Apple Aperture versus Adobe Lightroom

Sunday, January 01 2012 @ 12:00 AM EST

Contributed by: Walter Rowe

Lightroom 3
Lightroom 3
Aperture 3
Aperture 3

If you are an Apple Mac user, Apple and Adobe offer two powerful all-in-one tools for editing and managing your photographs. Apple Aperture (hereafter “Aperture”) and Adobe Photoshop® Lightroom® (hereafter “Lightroom”) have a great deal of functionality in common. All of the basic and most of the most advanced editing features both programs offer are surprisingly comparable. That makes choosing one to use for your post processing and photo management difficult. There are some unique features in each application that differentiate them.

Image Adjustments

Aperture and Lightroom offer many of the same basic and advanced image adjustment tools: white balance, tint, exposure, highlight recovery, shadow fill, black point, brightness, contrast, clarity/definition, vibrance and saturation, spot removal, selected area adjustments, tone curves, sharpening, noise reduction, and cropping and straightening. Both also both have on-screen indicators that identify areas of the image that are clipped to complete white or black.

All of these adjustments are made via sliders in a sidebar panel while the image is displayed in a large central panel on the screen. In addition to sliders, a click on the value field permits typing in specific values, or using arrow keys as shortcuts to change the value up or down without having to move the mouse back and forth. All of these methods provide granular control over the adjustment. Pressing the Tab or Shift-Tab navigates to the next or previous adjustment control. The screenshots below show adjustment panels for Aperture on the left and Lightroom on the right.

Lightroom 3
Lightroom 3
Aperture 3
Aperture 3

Both applications also allow you to create your own custom setting presets. These are collections of settings that you name for use in many useful ways. You can apply them during import to speed up the editing process. You can select groups of images and apply a settings preset to all the selected images at once. You can create presets that generate all kinds of effects such as sepia tone, cross processing, black and white, infrared, high contrast and the characteristics of different film types. You might also create custom settings for specific kinds of photographs such as portraits, landscapes, travel, sports, etc.

A histogram displays the distribution of the tones and the saturation of the color channels. This gives the photographer yet another form of feedback to insure their adjustments accurately represent the original tones and colors of the original scene. When the mouse cursor is hovering over the image, a row of text along the bottom of the histogram panel displays the RGB (red, green, blue) values of the image area under the mouse pointer. When the mouse is outside the image window, this same row displays the exposure data and lens focal length extracted from the EXIF data of the image file.

Taking adjustments to the next level, Aperture and Lightroom let you save different adjustments to an image at any point in the process. Aperture calls this a “version” and Lightroom calls this a “snapshot”. This lets you process the same source image in multiple ways to achieve different visual effects, saving each completed look as a different version or snapshot, without ever altering the original image file. Imagine processing a landscape photograph in color and in black & white, and saving a snapshot of each version. Or imagine an old west mining town processed in sepia, black & white, and color with a snapshot for each, and then applying adjustments to the color snapshot to make it look aged and creating a new snapshot from that. If you shoot professionally and need to provide different looks to different clients, this is a very power feature.

Aperture and Lightroom make it fast and easy to apply the same adjustments to multiple photographs at once via the traditional “copy-n-paste” method. Make adjustments to one photograph, then copy-n-paste them to others. You can apply all of the adjustments from the source image, or selectively apply only specific adjustments from the source image. Both applications pop up a window to let you choose which adjustments to copy-n-paste.

Advantage Aperture

Both applications have a brush tool that lets you “paint on” various adjustments to selected areas. One area where Aperture excels is in letting you create custom presets for these brushes to “remember” effects you use often. A second area where Aperture excels is with its “Retouch” brush that lets you brush on cloning or healing over irregularly shaped areas. Lightroom cloning and healing only comes in the form of spots (circles), and it only lets you control size and opaqueness and whether it is a clone or heal operation. Aperture lets you also set edge “softness”, and lets you paint the correction onto the image. The retouch brush is far more powerful a feature than the cloning and healing tool in Lightroom. It stands out when removing stray elements that are not uniformly shaped like stray hairs across a face or distracting tree branches that creep into the edge of the frame, or even in retouching skin in portraits to reduce wrinkles (“crows feet”) around the corners of eyes. This has broad applicability once you get experience using it a couple of times.

