Head to Head: Aperture and Lightroom

Over the past few months, I have become more and more interested in photography, and more specifically, organizing the hundreds and hundreds of photos I’ve taken. However, each time I head out for a Digital SLR filled adventure, I find myself feeling more and more disorganized. Dozens of pictures for a family birthday party and night out with friends still sit on my SD card, waiting to be imported. Why, you ask, have I neglected to do this? I don’t know where to put them!

Sure, many Mac users love and live for iPhoto. However, for me, it feels like a step back. This is why I’ve looked at moving upwards to a prosumer piece of software, like Aperture or Lightroom. In this screencast review, we’ll take a look at the latest features added to these photography library apps.

Watch the Screencast Review

Aperture 3

Aperture builds upon one of the best photo management software on the Mac. However, I personally haven’t become familiar with it until recently. With the release of the iLife ‘09 software suite, Apple has introduced facial recognition and geo-tagging features into iPhoto. With Aperture 3, these features are brought into the more professional world.

Main Aperture Window

Main Aperture Window

Unlike pervious versions, the transition and barrier to entry for using Aperture 3 is much lower. The software offers several options for viewing, and flipping through your photos, as well as using the ‘Loupe’ to zoom in on parts of photos.

Aperture 3 also has a very nice Full Screen mode. I found this most useful when using my Macbook Pro without an external monitor, as it hides away the toolbars and thumbnail browsers until you mouse over them. It really allows you to fully immerse yourself in the photos.

Aperture in Full Screen Mode

Aperture in Full Screen Mode

In iPhoto your photos are grouped into ‘Events,’ but in Aperture, they are called Projects. I found it very easy to merge Projects, rename and organize them – features that don’t seem as apparent in iPhoto. Aperture 3 also brings in the hover-over-to-view technology introduced in iPhoto’s Events screen. Scrubbing through Projects is nice, but can be annoying if your Projects are filled with hundreds or thousands of photos.

Aperture’s Metadata tab allows you to easily see what camera and lenses you used for the shot. It even allows you to display the autofocus points over the image, and display the one used for focus. You can also set up presets for stamping your photo’s metadata with your name and contact information.



While no replacement for Adobe Photoshop, Aperture does allow you to remove red eye, straighten a crooked photo, or crop down the picture. It also brings in the ability to use Brushes to touch up your photos. For instance you can add a blur, smooth skin, or adjust contrast/saturation/noise.

Also new, Aperture brings in iPhoto’s fancy slideshow features, and the ability to export them as High Definition movie files, ready for upload or to be burned on a DVD.

I really enjoyed using the Faces and Places features. Faces was extremely easy to use. It even worked well on our family pets! However I did find it bringing in statues and paintings as possible matches – which I guess is to be expected. Places worked well, even if you don’t have a GPS enabled camera; apps for your iPhone can be used to match up GPS logs, or you can manually assign places. The only slightly annoying part was having to choose a landmark if you lacked specific GPS data. This doesn’t work well if you don’t have a landmark that is in the system nearby.





In short – Aperture is a great upgrade and easy transition if you’re an existing iPhoto user. It allows for more advanced photo editing, and scales with your photography habits.

Lightroom 3 Beta

Lightroom 3 (currently in beta) was released prior to Apple’s Aperture 3. However it is still in public beta. Unlike Aperture, it is more workflow structured, in a kind of pipeline system. It also has the ability to ‘roundtrip’ a photo through Photoshop for further editing.

Main Lightroom Window

Main Lightroom Window

Lightroom offers similar layout features, but also offers a nice ‘compare’ feature that allows one to compare two similar photos. Adobe’s software also allows you to filter images in a similar way to smart folders.

In the ‘Develop’ option, Lightroom allows you to make similar adjustments as Aperture: red eye correction, cropping, straightening, and even masking. Lightroom also features the popular Brushes feature from its pervious version.

