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, and from our Lightroom site, Michael Clark, the author of this article.

In my opinion both of these guys have put forth an outstanding effort. In Micah's article, Aperture vs Lightroom - An O'Reilly "Inside Aperture" Field Test, he takes his Aperture experience and pits it against Lightroom during a real shoot. And here in Michael's article, he brings his Lightroom experience into play as he compares it to Aperture.

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.

A Week with Lightroom... and Aperture

After a long week of comparing Lightroom and Aperture, things are starting to heat up, including my MacBook Pro. Woohoo, I'm just waiting for it to ignite into flames after putting these two applications to the test. I've been working with each program and am ready to give my opinions on the topics I listed in my first Lightroom vs. Aperture post on February 19th.

I'd like to reiterate that these are my opinions; I don't claim to be an expert on either of these software applications. The program that works best for me is based on my present knowledgebase of these two programs, the type and quantity of images I produce, and my previous experience. Your experience may differ--all part of the fun. So, lean back in a comfy chair and relax. This could take a while.

Because I have an Apple MacBook Pro that's newer than my G5 tower, and because Aperture won't load onto my G5, I worked with both programs on my laptop so as to keep the comparison equal. My MacBook Pro has 2GB of RAM installed and has a Dual 2.3 GHz processor. And just for the record, I know Lightroom inside and out. I've used Aperture to work up a number of images in the past, so I know how to use it already to some degree, but I'm no expert. I shoot with Nikons and my main camera is a Nikon D2x.

Color Management

Aperture and Lightroom handle color in much the same way, and they're both dependent on a good monitor calibration device to assure consistent color. In Aperture, the color space for exported images is controlled in the Image Export Preset (Preset > Image Export) while in Lightroom, it's in the Export dialog box itself. No huge differences that I can see here.

Importing Images and Adding Metadata

In my experience, there isn't much difference between how you import images into Lightroom or Aperture. Lightroom has some unique and slightly more powerful options, such as being able to back up images as you import them. And the user interface is much nicer with Lightroom thanks to the metadata templates. Lightroom reminds me of Photo Mechanic. The ability to back up images as they're imported (if you're importing from a memory card) is just another nice touch to help speed up the workflow process.

I didn't notice a huge difference in how long it took each program to import images. Both programs set up a "hot" folder on the desktop to automatically import images, which is especially nice if you're shooting tethered.

File/Folder Structure

The folder structures for each program differ only slightly, so this is one of those cases where personal preference matters most. It's nice that you can create projects and smart folders in Aperture but I don't really need that for my workflow. With all of the other topics I'm covering here, I confess I didn't have a lot of time to work with the different projects and smart folder structure in Aperture.

Photo Editing: Ranking and Rating Images, Stacking and Versions

Editor's note: We distinguish between "photo editing," which is selecting the best shots from a day's work, and "image editing," which is altering the pixels on a picture, such as making an exposure adjustment. In this section, Michael compares the photo editing capabilities of both Aperture and Lightroom.

Photo editing is the raison d'etre for both Aperture and Lightroom. Both of these applications are far ahead of any other photo editing software currently available, and both speed up the selection process considerably. It seems that Aperture and Lightroom were created specifically to deal with the large number of images shot digitally these days. And both handle that task extremely well.

As much as I'd like to say that I prefer one program over the other, I think both are superior editing applications. With large dual monitors (see user interface section below) and a super fast desktop computer, Aperture becomes a very potent editing tool. Lightroom may seem simple compared to Aperture in this regard, but its simplicity is its greatest strength during the photo editing process.

With both applications, ranking and rating your pictures is simple. There's not much difference save for the fact that Lightroom allows you three different methods for ranking images--color, stars and flags--while Aperture uses only stars. This isn't terribly important, but it's nice to have the color ratings in Lightroom so I can color code which images are going to my various stock agencies or other clients and not disturb my star ratings.

