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Lightroom vs. Aperture -- Detailed Review
on June 11, 2013
I've used both Aperture and Lightroom for several years. I was originally an Aperture user, who kept kept trying out Lightroom (LR) every time there was a new version out, but giving up and going back to Aperture. I switched permanently to LR about six months ago, and recently upgraded to LR5. With this review I wanted to give a balanced comparison of the pros and cons between the two programs. At the bottom, I also have some thoughts on the LR4 -> LR5 upgrade.
Aperture is an Apple product and only runs on a Mac; LR is available for both OS X and Windows.
Overall, Aperture and LR are eerily similar. (Aperture came out a few months before LR did, and it looks like both Adobe and Apple have copied each other extensively since then.) The vast majority of their features are shared by both. They are both designed to manage large libraries of photos -- 100,000+ images is not a problem at all. Their editing tools are both much stronger than simpler programs, such as iPhoto. They both have batch processing, where edits to one image can be applied to a series of photos automatically. Both have 'Smart Collections,' where you can make a virtual library based on various arbitrary criteria. Both have full support for viewing and editing the EXIF and IPTC metadata behind your images. They have similar features for rating images: 1-5 stars, and you can easily compare two photos side-by-side. Both do non-destructive editing, and both are very good with RAW files. You can tag with GPS data easily in either one. Both have broadly similar import and export capabilities. Both allow you to 'brush' on your edits locally (e.g., paint a region to adjust it to higher contrast -- not just make global adjustments). Both have robust support for metadata such as keywords, ratings, comments, and flags.
Originally I was drawn to Aperture because of its very smooth interface. It's refined and easy to move around, with a very Mac-like polished feel. It's fast and responsive, and the times that I had use LR it seemed to be slow with a clunky interface. However, I eventually became frustrated with a couple of tools that Aperture has that don't work very well (in particular, the noise reduction and sharpening, and limitation in painting on local adjustments). I switched over to LR and although it still clunky in places, it works well and I'm very happy with it.
In this review I'm going to go through some of the pros and cons of each one.
In Aperture, I find it very easy to manage and navigate through my photo collection. When you open it up, you get a full-screen grid view of your folders (with a thumbnail on each), and then by moving the mouse over each folder, you can quickly scan through them and see all the images in the folder without opening them. Super nice, super easy to jog your memory for what's in a shoot without opening it. In LR, the only way to get to a folder is to navigate to its directory in a tiny sub-window (alphabetic order only, and the names are often truncated, so you are wondering what folder 'Beach_J.....R13' really is). I'd love to see Adobe put together a much better Library module to let you scan your photos
LR and Aperture use very different philosophies about how to manage files. Aperture's is very much along the philosophy of iTunes: it has an internal `black box' database structure and file structure that only it needs to know about. It will import your photos, put them into its database, and then you can edit them and move them around in different collections yourself. But you do not need to know physically the names of individual directories and subdirectories. LR's philosophy, on the other hand, is that it is essentially an indexer of files that you put onto your drive. You put them there, you tell LR where they are, and it'll keep track of them for you. But if you move or rename a file without LR knowing about it, it will get confused. Personally I like Apple's system better. I don't care where on my hard drive my photos are -- file management is the computer's job, not mine. Apple's system runs the risk that it might get corrupted and you'd have to hunt its database to find your raw files. I suppose that's theoretically a risk, but I've never had the problem myself.
Here is one example of where LR's file management can get you in trouble. Let's say you have two large folders in LR, with thousands of images. You decide to merge these folders and put all the pictures together into one. You'd think you could just drag all of them from one folder to the other. And you can... until LR complains that some of the photos have the same name. (Assuming you take a lot of photos, you'll end up with multiple photos named DSC_1412.NEF eventually, since the camera recycles names.) You might think that LR would keep track of this itself, or offer to rename the files. But no... in order to merge these directories, you need to manually rename those files -- perhaps thousands of them! -- so there are no duplicated file names. (LR will rename things for you automatically when you import, but not when you copy.) Come on... keeping track of filenames and directory structures is the sort of work that computers were invented for.
