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RAW processing improved in upcoming update of Apple Aperture  
Monday, February 27, 2006 | by Rob Galbraith

Apple has revealed that the next release of Aperture, the company's pro photo workflow application, will be about more than just support for Macs using Intel processors. During a press briefing yesterday at the PMA 2006 trade show in Orlando, Florida, Aperture product manager Joe Schorr showed off numerous refinements in the upcoming v1.1, including what appears to be much-improved processing of RAW files, as well as greater control over contrast, sharpening and noise reduction during the RAW conversion.

Hereís a summary of these and other changes in 1.1:

  • Improved RAW processing
  • Raw Fine Tuning Adjustment HUD for control of image contrast, and either the tailoring or disabling of sharpening and noise reduction
  • Support for NEFs from the Nikon D200
  • Numerous performance enhancements: searching and performing Lift and Stamp operations is described as being about 2x quicker, while the responsiveness of adjustment sliders that affect the appearance of a photo has been noticeably improved
  • A Color Meter for measuring colour values selectively
  • Photoshop (PSD) documents with layers that exist as Masters in an Aperture Library will not be flattened when the program creates a version to export to Photoshop
  • A dpi setting has been added to the Export Version dialog, to make it simpler to export a file with specific height x width x resolution requirements. Similarly, a dpi setting has been added to the External Editor section of Preferences, to enable photos sent to Photoshop from Aperture to arrive with a specific resolution value (this doesnít change the total number of pixels in the file)
  • The maximum thumbnail size in the Viewer has been bumped up from 256 pixels to 512 pixels
  • An option to turn off the display of image labels in web galleries
  • When magnification is set higher than 100% in the loupe, pixel data is no longer smoothed, thereby improved the clarity of individual pixels
  • Native code for both PowerPC and Intel Macs; v1.1 will ship as a Universal Binary. Overall program peppiness and speed of RAW file decoding to the screen looked decent in Schorrís demonstrations on a MacBook Pro and an iMac, both with Intel Core Duo processors
  • Improvements to the histogram, soft-proofing, cropping and printing

Most of these changes will make Aperture more pleasant to work in, since there's a little something for everyone: a Color Meter for those who like to adjust pictures by the numbers, a speedier Lift and Stamp for those making adjustments to large numbers of pictures and smarter handling of layered PSD's. These are all welcome changes. And of course Apple had to make its flagship imaging application run on its newest Macs with Intel processors.

Better Output by Design

The real news of v1.1 is something we knew Apple was beavering away on, but we didnít expect to see results this soon: RAW file decoding that at first blush appears to have none of the improperly sharpened and somewhat smeared look of Aperture conversions today. Instead, what we saw when we got in close to the monitor was Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II photos that had the finely detailed, photographically natural look weíve seen in our own EOS-1Ds Mark II workflow in which Canon's Digital Photo Professional 2.0.3 is the converter and converted files are optimally sharpened in Photoshop to compensate for the softening effect of the cameraís optical low-pass filter.

In other words, the single biggest beef we have with Aperture conversions right now looks to have been addressed in v1.1, and based on our initial look at the results, Apple appears to have addressed it successfully. Second on our list of Aperture quality concerns has been the snow storm of white pixels that can overwhelm high ISO pictures, and we didnít have an opportunity to see whether this icky RAW conversion trait has been stomped out.

What hasnít been changed, says Schorr, is Apertureís colour and tone rendering (though more control over the tone curve applied during RAW conversion has been provided Ė more on that in a moment) and for what we shoot, this is a-ok. Thatís because Aperture has proven itself to have the best colour of any third-party RAW converter weíve ever used, colour that has been closer to the mark than even the camera makers' RAW converters in some instances.

