Diving into Aperture's toy box

While much has been made of Aperture’s file-management capabilities, it’s Aperture 3’s editing capabilities that elevate its appeal. Over the next few weeks I’ll be offering would-be users — and perhaps those of you yet to stop playing with Faces and Places — a closer look at the real goodies lying under the hood.

The addition of brushes, curves adjustments, presets and a few other bits and pieces has taken Aperture 3 well past the point that it could be described as "iPhoto on steroids". Its upgraded editing tools bring it into line with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, which is its main competitor (and arguably its only one). Lightroom still pulls ahead in the editing department, but then we expect as much from the same people who make Photoshop.

Let’s get the major disappointment out of the way first. Aperture still doesn’t offer a proper selection tool. Editing brushes can detect edges in an image, which comes in handy, for sure, but not being able to enhance a portion of the image selectively in the way that you would after using the marquee, colour range or other Photoshop selection tools means Aperture users will continue to be round-trip editing when it comes to selective enhancements. There’s no layer-based editing in Aperture, either, but I don’t expect this surprises anyone.

I suppose you’re wondering how effective Aperture’s edge detection is, right? Edge detection is no replacement for an effective selection tool, but does help control brush actions. It works a bit like Photoshop’s magic lasso tool, in that it detects a shift in tonal value to define an edge and prevent a brush effect from spilling from one area to another. So, for example, if you’re using the do dge (lighten) brush on the underexposed face of a human subject, the brush will detect the edge of the jawline (behind which is a bright background) and apply the lightening brush effect to only the face.

In simple touch-up jobs, this is handy, but that’s the most generous word I can use to describe it. Nothing replaces the ability to select a portion of the image and then apply changes to it, especially when there is more than one method of making changes. Come on, Apple. Give us a real selection tool in Aperture 4. Please?

Let's move on. Adjustment presets. These are so cool I might have been happy if they were the only new feature in Aperture 3, or A3 as we’ll call it from here on. A preset is much like a Photoshop Action. It’s a string of enhancements and/or effects saved as a bundle that you can apply with a single mouse action. Each preset has a name. You’ll find the presets in their own drop-down menu at the top left of the Adjustments pane in the Inspector window, just underneath the image histogram. Click the menu, select a preset, and prepare to be amazed.

A3 ships with a bunch of presets, a few of which I use a lot. The Black & White/High Contrast (Grade 5) preset is a favourite, producing an image that carries a lingering smell of fixer. (That’s a darkroom reference, for all you digital guys that have never got your fingers wet under a safe light.)

Another cool thing about presets is that the list is editable. So if you import an image that has a slight green cast and you apply a colour balance and tone adjustment fix for it, you can save that set of changes as a preset and apply it to another image with the same fault. Annoyingly, however, you can’t apply a preset to multiple images at once. If you have a set of images that you want to apply a preset to, you’ll have to first apply the preset to one image, then use A3’s lift and stamp tool — which, in case you haven’t used it, is analogous to copy and paste. Lift (copy) an adjustment (or set of adjustments) from one image, stamp (paste) that adjustment on the others.

Now, let’s say the reason an image has a green cast is because you forgot to adjust your camera’s colour temperature setting during a three-hour shoot under floodlights and after seeing your first set of imported images, you realise all the rest of the take will have that ugly green cast, too. (If this sounds like it’s happened to me, you’d be guessing right.) You could import them all and fix the green cast by applying the preset to one image and then lifting/stamping. No, thanks. What you can do instead with A3 is apply the preset as you import the images. Much more efficient. You do this by selecting “Adjustment presets” from the “Import Settings” in A3’s Import window, then select the preset from the drop-down that list appears.

It gets better. Presets can be imported. Google “Aperture 3 presets” and you’ll soon find your way to presets that other people have made. Download ’em. Install ’em. Experiment. Have fun. And I tell you, this might be the best thing about A3. It’s fun. A lot more fun than the previous version.

Contributing to the fun is the instant preview you see when you mouse over the name of a preset. A larger preview would be better, though, because a set of similar presets, such as black and white film effects, look much the same in a too-small preview.

But there’s a way around this. Create a new project with one image. Duplicate the image as many times as the number of presets you have. Then, apply a single preset to each image. There you have it: a gallery of preset effects that you can refer to when you’re trying to hunt down the right one.

It’s like a font cheat sheet. Those of you who regularly struggle with font selection will be familiar with this idea — as in a sheet with “the quick brown fox ...” rendered in each of the fonts you have installed on your system.

Same idea goes with the Aperture presets gallery. I have more than 100 presets, and I find my presets gallery very helpful. Especially when trying to pick the subtle differences between one preset and a close neighbour, such as between the “Ilford Pan F” and “Ilford Delta 100” film effects. Be sure to enter the name of the preset in the image caption, so you can cross-reference the effect when you're ready to apply it. Of course, being in browser or viewer mode means you can scale the image up to scrutinise the effect of the preset.

You’ll find downloadable (and, so far, free) presets that enhance local contrast, deepen blue skies as if you’d used a polarising filter, imitate the image you would get from using a Lomo camera, and more. One of the coolest I’ve used is “Sin City”. This one lifts the artistic style from the film of the same name by suppressing blues/greens and deepening reds, giving an overall monotone look with deep red highlights. Very cool, indeed.

Installing presets is easy. You may find some that have been packaged with an installer, while others are simply the preset file that, once unpacked, can be dragged over the Aperture dock icon, after which you’ll find them loaded where they should be.

The makers of software plug-ins for Aperture have new competition with the arrival of A3’s presets. Take onOne Software’s PhotoTools, for instance. This plug-in offers a slew of effects, many of which can be replaced with free presets. Making things even more interesting is that existing third-party plug-ins are 32-bit bundles, so to use them you have to restart A3 in 32-bit mode — which is a bit of a drag, especially if you can achieve the same thing with a preset. There is one exception so far, namely Imagenomics’ Portraiture, the only one of my plug-ins that at the time of writing had been upgraded to run natively in 64-bit. Other developers are expected to release 64-bit plug-in updates for A3 compatibility within weeks.

But presets won’t spell the end of plug-in development. Many Aperture plug-ins such as Portraiture, FocalPoint and PhotoFrame offer effects that go way beyond what is possible within the presets framework. On the other hand, if all you’re looking for is some simple one-touch enhancement solutions, be sure to explore the possibilities that presets present before forking over money for commercial plug-ins.

How far can presets take you? I’d say there are countless possibilities. Try this: select an image and apply a preset, then another, then another. Stack as many preset effects on top of one another as you like. You may just end up with a “look” for your image that is original and suits your artistic vision. If you do bump into such a thing, be sure to save it as a unique preset, using a name that will set it apart from all the other presets you have to choose from. Experimenting with A3’s pre-installed presets, downloaded presets and perhaps some of your own could keep you and your mouse busy for hours. Maybe days. Maybe for as long as you maintain an interest in photography.

I’ve already said it was fun, right?

Next week, I’ll take a closer look at A3’s new brush tools.

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