Virtual Photo Development

Virtual Photo Development

Slideshow and print options are also dedicated portions of the Lightroom process. The Web upload options are bit more expanded, including the capability to send photos directly to Flickr – something that was not included out of the box with Lightroom 2.

A nice feature in Lightroom is the ability to export a complete online web gallery, without having to write one line of code. Aperture’s MobileMe gallery feature is similar, but requires a MobileMe account, and can’t easily be linked directly up to your personal website.

Web Export

Web Export

I really did enjoy editing photos with Lightroom, and appreciated the option to send a photo directly into Photoshop for further fine tuning. The design of the application isn’t very Mac-like, but isn’t terrible. Plus, Lightroom is also available for Windows, and does not ‘hide’ your photos inside a proprietary Library format like Aperture. Instead it opts for plain folder based storage of photos, with a Lightroom Catalog file.

Wrapping Up

I really enjoyed using both pieces of software. Aperture is great if you need something more powerful than iPhoto – and their facial recognition is really fun. Lightroom was very, very stable for a beta, and offers a more open format for both organizing and sharing your photos. There wasn’t any Facebook integration, geo-tagging or facial recognition, but if you really have a need to work with Photoshop, Lightroom will be a better fit.

Both pieces of software are great, but they are on the expensive side. Aperture is available from Apple for $199, ($99 if you just need an upgrade) and Lightroom can be purchased from Adobe for $299 ($99 upgrade).

Do let us know which you prefer in the comments!


Add Yours
  • Just a note about Photoshop with Aperture: you can easily set up Photoshop as an external editor. Once set up, it’s accessible from the menu (Photos… Edit with Photoshop).

    Once you’re done editing, you hit save and close the file. A copy is then placed in your Aperture library, alongside the original file.

    To me, it’s just as easy as using Lightroom to do the same thing.

    • Great! I didn’t know you could do that!

      • That’s been a feature since 1.0.

  • Having used both professionally, either one will do the job well. Aperture 3 is a really big upgrade. I have enjoyed using it. And so far, it’s showing it will work better with DSLRs that have video built in. But Lightroom 3 beta isn’t a finished product. Nobody outside Adobe knows what form it will take in the end. So it’s kind of premature to compare them now, since most certainly Lightroom 3 will be different when its officially released.

    As for integration with Photoshop, I find Aperture and Bridge working together are a great fit that gives me things Lightroom doesn’t. (All the Aperture bits, and not much lost that Lightroom has.)

    For me, Aperture and Lightroom are for shooting in the studio and on the road. At my desk I find Bridge a better starting point for most things I do.

    • Hi Eric,

      Just wondering, since you’ve used bot professionally: What kind of workflow do you have? I mean: using Lightroom for my RAW pictures, I would love to know from a professional:

      (1) Do you convert RAW pictures to the DNG format?
      (2) Do you mind the RAW/DNG picture being converted to PSD/TIFF when skipping to Photoshop?

      Still trying to find the “ultimate workflow”… ;)

  • Let’s not forget that Photoshop is for ‘photo manipulation’ not ‘photo correction’ like Aperture.

    I used iPhoto religiously and seamlessly migrated over to Aperture 3.

    I love the faces and geo-tagging features as well as the ability to create a real photo album from your photos (my partner and I are going through all our digital photos and making an awesome collection of photobooks).

    The photo books are a bit pricey but a friend of ours has used Apple’s service before and say the image quality is unbelievable so we’re happy to spend a little extra.

    Plus it’s a native mac app, designed and built by Apple, so as expected it runs like a dream! Compare that to Adobe – and we all know what a nightmare the Creative Suite can be on your poor ‘ole Mac – then it doesn’t look good for Lightroom’s overall performance. But make up your own mind about the performance difference.

    Aperture’s brushes and correction tools are great and if you know what you’re doing you can really do wonders with your photos.

    BUT! there are times I do concede that you need to manipulate a photo that has (for whatever reason) gone hideously wrong so I’m glad I have Photoshop CS4 to jump in and save the day – but those times are rare and far between.

