I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

iPhoto vs. Aperture vs. Lightroom

I’ve been using iPhoto all this time. In the past, I had briefly tried both Aperture and Lightroom, and ultimately I wasn’t convinced that either were worth their learning curves (or $300) for my needs.

Now, things are a bit different. I started shooting RAW instead of JPEG about 6 months ago, and I actually started trying to process my favorite photos a bit before posting them. Nothing insane, but basic adjustments like white balance, straightening, and basic exposure tweaks (bringing in the white and black points, usually). White balance is by far my most-used adjustment: I’ve found that, for what I’m sure are great reasons (type of light, light level), my cameras always autodetect white balance too warm indoors.

(Note to new SLR owners: Your indoor photos are always too red or yellow. This is what I’m talking about.)

Shooting RAW is important if you’re planning on making these adjustments, because many of them can be done losslessly or near-losslessly. Short explanation: a JPEG only stores a very narrow portion of the range of raw data from the sensor, and a few things like white balance are permanently “baked in”. With RAW files, these adjustments are made afterward to show you the photo, but all of the original sensor data is there and can be reinterpreted by different adjustments without losing detail, or at least while losing less detail.

Photographers with more talent than me probably don’t need this flexibility as often as I do, especially if they can capably use an all-manual film camera. They tend to expose photos properly a lot more of the time. But I’m not that good. I need to make big adjustments pretty often.

I thought iPhoto was doing a pretty decent job, and I didn’t want to give up all of its convenience and all of my muscle-memory for using it to spend $300 on a program that I had no idea how to use unless the difference was going to be worthwhile.

…until I figured out how iPhoto was processing RAW files.

I kept noticing that a lot of my adjustments weren’t working as well as I expected, producing a lot of compression artifacts and poor quality. Almost like… I wasn’t shooting RAW at all.

Wait a minute.


As far as I can tell, iPhoto doesn’t actually do any RAW editing. It converts from RAW to JPEG only on import, and only at default settings, then all adjustments are done to the photo as a JPEG.

So I might as well have been shooting JPEG for the last 6 months, and that’s why my adjustments looked awful. (At least iPhoto keeps the RAW files so I can go back and readjust them with a tool that does it properly.)

I started looking at Aperture and Lightroom again because they can do crazy things with RAW files. A few things have changed since I last tried them:

But many aspects of the comparison remained the same:

Both programs have a 30-day trial, so we did a test: I tried Aperture and Tiff tried Lightroom.

Tiff’s trial is done, and she wasn’t convinced that Lightroom was worth the money. I tried using it on her computer a few times, and I had mixed feelings: I found a lot of things unintuitive, and I really didn’t like the camera-import/file-management workflow.

I’m only a week into my Aperture trial, but I already feel like it’s a better fit for me. It’s exactly what I wanted: iPhoto pro. I love the import workflow, I love the adjustments, and I love the quick star-rating/reject picking process. I still have a lot to learn about it, but I think I’m going to stick with it. Lightroom didn’t inspire me enough to spend $300 and relearn everything, but I think Aperture will be worth $200 and its learning curve.