Management material

What was the single most compelling reason to start using Aperture in the first place? Image management. More powerful than iPhoto and more versatile to boot, Aperture 1.0 came along just when photographers were grappling with the issue of how to manage a RAW-based workflow.

I reckon this is worth revisiting, especially for new Aperture users and/or those who only shoot JPEGs, because it may help illuminate how A3’s management tools have evolved. The fact that Aperture existed in the first place to serve RAW shooters has been lost a bit in the process of adding bells and whistles (oh yes, Faces and Places, I’m looking at you).

A RAW image is a large file. The RAW files from my camera, for example, are 21MB each. The same image shot as a JPEG is about 3MB. So, by choosing to shoot an event using RAW, I create storage issues. What I don’t want is to have multiple versions of a RAW file when one of them is already taking up a lot of space. Why would there be multiple versions? Because as a visual artist, I can find different ways of interpreting an image and because an image destined for web use will be very different in size and edit decisions to one that’s destined to be a canvas print.

So what Aperture did that was so great was it provided a way to create multiple versions of a file that didn’t take up a lot of hard drive space. The Master (my RAW file) would be stored in its original form and any Versions of it (variations of images with edits made to them) were only low-res copies of the Master with a “recipe” applied to the preview image to reveal the effects of editing. It would only be at the export/output stage that a Version of the file would be assembled into a new form of the user 039;s choosing — JPEG, PNG, TIFF or PSD with editable resolutions and image dimensions — to be put to whatever use was necessary. Might be a JPEG for the web at 800 pixels wide. Might be a 600dpi TIFF destined for an A1-sized giclée print. Importantly, it would be exported —not sitting in Aperture’s library taking up hard drive space.

You see what I did there? I introduced you to Masters and Versions. Oh, and exports. So if we introduce the terms Referenced and Managed, we can look at the building blocks of Aperture’s file management system.

Master and Version you understand, right? If not, think of Master as the original (I like to think of it as a digital negative, analogous to a film negative) and Version as an edited variation.

Now here’s something you may have missed. Go into A3’s Preferences and visit the Advanced options. Right down the bottom you’ll see a checkbox that reads “Create new versions when making adjustments”. If you don’t want to see a new version of your Master each time you make an edit to it, uncheck this box. Now you will only see ever see one version of the image: the one with the most recent edits. If this sounds familiar, it might be because that’s how iPhoto works.

If you leave it checked, Aperture will create a “stack” of versions linked to the Master, just as you see above. You can get to any version easily this way, and choose which of the images you want to use as the “pick”, which is the one that floats to the top of the stack when it’s closed. A thing to remember is that a new version is created only when you have selected the Master image in the stack and then applied an edit. If you apply an edit to a version, you will build edits on top of existing edits to that version.

This is a great way to work if you want to edit multiple versions of the master at once. It’s also a great way to instantly retrieve a version at a later date without having to re-edit the current version.

As for Referenced and Managed, this is an important concept to grasp. A Referenced image is one that is stored in a location of your choosing. Local drive, network drive, USB drive, anywhere. Aperture makes a working copy of it for editing purposes, as opposed to a Managed file. A Managed file is imported into Aperture’s library and stored along with all other Managed files.

Pros and cons? There are good reasons for referencing images. These include situations where more than one member of a team needs to use the file. It’s also appealing to users who like to maintain their own hierarchical file/folder methodology of storing files and have them referenced in Aperture only for editing purposes.

Where a referenced file becomes a problem is when Aperture can no longer find it. This might happen if a drive is corrupted, damaged, lost or if another user (or yourself) has deleted or moved the file. In these instances, you’ll need to relocate the Master, and in the case of thousands of files stored in different locations this could get tedious. If you are using referenced files, it’s important to have a well-entrenched workflow and backup plan that won’t separate Aperture from its referenced files.

Choosing to import a file into Aperture’s library (by default in /users/pictures/ ) as a managed file avoids the problems of a referenced file but you must remember that having all your images in one place amounts to a single point of failure, so be sure to back it up.

This you can do using Aperture’s Vault feature. Look at the bottom left corner of the Aperture window and you’ll find the Vault pane that presents your Vault backup options. Click “Vault” to pop the pane open. A point to remember is that any Vault (and you can have multiple Vaults if you like) is only a mirror of the current state of your Aperture library. It’s not like you can roll back to a version of your library in the same way that Time Machine does.

I don’t mind saying I don’t use Aperture’s Vault feature. It can be very slow to complete and competes for storage space over the more granular backup solution that I prefer, which is to export projects to an external drive manually plus rely on Time Machine as a fallback.

A feature introduced with A3 was the ability to back up files as they are imported. This is a great feature. Look to the right of the import window and you’ll see the drop-down menu that specifies import backup locations.

I’ve been asked about the best way to manage files in A3. What’s the best backup method? Should I use a Vault? What about Time Machine? Should I backup on import?

Here’s the thing. Manage your backups however you like. That’s the beauty of A3. It’s your choice.

The simplest backup method is reliance on Time Machine to backup your Aperture library and all its managed files. If, however, your image files are referenced, they need to be part of a separate backup plan. A3 won’t take care of that for you.

But you could go the other way, choosing complexity and certainty over convenience. You could, if you wanted to, back up on import, maintain several Vaults on separate drives, export each and every project to multiple locations, and put Time Machine to work. That would cover it, right? Or you could aim for somewhere in between.

There are two limiting factors to how complex your backup system is. The first is available storage space. An Aperture library of 1TB backed up five times over through various means is going to be expensive to maintain — bearing in mind that you need backup space for all your other files, too. The other limitation is how much time and effort you’re willing to put into it. While Time Machine and backing up on import take no energy, a Vault has to be manually updated and individual projects backed up whenever they’re updated.

Just one other new feature of A3 worth covering here is the ability to switch libraries. In the File menu, choosing the “Switch to Library” item reveals options to load a different library or create a new one. This introduces yet another layer of file management, enabling you to separate libraries by genre, date, size or whatever other method you like.

This is something you’ve always been able to do, actually. Just as with iPhoto and iTunes, you can specify a library to load by holding the option key down as you launch Aperture. However, Switch to Library lets you do this on the fly, enabling instant switching from one library to another, and pretty quickly, too.

But if you switch libraries this way frequently, don’t let any of them become orphans of your backup plan.

Next week, I think I might put Aperture down for a bit and take a look at Pixelmator, a good choice for Aperture users as an external editor and alternative to Photoshop. I'm always happy to answer questions in the forums, too, and speaking of which, thanks for all the feedback so far. This is a two-way process, people, so try being a part of the conversation, OK?

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