Editor's note: Once Lightroom 1.0 was released, many people suggested that an Aperture vs Lightroom comparison would be valuable. On one hand, I liked the idea because comparisons, when handled properly, are useful. But I wanted something that would be helpful for both our Aperture and Lightroom communities.

It dawned on me that we could run parallel comparisons by two different writers on each of our sites. From the Aperture blog, I asked Micah Walter (the author of this article), and from our Lightroom site, Michael Clark.

In my opinion both of these guys have put forth an outstanding effort. In Michael's article, Lightroom vs Aperture - The Results, he takes his Lightroom experience and pits it against Aperture during a real shoot. In this article, Micah brings his Aperture experience into play as he compares it to Lightroom on location.

To get the full benefit of what these guys have done, I encourage you to read both articles. It's an investment of time, I know, but the reward will be a greater understanding of these two innovative photo management applications.

Aperture Vs. Lightroom - A Tool For Every Job

Before I jump into this article, I'd like to take you back to a scene and a quote from a favorite movie of mine. The movie is Roxanne, starring Steve Martin. Here's the scene:

Steve Martin's character Charlie, who's based on Cyrano de Bergerac, is faced with the task of impressing Roxanne by figuring out how to break into her apartment. He walks up to the door with his red toolbox, and pulls out its only contents, a credit card. "Well, every job has a perfect tool. Let's see... Uh, this lock doesn't accept Master Card." After trying the credit card, Charlie performs some pretty acrobatic maneuvers to climb into an upstairs window, and he's in. Job done.

I often think about Charlie's mantra that there's a perfect tool for every job. In that scene, he needs to try other means to achieve his goal, even though he thought he had the perfect tool going in.

Digital photography started out with a step-by-step way of thinking. Just like the way we used to work in the darkroom, there are steps to be followed, and a proper way to make order out of chaos. As usual, we coined a buzzword for it--Workflow.

When I first found out about Apple's Aperture, I found myself thinking, "they can't do that, there's no way that's going to work." Over a year later, I've changed my tune. Now, I find myself wondering if I've found the perfect tool for my job as a photographer. Aperture isn't perfect, but we're definitely heading in the right direction--further and further away from a workflow.

Along came Lightroom

Shortly after Aperture was unveiled, Adobe released a public beta program as their answer to Aperture. Lightroom was hailed as a much more compact, faster and easier to understand alternative to Aperture. During the year in beta, Lightroom made some major upgrades and is now evolving into a clear competitor. Again, digital photography is headed in the right direction.

It really amazes me where technology can take us. It's no longer about making my life easier and reducing the number of steps I have to take to achieve a goal; it's about deleting those steps altogether so I can get back to creating my art.

What a Difference a Week Makes

I started the week out with a pretty basic idea. I wanted to jump into using Lightroom without any prior knowledge to see if I could make it work. At first, I really loved the program and was in heaven hanging out with the new kid on the block. I'd spent a little time playing with the software during the beta period, but the newly released version was far more complete and had a certain freshness that I couldn't deny.

Needless to say, my initial impressions were positive. I had some difficulty getting used to the Library module, but quickly figured out how it worked, and was able to move on. The Develop module blew me away and is still calling out to me as a really powerful RAW converter option.

I should mention here that I've never been a big fan of Adobe's Camera RAW plugin for Photoshop. I couldn't get used to how it made its conversions. Before I used Aperture, I dealt mostly with RAW images using either Nikon Capture, Canon Digital Photo Pro, or Phase One's Capture One software. I just thought you should know that.

I spent a good deal of time working with the Develop module. I'd heard really good things about Lightroom's RAW conversion, and users' claims that it produced a much more film-like look. I tried running a few comparisons, but in the end my results were inconclusive. Though I really loved Lightroom's Develop module, I felt I could reproduce the same effect in Aperture, if I wanted to.

Over the course of the week, I played with all of Lightroom's modules. I developed images, I converted images to black and white, I tried making web galleries, and I even explored the Print module. All in all, I'm sure I only scratched the surface of what Lightroom can really do, but I feel like I got a pretty good crash course, and I certainly learned a great deal from all of you!

