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A Beginner's Guide to Aperture: Part 1

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Read Time: 8 min

If you're a Mac user, there are three mainstream programs to choose from for managing your photo library. The first is iPhoto, bundled for free with your computer. This is a great option, but very much aimed at amateur photographers. The second is Lightroom, an app that many of you are already familiar with.

Today I'll be taking a look at the third option - Aperture. Developed by Apple, Aperture pitches itself as a photo management solution that makes it easy to work through a shoot, enhance images, negotiate a huge image library, and stay on top of your projects.

1. About Aperture

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Aperture is Apple's photo management software designed exclusively for OS X (sorry to those of you running Windows!). It costs $199 (around $100 less than Adobe Photoshop Lightroom), and aims to help you organize a photo library. Targeted mainly at professionals and pro-amateurs, the application offers a great deal of power for handling large numbers of images.

This beginner's introduction will run through the interface, how to import photos into Aperture, how to organize and rate images, and briefly investigate a few of the application's preferences. The second part of the tutorial will take a look at the editing features, and the variety of ways to export, publish and print photos from Aperture.

2.The Basic Interface

The basic Aperture interface is fairly sleek, stylish, and minimal. On the left, you can navigate around projects and albums, and on the right you can view image thumbnails or a larger view of a individual photo. There's also an excellent full-screen mode, accessed by hitting "F" on your keyboard.

Basic Aperture InterfaceBasic Aperture InterfaceBasic Aperture Interface

Aperture works well with multiple monitors, offering different options to show certain pieces of information on each screen. For instance, you could show all the thumbnails from an album on one screen, and a full-size version of the selected image in another.


Three views are available for the right-hand side of the application:

  • Browser Only - Showing all the thumbnails from the selected album or project, requiring you to double-click on a photo for a full-size version.
  • Browser & Viewer - Splitting the pane into thumbnails and an enlarged view of the selected photo. Great for larger monitors.
  • Viewer Only - Showing only a large view of one image (you can flick through photos with the right and left arrow keys, or by swiping your MacBook trackpad with three fingers)


There are two main toolbars within Aperture; one running across the top of the window, and another displayed at the bottom of the right-hand pane. Let's start by looking at the "top" toolbar, which has the following icons:

  • Inspector: This shows or hides the left hand panel, allowing you more screen space to view your photos
  • Import: Launches the import window, to load images from your hard drive or an image card
  • New: Allows you to create a new Project, Album, or another object within Aperture
  • Email: Immediately sends the selected photos(s) across to your email client
  • Slideshow: Begins a slideshow of the selected image(s)
  • All Projects: Takes you to a Project overview, showing an interactive thumbnail for each
  • View: Swaps between the different view modes for looking at images
  • Full Screen: Toggles full-screen mode (the same as pressing the F key)
  • Loupe: Brings up a magnifying glass for easy image close-ups at 100%
  • Keywords: Opens a floating keywords panel to make tagging photos easier

The mini toolbar beneath a full-size image (or set of thumbnails) has a different set of options for manipulating the image, performing basic edit operations, and adjusting the way in which the viewer behaves:

The Inspector

The left hand inspector serves three purposes: navigating projects, viewing/editing metadata, and performing basic image adjustments.

Navigating Projects

Aperture organizes images into "Projects". Each one essentially represents a different shoot, and within a Project you can further break down images into Albums, Smart Albums, Folders and other entities (e.g. Slideshows, Books, Web Pages etc).

Smart Albums are very useful when you'd like to show images by a particular attribute. So, for instance, you could create a Smart Album that displayed all images from a project that are 4 stars or greater, containing the keyword "cake". This "smart" functionality is limitless in use, and can be very powerful once you've added all the metadata to your photos.

The "Vault" area towards the bottom of the inspector offers a simple way to back up your photo library (something that you should do regularly!). You can maintain multiple "vaults" on different hard drives and storage locations, and Aperture will let you know whether a particular vault is up-to-date with the latest image changes.

Handling Metadata

Aperture has full support for every type of metadata imaginable. It is all fully viewable and editable through the Metadata inspector, including everything from location and EXIF data to copyright and your camera's time zone. You can easily create metadata and keyword presets to apply to all the images in a particular project or album.

Image Adjustments

The inspector also allows you to apply different adjustments to your image. All of these are non-destructive, and can be reversed at a later stage. We'll look into these in greater detail in the second part of our Beginner's Guide.

3. Importing

Obviously the first thing that you'll want to do when using Aperture is to import some images. This can be done either from a folder on your hard drive, or directly from an attached memory card/camera. After clicking "Import", you can select both the source of the images, and the Project into which you'd like to import them. These two locations become "linked" with a helpful arrow:

Various settings are available when importing, such as where to store files (in the Aperture library, or in their original location), how to name or rename images, and whether you'd like to automatically add preset metadata to the photographs. All this can save a great deal of time when searching for, and organising, images during post-processing.

You can also automatically "stack" images based on the duration between shots. So, if you used a continuous shooting mode to capture a particular piece of action, it's remarkably easy to pick the best one from a series of shots. The duration is easy to adjust during importing, and you can see a preview of the end result.

After the import process is complete, you'll see a pop-up window letting you know that everything went according to plan.

4. Tethering

If you're using Aperture in a studio setting, you can tether your camera to the software for immediate download and preview of images. After connecting a supported Nikon or Canon camera via USB or Firewire, you choose File > Tether > Start Session.

You can adjust the automatic import settings, then start the new session. A "Tether HUD" shows information about your camera and exposure settings as you shoot.

5. Rating and Selecting Images

After importing a Project, the next step in any photographers workflow is usually to rate and pick the best images from the shoot, and discard those that are not of a high enough standard. Rating photos in Aperture is similar to any other photo organisational tool, utilising the 1-5 keys on the keyboard to quickly assign a rating to an image. You can also rate using the Aperture menu, and use specific keys for "Select" or "Reject":

After images are rated, you can create Smart Albums to show only those that meet the required standard for post-processing or printing. Alternatively, you can easily perform a search for a particular type of rating on the photos currently being viewed:

6. Preferences

As the first part of this Aperture introduction draws to a close, it's worth taking the time to explore the preferences available within the application. We'll start with the "General" settings:

Firstly, you'll need to select a Library location. This can either be on an internal hard drive, or an external/removable drive. Performance is generally better using an internal hard drive, though either will work just fine. You can also specify to automatically open Aperture when connecting a camera if desired.

The two sliders add tolerance to Auto Levels adjustments when evaluating colors beyond white or black.

Appearance settings make it easy to customise the Aperture environment to suit how you prefer to work. Do you prefer to view photos against a black/white background? No problem. A few other settings relate to different options and display settings for notifications etc.

The export preferences are useful for speeding up the process of getting images out of Aperture. You can specify an external image editor (e.g. Photoshop), useful when performing advanced post-processing on a photo, and adjust the presets for emailing images. If you regularly export to web galleries/journals, default copyright text can also be set here.

A handful of other settings are also available for adjusting:

  • Previews - How previews are generated, at what quality, and whether the camera's thumbnail is used if available
  • Metadata - Adjusting which metadata is displayed in the different Aperture views
  • MobileMe - Configuring how photos are uploaded to your MobileMe account (if you have one)

7. Conclusion

I hope that this article has offered a beginner's introduction to Aperture. If you're a Mac user and have never considered giving Aperture a try, I would strongly recommend it. It feels native, packs a decent amount of functionality, and is a slightly less expensive option than Photoshop Lightroom.

In the second article in this series, we'll take a more in-depth look at Aperture's editing features, along with some of the functionality that makes sharing and printing photos an enjoyable process.

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