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Apple fights back with Aperture 2

The company touts better speed, a streamlined interface, and new editing tools for its high-end software for editing and cataloging "raw" photos. Plus: A price cut to $199.

Apple's Aperture is used to edit and catalog photos. Apple

Update 11:35 a.m.: I added information about Aperture 2.0's plug-in architecture, which could provide an advantage over Adobe Lightroom.

After pioneering a high-end photography software niche, then losing ground to Adobe Systems' Photoshop Lightroom, Apple on Tuesday counterattacked with Aperture 2.0.

The software, like Adobe's Lightroom, is aimed at enthusiasts and professionals who need to edit and catalog "raw" images, the unprocessed data from higher-end cameras' image sensors; raw files preserve more detail than JPEGs but require time and specialized software that can deal with the profusion of different proprietary raw formats.

Aperture 2.0 has a new raw image-processing engine and streamlined work flow, and the first new feature Apple touts is better speed, one of the common knocks against it, compared with its rival.

Other features (this list should sound familiar to Lightroom users) include highlight recovery to better deal with bright areas; tools to deal with vignetting, the darker tones some lenses leave in the corners of images; a retouching tool to clean up sensor dust specks or unsightly skin blemishes; a repair tool to subtly clone one area of an image to another; vibrancy to boost saturation without making skin look blotchy; and local contrast to give a bit more definition to images.

It also benefits from new camera support of Mac OS X 10.5.2. And for when Adobe's camera support is ahead of Apple, Aperture can handle raw images converted into Adobe's Digital Negative (DNG) raw format.

The upgrade from Aperture 1.5 costs $99, and buying it new is $199--about $100 less than Lightroom and Aperture 1.5.

Another core element of Aperture and Lightroom is managing photos. Aperture lets photographers rate images; sort them into projects; add keywords, titles, and other metadata; click on GPS coordinates for photos that have been geotagged with location data to see where on a map the photo was taken; and export photos directly to a Mac gallery on the Web or to a photo book--even hardcover, foil-stamped books that likely will carry appeal for the wedding photographer crowd.

Specifically regarding metadata, Aperture can write titles and other information into raw files, recognizes lens metadata, and can adjust photo time stamps. And scripts can be used to add other metadata when images are exported.

Aperture has a significant ability Lightroom lacks: quick preview, which speeds culling, ranking, and labeling tasks by showing only preview images that load much faster than the raw images.

Aperture 2.0 lets photographers pull overexposed highlights back from the brink. Apple

Lightroom's come-from-behind victory
The update no doubt will be welcome to Aperture users, several of whom have crabbed that Aperture stood still for more than a year while Lightroom benefited from many updates. And worry over Aperture's fate was a common subject at the Photo Marketing Association trade show two weeks ago.

Adobe began creating Lightroom, code-named Shadowland, between the release of Photoshop 7 in 2002 and Photoshop CS in 2003, according to Kevin Connor, Adobe's senior director of professional digital-imaging product management. But Apple brought the first such product to market, releasing Aperture 1.0 in October 2005, more than a year before Lightroom 1.0 arrived, in February 2007.

Aperture fanned Adobe's competitive flames and helped prepare the market for a new category of software, Adobe has acknowledged.

However, by October 2007, Lightroom had won the raw-conversion software popularity contest over Aperture: an InfoTrends survey of more than 1,000 photo professionals found 23.6 percent using Lightroom and 5.5 percent using Aperture.

Even just looking at Mac OS X users to account for the fact that only Lightroom runs on Windows, Lightroom had 26.6 percent to Aperture's 14.3 percent. (Both lost out to the incumbent, the regular version of Photoshop, with 66.5 percent.)

Plug-in architecture
One significant departure in 2.0--and a potentially dramatic advantage over Lightroom--is the arrival of a plug-in architecture that will let third parties add their own editing features, according to David Schloss of the Aperture Users Professional Network, who has worked with the new version of Aperture and wrote about it extensively Tuesday. However, there's no software development kit (SDK) yet to write the plug-ins, he said.

"Apple has added the ability to create editing plug-ins for Aperture, which will, over time, revolutionize the program," Schloss said. "It'll be possible to create plug-ins that replicate film effects, add borders, allow for selective edits like dodging and burning--the possibilities are pretty endless."

Schloss elaborated in a post on Apple's Aperture forum: "Here's the word on the plug-in architecture. It's in Aperture 2, they just haven't released an SDK on it. Personally, I hope Apple starts to really push this, as it will change everything. From what I understand, there's very little that can't be done in the plug-in. Right now, if you go to Images>Edit With, you'll see 'no plug-ins installed.' Once those are available, that's where you'll find them."

Adobe has released a beta SDK for Lightroom that lets people add export options but not editing options. The nondestructive nature of Lightroom editing, in which all changes are reversible, complicates editing plug-ins, Adobe has said.