Editor's note -- In this article, pro shooter Dominique James shows us his techniques for working faster and smarter with Aperture. He shares some of the most practical tools that he uses when dealing with thousands of shots from his studio sessions or location photo shoots.

Dominique has also compiled a list of his favorite keystrokes for controlling the interface. I've included them at the end of the article, but you can also click directly there. I recommend listening to podcast 11 on UI customization with Joe Schorr.

Photos in this article by Dominique James.

Customize the User Interface

Many people who are not familiar with Aperture have the notion that its interface is rigid and unyielding. Well, that's just not true. The Aperture UI is very flexible. You can actually configure preset workspace layouts, then reconfigure the look on the fly.

A great place to start is with the toolbar located at the top of the interface. The toolbar ships with clickable buttons that the average person would use most often. But as you'll find out when you use Aperture, the buttons up there are not necessarily the things that you want as you're working. What to do? Change it.

Press CTRL and click or right-click in the empty gray area of the toolbar and you'll see a drop-down menu. Select the Customize Toolbar. There, you'll see in full glory the major things you want Aperture to do for you, and it's readily accessible from the toolbar. Just drag and drop the icons into the toolbar. You can arrange and rearrange them to your heart's delight. You can also decide whether to show the icons as Icon and Text, Icon Only, or Text Only. And, you can also remove any item you dragged into the toolbar just as quickly. If it gets to be a little messy and out of control, you can always return to the original standard configuration by dragging the default toolset back in place, and then start all over again.

You can modify the toolbar to suit your needs.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Let's get a couple of things out of the way when it comes to keyboard shortcuts. First, you'll be pleasantly surprised, if you haven't already discovered, that a number of keyboard shortcuts you're already using with your Mac's operating system serve the same or similar functions in Aperture. That means you don't need to relearn everything. For example, pressing Apple-A or Command-A selects all the items from a Browser window. This is particularly useful when you want to select all images and apply the same command to each, instead of selecting one image at a time and laboriously going through the whole set. It's also great for performing certain batch processing.

The other thing to know about shortcuts is where to find the complete list of them. It's easy. On your Menu Bar, go to Help, and then go to Quick Reference. A PDF file pops up, and there you see all the keyboard shortcuts in Aperture. While you're at the Help menu (if you have time), click on the Aperture User Manual and read it. You can easily access the Aperture User Manual by clicking Apple-? or Command-?.

Most people memorize keyboard shortcuts on a need-to-know basis. That's probably best because learning them in context helps you remember them better. If you try to memorize them all at once, you may find it frustrating.

What are the most essential keyboard shortcuts? From my experience in using Aperture, here are a few must-remember keyboard shortcuts.

When you open Aperture, particularly for the first time, it opens to what's known as the Basic layout. The Basic layout shows you three things right away: Project panel (on the left side), the Viewer pane, and the Browser pane.

The Project panel is where you organize your photos, particularly when you import them. The Viewer pane is where you see a large version of any selected or highlighted image or images. The Browser pane is where you see the thumbnails of your images.

When working on your projects or photos, you'll want to know how to change the interface quickly, particularly when you're using a small monitor with your desktop computer or the small screen of your MacBook or MacBook Pro. But even if you're using a bigger screen, you'll want to get portions of Aperture's interface out of the way, or bring them up only as needed.

Pressing the W key makes the Project pane disappear. Press W again, and the Project pane comes back into view. This shortcut is particularly useful when you don't need to see the Project pane, and your screen is best used for solely the Viewer pane with a large photo or photos that you selected.

The Basic layout doesn't show you the information about the highlighted or selected photo that's shown in the Viewer pane. If you need information about the image, simply press the I key and almost instantaneously, the Inspector panel shows up on the right side. The Inspector Panel contains the Adjustments Inspector and the Metadata Inspector. With the Adjustments Inspector, you can begin to work on your selected image by adjusting Exposure, Levels, Highlights and Shadows, White Balance, and Color. These adjustment tools are quickly available to you but if you want to know more about the images, look instead at the Metadata Inspector. Here you have the option to view Keywords, the camera's EXIF data, IPTC data, etc.

With both the W and I, you can view or hide from view both left (Project) and right (Inspectors) panes. The ability to toggle between view and hide from view lets me focus on the things I want to see while working on the images. It also lets me maximize the use of my monitor's screen.