    Aperture all the way! :)

    • I just wanted to say that Lightroom 2 and especially the new beta are very fast on most computers, sometimes outperforming Aperture 3 in my own experience. It’s quite remarkable since most Adobe software is kludgey at best. Hopefully that is changing if the major performance enhancements in Photoshop CS5 are any indication.

  • I prefer Lightroom pretty much for the cross platform capabilities. My desktop, with the terabytes of hard drive storage and a big monitor (high end too) is a PC. But my laptop (which I use daily) is a Mac. It’s a little kludgey, but I usually import to the PC (for archive and backup purposes, and taking advantage of the monitor). And then I export the latest group as a snapshot catalog so they can be sifted through and organized (duds “thrown out,” metadata tweaked, etc.) on the laptop. And then simply reimport them back to the master catalog when I’m done.

  • You can store photos on your Hard Drive, you don’t have to import them into the Aperture Library file. You are given this option during import. I always copy my images of the DSRl before bring them into Aperture.

    • There is an option (“Backup location”) for copying photos to the hard disk during importing

      • What Ricky means is that files in Aperture can be referenced or managed. If they’re managed, they live in the Aperture Library. Managed and they live anywhere on any of your drives, the Library just stores the thumbnails, previews, metadata, organization.

  • I’m confused by something you said:

    >>Lightroom was very, very stable for a beta, and offers a more open format for both organizing and sharing your photos. There wasn’t any Facebook integration, geo-tagging or facial recognition, but if you really have a need to work with Photoshop, Lightroom will be a better fit.<<

    In what way do you think Lightroom offers a "more open format" for "organizing and sharing your photos"?

    How does a program with no Facebook integration have better sharing? Why not mention the dozens of Aperture export plug-ins designed to share your images with tons of amateur and pro photo sharing sites?

    It would probably be a good idea to change your paragraphs about Aperture "hiding" your images and about it not having Photoshop integration, since neither thing is true.
    Lightroom keeps images in the finder, and info on the images in the Catalog. Aperture does the same thing with Referenced images, but also gives you the choice of managing your images for one-location file management.

    • Jeffrey Friedl has a great plug in for lightroom that allows you to export to facebook, and another to flickr. I’ve not had any problems with these, but haven’t upgraded to Lightroom 3 yet, either.
      From his download page: “Lightroom 3 — Registrations in Lightroom 2.x will not carry over to Lightroom 3 when it is released, so plan that you’ll have to re-register if you upgrade to Lightroom 3. (That’s for the real Lightroom 3…. registration is not required in either Lightroom 3 beta, but be warned that plugin support is very spotty in the first beta.)”

    • Well, LR has lots of export plugins as well, and Flickr will be a built-in option in 3.

      As far as formats go, with LR you can convert the RAW to a DNG upon import. In ten or fifteen years I know I can probably open a DNG file, whereas I don’t know if RAW converters will still support my old 5D and XTI RAW files.

  • One of the most annoying things of iPhoto is its so-called photo management. Your photos get duplicated and disappear into an invisible library. When you edit a photo, there’s no way to find out where the new edit is on your HD.
    So before using aperture I’d have to be really really certain that you can disable this ‘feature’.

    • Selecting “show in finder” in the context-menu of the picture is too difficult?

    • That’s another place where aperture is better than iPhoto indeed. Right-click, then “New working copy from original” and you get new copies from the original photo, which you can work on separately and stack together to not clutter the project.

  • Since Lightroom and Aperture are fundamentally different from each other I think the best way to figure out the right one is to simply use them for a while; both Adobe and Apple offer 30-day trials for free.

    Personally I find Lightroom’s modal workflow more productive, but you might prefer Aperture’s open ended approach. You really can’t go wrong with either application though, they are both excellent solutions.

  • For comprehensive information from professional photographers about Aperture 3 go here: http://aperture.maccreate.com/

  • Aperture3 most definitely….