Our breathless enthusiasm for the conversion quality emerging from a beta copy of v1.1 obviously needs to be tempered by the fact weíve not processed our own files yet, including night sports pictures. Clearly, however, Apple is making strides in RAW decoding in the next version of Aperture, and weíve seen enough thatís good in Apertureís output here at PMA to give the upcoming version serious consideration as our primary RAW converter. If youíre surprised to be reading that, weíre equally surprised to be writing it. We didnít expect to be bellying up to the Aperture bar again quite this soon.

When Apple rolls out its new RAW decoding in 1.1, they wonít be tossing out v1.0.x decoding for those who still wish to use it. The Adjustments HUD will contain a small popup with two choices: 1.0 and 1.1. Choose 1.0 and the processing will be identical to the current Aperture; choose 1.1 and your pictureís bits and bytes head down the new processing path to (we hope) pixel nirvana. With 1.1 selected, you also gain access to the new RAW Fine Tuning Adjustments HUD.

Click on a picture that has been adjusted in an earlier version of Aperture and the popup will set itself to 1.0, to ensure that you donít get the new RAW decoding unless youíre sure you want it. By comparison, if you click on a picture that has been freshly-imported into the upcoming version of Aperture, the popup menu will jump to 1.1, since thatís the default conversion method going forward.

In each case, itís possible to override the RAW decoding version, and Apple is including in Aperture 1.1 a function that enables RAW decode 1.0 files to be migrated to RAW decode 1.1 with a minimum of fuss. The migration isnít an all-or-nothing proposition: you can, for example, choose to migrate only earlier files that donít contain existing adjustments, and you can optionally choose to have Aperture create a version of an earlier file, where the earlier file retains its RAW decode 1.0 status but the version spun off from it is Raw decode 1.1.

In addition to the reworking of the algorithms for RAW conversions, Apple has provided more control over RAW conversion parameters. In the new RAW Fine Tuning Adjustments HUD are the following sliders, all of which impact the RAW conversion specifically:

Boost - This is a simple tone curve control. When set to the far right, you get Appleís standard conversion contrast. By moving the slider to the left, the picture becomes flatter. When the slider is all the way to the left, the tone curve is basically flat, or linear (though it appears a brightness-boosting gamma adjustment is still being applied).

Sharpening Ė There are two parameters, each with its own slider: Intensity and Edges. Sharpening can also be turned off altogether, though as we noted above, the sharpening was looking pretty darned effective in our session with Appleís Schorr.

Chroma Blur Ė For controlling the level of smoothing applied to colour noise. Like Sharpening, Chroma Blur can be switched off completely by setting the single slider, Radius, all the way to the left.

Plus, Auto Noise Compensation, a new type of noise reduction in v1.1 that factors in ISO and length of exposure. This is a checkbox, not a slider, and is therefore either on or off.

After RAW Fine Tuning adjustments have been made to one photo they can be applied to others using Lift and Stamp. A set of RAW Fine Tuning adjustments can also be made the default for that model of camera. Itís not possible to create multiple RAW Fine Tuning sets and choose between them. RAW Fine Tuning provides control over the two aspects of RAW conversion that needed the most attention, sharpening and noise reduction, which is great. Plus the ability to ratchet back contrast, thereby better preserving highlight and shadow detail in contrasty scenes, should also be useful.

Whatís not found in RAW Fine Tuning is a way to fine-tune the colour rendering during the RAW conversion, which we know will be a sticking point for some, and especially those accustomed to Camera Raw in Photoshop. Because we like the look of the colour in the current version of Aperture, and have been told that it doesnít change in v1.1, the absence of a slate of hue and saturation controls in RAW Fine Tuning doesn't represent a significant omission. For photographers living in the Camera Raw camp, it almost certainly will be.

Like the current Aperture, v1.1 wonít directly support the passing of a RAW file to an external RAW converter. Nor has Apple provided a mechanism for others to insert their own RAW decoding, plug-in style, into Aperture, or to utilize custom camera profiles.