Aperture comes with preset and adaptable workspace layouts. Take a look at what some of these presets are and decide for yourself which ones you'd like to use.

Pressing Command-Option-S displays (or returns you) to the Basic layout. This is the layout you see when you open Aperture; the one that shows the Project panel, the Viewer pane and the Browser pane.

Pressing Command-Option-B removes the Viewer pane and shows you only the Project panel and the Browser pane. This maximizes your view of the Browser.

Pressing Command-Option-V removes the Project panel from view and shows you only the Viewer and Browser panes. This maximizes your Viewer pane.

Unclutter your workspace so you can focus solely on your images.

There are several other nifty keyboard shortcuts such as V to hide or show the Viewer, D to hide or show the Control Bar, T to hide or show the Metadata pop-up semi-transparent window, and Shift-T to hide or show the toolbar. Use them if the need arises but you'll probably find the basic Interface shortcuts described above are what you'll use most often. That's been the case for me.

Rating, Stacking, and Comparing

Depending on your task--like Rating, Stacking, Comparing, Organizing, and Sorting--you can choose to work on these tasks with the right, correct or appropriate view of Aperture's very flexible interface.

Once I import the photos into a Project, there are a couple of things I want to do right away with the photographs. I stack them, and then I rate them.

Let's talk about Stacking. When you're about to import photos into a project, you're presented with several options right away. You can choose to use the options right then, before importing the images, or you can deal with the options later on, after the import. After I import images into a project, I organize the photos into Stacks.

I like organizing my images into Stacks. The way I stack my images often depends on the timing of the shot, but it may also depend on how the images look--the way the image was framed, composed, or oriented. That gives me a better view of how I did the shots. While the Auto-Stack feature is certainly useful, and while Auto-Stack can be combined with manual stacking, I tend to manually stack the images. Even if the images in a project total more than a couple thousand (which is the case in my shooting sessions), I discovered it's still easy and fast to Stack them manually. That's because it's not just Stacking that I'm doing. I'm actually reviewing all the shots I've just taken. For me, this is a good way to start assessing and gauging the success of my photo shoot.

Likewise, stacking the photos gives me a measure of control on all the images in a shoot. To stack the photos, I select the ones I want to stack in the Browser, and press Apple-K. Prior to Aperture, I had no way to immediately, and generally, assess how I'd done in a photo shoot through the Stacking feature. Aperture allowed me to do this assessment via Stacking, and whatever insight I gain from the self-evaluation and self-assessment, I use to improve and do better in my next shoot. In other words, Aperture is helping me become a better photographer.

There are a few other Stacking techniques, in combination with the keyboard shortcut on Stacking described above, that I employ. Most of these techniques are accessible from the Menu Bar.

Once I'm done Stacking, I go to the next step in my workflow, which is the Rating process.

I must admit, one of the things I hate doing is looking for and selecting the best shot from the thousands I've taken. I find it to be the most tedious part of my job. That is, before Aperture. Now, for some strange reason, the technology of Apple's Aperture has made this necessary step painless for me, and I actually look forward to doing it.

Because I can look at and scrutinize my shots, I'm able to maximize the output of my work. I can now select images to be repurposed or reworked and used as output for other possible projects, which increases my earning potential. In other words, Aperture helps me make more money.

In Aperture, rating the images is easy, and it can be fun passing judgement on one's own shots. Pressing number 1 on they keyboard signifies the least desirable image, and pressing 5 marks it as the most desirable image. You can rate the image from 1 to 5. You can also press 9 to reject an image, or press 0 to remove any rating.

What I do is rate only the 4s and 5s and the occasional 3s and leave the others unrated. In other words, I concentrate on the potential images and ignore the low-rating images. And yes, at any time, you can change your mind and change the ratings as well. With this method, I can do the rating faster, and I'm more attuned to looking for the best images. The fastest I've been through rating a shoot of a thousand shots is less than 30 minutes. Of course, there are shoots that are far more difficult and more complicated to rate and it takes a while to get the job done. I found out that the best time to rate is almost immediately after the shoot. With the pictorial experience still fresh in your mind, you'll rate the photos faster and better. If you let the photos sit out for a day or two before rating them, you may find the process more difficult as you need to get back in the swing of things.