Smart Collections / Smart Albums: Both programs let you create virtual groups of images selected by some criteria -- say, all the five-star rated images in your 'Alaska' folder. I use these all the time, in particular for down-selecting to my 'best of' edits. Aperture has one big feature that I miss in LR, which is the ability to resort the order within the Smart Album. Aperture lets you re-order them as you'd like, and remembers that order, even as you delete some and bring in new ones. LR simply doesn't -- it brings up a window to tell me "You cannot change the order of images in a Smart Collection." OK Adobe -- rather than telling me I can't do something, why not just let me do it?
Aperture's interface is faster, smoother, slicker, and more Mac-like. It requires less clicking and is more seamless to do simple navigation and editing.
I find LR's interface to be rather awkward. There is an explicit distinction in LR between looking at your photos ('Library module') and editing them ('Develop module'). It takes an explicit step, and a delay of a second or so, to switch between these. Once you have, the screen redraws, and many of the keyboard shortcuts change wildly (e.g., "\" -- toggles between before-after in Develop, but brings up a filter tool in Library). I've gotten used to the mode-switching, but it still feels awfully clunky. Want to change contrast? Go to Develop. Edit the caption? Back to Library. Add a vignette, back to Develop... add a keyword, back to Library. Copy settings from *one* photo you can do in Develop, but to apply them to multiple photos you have to be in Library. Crop -- that's Develop. Export photos, Library. Rotate by a few degrees, Develop. Rotate by 90 degrees, Library! Rate photos -- either Library *or* Develop.
Bizarrely, LR does actually allow you to do *some* editing while in Library, but using a smaller set of button-based controls instead of the full set of sliders in Develop. Adobe -- if you're going to put half of the controls there in a limited way, why not just put them all there? This seems really stupid. Better yet, abandon this whole artificial separation between Library and Develop. Make all of the controls work all the time. When you're editing photos from a shoot, you really do go back and forth continually, and it feels awkward and clunky every time.
Even the basics of the user interface are different in the different modules. Looking an an images and want to move to the next / previous one using the `filmstrip' viewer? You can do that with a two-finger scroll in Library mode. But in Develop -- with the screen looking exactly the same -- that gesture is ignored totally.
In contrast to all this, Aperture is much more seamless. You're always looking at your photos, and you can edit them, delete them, resort them, everything, right there in one window.
Undo is a little non-intuitive in LR. Let's say you delete a photo from a collection, then scroll ahead a few photos. If you hit Undo, you'd think that would undo your delete, right? No! What Undo will do is undo the 'Go to Next Photo' command -- it'll just scroll you backwards a few shots... as if you couldn't do that yourself? In order to actually undo that deletion, you need keep hitting Undo. I was using LR for over a year before I realized that LR's Undo stack was more than one level deep (thanks to a comment below!)
Some of LR's icons are awfully small and hard to figure out. For instance, there are six different icons relating to flagging / rejecting images, and it really takes some squinting to figure out what they are supposed to be -- I mean, one has a tiny 'x' in it, one is dotted with a tiny check mark, and one is an outline with no marks, and then three more are tilted -- and then whether the flag is active or not is shown by whether it is a subtly different shade of dark grey or light grey. And speaking of greys, when you have a grid of images on the screen, even figuring out which picture is the 'active' one is often hard -- LR has at least FIVE different levels of grey backgrounds, which it uses for highlighting the current image, other also-selected images, all images on the page, the image the mouse is hovering over, and images in a stack. You will often actually see all five highlight levels at the same time, and it's really hard to find which one is which. Please Adobe, give up on the zoo of greys! Just let me outline the current image with a big red frame that I can't miss.
LR has some UI quirks. If you flag and delete the photo you're on now, it'll move you all the way back to the beginning of your folder. Many times if you go to a new folder, you'll also end up at the beginning again -- not where you were before. If you change thumbnail sizes when in grid view, the current image will often move off the screen, rather than stay centered. Small things like this are annoying and Apple really gets them better.