Other Changes

There are a few other changes worth exploring in a bit more detail:

Color Meter Apertureís equivalent of Photoshopís Info palette is the Color Meter. It can be configured to sample 1 pixel, or a 3x3, 5x5 or 7x7 pixel grid, and can display colour values in RGB, CMYK or LAB. The readout can appear up to two different places: above the histogram and inside the loupe, and can be switched off in both locations as well. When enabled inside the loupe the sample area is shown, and readings can be taken from all the places the loupe is functional, including on thumbnails and in the Light Table. Itís not possible to set multiple measurement points in a photo, or to lock down a single measurement point. Where the cursor is floating is where the reading is being taken from.

Faster searching Apple, says Schorr, has sped up searching the Aperture Library, both by refining the way the search function scans for matches, and also by exposing in the interface an existing but little-used option to search on a subset of the metadata in picture files. Which metadata fields that limited text search will focus on in v1.1 is still being finalized, says Schorr, but will likely include keywords, captions and the filename and will likely exclude EXIF shooting data.

PSD files as Masters In the current version of Aperture, itís effectively not possible to use the programís mechanism for sending a version of a Master to Photoshop when the Master is a PSD document containing layers. Thatís because the version that Aperture spins off from the Master is flattened Ė bye bye layers.

In v1.1, says Schorr, this is fixed. Select a PSD document with layers thatís a Master, choose Open with External Editor, and Aperture creates a version of the Master by simply duplicating the PSD, not flattening it. The version, with layers intact, opens in Photoshop, ready for editing. As before, typing Command-S is all thatís required to update the version with the changes made in Photoshop, and Aperture will automatically recognize the newly-saved version and update itís thumbnail and preview files. Later, if the version Ė really a standalone PSD document - is selected and Open with External Editor is chosen, the PSD document isnít duplicated, but rather is opened directly into Photoshop for additional editing.

To sum up, a PSD document thatís a Master will be duplicated when the Open with External Editor command is chosen, and the duplicate will be sent to Photoshop. A PSD document thatís already a version will simply open into Photoshop.

Automatic import AppleScript applet Schorr also showed an AppleScript applet that will watch a folder and import into Aperture any pictures landing in that folder. The primary purpose of the AppleScript, which will be made available on Apple's web site at the time of Aperture 1.1's release (if not sooner, says Schorr), is to enable a basic tethered camera workflow, where the camera maker's software is used to manage the computer to camera link, and the AppleScript watches the folder where the pictures land and adds them to the Aperture Library automatically.

Conclusion

Aperture 1.1 looks like it will be an update that existing Aperture users will want to load the moment itís available, while the changes look compelling enough that Mac-based photographers whoíd ruled out Aperture primarily because of the quality of its conversions will want to give the program another look.

Not changed in Aperture 1.1 is the way the program stores pictures, or indeed any aspect of the Aperture Library, says Schorr. The focus is on RAW conversion and basic usability changes in this release. This means weíre really interested in giving the program another try as a RAW converter when v1.1 ships, but it also means weíll continue to import and keep track of our pictures using other software.

Aperture 1.1 is due out sometime in March 2006, and will be made available for free through the Software Update mechanism of the Mac OS. Schorr pointed out that even though the current version wonít run on Intel-based Macs, itís still possible to install it. And with it installed, even on a new iMac or MacBook Pro where it canít be launched right now, Software Update will detect the application and enable the download and automatic install of v1.1 in all its Universal Binary glory.

It wasnít possible for Schorr to confirm that an update of the operating system will be required to run Aperture 1.1, since Apple employees arenít allowed to talk about unannounced changes like this. Since most or all of Apertureís RAW conversion algorithms actually live in the OS itself, however, itís a lock that weíll see an update to the operating system, perhaps as OS X 10.4.6,  just prior to or simultaneous with the release of the new version of Aperture.

When asked whether a trial version of Aperture would be introduced alongside the v1.1 release, Apple PR representative Cameron Craig said that there is "no news" on that front, which we took to mean that one is not planned.

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