To do this, I first enter full-screen mode using the keyboard shortcut F (for full screen). Easy enough to remember. To get out of full-screen mode, just press F again. The F key toggles between going in and out of the full-screen mode. This, for me, is essential, and I tend to go in and out during the rating process.

Before you start rating, you may want to configure your film strip. Click and drag on an empty gray space within the film strip, and you can reposition the film strip's location to the left, right or bottom part of the screen. You can also expand or contract the length of the film strip by clicking and dragging the dot handle on either side of the strip. And then you can make the film strip appear and disappear from the screen by clicking Auto from the Viewer Mode button, and dragging the cursor to the edge and away from the edge to see it or to make it drop from the screen. You may also want to check the Avoid button from the Viewer Mode drop-down menu. If this is enabled, your photos in full-screen view will automatically resize to avoid the film strip. Very neat!

While on the subject of the film strip, there are three keyboard shortcuts you can use to navigate through your images. These keys are J, K and L. J makes the film strip scroll slowly to the left. Press J again, and it moves faster. Pressing K stops it. Pressing L scrolls the images to the right, and pressing it again, makes the scrolling move faster. Very neat! (If you use Final Cut Pro, the J, K and L commands are also accessible.)

I go through each and every image by pressing the Left and Right arrow keys, and rating them accordingly. If I need to zoom and view the image, I just press the Z key. The Z key toggles the view from full image to Zoom.

Refining the selects is next in my workflow.

I now want to see all my 5s, 4s and 3s so I can refine my selection and further trim it. This is when I bunch up my selects into Smart Albums. I right-click or control-click the Project name, and out comes a drop-down menu where I choose New Smart, and then Album. Once done, a new smart album is created under the project, and HUD appears where you can select the parameters.

For my purposes, I chose Rating, and slide the button to 5, so that all images with a rating of 5 or higher automatically populate this Smart Album. I also click the box that says "Ignore stack groupings" so that even if the images are within the stacks, it will be shown in the smart album. You can then rename the Smart Album. Repeat the above process to create smart albums for all those that you've rated 4s and 3s. From within the Smart Albums, you can now further refine your selections and final choices, changing the ratings as you wish.

Another tool that's useful in this stage of selection is the Loop. You can call up the loop easily and quickly by pressing the apostrophe key. Or, it's the key under the Esc key. Pressing this key toggles the loop in and out of view. Of course, you can use the Loop Tool at any stage of work you're in, whether you're in full-screen mode or not.

Once the selections and ratings have been refined, I create another album by pressing Right-Click or Control-Click on the Project name, and from the drop-down menu, selecting New, Album. After renaming this album with something appropriate such as "Top Picks" I go back to the Smart Album, and manually drag only the best of the best images into this New Album.

With my best selections in a single album, I can create a Web Gallery and present this to my client online. I can also begin to enhance the images and work on the images in earnest, confident in the fact that I'm spending time only on the best or the most appropriate images for use. With this workflow, gone is the nagging feeling that there might be a better image I've missed and should be working on instead. I am confident that my selections will stand, and that I don't have to waste time repeating the long hours of image enhancements and editing if in case I saw something better and want to work on it instead. Aperture saves me time and effort.

Image Adjustments

With a manageable number of images that I judged to be the best, probably about less than a dozen per shoot, I can now confidently and lavishly spend time on making the photos look better by enhancing them within Aperture and invest time by working on them with my choice of an external photo editor, Adobe Photoshop CS3.

Before I bring the image out into Adobe Photoshop CS3, I already subject the photo to a series of enhancements. I do what I can do within Aperture. I only call up and load the image into Adobe Photoshop CS3 if I need to do editing that can't be done within Aperture.

When enhancing an image, I always work in full screen mode (by pressing the F key). And from there, I call up the Adjustments Inspector through the HUD (heads-up display) by simply pressing the H key. From the Adjustments HUD, I can now do many of the most common steps that used to be time-consuming and were formerly a hit-and-miss process.

Image adjustments are easier in full-screen mode with the HUD displayed.

Aperture's Adjustment HUD offers a very refined way of working on the image in terms of Exposure, Levels, Highlights & Shadows, White Balance, Color, Red Eye Correction, Spot & Patch, Straighten, Crop, Monochrome Mixer, Color Monochrome, , Sepia Tone, Noise Reduction, Sharpen, Edge Sharpen, among others. These tools are incredibly sophisticated. And with each correction I make or new version I produce, I'm not bloating Aperture with a copy of the big files. The way Aperture works is that these are merely sending instructions to the original image. You can therefore create as many versions as necessary without having to worry about filling up the hard disk.

