Aperture vs Lightroom

Posted on: September 1st, 2011 11

I recently bought an 11″ MacBook Air so I could do tethered shooting on location. Unfortunately, Adobe Lightroom would not recognize my Canon 5D while tethered via a USB cable. After a little research and a phone call to Adobe, I verified that this is a bug exclusive to Lightroom on OS X Lion. I decided to try out Apple’s Aperture to see how well it would do with tethering my 5D. Well, it turns out that Aperture works great for tethering. As a result, I decided to give Aperture a good hard look. Adobe told me very specifically that they would not have a fix for Lightroom for at least several months. Since I’ve been able to use Aperture on my Macbook Air for several weeks now, I feel that I can compare the two programs and give you some insight into which one is better.

What are They

Both Aperture and Lightroom are very similar products. They are essentially photo management and editing programs, and each offer very similar features and functions. The fact is they are competing head-to-head for the same customer; professional photographers, or at least very serious amateurs. There are several free programs, including iPhoto on the Mac and Google’s cross-platform Picasa, that offer enough photo organizing and editing power for most people. Both Aperture and Lightroom target a more sophisticated user; someone who probably shoots RAW files, is more interested in creating great images as opposed to taking snapshots, and spends a lot more time on photography in general than most people. Both Aperture and Lightroom offer many high-end features, and both are used by many professional photographers.

It turns out that many of the features available in both programs are the same. The differences lay in how each program implements these features. Both Aperture and Lightroom offer extensive non-destructive RAW editing capabilities. It isn’t as simple as saying one is better than the other since they both excel in different areas. I will try to show you which app does what better, so you can decide which one to buy.

Smart Objects and Lightroom

One of the great things about Photoshop is the ability to use Smart Objects. Lightoom also supports Smart Objects, in that you can open any photograph from Lightroom into Photoshop as a Smart Object. In fact, there is a menu command that says “Open As Smart Object in Photoshop…”!! This gives you the greatest flexibility in image editing, because if you open a RAW file as a Smart Object in Photoshop, you still have access to Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). In terms of RAW editing, ACR and Lightroom are EXACTLY the same. Lightroom offers other features not available in ACR, but in terms of just editing a RAW file, there is no difference. What this means is, you can open an image in Lightroom and do a bunch of RAW editing, open it into Photoshop as a Smart Object, double click on that Smart Object layer to open it into ACR…..and then back into Photoshop! This is a great workflow and I’ve come to depend on it for all of my work. Between RAW Smart Objects and Adjustment Layers inside of Photoshop, you can do almost 100% NON-destructive editing with Lightroom and Photoshop.

Versions and Aperture

As you might have guessed, Aperture has no such capability. You can still open a RAW file into Photoshop, but not as a Smart Object, and not as a RAW file. However, you can create a similar workflow to that of LR/PS, but with much less flexibility. In order to do so you need to understand how Aperture handles photos. Every new image you import into Aperture is seen as a” Master”. This is always the original file as it was first imported….be it a JPEG, TIFF, or RAW. Then Aperture creates what are called “Versions”. Whenever you do an edit to an image, it gets stored in the Version….er….version. This Version file is just a bunch of what is called Metadata that points to the Master file. So versions LOOK like separate image files in Aperture’s browser, but they are actually the edits you have performed stored as data. So you could have 3 “versions” of the same photo, each with different edits, each looking much different, but they are all pointing back to the Master. This takes the least amount of disk space because the subsequent versions are a fraction of the original file size, since they merely hold Metadata. It is actually quite elegant and a very easy way to manage your edits once you get used to it. You can open any one of the “versions” into Photoshop, and it will come in with all of the edits applied to THAT VERSION. If you further edit in Photoshop, Aperture will display that new file in it’s browser as yet another “version”. It sounds complicated, and if you don’t understand the relationship between a Master and it’s Versions, it IS complicated. However, the logic is very sound and for many people it’s great.