Now let's get to Stacking in Aperture and Lightroom. Personally, I don't see the need to use stacks. My methods for editing use star ratings in stages, and I upgrade the star ratings in successive editing sessions to choose which images get processed. I find this to be a more logical editing process. It gives me time to really look at my images and decide which ones are the real gems from a photo shoot. Having said all that, there's no arguing that the Stacking feature is much better implemented in Aperture than in Lightroom. That's because of the visual separation of the images in Aperture. In Lightroom, it works almost the same way, but it's hard to tell where one stack ends and another begins.

The Versions feature works similarly in Lightroom and Aperture also. In fact, it works so well in both applications that I like them equally. I'm happy Lightroom has added this feature because it lets me make black and white versions of my favorite color images without altering the original color master.

And last, but certainly not least, both Aperture and Lightroom have really sophisticated Compare modes for pulling up images side by side and comparing them at 100 percent or at screen size. This is one of the best features in both programs and really allows you to analyze your images on a technical level. I only wish they'd let us compare more than two images. It would be great to be able to compare up to five images at 100 percent at the same time.

User Interface

How much you like or dislike the user interface of any program depends on a lot of factors like how well you know the program, the computer and monitor you use, and how you use the program. The combination of those factors and many others affect your opinion of a UI. I prefer to keep things as simple as possible. For me, Lightroom is much easier to deal with and I don't think anyone would argue that it's more intuitive to use than Aperture. I've never had to refer to the user manual as much as I did with Aperture this past week. I also watched the instructional videos on Apple's website. The Aperture user manual is almost 500 pages long! That alone should tell you something about its complexity. Remember, when Lightroom first became available as a public Beta, there was no user manual. We were left to figure it out on our own and it wasn't difficult. That says a lot to me about just how good the user interface is in Lightroom.

I don't want to sound like I'm bashing Aperture here. Given the right conditions as discussed above, this program really cranks. Having a large monitor is key for using Aperture and dual monitors is even better. A fast computer with a lot of RAM is also important for Aperture. I like the floating HUD displays and the full frame mode but I don't like the way the HUD covers up my images which, again, wouldn't be an issue with dual monitors.

The Loupe tool in Aperture is by far one of the coolest tools in any image management software anywhere. I love that I can loupe an image anywhere in the interface on the fly. Sadly, the zoom tool isn't quite as nice and scrolling around a zoomed-in image is a nightmare in Aperture. When I first started using Lightroom, I didn't like the zoom feature all that much and wished it had a loupe tool like Aperture. But now that I've worked with it a bit, I prefer it, especially for checking sharpness. I can zoom to 1:1 and scroll through all of the images super fast with the arrow keys.

Aperture also has the light table mode which is completely different than anything in Lightroom. It seems pretty nice but I don't exactly know when I'd need it.

Overall, the simplicity of Lightroom allows me to concentrate on the image more so than in Aperture. It shouldn't be about the interface--it should be about the images we're working on. And that pretty much sums up the user interface debate for me.

Developing Images and Image Quality

I realize that what I'm about to say is akin to sticking my head in the Lion's mouth. I just finished a head-to-head comparison of Aperture's adjustment HUD versus Lightroom's develop module, and I exported the images and compared them in Photoshop CS2. I also made my image adjustments individually in each program. This isn't so much a comparison of how the images look side by side, but how the process went and the final image "quality."

Figure 1
Figure 1

I started with Aperture and worked up one image from a recent stock shoot of some cowboys. After wrestling with the user interface for several minutes, I came to grips with the fact that I couldn't get the bottom image browser to go away so that I could have my image and the Adjustment panel side by side (see image above). Maybe there's a way to do it, maybe not. (I'm sure I'll hear about it soon in the comments.)

Apertures HUD controls seem to work very well once you get used to them. I struggled with not being able to use the option key with the exposure slider to judge when the highlights would blowout, but I soon found the familiar highlight warning that allowed me to see when I had recovered all the highlights. Please note that I decided to not apply sharpening to any of the images I processed for this comparison so that I would be comparing apples to apples in the image quality comparison.