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Figure 1. Lightroom with the UI dimmed

Editor's note: As part of this project, Micah published a series of blog posts discussing his findings. Readers could comment on the post, and some lengthy conversations ensued. I've listed the links to all of those posts at the end of this article.

Are You User Experienced?

One of the major topics I kept coming back to while trying out Lightroom was what many call the user experience. To me, a program like Lightroom, or Aperture, or even Photoshop for that matter, should focus on the user. After all, we're creative artists, and when it comes to realizing our artistic visions, environment is everything. I'll give you an example.

As I sit here writing this article, I have my perfect writing environment set up. I try to create a similar environment whenever I write because it gets me in the mood and helps me to see the forest through the trees. Before I begin writing, I usually clear off my desk. I'm a horribly disorganized person, so my desk gets pretty cluttered, and clearing it off helps me clear my mind. Once my desk is nice and clean again, I turn on some music, and light a candle. If it's late at night, which it usually is, I turn on a dim desk lamp, and then I can get to work. Once I have my ideal working environment set up, my creative juices start flowing. It works every time.

With Aperture and Lightroom, it should be no different. These types of programs dominate my digital darkroom. They have such a heavy influence on where I take my imagery. It's just like being in a darkroom, where certain environmental variables must be just so in order for your prints to come out the way you envisioned them.

Dispense with the Workflow

What attracted me to Aperture in the first place was its non-linear way of doing things. I'd gotten so fed up with all this workflow stuff, that when the ultimate in workflow software came to market, I could barely bring myself to say the word. From here on in, lets refer to it at the W-word.

Maybe it's because of my personality type, but I really hate doing things step-by-step. I don't like to keep lists, and when I get tired of working on something, I like to switch gears and work on something else. When Aperture came out, I could finally dispense with the W-word.

Aperture allows me to work the way I like to work. I don't have to worry if I miss a step, or forget to file something. I can always go back and do it later. I can start working on a web gallery or even page up a book. If I get bored or tired of the work, I don't even have to save it, I just move on to something else.

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Figure 2. Aperture's Full Screen Workspace

Often, when I'm working on an image in full screen mode, I realize I'm not happy with how it looks. For whatever reason, I think I've gone down the wrong path with the image. In Aperture, I can easily hit Option-G and I have a new blank slate to play with from the original Master image. My previous work is still intact, and when I get over my doubts about how the old one looked, I can quickly go right back to it if I change my mind. In the middle of all of this, I can make my new version the top pick in a stack and see it show up as the current version in the web album I was working on before. Everything just flows, and I can get back to being creative again.

With Lightroom, I don't see this as much. I'll be the first to admit, though, Lightroom's a fine piece of software, and I'm sure it will only get better. It seems to have all the pieces, and a great "keep it simple stupid" attitude, about managing digital assets, but it really fails for me by bringing back the W-word with its system of modules.

Allow me to quote my most recent comment as of this writing.

"I found Lightroom to be too rigid in its modular thinking; almost remedial in its hand-holding approach of "first you go here, do this, then go there and do that," and on down the line."

I think he nailed it. The module approach resonates back to the days of writing Photoshop Actions to speed up your personal W-word. Not being able to work on the fly, and having to think about where I am in a piece of software clutters my creative vision and I'm back to looking at the trees.

In my posts over the past week, I gave a variety of examples of the little details that I found annoying with Lightroom. To be fair, I should say that for just about everything I mentioned that I couldn't figure out in Lightroom, a commenter pointed out exactly how it could be done. This interaction with the readers is what made the whole experience so much fun. I hope we can keep it going, regardless of which program you decide to go with.

Even though I eventually figured out how to do the things I needed to do in Lightroom, I couldn't help but keep coming back to one major gripe. Why do I need to be in a certain module to do a certain task in the first place? After playing with Lightroom for a week, I found myself constantly having to think and rethink how and where to do things, because with the module system, you can only do things in one place.

