,” and the same for each color label. It was clunky, but at least it worked.

The only other things I missed from Lightroom were the adjustment brushes, and adjustment presets. But I often found the brushes clunky, difficult to use, no real fine-grained control, so if I needed more than a simple touch-up I would always hit Photoshop for that instead. Not a big loss. The gradient was only useful in very limited situations, and that too I would mostly defer to Photoshop for since I could at least mask out the areas I didn’t want the gradient applied to. Again, not a big loss. Presets then, were my most missed feature of Lightroom.

So there I was, getting by with Aperture 2, and thinking it’d be really nice if it had Faces & Places. I always try to add keywords of people in images, but it can be very tedious. Some automated assistance is nice, and even though iPhoto quite humorously mistook various things for faces sometimes, the faces it did get right made it very quick and easy to tag family and friends. Of course there was Maperture which did a decent job of geotagging, but again in iPhoto, Places was so nice to be able to drill down from a country-wide search, down to city level, and even landmarks, all in an intuitive and easy to navigate interface. Click on a pushpin and see exactly what photos were taken there.

I’d very nearly given up hope that it would ever come out. After the iPad event, and still not even a hint of Aperture love, I was beginning to feel like so many others, that Apple was no longer bothering with Aperture. That Lightroom had won the market, just like Photoshop before, and we were all doomed to be locked into Adobe’s monopoly on creative software. I was almost convinced of this, though I’ve been so disillusioned of Adobe’s software for the past decade or more, that I wasn’t about to give in without a fight. I was going to stick with Aperture 2 until I could no longer install it if that meant not spending another moment fighting with Lightroom. What can I say, I was bitter.

And lo, a week later, Apple drops the Aperture 3 bomb. It came, quite literally, out of nowhere.

Faces & Places? Check.

Adjustment presets? Check. Finally!

Flags? Check.

Color labels? Check.

Adjustment brushes? Check! And not just adjustment brushes like Lightroom does them, but actually incredibly useful adjustment brushes, with fine-grained control that rivals the masking I’d normally have to defer to Photoshop for. The ability to brush in or away any of the various adjustments available, as well as pre-defined brushes for things like dodge/burn, blur, and skin smoothing. They didn’t just catch up to Lightroom here, they went way, way beyond.

Curves! True curves. Oh, I kind of half assumed any update to Aperture would have some adjustment brushes, though I had no idea how incredible they would be. But this, this I never saw coming. I know there are photographers out there that don’t even bother with any other adjustments, and just tweak the curves a bit to get their pictures just right. Problem is, the only place you could really use curves for Photography, was Photoshop. Sure there are other applications out there with curves, Lightroom even has a very limited half-assed implementation (seems to be the same crippled “curves” they finally blessed Photoshop Elements with). But few of them work with anything over 8 bit color per channel (otherwise known as True Color), and the ones that do, are either pretty terrible or buggy and still quite beta level software. When you’re working with RAW photos that themselves contain 12-14 bits per channel, you have to compromise way too much if you’re not working in an application that supports at least 16 bits per channel. So it’s either use Photoshop, or sacrifice almost 69 billion subtle color variations, lost details in shadows and highlights, etc, and that’s only for photos with 12 bits per channel. I’ve been meaning to write up a post on RAW vs. Jpeg, looks like I’ll be doing that next.

And you know what? I honestly don’t see Adobe ever fully adding these features into Lightroom. Why? Photoshop. These are such killer features in Aperture 3 that I may never need to fire up Photoshop again, and you bet your ass Adobe knows this. Why give that level of control to photographers for a mere $300 for a copy of Lightroom, when they can also suck out another $600 for a copy of Photoshop for the inevitable times you’ll need more fine-grained controls and adjustments that Lightroom just doesn’t give you?

In fact, to put my money where my mouth is, I’ve removed Photoshop CS4 from my system, and haven’t missed it in the slightest, and I used to use it almost daily. Pixelmator& The GIMP handle my web design needs with aplomb, and far speedier than loading that resource pig, Photoshop. I’ve been trying for the past ~10 years to find a suitable replacement for my Photoshop needs, and now, finally, I honestly believe that day has come.

Five reasons to switch to Aperture from Lightroom? All I need is 2: Useful adjustment brushes, and curves. Though Faces & Places aren’t too shabby in and of themselves, either.

All is not unicorns and rainbows though. There is one, albeit minor, complaint: they removed the keyword panel from the Metadata tab. I’m not talking about the Keyword HUD, or the Keyword Control Bar. The keyword panel was a roll-up panel in the Metadata tab, that gave you an alphabetical list of the keywords assigned to the photo(s) you have selected. You could type in a keyword there, and it would apply it to all the selected photos (which the Keyword Control Bar does now), but you could also click the “-” next to a keyword in the list, and it would remove that keyword from all the selected photos (which there is no way that I’ve found to batch remove a single keyword from a group of photos. It’s either all, or none.)

[Update: 03/03/2009] I recently came across an apparently undocumented feature. When using the keyword control bar to apply keywords to all selected photos, if you instead hit shift-return, it will remove the keyword you have typed in from all selected files. Just hitting return applies the keyword to all selected photos, and hitting shift-return removes it.  Still not as nice as the panel from Aperture 2, but far, far better than being faced with deleting a keyword one picture at a time, or dumping it all together, and having to remember which photos it should have been on when you go back to re-create it.

That’s one area Lightroom has over Aperture. It’s all the more confounding because the keyword panel in Aperture 2, at the least, made managing keywords on par with Lightroom (even if it was lacking some of the more fine-grained, stock photo centric, keyword options that Lightroom has). This is a step backwards, where most everything else was a giant leap forward.

I’m hoping this was an unfortunate oversight, and will be returning in a near future update. 3.0.1? Please?