• Lightroom 4 vs Aperture - Clash of the titans

    A little while back, someone put up a post about saying goodbye to Aperture in favour of Lightroom. The main crux of his argument related to a lack of stability with Aperture, something I have been lucky enough not to experience but there have been enough articles favouring Lightroom in recent months that I decided to take a look. I've been waiting on an update for Aperture for a while now and it seemed like a good time as any. The problem with Apple and Aperture is they don't offer a clear roadmap with a lot of their products so although Apple could come out with Aperture 4 tomorrow, it's difficult to understand whether this will actually happen tomorrow, next month or next year. While I can understand the need for confidentiality in the secret world of Apple, when it comes to software updates it can be frustrating for most users as the majority of software vendors offer some form of roadmap so users know what to expect.

    I've previously looked at Lightroom but found it annoying getting used to the interface changes. To be fair to Adobe this time around (in contrast to them being fair to Australian users with their pricing), I decided to shutdown my Aperture library temporarily, migrate the entire library to Lightroom and spend a month using Lightroom. I felt it would be a little like moving from Windows to Mac, frustrating for the first couple of weeks but it should get better as things move along.

    The title says "Lightroom 4 vs Aperture" but in reality this is not a full product comparison, it's Lightroom from an Aperture user's perspective.


    The migration was relatively simple and in some respects, I'm glad I did it. The only down side to the migration is that some metadata and adjustments obviously don't come across but the majority of my photos are older with no requirement to regenerate the final copies. That said, if it's important to keep adjustments you may want to consider exporting final JPG's and keeping a backup copy of them from Aperture. Disks are cheap these days so it would be easy to export your entire library to an external and keep it for eternity (or until the drive fails). If you're planning to move everything across, one consideration may be to tag those items recognised with the Aperture facial recognition. If you open each face, it's easy to apply tags to the photos and these will come across in the migration so you'll start your new Lightroom library with everything tagged. If you intend doing the migration, I suggest you investigate some of the migration articles on the web that cover this in more detail but it does require a bit of preparation.


    Starting with the interface, almost a month later I still think Apple is way ahead of Adobe and by a long way. Apple's interface is far more intuitive and easier to work with. I get the impression Apple has used the screen real estate better and Adobe seems to have wasted space by having things in different locations on the screen. When I work with Lightroom it simply feels cluttered, like you're in a messy room You have some things on the right, some on the left, below etc. It just seems like they haven't invested much time in how people actually interact with the product. It also seems like they could have used a menu bar a little better with some buttons at the top for commonly used tools. Maybe this will get better with time but for now, I'll give Apple credit where it's due. I will say I prefer the darker colour of Lightroom.

    Aperture - simple and intuitive

    Lightroom - a bit cluttered

    Photo Imports

    When it comes to importing, I prefer both Aperture and Lightroom but for different reasons. Lightroom has the ability to sort photos into subfolders based on dates, which I really liked. If you import, it will create a subfolder by date in the correct place. Unfortunately the process for custom naming folders on import isn't available and this is really where Aperture has the advantage. As an example, if I want to have a folder structure as 2012/01-13, Lightroom has no hassles. If I want 2012/01-13 John Smith's Wedding, the process is a little more cumbersome. Adobe's customer folder naming only names at the highest level so if you use this, it'll create John Smith's Wedding at the highest point in the folder structure. I.e. before the 2012. The only way to bypass this is to first create the folder and that move the images into the folder, which is annoying. Aperture in contrast allows you to create a custom folder name on import but only positions it at the highest level so you need to manually create the high level folders in your library and move the events around. Lightroom have a variety of options like creating duplicate copies of images if you want to create additional backups for safety sake. Aperture again has a couple of usability issues in it's favour. If you drag a photo to a set that's already been created, it simply adds it to the set. Lightroom opens the import screen and you have to jump through a couple of hoops.

    Apple's import screen - Simple but lacking some of the extra functionality required

    The Lightroom import screen - One of the better areas of Lightroom

    Functionality & Image Adjustments

    Again, both products have advantages and I get the impression that Apple is moving Aperture to the more dumbed down option like FCP. Most amateur photographers are going to find Aperture meets their needs but professionals are likely to find the functionality limiting in comparison to Lightroom. The level of adjust in Lightroom is simply larger and more powerful than Aperture, but with this power comes some frustration. Aperture makes it easier to perform basic functions, which Lightroom simply overcomplicates. Editing a photo on Aperture is simple, editing on Lightroom requires more knowledge but offers great flexibility. Some areas I found lacking on Aperture were the recovery functionality, as although it has recovery, Lightroom is simply better.