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

We're all pretty much aware of Aperture's extended functionality when it comes to dual screen mode. It's an amazing feature of Aperture, and I wish I had a gigantic display to utilize it, but I don't. I have a 15" laptop. However, I really love using Aperture in full screen mode. I just press the F key and I'm instantly transferred to an environment where all I see is the image on a black surround. I can hit H to bring up my Adjustments HUD and I can scroll through images using the filmstrip and select multiple images for comparison. Everything I need is right there for me, and can easily be hidden so that I can see my work. Full screen mode works great for me.

When I first started playing with Lightroom, I missed being able to hit F and get into a full screen environment with a single keystroke. I learned through some of your comments that you can, in fact, hit the F key to toggle through a couple of modes, and one that Adobe refers to as Full Screen Mode, but Adobe's idea of a Full Screen environment is much different than Apple's.

In Lightroom, when you enter Full Screen Mode, all the program does is maximize the workspace by removing the top menu bar and hiding your Dock. The surround is still gray, and any panels you had open are still open. I know there are keyboard shortcuts for hiding the panels, but even if you remember all of them, once hidden you still see this black border, and the gray surround. I find these elements very distracting.

You can customize the surround if you wish, but that's an extra step. You can memorize the keyboard shortcuts, but that's more to think about. When I want a true Full Screen mode, I want just that:my image alone, stretched to fill the entire screen on a black surround. Aperture has simply done a much better job here. Not only can I get into full screen mode by hitting F, I can do it from anywhere, at any time. Once in full screen mode, I have all of the tools I had in Normal mode, all of them.

When editing images, your surround plays a key role in how you perceive your work as you make adjustments. The room lighting, the size of your workspace and your image's surround are crucial (not to mention a color-managed monitor). I'd really like to see better full screen support in Lightroom.

Portability Is Key

If you've been reading Inside Aperture for a while now, you'll probably have noticed I'm a traveling photographer. I do all of my work from a laptop, and I store all of my images on external hard drives, DVDs and whatever else I can get my hands on. Just check out my article, Photo Workflow on the Road - A Hitchhiker's Guide to Aperture, for more information on how I do what I do. One of the coolest features I've found in using Aperture is its Project packages. With Aperture's Project packages, I can move my images, metadata, books, web galleries and, well, EVERYTHING, from one Aperture database to the next. If I shoot pictures for my girlfriend's web site, and she wants to work on them on her laptop, I just export the project and copy it to her machine. She imports the project into her library and she's off and running. Any editing I'd done up to that point is preserved and nicely packaged into a single file. I also wrote about how some traveling friends of mine used Aperture's Project packages to organize, archive, and backup all their travel pictures, which you can read here.

In Lightroom, there's really no parallel to this essential functionality. Your work (and I'm not talking about your Master image files here) is basically bound to one computer, and one database. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that this won't be a problem for long.

One of Lightroom's strong points when the beta was originally released was that it used a referenced library system. This meant that you could store your images anywhere you liked, as opposed to Aperture 1.0, which required you to store your managed images within the Aperture Library. Well, as we all know by now, Apple fixed this in version 1.5, and that's made the application very useful. So now both Aperture and Lightroom give you the option of working with referenced files or in a managed library. There's something very calming about having all your imported images stored safely inside the library package.

Note: In my daily work, I import images as managed files, and back them up to a variety of locations using the Vault, and my own backup software. Later, I move the images to an external hard drive and set them as Referenced Masters. I wish I could do this in Lightroom.

A Need For Speed

At the beginning of the week, I started off with empty libraries for both Aperture and Lightroom. I also disclosed the hardware I'd be using as being my 15" MacBook Pro with 2GB RAM, a 2.0 GHz Dual Core processor, and a 100Gig 7200rpm drive. The machine also has the upgraded video card, just in case you were wondering.

