I have been an Aperture user for several years. I migrated from iPhoto following the advice of a photographer met on a MacMania cruise in 2009, Derrick Story (The Digital Story). I have been tempted to try Lightroom for quite some time, and for several reasons: updates are more frequent, faster support for new RAW formats, DNG support, multi-platform, allegedly better photo editing tools. I ended up importing photos in Lightroom a couple of times over the years, but I quickly went back to the comfort of Aperture.
After my last trip to Spain, I have finally decided to seriously try Lightroom, and to compare the two packages on the criteria that are important to me: workflow management, photo editing, sharing, and integration with the OS X & iOS ecosystems.
Before even starting, I want to warn you that my conclusions are not conclusive. Bottom line, there is no clear winner and I will probably keep using both products (and live with the inconvenience of not having all my photos in a single place).
A couple of words on the way I approach photography, as this influence my use of the software.
I usually travel with my Nikon D7000 and two or three lenses in my camera bag. Depending where I going, I might have a waterproof P&S (if there is water involved); these rugged cameras don't shoot RAW yet, unfortunately, so JPEG processing is important.
Often I travel with my Macbook Pro, which I use to do the sorting and first post-processing of my photos.
And finally, more and more often, I find myself using my iPhone. It is important to be able to process these shots with the rest of the photos.
With my DSLR I shoot in RAW+JPEG mode, and I never use any of the in-camera processing tools. I pretty much only use the Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual modes; I also use the Program Mode, when conditions are easy and I know the camera will handle them well. This means that RAW processing is key in my workflow: because of this, I also don't pay that much attention at the white balance while I shoot, as I can fix it later. I should mention that I never carry a flash around, so I tend to bump up the ISO significantly in low light (I easily go up to 6,400 and higher): noise reduction is important.
With the basics out of the way, let's move on with the comparison. Please bear with me if I there are mistakes of omissions, especially for Lightroom that I do not know so well yet.
After reading many reviews of the two applications, I was expecting Lightroom to fall seriously short in this area, but it wasn't the case. While it is true that Aperture gives more abstraction and more advanced tools to classify and archive photos, I find Lightroom to be perfectly sufficient for my needs.
In a nutshell, Lightroom behaves less as a black box, and is closer to the actual organization of the files on the disk. Aperture can operate in a similar way, but it can also store your original files (as imported from the camera) inside its library package; the files are still accessible, but it is not advisable to touch them directly if you opt for this configuration. I quite like this approach, the application manages its own files internally and keeps everything consistent. It is also quite easy to import or export "projects" in and out a library. I read scary stories of mangled libraries, but personally I never had any issues with mine.
Once in the application, Lightroom allows you to browse the files as they are stored on disk, or to create collections (including smart collections and collections of collections). Aperture is much deeper in terms of organization, and Lightroom might feel short when you start having a high number of photos. I only have used the Adobe package for a couple of projects, and it feels perfectly adequate at the moment. Both applications allow you to tag your photos, but I have never seriously used this option on neither of them; I expect it to be very important for professionals, but I don't take enough photos to really benefit from that. Aperture has a face recognition feature, but that is more of a gimmick than anything: I spent more time trying to train it than actually getting value out of it...
I will go through my usual workflow, from import to publication, comparing the two packages step by step.
For my use, there is no clear winner here. Both applications make it very easy to import photos from whatever source, add copyright information and other metadata, and fix time-zone issues. On top of this, Lightroom has the interesting option of converting all raw files to the DNG format. In a way this feels more "future-proof" than keeping the raw files as they come out of the camera. If my understanding of the DNG format is correct, it also contains an exact copy of the original raw files, so there should be no risk of losing information. In my tests I allowed Lightroom do this conversion (this is the default), and have not noticed any issue. Important to notice, Aperture still cannot read DNG files: if you want to manage your photos in both applications, or have the option to migrate to Aperture, you should not let Lightroom convert your RAW files to DNG.
Aperture has a clear advantage when it comes to the iPhone though. It integrates naturally with Apple's Photo Stream, making it trivial to import photos from the phone (basically you will see the photos inside the application, without having to do anything).
