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Apple upgrades Aperture ambitions to 2.0

No, the company wasn't letting its high-end photo-editing tool wither on the vine. With Aperture 2.0, Apple put the ball back in Adobe's court for raw image editing.

CUPERTINO, Calif.--Apple, why hast thou forsaken me?

That, loosely paraphrased, is what some Aperture customers had been asking after Apple went too long without updating its higher-end photo editing and cataloging software. It got to the point where some were plotting strategies on Apple forums about how to flee to Adobe Systems' rival Photoshop Lightroom software with their photo metadata intact.

On Tuesday, though, Apple came back with the new Aperture 2.0, a version that addressed many common gripes, caught up with Lightroom in several important respects, and signaled that the company hasn't lost interest in the market. On the contrary, a price cut to $199 from $299--also Lightroom's current price--shows Apple wants to expand Aperture's use.

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

"There's huge interest from the hobbyist market," said Joe Schorr, Apple's senior product manager of photo applications. "It was clear this was the right price to make that more palatable to them."

He said Apple's October 2007 market research showed 54 percent of iPhoto users thought of themselves not as mere snapshooters but rather as photo hobbyists, some serious enough to aspire to sell photos. Apple is trying to bring those customers into the fold while also catering to the professionals whom the company initially targeted with Aperture.

Schorr bridled a bit when I asked him Wednesday about some people's fears that Apple isn't committed to Aperture. "Releasing a new version is as big a commitment as you can demonstrate," he said. "This is not a maintenance release. It takes quite a bit of engineering resources. Apple's commitment is unmistakable."

Aperture is designed to edit the detailed and flexible but unwieldy and proprietary "raw" image files taken unprocessed from higher-end cameras' image sensors. Apple was first to market with software that not only handles this computing-intensive editing task but also lets photographers sort images into catalogs and add metadata such as captions, tags, and titles.

However, since then, Adobe came on strong with Lightroom in 2007, outpacing Aperture's adoption among professionals in a matter of months, even after factoring out the fact Lightroom also runs on Windows. Apple has clout with creative professionals, but that's the center of Adobe's business.

Whipping Aperture into shape
Schnorr knows the company hit a rough patch with Aperture 1.5, which wasn't able to support many high-profile new cameras such as Nikon's D3 and D300 and Canon's 1Ds Mark III and PowerShot G9. Apple's new raw support only arrived this week, months after Lightroom could handle those cameras' raw files.

The problem: Apple's product cycle was out of sync with the camera companies. The new cameras "happened to hit when we were in the thick of replacing the entire raw engine...It was a perfect storm," Schnorr said.

Another big problem was performance. Processing raw-image files is a computationally onerous job, but Lightroom outperformed Aperture, and speed is essential for either to meet their potentially.

With the ability to manage images, edit them in large batches, and export them as Web galleries, Aperture and Lightroom have liberated raw images from the one-by-one plodding interface of regular Photoshop and other raw-processing tools. The vision was ahead of the technology, though: a free-wheeling editing style, jumping from one photo to another, only works if you don't have to spend a lot of time waiting for the computer to laboriously construct and update images from the raw originals.

Apple has done well with Aperture 2.0, based on my test of ingesting and editing a batch of my own photos on a dual-core iMac. On top of a general performance boost, it's got a new preview mode that specifically emphasizes speed by using only fast-rendering JPEGs instead of the full-on raw images. Lightroom and Aperture are geared to map a photographer's image workflow, but I generally take an extra step to review images with BreezeBrowser to cull out the duds before I import the rest into Lightroom.

I also liked the single-keystroke ability to switch editing controls swiftly into metadata controls. I find that adding tags and captions is a process that's not as far removed from editing as Lightroom's separate library and develop modes would have you think.

I'm not alone in noticing Aperture's kick in the pants. "I feel like someone snuck a new CPU into my machine," gushed photographer Josh Anon in a Wednesday blog posting about Aperture 2.0.

Plug-ins ahoy
One of the unknown factors for Lightroom and Aperture is what the future holds for third-party editing plug-ins. Photoshop has a rich supply, but the nondestructive editing requirements of Lightroom and Aperture throw a wrench into the works of an algorithm that permanently alters an image's pixels.

Lightroom's future here is fuzzy, though Adobe has released a beta version of a software development kit (SDK) for plug-ins limited to actions during the photo-export phase.

Aperture 2.0 will accept editing plug-ins, though, Schorr said.

"We've laid the groundwork for an image-editing plug-in architecture," he said. Asked about the difficulties of nondestructive editing, he said, "We've found a way of implementing a plug-in system we believe is very effective."

Schorr wouldn't share further details about the plug-ins architecture, but did say Apple will release its own SDK.

Raw engine overhaul
Aperture 2.0 got several of its new editing abilities through Apple's new raw-processing engine. So what's so great about the new raw engine? Schnorr points to several changes:

• It handles highlights better and lets photographers use a recovery slider to pull back overexposed regions.

• It handles noise better, preserving details and changing the turning speckles into a something closer to the grain of high-speed films of analog photography days.

• It preserves more detail in shadow regions rather than blocking them up into a dark murk.

• It's got changes in color rendering to handle skin tones better.

The flip side of the new raw engine, which is built into Mac OS X Leopard 10.5.2 is that it requires the latest software to use it. That means Aperture 1.5 users will have to pay the $99 upgrade fee if they want the new camera support, Schnorr said. For iPhoto users, the newer version 7 released last fall, is required.

Apple has supported many cameras much closer to their debut in the past, sometimes even releasing new camera support software independently from operating system updates. With the new engine now done, adding support for new cameras "should be easier for us," Schorr said.