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Aperture’s Golden Hour

In photography, the “golden hour” is that slice of time just before and after sunset when the sun is low in the sky and the light is often bronze-hued and dramatic. It’s one of the best times of the day to capture photos, but the good light too soon rolls over into darkness.

Apple’s professional photo-management application, Aperture, has enjoyed an extended golden hour. Although Adobe Photoshop Lightroom long ago dominated the market, Aperture has held on in development limbo — working fine (but sludgy, in my experience) for those who use it, but not updated in any meaningful way. Now, its light is close to winking out: Apple announced last week that it will soon halt development of Aperture.

Replacing it — and iPhoto, too — is the forthcoming Photos application for OS X, which Apple teased with a brief demo at the Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in June. Photos is patterned after the updated Photos app under iOS, and it’s due to arrive in early 2015.

If you’ve idly considered a jump to Lightroom, now is the time to start thinking more seriously about the transition. However, there’s no immediate rush. Apple plans to update Aperture to work with OS X Yosemite, making the software usable for at least another year.

As is often the case with Apple, information about the move away from Aperture is scarce. The company contacted some professional photographers and news outlets to seed the news with a short statement (I first read it at The Loop):

“With the introduction of the new Photos app and iCloud Photo Library, enabling you to safely store all of your photos in iCloud and access them from anywhere, there will be no new development of Aperture. When Photos for OS X ships next year, users will be able to migrate their existing Aperture libraries to Photos for OS X.”

Aperture currently supports the existing iCloud Photo Stream capability, but it’s a bolted-on feature that I suspect most photographers, pro or amateur, either ignore or don’t interact with much. iCloud Photo Library, announced at WWDC, will store all your photos on Apple’s servers, accessible via the Photos apps on iOS and OS X (see “Apple Unveils iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite at WWDC,” 2 June 2014).

And here’s where we’re currently wandering in the weeds amid the fading light. In Apple’s typical way, it’s looking ahead to the next solution and not, at least based on outward appearances, to the present. Photography, it turns out, is a special case.

The Photo Data Problem -- We’d like to think photos are just like other data: discrete files in formats that can be read by several programs, scattered on one or more hard disks. On one level, a picture isn’t much different from a Microsoft Word file. You can even select a photo or document in the Finder and press the spacebar for a large-size Quick Look preview. But photos have two characteristics that set them apart.

First, photos contain a lot of other information — metadata — that describes aspects of them other than basic image capture data. An application like Aperture tracks information such as keywords and location data that may not be written to the image file. (JPEG files, which make up the bulk of all photos, store that data within the file itself, but many photographers choose to capture photos in raw formats that are treated like film negatives: metadata is either tracked by the photo application or exists in “sidecar” files that accompany the original image.)

Aperture (and iPhoto) also feature many tools for editing images. Photographers don’t want to permanently alter their original shots, so the application also tracks what’s changed in a photo to be able to revert back to the unretouched state.

This leads to the second characteristic of photos: We typically interact with them as a larger collection of images, not individually. We import dozens or hundreds at a time from our cameras or iPhones and examine them as a body before drilling down to work on single shots.

So with the new Photos application, Apple isn’t just updating an application, it’s updating everyone’s image libraries. You’re probably not going to start fresh with an empty Photos library when the software is released. You’re going to bring all (or most) of the photos you’ve captured and stored in iPhoto, Aperture, or other software.

Let’s compare this situation to other application rewrites in Apple’s recent past.

When Keynote was rebuilt and released as version 6.0, it didn’t support some features present in Keynote ’09. That was certainly annoying, but in most cases people don’t need to open old presentations. They build a new presentation using the latest version, or they convert one or two files and work around the limitations. There’s often a line in the sand after which you don’t need to access most older files.

Apple has a notorious history of clear-cutting old software to make room for new in this way. iMovie, for example, gained a brand new approach with iMovie ’08, but didn’t catch up to the previous version’s feature set for a couple of revisions. And many Final Cut Pro users are still hanging onto their editing systems three years after the introduction of Final Cut Pro X. The ones who did make the switch wisely completed projects in the old version and reserved Final Cut Pro X for use with new projects.

With photos, however, you can’t just disregard old photos and move forward with the new, unless you’re willing to make a clean break and risk that your old library may become inaccessible. Part of having a photo library is to be able to reach into it to find old images. Abandoning a mature application like Aperture, where users probably manage thousands or tens of thousands of images, is complicated.

(I go into much greater detail about managing photos in my book Take Control of Your Digital Photos, which favors Lightroom but also includes information about working with Aperture and iPhoto.)