As I wrote last week and above, I'm not blown away by Aperture's user interface. Even in full screen mode, the image was covered by the HUD (see image below), and its hard to see if there are parts of the image that are blown out with it covered up. Hence, my previous comments on Aperture being suited to dual monitors where you can have your image on one Monitor and the adjustment HUDs on the other. Anyway, back to the images.

Figure 2
Figure 2

The next step was to work up the same image in Lightroom. And refreshingly, I could concentrate on the image and not the interface (see image below). No hunting for drop-down menus or keyboard shortcuts to alter the user interface. In Lightroom, you just click the triangles and the panels go away.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Lightroom Version 1.0 now has these amazing new tools called Targeted Adjustment Tools that allow you to click the tool and take it into your image to make adjustments directly on the image. These Targeted Adjustment tools exist for the Tone Curve, HSL, and Grayscale palettes in the Develop Module. Check them out if you haven't already. They're really intuitive to use! Aperture has nothing like them.

I also find the layout of the develop tools much more logical in Lightroom than in Aperture. In Lightroom, it's logical to work your way down the sliders since they're laid out that way. In Aperture, I found myself skipping all over the place, starting with recovering highlights, then white balance, etc. Maybe that's because I don't know the program as well but I'm sure it's also from my old habits with ACR.

Below are the two images that I worked up in Aperture and Lightroom. The image from Aperture is on top.

Figure 4
Figure 4

Figure 5
Figure 5

They're pretty similar save for saturation and color balance differences. Actually, it's remarkable how similar they look since I didn't compare them during the processing stage.

When I opened those two images in Photoshop to do a little pixel peeping--sorry, I couldn't help it--I was surprised to see funny business going on in a few parts of the the Aperture image (see comparison below). There were some strange artifacts, some funky color blooming, and and overall crunchiness I haven't seen before in an image worked up in Aperture. Definitely not what I was expecting as all my previous tests with Aperture showed its RAW processing quality to be as good as anything else I've seen (save for Nikon Capture NX since I shoot Nikon).

Figure 6
Figure 6

[As a side note, I couldn't find a tool to deal with chromatic aberration in Aperture. It must exist somewhere because this image had a bit of color fringing going on and Aperture took it out automatically somehow.]

I decided to try another image, one that I knew was crazy sharp and would give Aperture a second chance. Perhaps I messed up in my RAW processing of the above image, though I processed it four or five times to see if I could eliminate the crunchiness. Round two would hopefully vindicate Aperture's RAW processing quality. (Please note that I'm using the latest version of Aperture with the RAW Fine Tuning HUD Version 1.1.)

For this second comparison, I chose a portrait from a recent stock assignment, which was shot in a studio with strobes. I followed the same strategy as before and turned off all sharpening in both programs. The exposure in camera was pretty much dead on. I also set a custom white balance in camera with a grey card so there wasn't a whole lot to adjust in the RAW processing stage, just a little contrast and saturation.

Below are the two images with the Aperture image on top and Lightroom image below.

Figure 7
Figure 7

Figure 8
Figure 8

To my eyes, the color's very similar but perhaps there's a little more saturation in the Lightroom image. Doing this test is also a great reminder that not every RAW processor produces the same colors--each processor creates a different look just like individual films. I can't say that I prefer one look over the other at this point. The redness of the subject's skin isn't pilot error. Atom is a professional kayaker who just returned from two weeks of kayaking in sunny southern Mexico right before the photo shoot.

Now, when I zoomed into each image side by side at 100 percent in Photoshop, I found that they're pretty much identical in sharpness, noise, and shadow detail. Even the color rendition is very close, as you can see in the image below.

