Framed and Exposed: What a Difference a Dot Makes
Only five months after releasing Aperture 1.0, Apple's breakthrough new digital photography workflow product, the company has come out with a fairly major update in the form of Aperture 1.1. The free update offers dramatically improved raw conversions, new raw editing tools, a new RGB color sampler, performance improvements, and full compatibility with Apple's new machines with Intel processors. All these improvements, yet Apple has also cut the retail price by $200 to just $299.
Many critics will claim that the many improvements prove that Aperture 1.0 wasn't ready for prime time, but that's unfair. While Version 1 had some rough spots, it was a usable product for many professional photographers. Most importantly, the program has shown many photographers that there's a better way to manage their workflows than the document-centered, destructive editing approach they were used to.
Those who say that Aperture 1.0 was priced too high and was essentially a paid beta release will be happy to hear that Apple apparently agrees. In addition to the lower price, the company's handing $200 coupons to anyone who bought the 1.0 or 1.0.1 products at the $499 price tag.
Installing the Update
The 1.1 updater is available for free via Software Update or as a direct download. The update requires Aperture version 1.0.1, so if you haven't already run the 1.0.1 updater, you'll need to do so before installing 1.1. Note that Aperture 1.1 requires OS X 10.4.6. However, if you're running an earlier system, Aperture doesn't warn you -- it simply says that your destination volume is not eligible for the update. Check your OS version, install the necessary updates, then try again.
If you plan on installing the update on several machines, download the stand-alone package. Using the Install & Keep Package option in Software Update won't yield an updater that works when installing on other machines.
Aperture 1.0 and 1.0.1 wouldn't even launch on an Intel machine, so if you've got an Intel Mac and have been putting off installing, you can simply perform the same procedure you would have used on a PowerPC Mac: Install 1.0 from the Aperture DVD, then perform the 1.0.1 update, then the 1.1 update. On Intel Macs, Software Update then also downloads and installs a vImageUpdateIntel package.
Raw conversion issues plagued Aperture 1. Aperture 1.1 has an entirely new raw processing pipeline with much-improved quality. Gone are the "snow" artifacts that appeared occasionally in low-light images (Figure 1). The strange color smears that could pop up are also gone.
Figure 1. On the top is a crop from a file converted with the Aperture 1.0 raw converter. On the bottom is the 1.1 conversion. With Aperture 1.1, the notorious white "snow" problem is gone.
In addition to the new raw pipeline, Apple has adjusted the raw profiles for Aperture's supported cameras and added a new selection of Raw Fine Tuning controls, which provide you with more raw conversion options.
However, Apple didn't completely abandon the old raw pipeline. Aperture 1.1 lets you choose, on an image-by-image basis, whether you want to convert a raw file using the 1.0 or 1.1 engines.
When you first launch version 1.1, it warns you that your library needs to be converted to work with the new version. This changes the internal database structure but doesn't alter your image. It's a one-way trip, so if you need to use your Aperture library on an older version, make a back-up copy of it first.
When you select a raw file in 1.1, the Adjustments panel includes a new Raw Fine Tuning pane (Figure 2). In the upper right corner of the Raw Fine Tuning controls is a small pop-up menu that lets you change from the old converter to the new. This conversion is not one-way: You can switch back at any time. If you select the 1.1 converter, the Raw Fine Tuning panel fills with new controls.
Figure 2. The new Raw Fine Tuning adjustment lets you edit raw conversion parameters, as well as switch between the new and old converters.
The ability to switch between converters is interesting. You might find that for some images you prefer the old method. Whichever you choose, the pop-up makes it a snap to toggle between the two options. A new Migrate Images command lets you automatically set all of your raw files to the 1.1 converter.
The Raw Fine Tuning panel shows you the camera profile that Aperture has decided to use for your conversion. Obviously, it should be the profile that matches the name of your camera. The four new controls let you adjust how Aperture performs its conversion.
For each camera that Aperture supports, Apple has defined a profile that specifies how the raw data should be interpreted and converted into a normal full-color image. Some users complained that Aperture 1.0's default profiles were too aggressive, resulting in color and contrast that were a little overdone. The new Boost slider lets you control the degree to which the built-in profile is applied to your image. By default, it's set at 1.0, meaning that your profile is applied at its full, intended strength. By sliding the Boost slider to the left, though, you can back off this profile, resulting in an image that may not be as hot as the profile originally specified (Figure 3).
Figure 3. I set the Boost slider to 1 for the top image. The bottom image is the result when I set the Boost slider to .5. Click on the image to get a larger version and notice the slight improvement in detail on the front of the refrigerator in the bottom image.
Different people prefer different approaches to raw conversion, and the Boost slider is a simple, effective way to customize default raw conversion.
The Raw Fine Tuning panel is also the home of new sharpening and noise-reduction tools. The Sharpening control provides separate sliders for Intensity and Edge sharpening. (Sharpening is basically an unsharp mask-type effect.) Chroma Blur aims to take out chromatic noise by performing a localized blur on any area that has a sudden chroma change. The Radius slider lets you define the size of the blurred area.
Chroma Blur does a good job of reducing chrominance noise, but just as sharpening filters can introduce artifacts into your image if you use them too heavily, an over-aggressive Chroma Blur setting can introduce occasional color smearing along high-contrast lines. You can correct for this by backing off on the Chroma Blur setting.