    There is some functionality missing in Lightroom although some may consider these as unimportant for professional photographers. This includes facial recognition and skin tone white balance. While the former is largely only important for home users, I found the skin tone white balancing to be pretty good for making quick adjustments in some scenarios (low light) where the camera had got the white balance horribly wrong, as it tends to give you a good starting point to minimise the level of adjustment required.


    The management of photos is a mix between the two. Again, both have good and bad points and Apple favours usability over functionality. I prefer the structure of photos using projects in Aperture. Lightroom uses folders and collections, which can be confusing although this could be because of the product I'm used to. As an example, when my father in law passed away, I tried to create a collection of photos for my wife to look through so she could pick the best. Whilst it was easy to get the photos thanks to tagging from my original facial recognition, trying to organise these into a single collection was a big more effort and took a bit of research.

    On the management of files, I do prefer Aperture's managed vs. referenced option. Lightroom only provides for referenced photos. In my typical workflow, I normally import into the managed library, work on my pictures and after about a month I relocate them to a referenced location. With Lightroom, you have to locate them on your drive (as opposed to managed in Lightroom itself) and then move them to the external drive. It's a similar process in theory but Aperture's approach seems to be a little simpler and more intuitive.

    External editors

    Lightroom wins the external editor option by a long way for the simple reason that Aperture only allows you to define a single editing program. That's great if you only use Photoshop but I suspect some people may be inclined to use multiple programs for different purposes. You can get additional editing programs with Aperture but you're reliant on them producing a plugin, which is not the case with Lightroom. Lightroom also offers greater flexibility with editing options when you opt to edit using an external program. One thing I will say with Lightroom is I don't like the split options. I.e. export to and edit in. It seems like they have two separate areas for the external editing functionality. I'm sure there is some technical reason why they are not combined, but it just doesn't make sense to group them in separate areas. You don't expect to find your editing functionality for HDR under export when there is an Edit option.

    Lightroom rules the external editing options but you don't expect to find editing under "Export"?

    Aperture only supports a single editing Application unless you use plugins


    One of the biggest complaints I've seen with Aperture is the speed issues and in its defence, part of these are as a result of additional functionality like facial recognition but working with Lightroom is enough to make you realise that Aperture is incredible slow. One of the first times I realised how slow it was occurred when I had an SSD failure. When I switched to spindle, working with Aperture was enough to make me want to pull my hair out. If you're working on Aperture and have performance issues but want to stay with it, the first thing I'd recommend is the SSD upgrade because it pushes it from frustration to workable. Lightroom on the other hand is quicker in some respects, but terrible in others. General browsing of libraries is faster but the moment you push into the editing functions, Aperture seems to have the performance edge. Part of these are as a result of having to switch through the modules (library vs. develop) which take time where Aperture is always in edit mode when you have a picture open because clicking on the adjustment tabs is instantaneous. One of the frustrations I found with the separation of develop vs. library is that functionality isn't always available in develop. If you have a photo open and you want to limit the view to only those with 5 stars, you have to switch to the library view, limit the view, then switch back to the develop view. It just seems really cumbersome and harder than it needs to be. I'm not sure why Lightroom can't offer the search and filters within develop.

    Social media integration

    When it comes to sharing and social media, the title goes to Apple again. The ability to share photos on Facebook is easier to set up, easier to use and offers more functionality. Adobe lacks the ability to publish photos to your wall (as opposed to publishing to a gallery), which is also important for commercial purposes. If you want to publish adhoc photos to your company Facebook site, you probably want to do it to your wall and include a short description, which Lightroom doesn't offer. The upload speed is also much slower in comparison to Aperture and I had issues with it failing after a number of photos causing duplicates when you had to restart the upload. Now obviously some of the plugins come from third party software providers so this may not be Adobe fault in all cases but they really do need to do something about it, or potentially provide some standard connectors to improve the quality because it does provide a second rate experience compared to Aperture.

    Aperture's Facebook wall option sadly lacking in Lightroom

    Neither Lightroom nor Aperture had standard connectors for twitter which was surprising, particularly for Aperture given the Twitter integration across OSX, but I can't knock Aperture for that anymore than Lightroom.