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention a third characteristic: photos are also deeply personal artifacts that represent our fondest memories, and people get extremely emotional if their images are lost or needlessly duplicated during the conversion between applications and versions. (Backups! Backups! Backups, my friends!)

Expectations of the Photos App -- Fortunately, Apple knows all of this. To revisit Apple’s statement: “...users will be able to migrate their existing Aperture libraries to Photos for OS X.”

Aperture and iPhoto share the same database format, so you can currently open iPhoto libraries in Aperture and vice-versa without losing metadata or adjustments; iPhoto just ignores what it doesn’t understand. No doubt the shift to a compatible library format, which happened two years ago, presaged the move to Photos for OS X.

But what will Photos offer in terms of features? Right away, it will have to fulfill a lot of expectations:

  • It will need to seamlessly open iPhoto and Aperture libraries. Perhaps Apple is keeping the same library format and building up from there. The key will be how much of a hassle the migration process is.

  • It will need to preserve all metadata entered using iPhoto or Aperture. That’s a small order for iPhoto, but professionals take advantage of the many ways photos in Aperture can be tagged (keywords, ratings, color labels, flags).

  • It will need at least some advanced features that Aperture users take advantage of, such as metadata presets for applying information to photos during the import stage.

  • It will need robust raw image format support. Aperture and Lightroom initially appealed to photographers because their adjustment tools work directly with raw images; the advanced adjustments are limited when working with JPEG images. Camera manufacturers use proprietary raw formats in their cameras, resulting in the applications being unable to process files from the newest cameras on the market until updates arrive. Lightroom has traditionally held the edge in this department because Apple updates its raw support at the system level, not the application level, although the frequency of updates has improved over the last couple of years. More important, Photos will need to incorporate the same fine-tuned raw adjustments that Aperture uses now.

  • It will need to handle edited photos cleanly, retaining adjustment histories if possible or, more likely, the ability to discard all edits and revert back to the original. What we don’t want to see are hundreds of unwanted duplicates created by edited versions of photos.

Chances are, unless Apple has really spent all this time building a deep application while ignoring Aperture and iPhoto, Photos for OS X will fall down in one or more of those areas. (I’d love to be proved wrong.) But Apple’s pattern of re-engineering applications and releasing them with core — not comprehensive — functionality doesn’t make me optimistic. Features present in old versions may not appear for several incremental releases of the new versions as initial bugs are worked out.

For iPhoto users, that isn’t a concern. Aperture users will likely move to something else and see if Apple is interested in wooing them back in the future.

Photo Assistants -- Then again, maybe Apple is taking Photos in a different, modular direction. According to a report by Ars Technica, Apple said it will allow third party extensions, presumably similar to the capability coming in iOS 8. Want better black-and-white conversions than what Photos offers? Load a Nik Silver Efex Pro module.

Or (and I’m completely speculating here), maybe Apple wants to get off the raw image train and let Adobe pick up the slack by enabling customers to process images using Adobe Camera Raw. That would contradict Apple’s inclination to make the photo experience fall entirely under its umbrella, but perhaps the company is content to focus on core functionality instead.

Morning Light -- Photographers wake up early to take advantage of the light at sunrise as well as at sunset. Often, driving or hiking to a scenic location in the dark, you don’t know whether the light and sky at dawn will be dramatic or muddled with clouds. So, you set up your camera, breathe in the morning air, and hope for the best. Photos for OS X looks to be a new day for Apple and photographers.


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Comments about Aperture’s Golden Hour
(Comments are closed.)

Michel Hedley  2014-07-02 17:49
In addition to Jeff's concerns, I have two further concerns with the proposed Photos app. I am concerned that iPhoto's book printing capability will be withdrawn in favour of the belief that people only want to see and sure their images online. With Apple's push for iCloud, then the likelihood of the printing function not being implemented in Photos I suspect is high. My other concern is that the Photo app will only permit storage of images to iCloud and not to local drives. iCloud is a worry re it security, continuity, privacy as well as the expense of uploading and storing the memories and records of personal potos.
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-07-02 20:52
There's no way Photos will offer only cloud storage and not local storage. There's just too much data.
Anonymous  2014-07-02 18:07
"maybe Apple wants to get off the raw image train and let Adobe pick up the slack"

For many years I have hoped that Apple would open up RAW conversion in OS X so that 3rd-party developers could sell their often-superior converters as drop-in modules in the OS. (The converters by Apple and Adobe are inferior to some 3rd party utilities for a few RAW formats, like Sigma's and Fuji's, for example.) Doing so would not only remove some burden from Apple, but would allow camera manufacturers themselves to offer drop-in converters. Additionally it would help the 3rd-party converter market, which has slowly imploded in the face of Adobe's free Camera Raw plugin. And the availability of multiple converters on the Mac would have made Aperture more appetizing to photographers who could get better results than Lightroom without having to export to a converter app then reimporting to Lightroom/Aperture.

