Counterpoint: What the Critics Don’t Get About Apple’s Aperture

by Scott Bourne | February 1, 2006

NatureScapesRight on the heels of its release, nearly a dozen reviewers gave Apple a pretty good thrashing over Aperture, Apple’s new professional photography software. Not all of the reviews are bad. Some offer very positive insights. But many focus on perceived problems. After delving into Aperture, I’ve come to some conclusions about where many of the critics went wrong.

Consider the Audience

Aperture’s worth should be measured in part by how well it fits its audience. While few would dispute the fact that Luciano Pavarotti is a world-renowned and talented opera singer, you wouldn’t send a hardcore punk rock fan to one of Pavarotti’s concerts and expect glowing, insightful reviews, would you? Understanding the intended audience for a product is critical in order to provide a fair, accurate, and helpful review of that product.

Aperture is a professional application created by Apple’s professional applications division. Aperture is aimed at professional photographers (it says so, right on the box.) If you’re an amateur point-and-shoot user and an iPhoto fan, chances are you won’t need or want Aperture. Since iPhoto is a consumer application and Aperture is not, it’s not a fit. If you’re a designer or illustrator using Photoshop, you probably don’t need or want Aperture. Reviewers who compare Aperture to iPhoto and Photoshop have missed the mark because the products are targeted to different audiences. The key to understanding, reviewing and, for that matter, using and getting the most out of Apple’s Aperture, is to understand that it’s a product designed for professional photographers.

Defining Aperture

Some confusion exists in the market about how to classify Aperture. It’s not Photoshop, and it’s not designed to compete with Photoshop or Adobe Camera Raw or any other raw converter, pixel editor, or image management software. It does, however, do many of the things that all these existing programs do. But this frustrates reviewers (and users) because they want a quick-fit comparison. When you are working with a new paradigm, comparisons don’t work. Some reviewers have tried to fit a round Aperture into a square Photoshop hole and have come up disappointed.

According to Joe Schorr, Aperture product lead, one of Apple’s main goals was to break out of what people have already defined as photography-related software product categories. Some critics want to pigeonhole Aperture as an image editor, photo browser, or archiving tool. Well, it does all those things, but it really occupies a new space. I call it a photo workflow tool.

“Apple’s idea was to let Aperture grow out of the workflow rather than letting the workflow grow out of the product,” says Schorr. Aperture allows photographers to stop shooting “for Photoshop” and make images from a purely creative point of view. This is key to understanding what Aperture is and is not.

Those who concentrate on what Aperture cannot do would be much better off if they concentrated on what it can do. Apple’s goal with Aperture was to completely “clear the deck,” according to Schorr. Apple’s programmers asked the question: “If there was no pre-existing software, and you were thinking like a photographer—not a Photoshop guru—what would you build?” Apple also interviewed professional photographers to understand workflow-related problems and possible solutions. The interviews led to a simple fact: Photographers want to cut the time spent comparing, selecting, correcting, exporting, and archiving their images. Aperture achieves those goals. This gives professional photographers more time to spend on the things that produce income, and less on the things that keep us from getting home on weekends like everyone else.

Aperture Is Not Photoshop

I have heard from countless photographers who ask me how to make Aperture do this or that like Photoshop does. Well, folks, you have to understand that Aperture was not conceived as a Photoshop replacement. It is designed to complement Photoshop. Aperture is about workflow, not pushing pixels. Apple’s goal was to improve the entire post-capture experience. It wasn’t trying to replace Photoshop. I remember when photography conventions were about photography. Now what are they about? Photoshop. The fact that training at conventions and workshops is dominated by Photoshop gurus doesn’t (or shouldn’t) reflect the goals of the photographic community.

As a Photoshop teacher and author of a Photoshop book, it pains me to say this. It’s a statement against my own interests. But it’s true. Because of the sea change in photography from film to digital, there’s been an overwhelming demand for Photoshop instruction. But some of this demand is driven by a giant misunderstanding. Some photographers seem to think that you need to be better at Photoshop than you do photography to make good pictures. Well, sorry, but even as a Photoshop aficionado, I think that’s just crazy.

The goal with Aperture was to start fresh and figure out how everything works together. Schorr said, “The goal was to rethink it. How would this product behave if the driving force was the photographer taking the picture, not the Photoshop guru?”

Feedback Leads to Refinement

The early critics of Aperture will soon be proven wrong. Here’s why. Despite the outcry and the vocal minority on some Internet forums, the overwhelming feedback received by Apple isn’t negative. It’s more of a demand for help.

According to Schorr, people aren’t contacting Apple to say “I hate this.” They’re contacting Apple to say, “I want this to work for my camera.” Or “I want the software to allow me to do this and this.” Schorr and his team take that as a good sign. And they are soliciting and listening to feedback from professional photographers so that Aperture can continue to develop into a solution that meets the needs of the greatest percentage of working professionals.

Aperture in a Class of Its Own

Understanding, using, reviewing, and teaching Aperture to its intended audience requires one simple thing: a willingness to redefine your view of the photography world. Hopefully, as Aperture matures as a product, the reviewers will follow with additional insight, and we’ll all get a better picture of how Aperture can help us become more productive and profitable.

About the Author

Scott Bourne is a long time Photoshop instructor who will be teaching a two-day workshop for Pixel Corps that introduces all of Aperture’s major functions. His books are 88 Secrets to Selling & Publishing your Photography, 88 Secrets to Photoshop for Photographers, and 88 Secrets to Wildlife. These books are available through

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