Aperture's sliders are easier to use. They're wider than LR's which allows finer control, and they have +- buttons on each end to allow you to easily bump up or down the level in tiny increments without having to nudge the sliders in single-pixel movements. It's a nice touch that I wish LR had.
Aperture's full-screen mode is better for editing than LR's. In LR, all of the controls disappear, although if you remember the keyboard shortcuts, you can make a few primitive edits. Aperture allows you to bring up a translucent panel with the full editing palette.
The main reason that I switched over to LR was because of its superior editing tools -- specifically, Noise Reduction and Sharpening. Aperture has these, but they are truly awful. Neither makes much of a difference to your images -- they simply don't work. LR's are terrific: they do a good job, and they have a good range (from zero to 'far too much', so you can find a good middle ground for each photo). In Aperture I ended up using the 'NIK Color Efx' plug-in to do my sharpening and noise reduction. That's fine -- those work well -- but they're extra software to buy, and they are not easily undoable, unlike the built-in edits.
Both have very good control over your lighting and histogram. Both let you crank up the brightness in the shadows. LR's shadow algorithms are better; Aperture's shadow controls are more likely to leave halos.
LR has a very useful slider called 'Clarity.' It is essentially a mid-tone contrast control, and often brings out great detail that you'd otherwise not see in 'featureless' monotone regions. It's good for clouds and rocks, but it'll mess up faces pretty bad. I use it frequently, though in small doses. Aperture doesn't have anything like it (well, it does have a slider labeled 'Mid Contrast', but it seems to work just like the regular Contrast slider). The effect is similar to NIK's 'Pro Contrast' filter.
Local edits: Both Aperture and LR let you 'paint' on various adjustments locally, using brushes. But Aperture's painting tools for adjusting exposure are really limited. You can only go up/down by ~1 EV. While that may sound like a lot, if you're trying to darken a sky to match a subject, it's barely anything. You will run into this limitation *all the time*. It's super annoying, and really limits what I can do with Aperture. LR lets you paint on exposure adjustment of up to +- 5 EV. It's incredibly more useful, both for landscapes and really anything where you want to darken the background to focus on the subject. LR also allows more flexibility in changing your local edits after you've made them, and in grouping them together (e.g., if you want to lighten a dark corner, *and* change its color balance, *and* drop the noise, and then make the same adjustments to a different region on another photo, LR makes it very easy to do all this).
Lens corrections: Vignette and geometric distortion (pincushion, barrel). Aperture doesn't do these at all. LR does them well. They are not done by default on import, but you can easily set up a 'user preset' to do them. At first I thought these were silly in LR, because I could rarely see the difference that geometric distortion makes. But plenty of lenses do vignette, and having automatic correction for a lens defect like this is clearly an advantage. While using Aperture, several year ago I bought DXOptics to do distortion and perspective corrections. It works, but it's a standalone package and I found it too much work to be worth it for the occasional use with Aperture. Photoshop will do these too. But LR is easier and faster.
Chromatic aberration (color fringing). Both Aperture and LR do these. They both work well.
** Between Chromatic Aberration and the Vignette / Distortion correction, you really can make up for a lot of lens defects, and give that $100 kit lens a lot of the characteristics that you used to have to but a $2000 lens for. And note that you can *increase* distortion as well as reduce it. Want a fisheye look from your regular rectilinear lens? Just crank down the Scale & Distortion sliders in the Lens Corrections / Manual panel.
LR5 adds the 'Upright' mode, which lets you automatically un-distort things like buildings, and bring them back into normal perspective. LR4 had these same controls, but they were very slow and non-automatic, and they're much more useful now in LR5. I'm sure these will be useful to some people; getting things upright for me is not a big deal (hey, I like them skewed...). When I have played with them they guess right about 50% of the time.