While Apple does seem like it intends to (continue to) support post-production plugins like Nik or OnOne in the new Mac Photos app, I cannot help but feel that they continue to let an opportunity slip away, and continue to let Adobe consolidate its control over the prosumer/pro creative apps market.
Ted Stoffers  2014-07-07 18:26
I would love it if Apple would embrace DNG. IIRC only 2 camera makers have embraced it for some bizarre reason.

DNG is an open source RAW format (from Adobe) has no sidecart to loose/corrupt, and has LWZ compression (upon request).

If Apple shows some love for DNG maybe we can get rid of the bizarre soup of RAW formats we have.

Apple could make the converters one way, and force us to live in DNG land.

Speaking of RAW support, can Apple have you download only the RAW drivers you need (like print drivers)? I have a Cannon Rebel T2i, and don't see myself upgrading to Pro, buying a Nikon, or having enough cash to a buy a Lieca. If I ever need to read those formats, I'll grab the driver then.
John Faughnan  2014-07-02 19:49
Well done -- until you wrote "Aperture users will likely move to something else".

I cannot conceive of moving my personal Aperture library, over 30,000 images, 20K or so corrections. keywords, albums, projects, folder groups etc to Lightroom. That would be insanely difficult.

I think you know that, but in that one phrase you contradicted most of what you wrote elsewhere.
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-07-02 20:58
I disagree. You'll be able to use Aperture for the next year, maybe a little bit more, but then what will you do with that library? Apple will stop providing updates at some point soon after. That leaves those 30,000 images, edits, metadata locked in a container you may not be able to open.

At that point, your option will be to move to the new Photos app (which, fingers crossed, successfully retains all that info), move to Lightroom or another app, or find yourself trying to extract those images and that data manually from the Aperture library (or the nested folders Aperture uses if you store photos outside the library file).

Moving from Aperture to Lightroom isn't terribly difficult. I devote a chapter in my Take Control book to switching programs. (If you're a TidBITS member, you can read the chapter for free as it appeared when we serialized the book for TB members.)
Vu Tien Khang  2014-07-03 06:06
5 years ago, I tried Lightroom first before opting for Aperture. The major reason I dropped Lightroom was that at that time, every time I renamed a folder where my RAW are, or moved them, LightRoom is hopelessly lost. I had to rebuild all links.

Has it changed since? If yes (if I can rename and move my folders at will) then I think I'll do the switch.
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-07-03 08:41
When you rename and reorganize folders in the Finder, that breaks the links Lightroom uses to determine where the image files are. The solution is to do that organization within Lightroom. You can create folders and move images in the Library module, which creates the folders in the Finder. That way, Lightroom keeps track of where everything is.
I think most any digital asset manager loses photos if you move them in the Finder. By definition these provide their own virtual project/album/collection/whatever structure.

The key difference is that you cannot move Finder folders around from within Aperture, but you can do so in Lightroom. With Aperture you'd have to use "Relocate originals..." and then go to a dialog box. In LR you just drag and drop folders.
M. Lisa Colvin  2014-07-07 19:33
As long as Aperture is open when you move your files and folders in the Finder, it will keep track of them. If you move them when aperture is closed it will lose track of them. One of the reasons I prefer Aperture to Lightroom, the UI being the other. I just plain hate the Lightroom UI.
Tommy Weir  2014-07-03 09:15
I have to say I differ with Jeff on one or two things.

There's other options than Lightroom, I've picked up Capture One and have been very taken with its RAW handling and the editing tools.

I love Photo Stream, we have a Family Photo Stream that feeds the AppleTV screensavers in two separate grandparents houses, as well as my graduate student son away in College and all our various devices here. It's a wonderful way to us all to share images with each other.

I am also looking forward to seeing a good chunk of my images available to me everywhere, I know I will be paying for that but happy to for at least a subset of my images. A smart folder of projects added in the last year comes to mind.

So what to do? I want the benefits of Apple's new strategy on photography. I also want to ensure that I've got some professional editing tools available to me. I have an Aperture library of over 55k images, moving that to a new basis is going to be a bunch of work.

So... I am waiting before settling on what to do. Aperture still works and will work under Yosemite. The new will support extensions from third parties, I'd like to see what that turns out to offer. And also need to see if the new library is effectively the library for other editing tools much as Camera Roll in iOS is.