This might be irrelevant for many people, but personally I really like to geotag all my photos. Whenever I am out with my camera, I keep Geotag Photo Pro running on my iPhone (there are several alternatives, but this application has never let me down in the past, and can be configured to have a minimal impact on the battery); the application automatically generates a GPX file in my Dropbox, and this file can be read directly by both Aperture and Lightroom. The applications are comparable in terms of geotagging: basically you just import the GPX file, and they do the rest.
After geotagging the photos, I usually go through them and give them a star-rating:
- 1 star: unusable, to be deleted;
- 2 stars: not interesting, but will be kept in case one day I need that kind of shot; not to be processed;
- 3 stars: interesting, will be post-processed;
- 4 and 5 stars: not used at this stage, only after post-processing;
- no stars: I use this for photos that are building blocks for something else (i.e. HDR exposures, or panorama components); usually I group these shots in stacks (both Aperture and Lightroom manage stacks in an equivalent way).
After going through this process, I filter on 3-stars (in Lightroom), or sort according to the star-rating (in Aperture), and start post-processing.
I was expecting a clear superiority for Lightroom in this area. It is not so easy though. In terms of features, both applications have something unique:
In Aperture, I like the possibility of hiding or showing the various adjustment bricks, and the fact that they can be reordered. In Lightroom I find myself going up and down, as I don't necessarily do things in the same order as they planned.
Aperture allows you to process your photos from anywhere, without having to activate a special module; this is especially useful in full-screen mode, where the adjustment panel can hover on a side of the screen.
I like the white balance tool of Aperture, which I find better than Lightroom's (understand skin tones on top of white and grey).
Finally, my favorite in Aperture is the possibility of attaching any adjustment to a brush, and limit it to a particular region of the photo. The brush in Lightroom is not as flexible.
Lightroom shines for the quality of the adjustments, in particular the Sharpening and the Noise Reduction. Whenever I needed noise reduction in Aperture, I ended up doing a round-trip to Noise Ninja, with the expected consequences on the file size. Lightroom noise reduction is very good, and I haven't felt the need to go to Noise Ninja since. Although I would still use Noise Ninja in desperate cases, Lightroom's noise reduction is good enough most of the time.
Another interesting feature of Lightroom, missing in Aperture, are the graduated filters (linear or radial). This is particularly useful for landscape photography, and I find myself using it relatively often.
The repair brushes are also slightly better in Lightroom than Aperture.
Another point I find useful in Lightroom is the availability of DxO plugins: I use DxO Optics Pro and DxO ViewPoint, and they don't offer a plugin for Aperture if I'm not mistaken. Lightroom already has some basic tools to correct distortion and fix perspective (missing in Aperture), but having an easy round-trip to the DxO tools is handy.
Last but not least, the history of all editing done on a photo, with the possibility of going back and forth, is useful.
In post-processing, I give a very slight edge to Lightroom because of the quality of the adjustements, but I still miss many feature from Aperture.
Both packages can publish to every location I ever wanted to publish, either natively or with easy-to-find plugins. I find Aperture's way easier and more intuitive, although Lightroom has more features (like the interesting option of automatically watermarking your photos before publication, which I have not tried yet). No clear winner in this area.
I am a long time Mac user, and Aperture has a clear advantage here: Aperture's library is visible from pretty much any other application which might need photos, not to mention it is fully compatible with iPhoto. Lightroom does not enjoy this tight integration with the Mac ecosystem, and it forces you to open the application and export the photos you might want to use. This is not a deal-breaker for me, still I find it very handy to have all my best photos automatically synced with my iPhone, so I can easily show my work when I'm out. There are solutions around this, although not as elegant as the perfect integration of Aperture. I personally use a service called Everpix, but Adobe Revel is also an interesting option (albeit a little too manual for me at the moment).
The conclusion is, unfortunately, inconclusive... I like both packages, and I hope the competition will push both to improve further. I think I will stick with Lightroom for a while, then will most likely switch back to Aperture when the next major version comes out. Having photos in both packages is a hassle indeed, but I have accepted that.
Regarding Adobe pricing, I am going to be very unpopular but I have to admit that I like their subscription model (except when they let hackers get my credit card details...), so I get Lightroom as part of my Creative Cloud subscription.