Notice in the distracting grass running out of the top of the frame in the images below. In Aperture you can clone this out easily with a few strokes of the Retouch brush as illustrated in the top row of images. In Lightroom you have to use the spot clone tool dozens of times or more to clone out the entire piece of the grass as illustrated in the bottom row of images. In addition, Aperture lets you change the softness of the edge of the brush to control the exactness of the strokes and the degree of blending with the adjacent areas.

Another advantage Aperture offers is infinite customization. You can assign hot-keys to hundreds of actions or editing panels. Lightroom is a bit more limited in its customizations.

Advantage Lightroom

Both applications have custom image processing optimized to each camera make and model that helps them produce the best quality result for each camera. One area where Lightroom excels is lens correction. Adobe provides lens profiles for dozens of lens makes and models that correct pin cushion and barrel distortion, vignetting, chromatic aberration and color fringing. Aperture does not offer this feature. A second area where Lightroom excels is its History panel in the Develop module. This panel shows all of the adjustments made to an image in chronological order. Here you can reorder or copy these adjustments steps.

Image Management

The ability to organize and search for images later is the essence of Image Management. Both applications let you apply metadata, ratings and labels to your photographs. This enables you to organize your photographs, and to later search for images that meet specific criteria. You can search using any of the data elements that either application stores in its image database or is in the image EXIF data.

The Image Database

At the core of image management for Aperture and Lightroom is a “database” containing all of the information about your photographs. Aperture calls this a “Library”. Lightroom calls this a “Catalog”. Aside from the name itself, these databases are identical in purpose and the information contain therein. The database stores the name and hard disk location of your images, all of the editing adjustments and versions/snapshots you make, all of the IPTC (see footnote 1) metadata, and the ratings and labels you apply to the photographs. It also stores thumbnails and previews of all of the photographs in the database to speed up browsing.

Lightroom’s Catalog is actually a folder. Inside the folder is a “.lrcat” file and a “.lrdata” folder, both with the same base name of your Catalog. If you create a catalog called “Masters”, Lightroom creates a file folder called “Masters”. Inside that folder, Lightroom creates a SQLite database file called “Masters.lrcat” that contains all of the image names, disk locations, editing adjustments, IPTC metadata, ratings and labels. Also inside that folder, Lightroom creates a folder called “Masters Previews.lrdata”. This folder contains all the generated thumbnails and previews of the images in your catalog.

Aperture’s Library is also a folder. It contains a collection of XML files, SQLite databases, and folders. This collection stores all of the same information that is found in the Lightroom Catalog, just organized differently.

Both Aperture and Lightroom let you store your master image files anywhere you want. They also let you store them within the image database folder. Storing your master files in the database folder makes that folder a completely self-contained unit that is easy to manage and relocate. Simply copy the database folder to a new location. All of the database information and all of the master files associated with that database are copied together. When you next open Aperture, point it at the Library folder at its new location and it finds everything therein including the master files. When you next open Lightroom, point it at the “.lrcat” file inside the Catalog folder and it finds everything therein including the master files. Note the difference in how you open the image database. In Aperture you point the application at the database folder. In Lightroom you point the application at the “.lrcat” file inside the database folder.
As with image adjustments, both applications let you copy-n-paste image metadata to speed up the cataloging process, and create metadata presets to insure consist application of common or frequently used metadata.

Copying Images Between Databases

Both products permit as many image databases as you like, but you can only open one at a time. A photograph can be in more than one database at a time, but the information about the photograph is not synchronized between the databases. Keeping the information consistent is the responsibility of the photographer. It is recommended that you catalog an image in only one database at a time to lessen the confusion about which catalog has the most accurate information.

That being said, both products let you select and export a subset of the photographs into a separate, new database. The information in any database can be imported into another existing database. This is the method required to copy or move photographs from one Catalog or Library to another. To copy, open a source Catalog or Library, export selected photographs into a new Catalog or Library, open a destination Catalog or Library and import the “new” database. If you delete the photographs from the source Catalog or Library, you have effectively moved the images.