It's worth waiting to find out what the final options will be. Keeping my Aperture Library maintained may end up being be the best decision I made.

I have, however been waiting too long to flex new editing muscles... and I do like what Capture One offers and given that I have a Referenced Library, Capture One can see the project folders.

I am going to still use Aperture to import and organise still, rate, metadata etc. I want continue building for my upcoming library.

I learning how to use Capture One, which can see my referenced Masters, to process and work on picks, very impressed with it I have to say. I'll export out completed work and reimport them into Aperture to keep the 'one library' thing going.

Less than ideal but my holding pattern for now.
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-07-03 10:00
Waiting to see is a perfectly reasonable plan (which I mentioned in the article). There's no rush to convert, only the knowledge that people with large Aperture libraries will have to either switch to the Photos app or the something else.
Tommy Weir  2014-07-03 15:57

There's a 50% offer on Capture One now using the code switch50 -

Anonymous  2014-07-03 19:31
That 'special offer' unfortunately is only the same price you get at BHphotovideo (now, at any rate). Not saying it's a bad deal, but it's just not a great one
Karen Kirtland  2014-07-07 16:04
I'm just happy Mavericks, with all its slowdowns, stalls, and crashes on my particular system, still allows me to use Adobe Photoshop Elements. I dread the day when that is no longer available and I have to pay for an overpriced yearly program just to be able to print a photo.

I haven't jumped to Yosemite because Mavericks was such a problem, I'm reluctant to find even more problems with yet another upgrade.
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-07-07 16:09
That's a call that Adobe will make, not Apple. The version of OS X has no bearing on whether Photoshop Elements is a yearly subscription. So far, Adobe has said they're not interested in making Elements subscription-based, since it's the consumer offering. The subscriptions are for the pro apps.

And Yosemite isn't out yet, so you can't jump even if you wanted to. Yosemite will probably be released in October, judging by past OS X release schedules.

(Personally, I've found Mavericks to be very stable on my 2010 MacBook Pro, but as we all know, performance varies on different machines and configurations. If you're having that much difficulty, it's probably worth checking with an Apple store or local consultant to see what's up.)
Donald Schaefer  2014-07-07 19:25
Thanks for the well written article, Jeff. I switched to Aperture way back when Adobe kept putting off rewrites of its bloated, patchwork code. Aperture was native, affordable, and immune from Adobe's regular "upgrade" fees.

I like Aperture primarily for its cataloging/keywording capabilities. For serious work I use a different RAW converter, DxO Optics Pro, but I do final touchups in Aperture. In between I do lots of post-RAW work with plugins - Nik,Topaz,Perfect Photo Suite, so my "edited" work exists as TIFF, not RAW.

If the Photos app retains the cataloging and retouching features of Aperture, I'll stay loyal, if the switch isn't too onerous. (I may rent Photoshop CC and Lightroom briefly just to kick the tires.)

I'm hoping, not betting, Apple will accommodate pro users with Photos app similar to their extensive efforts with Final Cut. Evidence doesn't support that hope. I think you are indicating the same.
Edward Wood  2014-07-08 12:27
I have several thousand slide scans with metadata and keyword tags in iPhoto which I have no intention of putting in i cloud. Is there any way to move them to elements without losing all the metadata and keywords.The alternative would be to not update and stay with mountain forever.
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-07-08 12:56
Right now there's no easy way to move them out of iPhoto without losing the metadata and keywords. I detail a lengthy process in my book: it's possible, but not trivial.

In your case, I'd wait to see what the Photos for OS X application brings. Hopefully, it will better support exporting photos with metadata.
George  2014-07-08 18:39
"When Keynote was rebuilt and released as version 6.0, it didn’t support some features present in Keynote ’09. That was certainly annoying, but in most cases people don’t need to open old presentations."

Uh, I beg to differ. I have hundreds of hours invested in presentations for my classes, all of which get reused every quarter (or at least every time I teach a particular class). Yes, I tweak them and add new material, but I certainly don't rewrite them every quarter. I don't use Keynote 6.0 because it -doesn't- support features I need.

I don't use Aperture at all, the subject of this article, but the reference to Keynote really graveled my backside. I'm getting very weary indeed of Apple breaking software every few years to pad its bottom line.

Kenoli Oleari  2014-07-14 13:10
What about all the editing features in Aperture?
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-07-15 00:58
We just don't know yet. My guess is that Photos for OS X will not have Aperture's full range of features, but they may be added incrementally in subsequent versions. That would match Apple's pattern set by other apps such as iMovie and Final Cut Pro. But we'll have to wait and see.