Figure 9
Figure 9

For the first test with the cowboy image, I tried reprocessing the image in Aperture in every way I could to eliminate the artifacts and the crunchiness but it never got any better than the sample presented here. I don't know what finally happened with the cowboy image produced by Aperture in the first test but with the second test, the high quality of Aperture's RAW processing was just as good as that produced with Lightroom. And in my other comparisons, I've found no fault with the latest version of Aperture (1.5.2) and its RAW conversions.

I want to reassure you that I didn't try to set up Aperture to produce poor results in the first test. I have nothing against Aperture so I have no agenda here. And as I said in the beginning of this comparison, I'm not trying to bash either application. Both Lightroom and Aperture were using the same file referenced on my hard drive so the file is not corrupted or anything like that--just in case you're wondering.

Still, seeing this one hiccup from Aperture throws up a red flag as to the ultimate image quality it can deliver on a consistent basis. I remember early on Aperture had some RAW processing issues, but I thought those were all in the past. I wouldn't take my results as gospel, but I've worked with a lot of RAW processing software applications (ACR, Nikon Capture, Capture One, etc.), and have never seen anything like the results in the first tests. Hence, I don't know what to conclude. I do know that if I was using Aperture, I'd be on the lookout for poor image conversions.

If you know how or why this might have happened, please post a comment at the end of the article.

Grayscale Conversions

Converting color digital images to Black and White is a huge topic. In fact, my business partner is writing a 285 page book on that very subject in cooperation with Adobe right now. While I'm sure you can get similar results in Aperture, the before and after mode of Lightroom is the hands-down best color to grayscale method I've ever seen or used.

I normally create a Virtual Copy in Lightroom, then switch to the Before and After mode as in the image below. This allows me to see the colors I'm adjusting in the black and white counterpart.

Figure 10
Figure 10

Lightroom has really got me excited about doing black and white photography again and I find myself converting a lot of images to black and white. If you like black and white photography, then you'll love Lightroom!

Exporting Images

Both Aperture and Lightroom have easy to use Export dialog boxes. I found it strange, though, that in Aperture I had to set the color space, resolution, and file export type in the Image Export Presets. It's not a big deal but it'd odd that you have to go somewhere else to deal with that. I suppose once you have all your presets in place, you just choose the one you want to use in the export dialog box and this becomes a non-issue. In Lightroom, all of the settings are set in the Export dialog box and just as in Aperture, you can create Presets that let you choose your export settings with one click.

One of the other issues I've found is that Aperture can't function while exporting images; whereas in Lightroom, you can export a batch of images and continue working while the export process keeps churning away in the background. This may not seem like a big thing, but if you process a lot of images, it can become a major issue fast.

Spotting Images

In both applications, spotting images is eerily similar. The controls in Lightroom are fairly advanced and intuitive for both the Heal and Clone tools. They just take a little getting used to. Aperture's almost the same. There's no clear winner here. For extensive spotting and image repair, the best place to go is Photoshop. I think this is a great feature though in both applications because it lets you stay in the application for minor repairs like the occasional dust spot.

Sharpening

I applaud Aperture for having multiple sharpening methods built in. I really appreciated the Edge Sharpening tool and found it very easy to use. Lightroom doesn't have as many sharpening features, but it's a known quantity, and I do my standard capture sharpen (20-25) in the Develop module and deal with the rest of the image sharpening in Photoshop.

I've spent the last eight or nine years getting a feel for how Photoshop sharpens images and I know the general numbers for how much to sharpen given an image's size and resolution. Plus, I have my custom sharpening actions set up in Photoshop which essentially create Edge Sharpening. With Aperture, all of my knowledge is out the window so I'd have to take the time to figure out the art of sharpening in Aperture from scratch.

Creating Web Galleries

Web Galleries are another area where both of these applications excel. My only gripe with Lightroom is that there's no sharpening applied to the images as a web gallery is created. For that reason alone, I still use Photoshop to create web galleries. I'm sure Adobe will update the web module to take care of this issue shortly and that will solve the problem. Otherwise, I love the way you can create custom web galleries and upload them directly from within the software.

