You've probably heard it before: Aperture is a completely nondestructive editor. In fact, maintaining the integrity of your master image is one of the core precepts of Apple's professional photo management application. All the adjustment layers that you apply can be turned on and off without affecting your master image. Any renaming of files that you do in Aperture is handled by a version name. At no point is Aperture modifying or manipulating your original digital master. All changes are handled with little metadata files in the Finder.

The way that Aperture handles versions is nothing short of revolutionary. If you don't know any better, then be thankful for your ignorance. We should pause, however, and look at a 20th Century workflow for a moment to help position our brains. Much like our eyes and color temperature, sometimes our brains adjust so rapidly that we don't notice the change in front of us.

Let's roll the clock back to October 2005 before Aperture's release. We have a RAW file poised to open in our image-editing application. First of all, our image- editing application probably can't read the RAW file, so we'll have to convert it. We want the quality to be high, so let's choose TIFF. Now let's assume we're shooting with a modest 8 megapixel Digital SLR. Our RAW file is in the neighborhood of 8MB. The TIFF we made from that RAW is about 24MB. After figuring out where we'll save our new file and what we'll name it, we're ready to work on it. We make a few changes, maybe black and white, play with the channels. Great, we like what we have, but let's say we want to play a little bit more. Let's make a backup of this image and continue to work. Do a Save As and continue.

To compare our two versions, we would have to open that previous version which entails remembering where we saved it, what it was called and locating it. Now that both versions are open, we have two 25MB files open in RAM, and... you get the picture. What we're talking about is a very time-consuming, RAM and space-intensive process to have the freedom to play with your photos.

A Peek Under the Hood

I know I'm preaching to the converted here, but many Aperture users don't realize exactly what's happening behind the scenes with versions or how many options there are. Let's look at the Finder level and see what's happening. For those of you who haven't broken into the Aperture Library, all you have to do is control-click it in the Finder and select Show Package Contents. The Aperture Library is, after all, just a package containing folders and files.

Aperture at the Finder level.
Aperture at the Finder level.

Once inside, you'll see all of your Aperture Projects just like they're organized inside the application. Each project is a package that can be opened in the same way as the Library. Notice that Aperture creates a folder for each photo as it is imported. Inside that folder is the master file, if you're using Aperture to manage your images, several Unix Executable Files, folders for housing Previews and Thumbnails and a version file called "Version-1.apversion". That version is the one that you're looking at in Aperture. This is the same for all your images in Aperture whether you're using referenced or managed images.

A view of a picture's folder at the Finder level.
A view of a picture's folder at the Finder level.

Putting Versions to Work

Let me use an example from a recent backpacking trip. The original photo of the sinister snag is fine; it just needs a little help to come back to life. The first thing that has to go is the blue sky. No true gothic, horror photo ever had a blue sky. I'll apply the Monochrome Mixer. That's better but still not exactly what I'm looking for. I'm not getting the separation of the branches from the sky that I want. I need a new version so I can compare before and after and gauge my improvement.

The original shot, a gothic opportunity.
The original shot, a gothic opportunity.

In Aperture, there are two primary options for creating versions: Duplicate Version, and New Version from Master. New Version from Master would revert to my master image and bring back my blue sky. That's not what I want. Duplicate Version would give me a version identical to the black and white image that I have. That's more or less what I want but we can take it a step further.

If you look under the Images menu, you'll find all of the options for creating versions. These include an often-overlooked feature for creating versions: Create and Add to Selection. This option gives you the same two alternatives as above but automatically selects the new version so you can compare the two versions side by side. So, I select: Create and Add to Selection: Duplicate Version (Option, Shift, V).

Select Duplicate Version for easier side-by-side image comparison.
Select Duplicate Version for easier side-by-side image comparison.

Perfect. Now I can compare my versions and continue my search for the best effect for the scary branches. Notice as I continue to create new versions, Aperture gives each one a version number (_MG_1602 - Version 5, _MG_1602 - Version 6, and so on). And, the versions are put neatly into a stack so when I'm finished playing, I can promote the best version to the top of the stack and have it be my pick. There's something new in this stack however. There is a light gray box around these versions to let you know that these are versions from the same master.

Promoting a favorite to the top of the versions stack.
Promoting a favorite to the top of the versions stack.

If we take a gander back at the Finder, we see how Aperture is handling our versions in the Library. Notice the other versions that we created. They're neatly organized here and are all about 20KB. These are very small files taking up almost no space on your hard drive. We could literally create thousands of different versions of a particular image without any significant effect on our hard drive. If we were still in a 20th Century workflow, our hard drive would now house close to 120MB of data just for these five versions!

A Finder level view of version files.
A Finder level view of version files.

Let's take our versioning example a step further and assume we need to open our image in an external image editor. Once we set the application in the Output section of our Preferences, all we have to do is select an image and under the Images menu select Open with External Image Editor. Aperture handles this task differently.

When a file is opened in an external image editor, a new master file is created based on the settings in your Aperture Preferences. You have the option of a 16-bit Tiff or PSD. By creating a new master file, Aperture safeguards our original master file. Since an external editor could change our master in ways we may not like, Aperture makes a backup. That new master is included within the same stack as the versions we created before but is not included in the light gray version box. Additionally, it has a new badge that looks like a bull's eye.

The new master is marked with a bull's-eye badge.
The new master is marked with a bull's-eye badge.

The examples in this article have dealt with managed files. Managed files work great for me as I started with Aperture 1.0 and like Vaults. There are some additional considerations when using versions and referenced files. All of the same functionality exists for versioning in Aperture using referenced files. Aperture will handle versions the same way on the Finder level, creating folders for your images and creating metadata files for versions. The only difference is that your master images are housed elsewhere. You should still create a Vault to back up your versions and the new masters created when you open in an external editor, as those will always be kept in your Aperture library.

What about deleting versions? All of your versions reference the same master. That is proven when you hit the M key, M for master. Now you'll see that all your images, except the image opened in an external editor, reference the same photo. The M key again returns you to your versions.

Master images.
Master images.

As you start deleting versions, the last version left in your stack will be the one tied to the master image. In your Aperture Preferences, you have the option of showing a warning when deleting masters. If that preference is checked (I recommend it), when you delete the last version, you get a warning letting you know that you're about to Delete Master Image and All Versions as seen below.

Warning before deleting masters.
Warning before deleting masters.

The last versioning option that I should mention is also in the Aperture Preferences. Some photographers like to have a version automatically created whenever they make an adjustment to an image so they always have a compare item. In the Aperture Preferences, there's a checkbox for doing just that. As you make image adjustments, a new version is automatically created.

Now that I have several different versions of my branches to choose from, I'll grab a cup of coffee, and maybe take a nap. (This is hard work people.) Then I'll return with a fresh perspective and be able to make decisions about which one I like best. As with any creative project, I find the more times I walk away and come back, the better the output is. I usually explore all my options at the beginning of a project, lay them all out and refrain from making any judgments at that point. Then I'll return and review my options, simulate someone coming fresh to a photo and then make a decision about appropriateness. I find a fresh perspective vital to the process.

Final Thoughts

Versions in Aperture are a great creative tool. They give you the flexibility to experiment with your photos in ways never before possible. They are easy to create and modify and take up very little space on your hard drive. When the engineers at Apple designed the versioning functionality in Aperture, they nailed it.


Return to Inside Aperture.