Sadly, there is one glaring weakness. You cannot preserve a file in it’s RAW format if you bring Photoshop into the mix. Even though Apple considers the ability to open RAW files directly into Photoshop “round-trip” editing, I see it as “one-way” editing, because a) you cannot directly access ACR from Aperture, b) the minute you open a RAW file from Aperture in Photoshop, it is no longer a RAW file, and c) You cannot open an image in Photoshop from Aperture as a RAW Smart Object. This is a major issue with me, and a glaring weakness in Aperture.


Tethering works like this; your camera is connected to a computer via a USB cable. When you snap a picture, instead of (or in a ddition to) the image being written to the card in the camera, it gets uploaded to the computer, where you can see it instantly in Lightroom or Aperture. This is great for any shooting session because you can see the photo on a much larger screen than the LCD on your camera, so you can evaluate everything much easier. Once you shoot tethered, you’ll find it hard NOT to!

I teach a few photography classes through the Monmouth County Parks System. I typically use Lightroom on my projector-connected laptop to tether various students’ cameras to it. This is a great teaching aid because the class gets to see the results of whoever is tethered to the laptop on the projection screen. In practice, Lightroom would not even recognize several camera models, and crashes were relatively common when I connected certain cameras. Well, as I mentioned above, on OS X Lion Lightroom no longer tethered my Canon 5D, so I tried Aperture.

The bottom line is this; Aperture KILLS Lightroom for reliable tethering. Every single camera I’ve connected has worked flawlessly! I haven’t seen any problems at all with any of my students’ cameras. I am very impressed with the elegance by which Aperture does this too. It is so simple! Hook up a camera, turn on tethering, select a destination for the photos, and start shooting! If tethering is your thing, it’s a no-brainer…..get Aperture.

Noise Reduction

One of the great things about digital cameras is their ability to change the ISO settings on a frame-by-frame basis. This is a real luxury for anyone who is used to shooting with film. You’d buy a roll of film at a give ISO setting, and that’s it for the entire roll. With digital photography, the ISO setting becomes an equal partner in setting the exposure for a given scene…..you can access faster shutter speeds by raising the ISO value, for example. So if you’re maxed out wide in terms of f-stop, and you still need a faster shutter, ISO is your savior.

This convenience comes at a price though. The higher the ISO value, the more digital noise is introduced into the image. That’s where having the ability to reduce that noise via software can be a lifesaver. Unfortunately, up until very recently nothing worked very well. The Luminance Noise Reduction slider in ACR was almost useless, as was the Noise Reduction adjustment in Aperture. However, with the introduction of ACR v6, Adobe has improved noise reduction so much it is almost magical!! So if you have Photoshop CS5, Elements 9, or Lightroom 3, you have access to the new noise reduction technology from Adobe, and let me tell you…IT ROCKS!!

Sadly, Aperture’s noise reduction…..well…..doesn’t rock. It does the opposite….it sucks. I’ve visited several Aperture fan-boy sites and they claim Aperture is almost as good as Lightroom for NR. DON’T believe them. The fact is, there is no contest at all. If NR is important to you, forget Aperture.


Aperture is $79 at Apple’s App Store. Lightroom retails for $299. If price is an issue, this too is a no-brainer.


Aperture and Lightroom do the same thing. They offer advanced file organizing and photo editing features. With the exception of the above-mentioned differences, they are very similar in function. Deciding which one to get then, depends on which of the above features is more important to you. For tethered shooting, it’s Aperture all the way. For great noise reduction, Lightroom kills. For the most flexible and non-destructive editing workflow with Photoshop, Lightroom is the solid winner. If price matters, Aperture wins hands-down.

Let me add a few of my own observations. Apple has always gotten the “user experience” thing. They know how to make powerful and sophisticated products easy to use….no one does ease-of-use better than Apple. The same holds for Aperture. It has an elegant, easy-to-use interface sporting a logical and intuitive layout. I didn’t have to read one instruction manual to figure out how to do stuff……and I’m no genius. Personally, I think Aperture offers a better user experience than Lightroom. If price and ease-of-use are important, get Aperture….at $79 it is a great bargain.