    Photo sharing

    As an avid user of SmugMug, I also encountered similar issues (to Facebook) with SmugMug. Part of the problem is defining the photo sizes on Album creation, which seems more cumbersome in Lightroom. I.e. I've had to create two separate connections to SmugMug to cater for larger images and smaller Mactalk based images. When you publish in Aperture, it offers you the option to select resolution at the time of publishing but in Lightroom, it's not as easy to do and you have to remember to set this when you create the album in SmugMug which isn't on the initial tab when you create it. After some research I found you have to create settings in SmugMug itself and then these will appear in the SmugMug plugin but these are not as flexible as I would like. As an example, when I do sports photos, I typically upload them as a standard size, but for Mactalk articles I only upload as 600-pixel width. SmugMug gallery settings don't give you a pixel option for upload defaults (They have settings like L, XL, XXL, Original) and you don't have the flexibility to customise these to a specific width or height. To resolve this, I now have to have two SmugMug setups for the same account, one with a default width of 600 and the other with a default width set to the original file size with the pre-sets allowing me to adjust these to lower resolution. It just seems like an annoying complex way of doing something relatively simple.

    What I do prefer with Lightroom is the publish function. Sometimes you want to set up some photos to publish. Lightroom allows you to get everything prepped and then publish in one go rather than have it publishing the moment you select the files to be published and create the Album on your photo sharing site.


    Like many of the other areas, both Lightroom and Aperture have pro's and con's. Lightroom seems to have more options available but suffers from one of the most complex interfaces I've seen in a product. Clearly it was designed by a developer and can be confusing as hell for first time users. Aperture on the other hand is simple but again, doesn't offer the same degree of flexibility.

    Apple - Clearly they have a usability team

    Lightroom - Another example of making something more complex than it needs to be


    A month on, I'm starting to favour Lightroom and it's likely my collection will remain in Lightroom for the time being. It may seems strange given how much I knocked Lightroom in this comparison but when it comes to management of images, the three key areas that are important are speed, editing and stability and all three of these are where Lightroom wins. The flexibility in Lightroom is simply better than Aperture in its current form, particularly if you're more than just a hobby photographer. Whilst I still prefer the Aperture look, feel and simplicity, it simply doesn't match the grade of Lightroom in terms of what you can actually do with the product.

    Saying Lightroom is better is probably a wrong thing to say. It really depends on the user and what they want to do. Lightroom is nearly twice the price and I’d say that Aperture offers better value for money for most home users.

    In this case, it’s more of arguing “Which product is better for you?” If you consider yourself an amateur photography user that likes to do things quickly but find that iPhoto doesn't provide you with enough functionality, Aperture is probably your best bet. Aperture is more than enough for most home users and I get the impression Apple is “dumbing” this down as an advanced home user product than a professional one. Apple seems to consider the commercial sale of a product as more important than the professional nature of the product and it seems that Aperture is following Final Cut Pro in its evolution, an advanced iPhoto per say. As a professional tool, Lightroom simply seems like the better option and beats Aperture in the areas that are really important. In the past, it seemed like the two had always been neck on neck depending on which was released later, but these days it seems like Lightroom is getting the edge and starting to build a lead. Lightroom 4 has been out for a long time and Aperture 4 is long overdue with no replacement in sight. If you're considering moving from Lightroom, the only warning I will give is that it takes a bit of work to get the most out of Lightroom but once you've done it, it could be well worth it.

    In finishing, I'd like to say that Apple have a lot of work to put into Aperture if they want to compete with Lightroom. It really is technically a better product, but Adobe also really need to take a long hard look at Lightroom from a usability perspective. If I seem like I've brought up the Lightroom interface a number of times in this article, it's only because it's a great example of how you can take a really good product and destroy it by making it far more difficult and clumsy than it needs to be.

    About the author

    Athol Hill is the Practice Lead for Stonebridge Systems , an SAP & OpenText implementation partner specialising in web and content management implementations and strategy.

    He is a certified SAP and Project Management Professional with a large number of implementations spanning the globe including Australasia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. When he isn't kitesurfing or spending time with his family, Athol writes part time for Mactalk on a range of subjects including iOS/OSX in the workplace, bleeding edge, product reviews and anything Mac. If you have something new and exciting to review, feel free to get in touch. He can be contacted via twitter on @themissionman or email on athol.hill@mactalk.com.au. Opinions noted here are Athol's own and aren't any official policy of position of his employer.
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