Can an Aperture user be happy with Apple's new 'Photos' software?

After building up a sizable collection of digital photos that I'd taken since 1996, I decided that just dumping them into folders wasn't going to cut it anymore. Being a Mac user in (around) 2005 didn't give me a lot of options, so the decision was easy: iPhoto. iPhoto had a friendly interface and made splitting photos into events easy. Getting prints and making photo books (the perfect gift for your parents) was ridiculously easy.

After years of relative bliss, iPhoto '11 came around and had a slick new interface, but several features from previous versions were gone, and the whole thing was just... sluggish. Given that, and my growing interest in shooting Raw, it was time to look for something else.

At the time there were really two choices: Apple's own Aperture 3 software and Adobe Lightroom, which I believe was also at version 3 at that time. Aperture felt familiar to me, like a grown-up version of the iPhoto. I found Lightroom's UI and workflow to a bit too different, so I chose the comfortable option and went with Aperture.

On the left side are the numerous adjustment tools in Aperture 3. While not as robust as Lightroom, they did the job for me. On the right you'll see a photo of some people without a lot of common sense.

As with iPhoto before it, I had many pleasant years of using Aperture. The software got updates here and there, but at some point users got a sense that Apple was losing interest in their product. In June 2014, the official word came down from Cupertino: Aperture would no longer be updated. A month prior to writing this article, Aperture was removed from the Mac App Store.

With an Aperture library of over 130GB, it was decision time. For now, I can continue to use Aperture, though future upgrades to OS X might put an end to that. There's always Lightroom 5, which is more accessible now than when I evaluated it years before.

But in April 2015, there arrived another option: Apple's Photos, the official successor to both iPhoto and Aperture. Seeing how it came bundled with an upgrade to Mac OS X Yosemite, I figured I'd try that out to see how it went.

After some initial toying around, I decided to go for it all and import my entire Aperture Library into Photos. It took about 30 minutes to 'prepare' to copy before the software could be used, and then I could watch thumbnails slowly appear in my photo collection.

The main view in Photos, which are grouped by date, which Apple calls 'Moments'. The sidebar that many iPhoto users will be used to is available via a menu option.

As I was expecting given the teasers that Apple had shown leading up to the release of Photos, the software is very much like the app of the same name in iOS 8. In other words, the user interface in Photos has been greatly simplified.

The 'years' view is almost comical when you first see it. You can click on one of those tiny images to see a larger version, and keep moving to 'scrub' through your collection. You can zoom into the 'collections' view by using your trackpad or clicking on the right arrow near the upper-left of the screen.

Apple has created a structure that puts 'Moments' (formerly Events) at the bottom, 'Collections' (groups of Moments that happened at around the same time or area, if you've been geotagging) in the middle, and 'Years' at the top. The further down you drill, the larger the thumbnails. If you have a trackpad you can 'pinch' to travel between these various layers, and swipe to move between full-size photos. The whole interface is really snappy, even with my huge photo collection.

At first glance, it appeared that the adjustment tools had been dumbed down so much that only light, color, and black & white could be adjusted. Thankfully there are more options hidden away.

Eventually you reach the point where you can edit a photo. Basic tools include auto-enhance, rotate/crop, filters (think Instagram), adjust, and retouch (like the healing brush in Photoshop). When I first went into the adjust section, I was shocked at how little there was to do. The choices are 'light', 'color', and 'black & white', which are actually more elaborate (and impressive) than their names imply. But where are all the tools I was used to in Aperture? Thankfully, most of them were just under the surface.

By expanding the light, color, and black & white options you'll be able to perform more detailed edits. Adding 'adjustments' (just above the histogram here) brings back many, but not all, of the tools from Aperture.

I found my missing tools by clicking the little down arrow that appears when you mouseover one of the three basic adjustments. More can be added by clicking on 'add' next to adjustments near the top of the stack. Editing options include exposure/highlights/shadows, saturation/contrast/cast, white balance, noise reduction, sharpening, and a few other things. Levels and a histogram are also available. As with Aperture, you can import Raw+JPEG and choose which is the primary file you wish to work with. 

Something brought over from Aperture that continues to bug me is how photos are stored on my computer. Unlike Lightroom, which puts the original images in a logical structure in normal folders, everything in Aperture is buried inside a 'package' so, unless the file is referenced (not stored in the library), you can't easily find it.

