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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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