What I Use

I cannot do the kind of photography I do without the flexibility and power of Smart Objects. I am unwilling to give that up for the more elegant and less expensive Aperture. As a result, I am going to stick with Lightroom on my production Mac Pro in my studio. Since I always shoot tethered there, I also won’t upgrade to Lion….which is a drag because Lion is faster and just better than Snow Leopard. I will simply wait until Adobe updates Lightroom so it will function correctly in Lion.

HOWEVER, on my Macbook Air, I will use Aperture and abandon Lightroom. I don’t need to do extensive compositing in Photoshop with it, and Aperture is great for just about all of my editing needs in the field or for teaching my classes. I primarily bought the Air for on-location tethered shooting, so Aperture rocks that big-time. I’m not thrilled at having to spend $79 just so I can get tethered shooting, but there is so much to like about Aperture I am willing to spend the money.

I’ve been using Lightroom for several years…….since version 1. I am very comfortable with it. Yet, I really WANT to switch over to Aperture. The day that Apple figures out a way to support Smart Objects and offers REAL round-trip editing in Aperture, I’ll say “goodbye” to Lightroom.


  • For a deeper look at Smart Objects, go here.
  • For an example of how great Adobe’s noise reduction works, go here.
  • Learn more about Apple Aperture 3 here.
  • Learn more about Adobe Lightroom 3 here.

11 Responses

  1. Thank you for this review! I own a iMac and have been using Aperture 2 for years… and I recently purchased an 11″ Macbook Air with OSX Lion and couldn’t install Aperture 2 on it. So I have been debating whether I should purchase Aperture 3 or Lightroom for use on my Macbook Air. Looks like my choice will be Aperture 3… or wait until Lightroom fixes their problems for OSX Lion.

  2. Steve Samuelian says:

    Your comments and analysis were really helpful. Thanks! I’ve been evaluating both tools and have seen pros and cons of both. A part of me thinks that more expensive equals better features, but clearly that’s not the case. Your review has made it clear that I do need to look at adding Photoshop to my workflow in some way, though. One other pro about Aperture (at least for me) is that it allows you to have multiple libraries, even on external drives. My Macbook Pro only has so much room, so I like the fact that I can further segregate my photos. From what I’ve read, LR doesn’t permit the use of multiple libraries.

    • Gary Dates says:

      lightroom does everything you described above, but uses a different structure. Honestly, at the end of the day, I feel Lightroom is a better choice all-around. I just use Aperture for tethering my Canon 5D.

    • Pat says:

      Lightroom allows you to have as many catalogs as you want. You can however only have one open at a time.

  3. […] consider immediately upgrading. Although, regardless of this review, the religious debates between Apple Aperture vs. Adobe Lightroom are expected to continue. TweetNo related […]

  4. Jeff says:

    Thank you for helping me understand some of the critical differences as I work to decide which to commit to.

    The brand-new version of Lightroom has been released – hope it solves some of the compatibility problems for you.

  5. Larry says:

    Just wanted to let you know that the Automator on you Mac will teather with any camera. Just run the take picture routine. It also works with Lion.

  6. Kenneth says:

    Thanks for you comparison. Given my overall needs, and you comparison; I will stay with Aperture.

  7. Jim Fossler says:

    Thank you very much for the comparison. I’m just getting ready to jump into the MAC world now that I no longer have to have a Windows machine due to work. (I’ve looked forward to this a LONG time!)

    I wanted to know about software on the MacBook Pro as I currently am a Lightroom user and the salesman was pushing Aperture.

  8. sticking with Lightroom 4 – been using it since version 1… i don’t need tethering because most of the shots i do are done on the move or out on the streets, on fields, or in the mountains… noise reduction is still a priority, but i don’t really need to worry much about this with my Nikon D7000…

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