Importing Images Into The Database

Importing images into Aperture and Lightroom is straightforward. You can import from a connected device like a camera or mobile phone or tablet, or you can import images already on a hard disk. Lightroom associates your imported images with a folder on your hard drive that you can navigate to outside of Lightroom. When you import images from an connected device, you specify a destination folder on your hard drive where the images are to be copied. When importing images already located on your hard disk, you can choose to have Lightroom copy or move them to a new folder on your internal or external hard disk, or you can choose to leave them where they are and only have Lightroom add them into its Catalog.

Aperture has two options for imported images, though both options store them on your hard drive. As with Lightroom you can choose to import images into Aperture and specify a destination folder on your hard drive. Also as with Lightroom, you can import images already on your hard disk, choose to leave them in their present location, and Aperture will add them to its Library. Aperture also allows you to import images into its Library. As Aperture imports the images into its database, it will make a copy of each image and place it in the directory tree where Aperture stores its database.

Other nice features include renaming, making secondary copies, and applying metadata and adjustment presets to photographs during the import process. This insures that all of the imported items have the same initial adjustments and metadata. I apply presets for file naming and IPTC contact information to every image I import. This insures consistency from the moment images are pulled off the camera.

Collections, Filtering and Searching

Aperture and Lightroom let you organize your image database in any manner that suits your way of thinking. Aperture uses Projects, Albums and Folders and Lightroom uses Collections. These groupings give a “virtual organization” to your images that is independent of their physical disk organization. These are static groupings you manually maintain. Images are added to or removed from these groupings only when you taken an action to do so.

Lightroom also exposes the physical disk organization in the Library module. This lets you move images between physical disk folders by dragging and dropping their thumbnails. Select a folder from the side panel to view a grid of thumbnails of the images the folder contains, select thumbnails of the images you wish to move, and drag and drop the thumbnails to a different folder in the side panel. Lightroom moves them there on the physical disk.

Both applications also have “smart” groupings. These are dynamic groupings that filter your view of the image database based on any searchable criteria you specify. You can create smart groups for date ranges, for a specific keyword or multiple keywords, for images above a certain star rating, for specific file types like raw files, or any other characteristic that is searchable in the image database. You can combine as few or as many different search criteria as you need. The flexibility for these dynamically filtered smart views is endless, and they keep your images organized automatically all the time. If you shoot with different cameras and frequently need to see only images from a specific camera, you could create a smart group for that camera. Any image from that camera that is added to the image database automatically will be included in that smart group. If you shoot different kinds of images such as travel, nature and portraits, and you apply those keywords to the corresponding images, you could create a smart group for each of those keywords that lets you quickly filter your image database view to only those images.

In addition to static and dynamic groupings, you can search your image database at any time using ad hoc criteria. If a client asks for images with specific characteristics and you have properly populated the image metadata in your database, you can search your database quickly using your client’s criteria to see if you have images that will satisfy their need. The essence of digital asset management is being able to apply metadata to your images that lets you organize and quickly find them at a later date.

Advantage Aperture

Both applications let you relocate your database and your master image files. Aperture offers an additional feature not available in Lightroom. In Aperture you can consolidate your master files into your Library from within the application. If you initially stored your master files outside the Aperture Library folder, you can copy or move the master files into the Aperture Library using the consolidate option. You can achieve this effect in Lightroom, but you have to use the Finder to relocate the master files and then tell Lightroom of their new location.

Aperture also appears to have more flexibility in its search and smart group filters than Lightroom.

Advantage Lightroom

Both applications let you rename files during the import process, including incorporating EXIF and metadata in the filenames. Lightroom provides one advantage in that it lets you retain the sequence number assigned by the camera. Aperture does not offer this feature. For example, if you have a camera raw file called DSC_0987, Lightroom lets you incorporate the “0987” sequence number into the filename. In Aperture you can use a sequence number as part of your file naming pattern, but you have to manually seed the sequence with a starting number. With Lightroom you can preserve the original file’s sequence number by selecting that part of the metadata in the renaming panel.

Image Sharing

As expected, Aperture and Lightroom can generate many different kinds of output files in any size you like - JPG, PSD, TIFF, PNG, GIF and more. They can also generate slideshows, web galleries and prints in various layouts. All of these can be tailored to some degree. Slideshows can incorporate music tracks and can have various page layouts. Web galleries can have different page layouts, and you can choose from HTML or Flash presentation format. Prints from both can be made to your personal printer. They let you choose layout, paper size, orientation and color management options.