Aperture seems to have some really nice web galleries as well. I like the understated look of the web gallery options in Aperture and it appears that Aperture applies some amount of sharpening to the gallery images, which is very nice. It doesn't seem to have the variety that Lightroom has in terms of the preset web galleries but I like just about all of the Aperture web templates for their simplicity and clean design. Sadly, I couldn't find a method for uploading web galleries to my web site. Aperture allows you to upload to a .Mac account but I don't have one and I'd prefer to upload to my own web site. To do that, I'd have to export the web pages and upload via my FTP software. It's a small thing, but Lightroom saves a little time by having the FTP upload work with any web site.

Printing

In my opinion, the Print module in Lightroom is the weakest of the modules because it lacks a method for soft proofing. And while there are some sharpening presets, it also lacks the fine sharpening control that's found in Photoshop. So it's no surprise that I find printing with Aperture a lot more powerful since it has soft proofing and more advanced sharpening control.

I confess I didn't have enough time in this assignment to really explore how Aperture deals with printing. I'll try to take a look at this and compare it to Lightroom in a future blog post. My suspicion is that really high-end fine art prints will need to be printed from Photoshop. At least that's where I do the majority of my high-end printing because of the control inherent in Photoshop.

SPEED!

Lastly, how do these two stack up in terms of speed? Right off the bat I'll say this depends on your computer. I noticed I had to wait around more with Aperture (the spinning ball of death) but had little waiting when using Lightroom.

On my MacBook Pro, Lightroom and Aperture took about the same amount of time importing images. In the image editing process, I found Aperture to be much slower than Lightroom. I was constantly waiting for Aperture to load images into the Loupe tool while Lightroom cranked away with 1:1 previews. And as I said above, I had the annoying spinning ball of death with Aperture way more often than I would have expected. With Lightroom, I had no delay in the editing process or in the develop module. While exporting, I found that Lightroom took anywhere from one third to one half the time that it took Aperture to export the same images. In terms of building web galleries and exporting them, Aperture was a bit faster than Lightroom.

Overall, Lightroom was much faster, but if I had a super fast MacPro and 5 or 6GB of RAM, I bet that would speed up Aperture. Of course, Lightroom would feel like it was on crack cocaine if I was using that same computer.

Final Thoughts

Before you go ballistic, realize these are my opinions. I've spent a week comparing two very complex software applications. I feel at this point I have a pretty good feel for them both--at least enough to draw a solid conclusion for myself and my work.

A big part of why I chose Lightroom in the first place, and why I will continue to use it for my workflow, is because I came from using Adobe Camera Raw, so I'm comfortable with the sliders. I prefer Lightroom's simplicity of design and its user interface. I also have my images organized methodically by geographic location so at this point, I don't need much help from software to keep track of my images. I'm sure that will change as my hard drives continue to fill up, but I'm confident that Version 2.0 of Lightroom will have some sort of archiving and cataloging solution when it comes out a year or two from now.

Another big reason I choose Lightroom over Aperture is the issue of speed. It works faster and it works on all of my computers. The fact that I already know the software to some degree having come from ACR means I don't have to learn a whole new way of dealing with my raw images. As a professional photographer, this point cannot be underestimated. I simply don't have time to spend two whole weeks learning Aperture inside and out when I can learn pretty much everything about Lightroom in a day or two.

I have clients to deal with, assignments to shoot, process and get out the door, and most importantly invoices to keep track of. Digital photography has cut into my time behind the camera because I'm now at my computer dealing with images. This may sound like a rant, but I'd much rather be out there shooting images than learning about new software. And that amigos, is the real reason I choose Lightroom over Aperture or anything else for that matter. It allows me to concentrate on photography again!

I hope this comparison has helped you decide for yourself which of these programs will work best for you and your work. I think the real test is to download both trial versions and try them out.

If you'd like to see how I use Lightroom and my entire digital workflow, you can purchase my workflow on my website at:

www.michaelclarkphoto.com/workflow.html.

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

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


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