Gradients: LR will let you easily apply a gradient -- for instance, to bring the exposure of the sky and foreground more in line with each other. This simulates the use of a physical neutral density (ND) grad filter. Assuming you're shooting in RAW which gives you a lot of dynamic range, it's cheaper and more flexible than an ND grad too in most cases. Aperture doesn't have anything like this. You can in theory paint in the EV adjustments, but the range allowed by Aperture is so limited that it's almost useless. LR 5 also adds radial gradients, which you can think of a vignette which is centered on something *not* at the center of your frame. I use this all the time to subtly draw the eye to the subject and mute the background. In Aperture if you have the NIK plugins you can use one called 'Darken / Lighten Center'. While I usually use these gradients to adjust the exposure, you can use them for anything. (Want the contrast to increase from one corner to another for a special effect? Or want the white balance to smoothly change across your image since the lighting color in your room is not uniform? Not a problem.)
RAW files: I find they both work well. I use a Nikon D4 and a Nikon D700. In both cases when you import a RAW file it's going to need some tweaking to get it to look like the in-camera JPEG. But that's the whole point: there are a lot of different ways to convert the RAW file to an image. Both programs do this fine. Both let you apply an arbitrary set of adjustments to your RAW file on import -- so if you know you want everything bumped in contrast with a bit of negative exposure compensation applied, it's not a problem.
Importing: LR won't delete images from your memory card after importing. You have to do it manually. Adobe claims that's a data safety issue, but I have good backups and to me it's annoying: I'm much more likely to get in trouble by being in the field with 10 GB of old images on a memory card I forgot to delete, than by having a drive fail and lose my pics. Also, since you will end up formatting your memory cards after every import, it means you can't give them meaningful custom names ("Card 3", etc). Aperture will delete files after import if you tell it to.
External editors. Both of them work with Photoshop (Elements, CS6) or other external editors just fine. No difference. I use the NIK tools, and PS CS6. I use Photoshop for removing objects I don't want, stitching panoramas, adding labels, overlaying images, that kind of thing. I don't use NIK nearly as much in LR as I had to in Aperture to make up for its intrinsic limitations.
Email export. If you want to e-mail a photo from LR, the program brings up a window where you can enter the subject, destination (if you remember their exact address -- it won't auto-complete it for you!), etc. Then you hit Send, and then it copies all this info to the Mac's built-in mail program, where you can edit it, and hit Send *again*, and it's sent. Why not just bring up a regular Mail window in the first place (like Aperture and most other programs do)?
Quick import and Export. Often times I find I want to take one image and put it on my Desktop for use elsewhere, or conversely take file from the Desktop and bring it into my current library. In Aperture, you just drag the image and it's there. One drag, in or out, and you're done. In LR, dragging the file in or out does *nothing* -- the software just ignores it. So, to get a single image in, you need to go through the whole import process, which must be at least 20 mouse clicks. Same for exporting. Come on Adobe -- make the simple stuff simple!
Extras: Face Recognition, Facebook, GPS, Books, Photo Stream
Aperture has a face recognition module where it will help you classify your images based on who is in them. LR doesn't have anything like this. I've spent many hours typing in names to Aperture in order to tag people properly. It does a good job of picking out faces in a picture, but a very poor job of guessing who it is. I find it is far, far faster to go through a folder in LR and manually tag names using keywords, than use Aperture's semi-automated face tagger. Good try Apple, but it's just not there.
Facebook: LR's built-in Facebook support is pretty weak. I use a plugin from Jeff Friedl for better Facebook support. It's not very slick and has a million different confusing options, but once you get it set up properly it'll work better than the built in one. Except it doesn't let you post on your wall (only to an album) and the developer doesn't know why. Aperture's built-in FB support is smoother, but stupidly, captions you've entered in Aperture don't export as captions to Facebook. (I filed a bug report on this years ago with Apple, but no change except for Apple telling me they know about my request.) Captions do export properly using LR.
Maps: They both import .gpx files and will make nice maps showing your path, etc. I use a Bad Elf GPS; you can also make similar .gpx paths with many iPhone apps such as MotionX. LR regularly crashes for me in the Maps module when reading GPS tracks. I never lose any work but it takes a minute to restart it and get my brain back on track.