The loupe from Aperture has gone the way of the Dodo bird.

On the surface Photos can do many of the same things that Aperture could. After exploring some more, I realized that a lot of features had gone missing, including: 

  • The ability to edit files in another application: If I wanted to use a filter or tool in Photoshop, Aperture would save it as a TIFF or PSD and send it over. After saving, the retouched image would be added to my library. You can't do this in Photos.
  • Social media management: While you can still upload images to Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter in Photos, you can't rearrange or delete them after that. In Aperture I could also make edits, re-sync, and the changes would be reflected in my Facebook gallery. As someone who posts a lot of photos on FB, this is a big deal, and it's something you can't do in Photos.
  • The loupe: Enough said.
  • Additional editing tools: No more Raw fine tuning (which affects how Raw files are decoded in terms of boost/hue boost, sharpening, and moiré and noise reduction), CA correction, and curves.
  • Focus point and hot/cold viewing: It's always handy to see the focus point a camera used for a particular photo, as well as under and overexposed areas. Neither feature is available in Photos.
  • Brushes: in Aperture you could 'brush' enhancements into specific areas. You can't do this in Photos.
  • Metadata viewing: There are two features related to metadata I'm missing in Photos. First is having metadata listed on the 'Info' tab in the left sidebar. Second, it was nice that I could mouseover a thumbnail and get a 'tooltip' with important shooting data. In Photos it's a floating window that blocks the view of your image.
  • Plug-ins: I rarely used these, but developers had built up a good collection of add-ons to Aperture, none of which can be used in Photos.
  • Star ratings: Instead of giving photos 1-5 stars, in Aperture you can only favorite them.

These are just the features that I've used over the last few years of using Aperture - I'm sure there are many more, which you can share in the comments below.

Perhaps the most hyped part of Photos is the ability to store all of your photos in iCloud. Originals (including Raws) can be uploaded and then automatically downloaded onto other devices, disk space permitting. Changes made on one device are almost instantly displayed on another. You can also view images on iCloud.com, where you can zoom in for a closer look, favorite them, or download them to your computer.

When viewing your photos on the iCloud Photo Library, you can add more images, mark some as favorites, or download them to your computer.  You can't do any editing or reorganizing.

While it's nice to be able to access my photos on my other Apple devices (including the Apple TV) or on the web, all of this comes at a cost. Storing my 130GB gallery will cost $3.99 per month (at the 200GB level), which isn't unreasonable, but there are cheaper or even free options. Dropbox offers 1TB of storage for $99 per year, compared to $240 from Apple. Amazon.com's Cloud Drive service gives you an unlimited amount of photo storage for free for Prime members and $12 per year for everyone else (Disclosure: DPReview is an editorially-independent subsidiary of Amazon). The cross-device features aren't there, but it'll still work for the vast majority of users.

 Service Max Storage Amount Price/yr
 Amazon Cloud Drive Unlimited  Free* / $12
 Apple iCloud 1 TB  $240
 Dropbox 1 TB  $99
 Google Drive 1 TB  $120
 Microsoft OneDrive 1 TB **  $84
* For Prime members
** Unlimited storage is on the way

(For those curious as to what I do, my Aperture library sits on my main hard drive. It's backed up to my Synology NAS/RAID and then sent off to Amazon Glacier in case of nuclear war.)

Given everything that I've said above, you can probably tell that I'm not enthused about Photos. Not just because of the loss of features from Aperture, but also the software's incredibly dumbed down interface, which feels a bit like someone stuffed an iPad into my MacBook Pro.

So what's my plan? For now I'm going to stick with Aperture until, for whatever reason, it eventually stops working. At the same time, I'm going to start spending more time with Lightroom, which I'll more than likely start using in the future. Adobe is making former Aperture users' transition to Lightroom easy (understandably), with an import feature built right into LR 5. It's truly a shame that Aperture was left to wither on the vine, but given Apple's transition into a consumer electronics company, it's not a huge surprise. Moving gigabytes of images from one platform to another can be a real pain, but one thing's for sure: when it's my turn to do so, it won't be to Apple Photos.


What are your thoughts about Apple's new Photos software? If you've been using Aperture, what are your future plans? Tell us in the comments below.