capsule review

Aperture 3.3 embraces Retina display and iPhoto

At a Glance
  • Apple Aperture 3.3

The Mac App Store has changed how we access and update software. A perfect example is the latest release of Aperture. Version 3.3.1 is a dot release of software that’s more that two years old ( ), yet it includes many enhancements and features that in the past may have been the foundation of Aperture 4. So we don’t get a new box (or DVD) to put on the shelf, but there’s also no charge for this upgrade, which is essentially a rewritten application. When you’re ready to download it, it’s there.

The headline changes in Aperture 3.3 include Retina display support for the new MacBook Pro 15-inch, a substantial performance increase, and a unified library structure for both iPhoto and Aperture. Let’s start with the visual and dig our way deeper.

Retina display support

The first question that you might ask about Retina display support is, “What if I don’t have a Retina display? How will Aperture look?” The answer is, “just as good as ever.”

Retina display support does not remove or diminish features for other models, rather it’s an enhancement for those who have it. Apple rewrote the display software for Aperture 3.3 that includes hundreds of new high-resolution graphics so that icons, type, thumbnails, and full-sized images appeared as crisp and natural as possible.

Aperture 3.3 on a MacBook Air.

Aperture 3.3 on a new MacBook Pro Retina Display.

When you compare the thumbnails in Aperture 3.3 on a Retina display to another Mac, the tones are noticeably smoother than on a non-Retina display. This is because the thumbnail viewer has been rewritten to take advantage of the display's densely packed pixels.

Fast browsing on import

Generally, the moment photographers are most anxious to view their images is when they’re first importing them from the memory card to the computer. Apple rewrote the importing process in Aperture 3.3 to address this anxiety, and it’s especially impressive for Raw shooters.

The instant you initiate the importing process, Aperture grabs all of the embedded JPEGs and displays them. (Every Raw file contains an imbedded JPEG that is created by your camera. Aperture uses these to speed things up.) It then downloads the larger Raw data in background. This means you can start sorting and rating your images immediately.

To keep things running briskly, those embedded JPEGs remain your previews until you begin looking at larger versions of the photos in the viewer. At that point Aperture replaces the embedded JPEGs with its own high-quality previews.

This process is different from previous versions of Aperture that would churn away at building its own previews while you were trying to work on a particular file. Now you have more processor available for the work that you want to do in that instant.

By default, Camera Previews is turned on in your Aperture Preferences.

To optimize this process, turn on Quick Preview (View -> Quick Preview). Aperture should be able to work at the pace you want without interruption. Once you’re ready to begin image editing, turn off Quick Preview to access the adjustment tools.

Unified library

Moving from iPhoto to Aperture, or using them together, is now simple. Apple has unified the libraries with both a shared database structure and the image-editing pipeline. You may have also noticed that Aperture has experienced a UI facelift, and now looks more like iPhoto, with its monochromatic icons.

If you use both Aperture and iPhoto, their libraries will be called out as such in your Pictures folder. But you’ll notice that they both have the same icon. That’s because you can open your iPhoto library (version 9.3 or later) in Aperture 3.3 and vice versa.

Your Mac will label your Aperture and iPhoto libraries separately, but they are virtually interchangeable between the two applications.
To test this, I imported more than 400 Raw files into a fresh iPhoto library. I star-rated a few images, and then closed the application. Then, I opened Aperture and switched to the newly created iPhoto library (File -> Switch to Library -> iPhoto Library). All of the images, albums, and star ratings were visible in Aperture. I made a few changes, closed Aperture, and then opened iPhoto. The changes I made in Aperture were now visible in iPhoto. Keep in mind that you can only have one library open in one application at a time.

Other nice touches include: if you create a version of a picture in Aperture, it appears in iPhoto. And if you open an iPhoto library in Aperture, you still have access to the Effects tools because Aperture has added iPhoto Effects to the Add Adjustment popup menu.

A few terms have changed in Aperture to ensure continuity in this partnership: Masters are now called Originals; Metadata is now called Info; and Presets are now called Effects.

We’ll drill down into more of the nuances of the Unified Library at a future time, but for now, you have many new workflow options as a result of this union.

