Springamp Weighs in on Lightroom vs. Aperture

Lightroom UI, from Adobe.com

Lightroom UI, from Adobe.com

Both are great products, but which one is better? This question comes across my desk every so often, so I figured I’d take the time to give this topic some serious treatment.

First, let me establish my credibility: I own both products, and have used both for serious, deadline-driven work. I’ve also taken the time to get to know each intimately, and invested serious time to learn the “best practices” for each app. (Note: Aperture and Lightroom have completely eclipsed the capabilities and depth of PhaseOne’s Capture One’s RAW editor to the point I’m not bothering to put it into the line-up. But for the record, I do also own that product and used it for many years.)

So along a variety of dimensions, here are my views:

Curb Appeal / Usability: Aperture. Apple has made one of the most usable raw editing programs I’ve ever used. All of the little windows, icons, views, etc fit together delightfully. Even better, Apple has made their application surprising non-modal: adjustments and editing are available anywhere inside the interface — it doesn’t matter if you are looking at the view strip, the grid or a single image — the program is remarkably consistent. If your viewing a sample web gallery, and see an image that is too dark, just pop into the adjustment window and bump it up. In contrast, Lightroom is always in a “mode”, with different rules for each mode. For instance, bumping up the exposure of a group of images works differently if you are in “Develop” mode or “Library” mode. Also, Apple’s keyboard combinations let you navigate around the applications better than Lightroom.

Integration with 3rd Party Applications: Lightroom. Adobe has gone to great lengths to ensure that the same modifications and editing done in Lightroom also work with other Adobe products, such as Photoshop. That means you can open a Lightroom-modified RAW file in Photoshop as a smart object, or base a series of photoshop-edited prints from your Lightroom copies. Smart Objects are the key to a non-destructive workflow, and especially advantageous if you frequently re-purpose images. For instance, my first output is usually a web gallery, but later I may choose to perform additional edits to whip an image together for a book or a print. Apple’s system is much more closed — only Apple has the secret keys to turning your RAW image into something else. Its true that Aperture does integrate with Photoshop, but only to the extent that it can export to a .PSD file. For a true non-destructive editing workflow, nothing beats Adobe’s smart objects, and the XMP-based integration between Photoshop and Lightroom. More on this distinction.

Image Quality: Toss-Up. Is there a difference between these two products? Yes, but it’s tiny. Out of the box, blues are rendered “bluer” in Aperture, and reds and oranges have greater hue separation. On the other hand, Lightroom seems to handle mid-tone and shadow detail better. Both programs support extensive tweaking of their color and tone rendering, so in the end, there’s not much difference.

Speed: Lightroom. The latest version of Aperture is much faster than its predecessor, but there are still some performance gaps owing to its complex database. For many users, the two products now are fairly identical in terms of performance, but no so for professional shooters. The real nail in the coffin for Aperture is the time it takes before an image becomes “editable.” My typical raw file is 25-30MB, captured on a 22MP camera. Aperture makes you wait a painful 2-3 seconds when opening the image before you can begin to adjust it. A small “loading” overlay appears, and while it ticks away editing is impossible. Behind the scenes, I surmise that Apple’s software must load and decode the raw-file before it enables the editing sliders. Lightroom seems to not have this delay, which makes a huge difference when pouring over image after image, making small tweaks to decide between keepers and rejects. Furthermore, there are fewer operations in Lightroom that “freeze” the whole interface — in most cases, Lightroom handles things like JPEG exports, preview generation, metadata write, etc gracefully behinds the scenes. If you are using more typical camera (under 12MP), you will probably not notice much of a speed gap.

Resiliance to the future: Lightroom. So what happens when you decide to pop open edited files two years down the road? You will be much happier with Lightroom. Adobe is remarkably transparent about how it stores your adjustments and settings — in an industry-standard XMP meta-data file. If you ever need to reexport a file, or revisist an adjustment years later you don’t have to do any fancy importing — just open the file up again in Lightroom or Photoshop. In contrast, Aperture maintains all of its data in a dense, impregnable database. I’ve taken to exporting parts of my Aperture library, and zipping them up to place them in permanent storage. What a pain in the ass! To bring your edits “back to life”, you have to unzip this export, import it into Aperture, reconnect it to your master files. PAINFUL. I have a large collection of these “dormant” archives stored in Aperture 1.0 library format… reawakening them into Aperture 2.0 is even more painful since you have to endure a conversion. 

Flexibility to YOUR workflow: Of course, this is going to vary a lot based on individual circumstances. Some people want a single application that has its way of doing things and they happily adapt. In this case, you will probably be happier with Aperture. Because Lightroom is less enigmatic about what is going on behind the scenes, those who have specific requirements will appreciate it’s flexibility. For instance, I prefer my files sorted on disk by date, and pool my reject and 1-star masters on an external drive once they are classified. My work is almost inherently This process requires considerably more steps in Aperture, which prefers to keep your actual files either hidden inside its library, or referenced with semi-permanent locations.