    I don’t get these comments about proprietary file system, all it does is just use a stand Apple OS X feature to make you think the folder structure is a single file. Nothing to do with the App, it is just a feature of OS X. Just right click on this so called proprietary library in Finder and select show Package Contents…And voila you see it is a totally normal file structure….

    Which brings me to the second point…Why would you want to do that? Last time I looked the Adobe apps aren’t Apple Media Browser aware…Basically any application in OS X can hook into the media browser, so from within Mail I can attach an Aperture photo (if I’d like) and just search using spotlight in the file dialog, and it appears from Aperture, or browse the projects/albums using the media browser….The file gets converted automatically from a NEF to a JPEG for easy sharing…..

    That’s how integration should work…

    • Correct me if I am wrong, but the deal breaker for me as far as Aperture is concerned is that Adobe Camera Raw edits do NOT get reflected back in Aperture. With Lightroom, not only does it share the same RAW “engine” (ACR), but if your workflow involves ACR and Photoshop where you are opening RAW images edited in Lightroom into Photoshop as Smart Objects, you can bounce back into ACR from Photoshop, make edits, and then by a simple key command have those edits reflected in that RAW image in Lightroom. My understanding is Aperture has no direct way of doing that, without creating an Automator action.

  • Without a doubt, Lightroom. I have been using it since the beta for v1. I love the interface, speed, etc. I looked at Aperture for a little bit, but kept going back to Lightroom. By far my favorite photo app of all time.

  • I have not tried the LR3 Betas. I have used both LR1 and 2. I wanted to try Aperture but at the time my Mac did not have the system requirements.

    Since upgrading my computer I have switched to Aperture it is my preferred application. There are times I go to LR as I love some of the custom presets I have collected.

    When LR3 is a finished project I will take a serious look at it as I prefer the way Lightroom in past version handles your files. The Apple Aperture way can b very frustrating at times (IMHO).

  • I prefer Aperture 3. I feel it’s more stable than Lightroom. I would use Aperture 3 as my main post processing app, and I’d use Lightroom occasionally on specific images, that if I have to

  • Aperture 3 is amazing. Just like everything MAC it really works. I suggest you add Nik Software Complete Collection or as a minimum the Viveza Colour Control Software. Amazing results and real control over so much of your photos almost pixel by pixel. Not cheap, but then nothing worthwhile is cheap.

  • Aperture 3 is hands down the worst software I have ever purchased. It is riddled with bugs and it is virtually impossible to keep a work flow going with all the crashing and mysterious glitches. I’m running it on snow leopard 10.6.4 so it can’t be blamed on the operating system. TOTAL waste of money. I’m going back to and sticking with Lightroom.

  • what about the speed of processsing? I have trialed LR3 and found it almost unusable.
    It does a way better job than Phase one in processing raw, but sadly runs at an unusable speed. I am a pc user and have no other issues with speed in PS 3 and Bridge.

  • I use Aperture for my workflow, and definitely it’s the best post-processing and photo management application for the Mac so far.

    Standalone, Aperture can define your whole workflow (but you can add other programs in the Settings). Lightroom’s more of a post-processing app, yet it’s an industry standard.

    So it’s like choosing apples over oranges. Either way, it’s useful.

  • my problem is apple’s agenda of collecting thumbnails, places, faces rather then selling decent software products, they depend on developers, even give them a hackers platform with jailbreaking devices which have backdoors, imagine hitler having access, one would think the wrong hands have got a grip on info the world is a mess, as we witness today in america financially with scams

  • without a shadow of a doubt lightroom.faster,easier,and you can simply tweak more.with aperture i always seem to have trouble finding where my files have gone, whereas lightroom’s export settings are wholly intuitive for a non-techie like me.

  • I am looking for the best photo storage option for my company. We need to store thousands of photographs and it needs to be accessible to anyone in the company looking for photos. Any ideas/suggestions would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!