Liberate your Aperture library

“Oh, yeah, it’s all happened at once, right? I’ve seen this before” was the response at the Mac store to my very obvious state of distress and frustration. Last week was, in a technical context, a shocker. Let me tell you about it.

You’ll notice I wrote “Mac store” as opposed to Apple Store. This is because Apple Australia is yet to commit to opening one of its technology shrines in my home town of Adelaide and so “Mac store” differentiates the two. Actually, sometimes I hope Apple doesn’t open a store here. In the course of solving my problems last week I was reminded there are some fine people selling and servicing Macs in Adelaide — and in other cities, for that matter — and it would be a shame for their livelihoods to be threatened.

But I digress.

You already know about the issues with my iMac after applying the Snow Leopard Graphics Update, right? Things actually got worse. I won’t go over that ground again but in the course of reconsidering my backup strategy, I figured I’d buy another external hard drive. The drive was Dead On Arrival. Policy at the store from which it was bought was to replace DOA units immediately, no questions asked. Other than the stupid and obvious ones, which they are of course required to ask. “Did you plug it in?” is always a favourite.

However, I had managed to buy the second-last unit they had. The last unit they had couldn’t be found, despite their oh-so-reliable inventory control system insisting it was in the warehouse. So I have to wait until a replacement unit arrives. Sigh.

Only a few minutes after discovering my new drive was DOA, junior — who was compiling images for a photographic competition — called me over to her MacBook Pro, which was repeatedly shutting itself down. Turns out the battery was so worn out, the MacBook refused to stay awake. Yes, I know, that shouldn’t make a difference with an AC power supply but, well, it does, and I only say that because replacing the battery made the problem go away.

But getting a new MacBook battery at 2am is a bit impossible and what I did next to get those images over to a working machine qualifies me as a Mac ninja. I could tell you about it, but then I'd have to kill you.

Why am I sharing this? In my last blog entry, after telling you about the curtain-raiser woes preceding this blog’s round of disasters, I urged you to consider your backup strategies. In an earlier blog, I cautioned you through a fantastic tale from the future about the possibility of file formats and storage methodologies becoming redundant. Yet here I am continuing to use Aperture backups that revolve around bundling images into projects and libraries, each of which involve a complex set of folders within a package that Aperture requires in order to maintain its database structure.

This structure allows for what I regard as Aperture’s best feature, namely non-destructive editing, with which I am besotted. If I’m wrong about the database/folder thing, I’m sure someone will tell me. And, as I discovered during the recovery phase of my techno nightmare, there are times when you just want to get at your original image files in a hurry.

This task is actually pretty easy. If you find yourself for whatever reason needing to liberate your files from an Aperture library but can't launch Aperture to export an image or set of images, here’s how to get at those files.

First, find the Aperture library in question. It is likely in your Pictures folder. Right-click on the library, which is a package, and choose “Show Package Contents”. If your Mac does what mine does, it’ll open a new window that comprises a set of folders. The folder you’re interested in is called Masters. Open it.

Next, enter the name of your image file format in the search field in the Finder window and don't forget the dot. In my case, it’s .CR2, but if you’re shooting RAW files with a Nikon it is likely .NEF or some other variation depending on your camera.

What happens next is the search term reveals all the masters with the file extension you specified. You may need to specify the folder to be searched because Finder defaults to "This Mac".

To liberate these images, simply drag them to a new location. Careful, though, because in the first instance you’re messing with Aperture’s library structure, so if you move stuff out of it Aperture will be mighty unhappy about it next time it is launched. In the second instance, click-dragging hundreds or thousands of files at once will make Finder a very unhappy camper and it will likely freeze on you. Or just keep you waiting a while.

Better, perhaps, that you mine a little deeper into the folder hierarchy to find your masters organised into years and then a level further down, into months. This is not only more manageable but more practical, enabling you to copy date-sorted folders of images. Once you’re down to the bottom of the folder hierarchy where the master files themselves reside, you can even use Cover Flow and tap the space bar for a large preview.

Even better would be to duplicate any folder in which you have images stored and drag that to a new location, thereby liberating your files while leaving Aperture’s library intact.

Why would you want to do this? Perhaps Adobe’s Lightroom has won you over and you’ve decided to give Aperture the flick. It happens. Or perhaps, like me, you find yourself having to delve into the library package folders because when your iMac stopped playing nicely there were a couple of hundred images locked away in the Aperture library that hadn’t been otherwise exported or backed up as a recoverable project.

Let me close by putting out a call to any Terminal experts who know how to achieve recovery and duplication of masters from an Aperture library to another location. I have a vague idea how to do that but publishing a vague command-line syntax that borks your digital world will likely get me lynched, so if you’re a Terminal ninja reading this and scoffing at the clumsy WIMP approach to mining an Aperture library, please let us know in the forums how you’d do it. Please? Pretty please, with lots of RAW files on top?

Discuss this (and add to it) on MacTheForum!