Finally, the Auto Noise Compensation checkbox in the Raw Fine Tuning panel lets you activate a new luminance noise reducer. As with any noise-reduction tool, you might suffer a slight loss of sharpness, so you'll want to balance your sharpness and noise reduction efforts.
Both of Aperture's new noise-reduction tools account for the camera characteristics stored in the camera profile, as well as the exposure and ISO settings that were used for the image, resulting in very effective noise reduction.
Although Aperture 1.0 had sharpening and noise reduction tools, the additional controls are welcome. More importantly, however, you can store these tools, as well as the Boost setting, in a custom camera profile, and then automatically apply the profile to all images you shoot with that camera.
By using the Settings pop-up menu in the Raw Fine Tuning panel, you can easily define a new default set of fine-tuning parameters. Aperture associates those parameters with a specific model of camera, so any time you shoot with such a camera, the program will process your images with your refined settings.
Aperture 1.0 lacked any type of RGB sampler for reading color values in an image. Apple added this feature to 1.1; you can even read CMYK and LAB values (a curious addition, since Aperture doesn't support CMYK or LAB images).
Located directly above the Histogram in both the Adjustments pane and HUD, the new readout shows you the component color values of the area directly under your mouse (Figure 4).
Figure 4. The new RGB readout provides a component color display just above Aperture's histogram.
Note that the readout works only on images being shown in the Preview pane, not on thumbnails in the Browser. Variable sample sizes are provided in the Action menu of the Adjustment pane, and you can completely disable the RGB sampler if you don't want it.
The Show in Loupe checkbox lets you add RGB readout to the Aperture Loupe. RGB values are displayed in the very center of the Loupe (Figure 5).
Figure 5. RGB values can also be displayed in the Aperture loupe. Click on the image for a larger version.
You'll find lots of other additions throughout the program. Aperture 1.1 now provides the ability to define a resolution when outputting images (thus saving you a step when you get into Photoshop). The Preferences dialog box has been re-designed, and some options are now easier to understand. A new Remove Adjustments From Selection command is a welcome addition that lets you strip all adjustments from the selected images.
If you want to move images from Aperture to Photoshop using Aperture's round-trip function, you'll be thrilled to find that Aperture no longer flattens a layered Photoshop document before sending it out to Photoshop. This preservation of layering makes integration of Aperture and Photoshop much easier.
Some icons and interface elements have undergone slight changes, though functionally they remain the same. Overall, you'll have no trouble adjusting to the new version.
In my tests, Aperture 1.1 does not show a tremendous gain in performance. I tested version 1.0.1 against version 1.1 on three different Macs: a 1.5 GHz G4 Powerbook, a 2.7 GHz Dual G5, and a 2.5 GHz Quad G5 (Figure 6). A computer's video card has as much -- and in some cases, more -- to do with overall Aperture performance than does processor speed, so comparing one machine to another is not easy. I conducted these tests primarily to assess what kind of performance changes you can expect to see from an upgrade on the same machine.
Figure 6. This chart demonstrates the differences you'll experience in the performance of version 1.0.1 compared to version 1.1.
Aperture is a tough program to benchmark because there are few places where you start an action that yields a progress bar. Because of the program's non-document-centered approach, a lot of operations take place in the background or execute in small in-between stages in your workflow.
With those caveats stated, I can say that the biggest speed gain in version 1.1 appeared on the PowerBook. When adding a keyword to 450 images, the overall time dropped from 22 seconds (version 1.0.1) to 16 seconds (version 1.1). On the Quad G5, there was no measurable change.
Apple claims that Lifting and Stamping is faster in 1.1, but I didn't see much of a change. On the PowerBook, 1.1 shaved roughly ten seconds off of a 450-image stamping, from 38 seconds down to 29. On the Quad G5, lifting and stamping times remained the same.
On the dual G5, I saw results similar to the Quad G5.
Overall, the program feels snappier in many areas. Raw decode seems much faster, which means images and thumbnails should display faster. Again, though, this will vary depending on your video card. Text searches are also much improved over the previous version.
I ran the same tests on a 2 GHz MacBook Pro. The 450-image keyword addition test flew by in 8 seconds (twice as fast as the PowerBook G4 and two seconds faster than the Quad G5). However, the Lift and Stamp test was almost exactly the same on the MacBook Pro and the PowerBook.
One very big surprise: When importing a gigabyte of images off of a CompactFlash card, the MacBook Pro finished one minute faster than the Quad G5. Plainly, Apple has been putting a lot of work into getting the most that it can out of its new Intel-based architecture. While this might not be the best news for users who just bought a Quad G5, it bodes well for the future of the platform.
Dot's All, Folks
Apple deserves tremendous credit for Aperture 1.1. In just five months, the company managed to improve a major part of the program -- raw conversion quality -- and not only improve it, but add very capable raw adjustment tools. The correction of the Photoshop layering problem is also much appreciated. Apple has been listening to its customers' complaints and working hard to respond to them. The price difference and refund opportunity are also excellent moves on Apple's part, showing both attention to the market and to their customers.
If you're expecting tremendous speed improvements from Aperture 1.1, you're probably not going to see them unless you're switching to an Intel machine. Still, no matter what kind of Mac you run it on, Aperture 1.1 is a very good upgrade that should set aside a number of Aperture concerns. If you're a photographer who's been considering the application, the new version provides several good reasons to pick up a copy and give it a try.
Read more by Ben Long.
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