In each version that I create, one of the simplest methods that allows me to compare my adjustments I made to a version over the original image is to just press the M key. Pressing the M key shows me the master image, and pressing it again will show me the adjustments I made on a particular version of the same image. I just toggle between the version and the master, comparing and making assessments, and further tweaks, by repeatedly pressing the keyboard shortcut M.

When I'm satisfied with the work I've done, I now output or export the final images in any way (print, hi-res image file, book, web, PDF, email, etc.) based on client requirements or to whatever purpose I will be using the images. What I particularly appreciate are the 3rd-party plug-ins that can now be installed into Aperture. In particular, I use Flickr and iStockPhoto 3rd-party plug-ins. More and more 3rd-party plug-ins are being developed for Aperture. And, if I may add, more and more Automator plug-ins are also being developed that further extend the usability and enhance the functions of Aperture.

Final Thoughts

What I described to you above is my standard workflow in Aperture. That pretty much covers everything I need to do. But, as with all standards, there are bound to be variations. So, my workflow vary slightly from project to project. Different factors come into play so I adapt my post-production digital workflow to such variations. Some of them include client's output requirements, timetable, and levels of enhancements. What makes me love Aperture is the way it handles these variations. Using the same software, I can vary my post-production workflow. Aperture is incredibly flexible and responsive to the work that professional photographers need to do.

I'm a studio shooter, and I shoot almost every day. I average about 600 to 2,000 shots per session per day. Since I shoot exclusively RAW images with my Nikon D2Xs, and since I shoot a lot of pictures, I've come to trust and rely on Aperture to help me get the job done and the client requirements submitted on schedule. So far, with the workflow I described above, things are moving along just fine.

Summary of Favorite Keyboard Shortcuts

Here's a summary of the most essential Aperture keyboard shortcuts to easily speed up your workflow:

  • To gain one-click access to the tools you most often use in Aperture, you can put the clickable icons of these tools in your toolbar. Right-Click or Control-Click on an empty gray area of the toolbar to customize it.
  • If you want to select all images in a browser window, just press Apple-A or Command-A.
  • Should you need to consult the Aperture manual, simply click Apple-? or Command-? -- this will open up the most up-to-date version of the Aperture manual.
  • If you've been configuring and reconfiguring the interface and you want to quickly go to the Basic Layout, the standard interface layout when you first open Aperture, just click Option-Apple-S.
  • When you want to quickly maximize your viewer pane and remove other elements, click Option-Apple-V.
  • And when you want to quickly maximize your browser pane to see thumbnail images, click Option-Apple-B.
  • To make the project pane appear or disappear, just click W.
  • And, to make the inspectors and Metadata panes appear or disappear, click I.
  • To hide or show the viewer,click V.
  • To hide or show the control bar, click D.
  • To reveal or hide the semi-transparent pop-up window of the image metadata of a selected or highlighted image, click on T.
  • And then, you can press Shift-T to hide or show the toolbar.
  • If you want to stack your images while in the process of reviewing them, just select and highlight the images you want to stack together, and press Apple-K.
  • Rating an image is easy, fun and fast in Aperture. You can rate any selected image by simply pressing 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. The higher the number, the better the image.
  • If you've rated a particular image and you want to change it, just type in the new rating (number) while that image is selected.
  • If you want to remove the rating, just press 0. If you want to consider an image a reject, press 9.
  • To go quickly into full screen mode, just press the letter F. To get out, press F again. So, F easily takes you in and out of full screen mode.
  • You can navigate quickly through your film strip in full screen mode by pressing J, K, L. The letter J scrolls it to the left. K stops it. And L scrolls it to the right.
  • The left and right arrow keys move your selected image left and right.
  • To zoom into a 100% view of the selected image, just press the Z key. To zoom out, press Z again.
  • Anywhere you may happen to be in Aperture, pressing the apostrophe key (or the key under the Esc key) summons the loop tool.
  • To enhance your image in full screen mode, you can summon the Adjustments HUD (heads-up display) by pressing H.
  • To compare your adjustment versus the original image, just press M. The M key toggles between the original image and the enhanced version.

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