Both applications also have support for sharing on various social network service including Facebook and Twitter.

Advantage Aperture

Aperture offers an additional output product not available in Lightroom. Aperture lets you create books right inside the application. You can select from several different sizes and you can choose from an assortment of layouts. Once you have created your book, you can submit it to Apple for printing from right inside the application. Apple also offers a printing service for hardcopy prints. Lightroom 3 offers no book layout feature, and Adobe offers no printing service. Adobe released the first public beta of Lightroom 4 in January and it includes a book layout module that lets you create books using the online service Blurb also offers a Lightroom 3 plug-in. The reason Aperture 3 is given the advantage statement here is that it has provided native book and print services since Aperture 2 so Adobe is merely playing catchup by finally adding this feature. And since Lightroom 4 is currently in beta there is no guarantee that the Book module will remain in the finished product.

Advantage Lightroom

Lightroom offers greater flexibility in its watermarks. While both applications can apply a watermark to exported images, Aperture requires the watermark to be a graphic image created with another application. Lightroom lets you create any number of watermarks including text-based watermarks, and select any of these watermarks during the export process. You can edit any of your saved watermarks and save them as new watermarks. Aperture does not offer this degree of flexibility in watermarks.

Another advantage Lightroom offers is its full support for exporting Adobe DNG files. If you are using another program to perform cataloging and image management, this can be a differentiating factor. Aperture can import images in Adobe DNG file format. These are camera raw files stored in an open format created by Adobe Labs Inc. rather than in a camera maker’s proprietary closed format. This file format stores all of the raw data, IPTC metadata, image adjustments, ratings, labels and contains a fully rendered preview in JPG format. A third-party cataloging program can import all of the IPTC metadata, ratings and labels, and can extract the embedded previews. I use MediaPro from Phase One to catalog all of my images. It offers a great number of cataloging features no available in Aperture or Lightroom.

Other Differences

User Interface

Aperture and Lightroom differ in their user interface philosophy. Lightroom uses a “workflow” based interface with modules dedicated to specific workflow operations. The main window has left and right panels with controls that change to match the workflow operation of the selected module. The center panel always displays an image, or rows and columns of thumbnails allowing you to see a large number of images at once.

Across the top of the window is a navigation bar that lets you switch between these modules. You first import images into your Library, so the Library module is first in the navigation bar. You also use the Library module to “manage” your images. Here you apply your metadata, perform filtering and searching, and organize your images into collections. After importing, you “develop” your images in the Develop module. Here you make all of your adjustments. Thus the Develop module is second in the navigation bar. After that, Lightroom provides three additional modules - Slideshow, Print, Web - each dedicated to a specific part of the workflow. When you switch between modules, Lightroom changes the entire window.

Aperture uses a “do anything anytime” interface. The right panel of the window is dedicated to browsing, regardless of the viewing mode. You can view rows and columns of thumbnails, a single image with a scrolling list of thumbnails across the bottom, or a single image without the scrolling list of thumbnails (Lightroom also offers these views). The left panel has three tabs - Library, Metadata, Adjustments - each dedicated to obvious operations. You can switch between them at any time and the right browser panel never changes. When you select certain tools from the Adjustments panel, they pop-up control panels tailored to the specific tool.

Both applications let you hide or show different panels. Hiding panels lets you view an image in a larger size. Both applications also provide dual-screen support, letting you place controls on one screen and image viewing on the other. This is a very useful feature if one can afford to own two screens. It is also useful if you attach a small screen laptop to a large screen external monitor. You can place your controls on the small laptop screen and view the image in large scale on the external monitor. There is no clear advantage to either user interface.

Available Plugins

Plugins allow you to extend the capabilities of an application beyond the features provided by the software maker. Both Aperture and Lightroom support plugins, and there are a myriad of plugins available for both applications. Apple and Adobe maintain directories of available plugins for their applications. Some plugins work within the application. Others take you outside the application to a separate program where you make your changes and they are imported back into the application afterwards.

