The Dilemma: Lightroom or Aperture?

I’m always a little bit bemused when I see reviews characterizing one app as the absolute best compared to another. I’ve been writing software reviews for a while now, and I’ve been a tech junkie for a significantly longer period of time. I’ve learned that there is rarely such thing as an absolute proof in the software world. In fact, there are usually compelling reasons to use as many apps you can get your hands on.

Photo management and editing software is the perfect example of this. I like Aperture and Lightroom — I recently gave Lightroom 5 a glowing review here at Mac.AppStorm. Professionals are also divided: Many use Aperture, but many others use Lightroom. There is no clear winner, and since the programs are mostly mutually exclusive, I decided to do a ton of workflow comparisons and some sleuthing to see if I could make them work together.

What Makes Aperture Awesome

Aperture is one of my favourite apps on my Mac. It shines at organization. Aperture’s managed library allows me to make sure that all my files are in one place, and makes them easy to move from one folder to another. It’s very similar to the way iTunes consolidates music within its own folder, if you haven’t used that.

I love the way Aperture lets me organize and view my photos.

I love the way Aperture lets me organize and view my photos.

Of course, you can forego the managed route and use a referenced library with a traditional hierarchy of folders, but why would you? The managed library is easier to use. If you find your managed library is slowing Aperture down, you can store it on a backup drive and create a new one. Aperture lets you merge multiple libraries down the road, so it’s easy for me to get everything onto externals when I’m ready to archive it. I really like that.

I’m also a big fan of the interface, particularly the full-screen view and navigation. Aperture makes it easy for me to browse my library and even make some edits and bring up the Inspector when I’m ready to make adjustments with the tap of the H key. The UI is relatively understandable, even to new users, and that give it an upper hand over Lightroom.

I'm also in love with fullscreen editing in Aperture.

I’m also in love with fullscreen editing in Aperture.

Easy labeling, rating and searching makes Aperture a pro photographer’s organization dream. When it comes to editing, Aperture’s big feature is brushes. You can brush in any adjustment, from lighting to colour temperatures, on any part of the image instead of applying it to the image as a whole. For the most part, Aperture can become a one-stop shop for me as a result.

That being said, there are some areas where Lightroom is the better app.

What Makes Lightroom Awesome

I hate the way that Lightroom manages my library and handles photo browsing, finding it a cumbersome process compared to Aperture. That being said, there are a lot of things Lightroom can do that Aperture simply can’t. With Lightroom 5, for example, you can build Smart Previews of every photo that enables you to preview and edit your images even if the original images are on an external drive.

Lightroom has some great lens correction. This is the before shot.

Lightroom has some great lens correction. This is the before shot.

Lightroom also has some features that can be essential, depending on your lens. Lightroom’s lens profiles allow for chromatic aberration correction and proper lens corrections. If you’ve been using Aperture and aren’t familiar with it, lens corrections straighten any distortion or barreling in the image at the expense of slightly cropping the edges. Sometimes, the tradeoff is well worth it.

And this is the after shot. Even some colour anomalies have been adjusted. (The visual differences are much more obvious at a higher resolution.)

And this is the after shot. Even some colour anomalies have been adjusted. (The visual differences are much more obvious at a higher resolution.)

The Develop module of Lightroom also does some editing better than Aperture. For example, it handles vignetting very well and has far more options for it than Aperture does. And despite the fact that it doesn’t have the same brushes as Aperture, its shadow detail and colour changes are often more precise and bring out more detail and clarity in your image.

Speaking of clarity, Lightroom offers a Clarity tool that does some amazing things to a picture that needs it. And if it shares a feature with Aperture, the general consensus is usually that it’s faster to get it done in Lightroom with greater precision.

What I’m Using and Why I’m Using It

This might shock you after the heaps of praise that I just gave Lightroom, but I’m using Aperture by default. I’ve got a ton of different reasons for it, but most of it comes down to ease of use. I love the fact that Aperture integrates really easily with my iPads, so if I’m out with a prospective client, I can bring a digital portfolio with me they can flick through.

This isn't the best way to look through photos for me or a client.

This isn’t the best way to look through photos for me or a client.

I also love how easy everything is to customize to my specifications, and how easy it is to filter searches based on labels and ratings. I use both for various reasons, and it’s not so much that Lightroom can’t do that, but it’s that Aperture makes it so much easier to do that.

Aperture has a couple problems though, even for me. The first is that it’s a RAM hog. Whether or not anybody can scientifically prove it is irrelevant, since I know somebody will want to debate me, but it simply is and I know it is because it can even bring my 15″ Retina MacBook Pro to a grinding halt if it’s in the mood.

The second is that its brushes aren’t always spot on, while Lightroom generally does a better job (plus, it’s got lens correction). But all this feature comparing isn’t going to help you decide which app you should use. Let’s break it down into which one is going to be best for your type of photography.

What You Should Use

People who take hundreds and hundreds of images at a single shoot need to be using Aperture. It’s the fastest way to go through racks of images at a time, and the file import is still way faster than Lightroom’s. If you’re a largely mobile photographer, moving from one shoot to the next, staying in hotel rooms, etc., I would go so far as to say that Aperture is your absolute best bet. It’ll help you get more sleep and find the best images you need quickly.

If you’re an elaborate shooter, one who thrives on absolute perfection in every shot and doesn’t leave anything to chance, Lightroom is for you. I know that I just described every photographer in existence, but there’s a difference between a perfectionist and people who lose sleep over an imperfect colour temperature. Lightroom isn’t going to the best way to manage all your files, but it is going to help you get through the editing as quickly as possible.

There’s the price tag, too, to consider. Aperture is just $79.99 in the App Store, while Lightroom costs $149 from Adobe, or is included as part of a $49.99/month Creative Cloud subscription along with Photoshop and Adobe’s other pro tools.

At one point, there was a referee in this photo. Two clicks later in Lightroom, and he's gone.

At one point, there was a referee in this photo. Two clicks later in Lightroom, and he’s gone.

There’s a flip side to this as well, one that’s a bit more complicated. Aperture’s reference library is the typical file/folder hierarchy that Lightroom users are used to, but since both apps feature non-destructive editing, you can’t just use the originals — the RAW files — in both apps and expect them to work together. There is, however, a workaround.

If you use Aperture as your home base, but crave some of the additional editing functionality that Lightroom offers, I’d suggest the Automator workflow in this post over at the Aperture Blog. Read the instructions very carefully, and make the necessary changes — after all, this workflow was published before Lion — before even Lightroom 4 was out. And keep in mind any changes you make in Lightroom will save back in your Aperture library as TIFF files instead of in their original RAW state.

Wrapping It Up

These two apps are bound to stir up some discussion. For many people, it’s no contest and they already know their preferred workflow. For others, it’s cause for pause. Adobe offers a thirty-day trial of Lightroom 5 if you’re on the fence about it, but Apple no longer provides an Aperture trial for interested parties.

Personally, I think Aperture covers my needs, but I do suffer from some Lightroom envy — especially when it comes to lens correction and Smart Previews. That being said, there are better things to lose sleep over than photo management apps. Hopefully this post has made your decision an easier one. Leave a comment and let us know which app you’re using and why!