One of the biggest concerns in the Aperture community has been performance. Well, I have to admit here, I really wish Aperture would work as fast as Lightroom. But, I should follow this statement up with a few explanations. First of all, Aperture, on my machine, runs nicely, especially when I'm working with a minimal library. In fact, with a mostly empty library on the local drive, I really have little to complain about performance-wise. However, when it comes to loading my Master Library, which sits on a 500GB LaCie, USB drive, things begin to slow down. Aperture takes its sweet time initializing, and shutting down. I usually end up walking away from the computer to do something else.

Lightroom, on the other hand, seems to zip along well. I've yet to try importing a giant number of images into Lightroom (like say 80,000), but I have a feeling that while it may slow a little, in the long run, it'll still run faster than Aperture. And here's why:

Lightroom seems to do just about everything in the background. It even tells you so by displaying a progress bar in the top left corner of the workspace. Aside from doing really well with background tasks that are internal to the application (like thumbnail processing, and development image processing), Lightroom really shines by taking care of just about every export task in the background. Export a web page and it runs in the background. Export a set of images to the desktop, and again, it runs in the background. Although there aren't any export plugins available for Lightroom as of yet, I imagine when they finally start showing up, they'll work in the background.

I really, really, REALLY, wish Apple would take the hint and send more of these tasks to the background. In fact, I'd probably use the Vault for my Master Library if I didn't have to wait all day for it to complete its task.

As for overall speed, these things are hard to gauge. With minimal libraries, they both seem to work pretty well. One interesting behavior I noticed recently is that when I load up my Aperture Master Library (the big one I have on the LaCie) with my girlfriend's MacBook (2.0 GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB drive), Aperture actually seems to run faster. In fact, I just tried this for the first time last night, and I was amazed. I have no idea what's going on here, or why it would be faster on a machine with an inferior video card, but it seemed to be significantly faster and actually a pleasure to use. I may have to talk her into a trade if this type of behavior continues!

Just Tell Me Which One To Buy, Micah!!!

First of all, I'm not going to tell you which application to go out and buy. Obviously if you're using a PC, the choice is already made (well there's always Picasa). But, if you're still unsure which application you want, take these last few pieces of advice and do with them what you will.

I'm sure you've realized which application I'm championing. I really like Aperture, on a number of different levels. I think it's a well-rounded program that's much further along in its development than Lightroom is at the moment. Aperture gives me an environment I can really enjoy working in, and one that makes perfect sense to the non-linear way my brain likes to work. The machines I use seem to work well with Aperture, and I think sometime in the near future we're likely to see a serious speed upgrade.

I also think Lightroom users have a lot to look forward to. The application is indeed feature rich, and if it seems to fit the way YOUR brain works, then by all means, go out and get it. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Let's all remember that both of these programs are essentially babies. In fact, all of digital photography is still basically in its infancy. The next five years or so are sure to be filled with all sorts of advances and new-fangled ideas. Programs like Aperture and Lightroom--applications that are leading the way in digital imaging software--will hopefully continue to ride the tech wave, and get better and better. We're very lucky photographers these days. We have some of the most amazing tools we could have ever imagined, and we continue to ask for more. If we stick to our guns, the possibilities are endless.

Aperture vs Lightroom Blog Posts by Micah Walter

Special Event: Aperture Vs. Lightroom

Aperture Vs. Lightroom: Let the Games Begin

Aperture Vs. Lightroom: Day 1 - Lightroom's Library Module

Aperture Vs. Lightroom: Day 2 - The Rainbow Filter?

Aperture Vs. Lightroom: Day 3 - The Develop Module

Aperture Vs. Lightroom: Day 4 - The World in Black and White

Aperture Vs. Lightroom: Day 5 - Ready for the Web

Lightroom Vs. Aperture: Day 6 - Exporting Images

Aperture Vs. Lightroom: Day 7 - River Rotations

Lightroom vs Aperture Blog Posts by Michael Clark

A comparison: Adobe Lightroom vs. Apple Aperture

Lightroom vs. Aperture: Versions and Stacking

Lightroom vs. Aperture: Loupe Views Compared

Lightroom vs. Aperture: Synching Adjustments


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