Image editing

Apple added a new image-editing tool, beefed up another, and streamlined a third.

A new Auto Enhance has been added to the Adjustments tab next to the Effects popup menu. The icon is similar to the magic wand icon in iPhoto. The first task of this tool is to do no harm. So if you nailed your shot, you probably won’t see much change if you run Auto Enhance.

Auto Enhance makes changes in a handful of areas that often serve as a good starting point for your image editing.

If there is work to be done, however, it intelligently applies white balance, exposure, vibrance, curves, and shadows to improve the image. In my testing, the changes ranged from subtle to moderate. After you run Auto Enhance, you can tweak any of the parameters individually in the Adjustments pane.

The White Balance tool has received a major overhaul. Among its enhancements is an “uber” Auto button and three filters for different types of photos. Prior to Aperture 3.3, your white balance option was Temperature & Tint. Now there are two additional choices: Skin Tone and Natural Gray.

Skin Tone, a new algorithm designed for portraits, is a great choice for photos of people. Simply place the eyedropper on a skin tone and click. Or, if you click and drag with the eyedropper on the skin tones, you’ll notice subtle variations in the correction. Let go of the mouse button when you see what you like. Natural Gray is designed to correct color casts, but to also leave some feel for the ambient color in your image. In other words, it won’t over-correct your photo. An example could be an underwater scene where you want to temper the blue, but not eliminate it all together. The new Temperature & Tint is best for extreme color casts, where you really need to get in there and move sliders around.

White Balance options: Natural Gray

The White Balance brick also includes an Auto button. When you click on it, Aperture runs all three filters, and you can choose your favorite version. Auto Skin Tone works best when Faces is enabled because Aperture will use face detection technology to finetune the correction. I had good luck with it, however, even when Faces was not enabled.

What’s fun about Auto is that once you run it, you can cycle through the three filters to see the different types of corrections, and then choose the one you want to use. On this shot of the Willie McCovey statue at San Francisco's AT&T Park, for example, the Temperature & Tint version was the best starting point, with the Natural Gray option a bit cool for my taste.

White balance options: Temperature & Tint

Keep in mind that these corrections are brushable too, so you can further adjust the color in specific areas.

One tool, Highlights & Shadows, was rewritten and streamlined. It now preforms faster, and the output seems better too, or at least potentially less damaging to your images. The primary improvement is the virtual elimination of halo artifacts that could result from heavy handed image editing.

You may also notice that the brick has been trimmed to 3 sliders: Highlights, Shadows, and Mid Contrast. The sliders that were eliminated (Radius, Color Correction, High Tonal Width, and Low Tonal Width) were combined into the rewritten existing sliders. Apple’s view is that you don’t need the eliminated controls because they are more intelligently applied into the current sliders.

Our testing supports Apple’s view that the new controls provide smoother tonal results. But I do miss having the set of Advanced sliders from the previous version.

Other nice touches

The Projects list has a new Manual sort option that allows you to organize your project containers in any order you want. Previously, you were limited to sorting by Name, Date, and Library.

You also can now import, view, and trim AVCHD video within Aperture, which makes it more compatible with cameras that use this movie format.

And for those making the move to Aperture from iPhoto, the first time they open Aperture, they will see the message, “Do you want to open your iPhoto library?” This certainly eases the transition from one app to the other.

Macworld’s buying advice

Other than the absence of a few sliders in Highlights & Shadows, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain by upgrading to Aperture 3.3.1 You’ll need Mac OS X Lion 10.7.4 to do so, however. So if you’re still holding out with Snow Leopard, you’ll have to upgrade to run the latest Aperture.

Photographers with the new MacBook Pro 15-inch Retina display are in for a special treat with Aperture 3.3.1 It is visually stunning on these machines.

iPhoto fans who have wanted to move to Aperture, but were intimidated by the library transition process and the unfamiliar interface can now rest assured that it is flat out simple to convert.

[Senior Contributor Derrick Story teaches digital photography on Lynda.com and runs a virtual camera club at The Digital Story.]

This story, "Aperture 3.3 embraces Retina display and iPhoto" was originally published by Macworld.

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At a Glance
  • Apple Aperture 3.3

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