Books: They both make books. I've bought several from Apple and they are very nice. The print quality is a step down from a glossy coffee-table book, but they are still enjoyable. You can customize the format easily. LR makes books too but I haven't used it. Both will output as PDF so you can print them at any capable print shop.
Photo Stream: Aperture integrates nicely with the Photo Stream from your iPhone etc. However, it is not too hard to set up LR to automatically grab your Photo Stream photos as well, using Automator on the Mac. Search for a post called "How to integrate iCloud Photo Stream with Adobe Lightroom."
Upgrades and Purchase Policies
I kept waiting for Apple to push out some updates for Aperture. The last upgrade with any changes to the editing palette was 3.3 back in mid-2011, which added only minor updates to the white balance tool. There have been minor incremental upgrades to support new camera models, or share libraries with iPhoto, but no new editing features (like fixing the sharpening and noise reduction). That makes it feel pretty abandoned. Adobe has a much more aggressive upgrade schedule, with regular new releases.
Free trials: You can download the LR trial and use it for a month for free. Aperture is cheaper, but has no free trial period.
Subscription: I got LR through Adobe's Creative Cloud. A one-year membership (at the student/teacher level) was around the price of LR alone. It gives me free upgrades, like LR5, plus lets me use Photoshop CS6 and a bunch of other stuff, so for me it was a good deal. Lots of people dislike Adobe's move to a subscription-only plan (announced in the spring of 2013). But whether you like the subscription model or not doesn't matter, since *LR itself remains available as a standalone package* (I mean, that's why you're reading a review of it for sale right here). LR is in Creative Cloud if you happen to have that, but you don't have to.
Stability: They're both stable and crash only rarely (except the Maps module in LR, which must crash 50% of the time I use it -- which is fortunately just once per shoot, so it's not actually a big deal). Once you've made edits on an image and moved to another, all your changes are automatically saved. I've never lost anything on either one.
Aperture is better at:
o User interface
o Library navigation
o Library management (though part of this is my personal preference)
Lightroom is better at:
o Editing tools. These are photo programs, and this is what really matters.
o Everything else!
Regarding the LR4 -> LR5 upgrade, feature-wise this one is pretty slim. It adds:
o Better spot removal -- for instance, much better at taking out power lines and misplaced blades of grass than before. Despite what Adobe says, this is no Photoshop: PS's `Content-Aware Healing Brush' works far far better than LR's spot removal tool. That being said, it is certainly helpful to have another tool in LR for this.
o A new radial gradient tool (useful if you want it, but not something everyone will use). You can always simulate this by painting in the gradient with a brush. For me, I use this all the time and it's very nice.
o Automatic perspective control, to make your sideways-looking buildings upright again. Not a biggie for me, but some people will want it. Among other things, this will give you some of the look of a tilt-shift lens (that is, buildings with walls that go up and down), without the price.
o You can edit your files while away from your external hard drive (essentially, your edits are made on thumbnails, and synced later with the RAW files). For some people, this feature will be huge. For me, I already have a massive hard drive on my laptop for photos, so this one doesn't matter.
o Seems faster to me in navigating through the library and loading full-resolution images.
Unless you're really needing one of these new features, you can probably stick with LR4.
o [Update August-2013] LR5 will import PNG files, which was not possible in LR4. These are often used for charts or screen grabs -- e.g., on the iPhone's Photo Stream, photos are JPG images but screen-shots are PNG. In LR4 the screen-shots were ignored totally when importing a photo stream, which was certainly annoying. Adobe didn't publicize this feature heavily so I didn't realize it until I saw PNG files in my library now. Good to have it.
o [Update October 2013] Apple has released Aperture 3.5. It adds support for new cameras, and fixes some bugs. No new features, and no improvements to its ever-more-inadequate editing tools. On the other hand, I am really impressed with Adobe's continual product improvement... there have been updates to LR4/5 every few months, with both bug fixes and new features.
If you've found this helpful, please click below! And post if you have any questions -- I'll answer them.