Popular plugin makers are Nik Software, Tiffen, Topaz Labs, Human Software, onOne and Alien Skin. There are also a lot of free or inexpensive plugins available from individual creators. Plugins add functionality in many areas such as powerful image adjustments, special effects, creating unique products, integrating with social networks, exporting directly to image sharing and image marketing sites, and integrating with other applications.

More plugins are available for Lightroom than for Aperture, but the most popular ones listed above are available for both. When reviewing plugins, check for compatibility for your version of Mac OS X and Aperture. Also be advised that many of the plugins can be more expensive than Aperture or Lightroom themselves.

Tethered Shooting

Both application let you connect a camera to the computer, control the shutter release, and automatically import the images into the application. Lightroom also offers an Autoimport feature where it watches a folder for new files and automatically imports them into the application. This is useful when shooting with a camera with a wireless transmitter attached. When you expose an image, the camera deposits the image file wirelessly onto the computer in a specific folder that Lightroom is watching. When a new image file arrives in the folder, Lightroom automatically imports it.

Platform Availability

Aperture is only available on Mac OS X. Lightroom is available for both Mac OS X and Windows. If you are a Mac user who has not yet chosen a professional product for image editing and management, you have a decision to make. This article is intended for you. Windows users have only the one choice between the two, though other tools are available for Windows such as CaptureOne, DxO Optics, Photoshop and many more.


Aperture consumes significantly more of your computer’s memory (RAM) than Lightroom. While comparing some of the features offered by both tools, Aperture consumed more nearly 3 gigabytes of memory while Lightroom ran comfortably in less than 500 megabytes of memory. On my 17-inch MacBook Pro equipped with 4 gigabytes of memory, this represents a significant difference in the form of responsiveness.

Aperture would freeze my computer for seconds at a time when making adjustments with the spot healing tool in patch mode to get rid of unwanted spots. Activity Monitor showed the operating system paging virtual memory between RAM and the hard disk, with nearly zero free memory and disk I/O going to near 100 percent. This suggests that Aperture would benefit significantly from the availability of much more memory.

I ordered an 8GB upgrade for my computer. After installing the memory, Aperture seems much more responsive. Looking at Activity Monitor while making the same kinds of adjustments that slowed to a crawl with 4GB of ram showed that the application was consuming over 3GB of memory. With no other applications running except Aperture and the processes that OS X runs when you log into the system I could see in Activity Monitor that over 6GB of memory was consumed. This confirms my assertion that Aperture is memory hungry, but also allays my fears that Aperture might not perform as well as Lightroom. With enough memory, performance seems acceptable and on par with Lightroom.


Aperture is far less expensive than Lightroom. Aperture is available through the Apple Mac App Store for US $79.99. For this price, you can download and run Aperture on up to ten computers using the same Apple ID much like content you purchase through iTunes.

Lightroom is available via boxed version from various retailers and via online download from Adobe for US $299.99. These are the retail prices. A number of outlets have advertised Lightroom for US $199.99 and on rare occasion for US $99.99. For this price, you can install Lightroom on multiple computers, but it can only be activated on at most two computers at a time. In a studio where a photographer may have an office manager, production editor and assistants who all need access to Lightroom, this may dictate purchasing multiple licenses of Lightroom to accommodate these users.

If your computer already has 8 gigabytes or more of memory, your cost is limited to the software purchase. If you need to add memory just to run Aperture, then you must factor that into the overall cost of the product. If you have to add memory to all of the computers on which you intend to use Aperture, the cost goes up significantly with each computer. At the time of writing, the difference between a 4-gigabyte and 8-gigabyte equipped 17-inch MacBook Pro from Apple is $200.

Other Resources


Photoshop® and Lightroom® are registered trademarks of Adobe Software, Inc.
Aperture® is a registered trademark of Apple Inc.


1) IPTC stands for International Press Telecommunications Council. This organization has defined a standard set of metadata fields to let photographers and news organizations specify contact information, titles (captions), descriptions, keywords, dates and other key information. These are important pieces of data to be able to attach to each photograph, especially for professional photographers who want to market their work and manage the copyrights to their intellectual property. Even the casual amateur will find these fields use in helping them sort and find images in their collection years later.

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