Friday, June 30, 2006

It's a matter of priorities, I guess

When we were in Cannes, we would return to our room at night, prepare our dinner and that was when the photo editing and blogging would usually take place. Since we've arrived at Cavaillon, though, there have been other things that have taken priority. Like kicking back in the pool and cooling off from the heat or sitting out in the yard and watching the plane tree and cypress trees sway gently in the breeze (or the wind if the Mistral starts kicking up). Heck, I've even been writing some code to play around with GPS locations. The net is, that I haven't had much of a chance to keep up with the blogging or the posting of pictures.

Now posting pictures should be easy. Copy them off of the camera, weed out the blurry or incredibly boring ones figure out the few that you want to post and and upload them. But not me. I've been spending some time playing around with a bunch of different RAW photo workflow applications during the trip and that has slowed things down as I've tried to figure out how each one works and how to best use it. I've been using Capture One for Windows for several months now so that one was out. For this trip, I've been working with Aperture, Lightroom beta 3, iView Media Pro v 3.1 (which became a Microsoft product while we were here).

I've been using a MacBook Pro for my editing, going back and forth between Windows and MacOS. I really like this laptop though it does have the downsides of getting extraordinarily hot and, when plugged in, of having an electrical current flowing through the metal case since the AC adapter is not grounded. It has the advantage of being one of the fastest Macs out today, though, and quite a nice PC to boot (burns notwithstanding).

So here are my thoughts on each of these applications and what I've liked and disliked about each.

Apple Aperture

Aperture is certainly the best looking application of the three. It is full of convenient tools like the loupe, full screen mode, the "heads up" editing pane. I particularly like the organization aspects, being able to rate pictures and do smart lists based on these properties. The thumbnail views are very nice and have some cool animations which feel natural but make it feel polished. It is really nice to be able to easily switch between "modes" like project management vs editing vs applying ratings and keywords.

Aperture bases all of its edits on versions which means that for any original photo, you can have multiple versions of it and edit each one separately. I like this concept though I haven't used it much since I'm really just trying to clean up the pictures some. The editing tools are nice, though pretty basic still. It doesn't have the color fixing options that Lightroom has and it has a tendency to over do it and ending up with over-saturated photos. One of the things that is frustrating moving between tools is that each tool has its own sensitivity to the controls - sometimes moving a slider just a little bit will make a huge change and sometimes they really use the full gamut of the slider and keep the result pretty useful. The straighten tool in Aperture is a great example of this. The slightest move of the mouse rotates the image a huge amount and, because it is also a very slow operation, I almost always go way too far. Doing the fine adjustments needed to straighten a picture is very frustrating.

There were a bunch of places where Aperture really fell down, though. First, it requires that each of my RAW photos is sucked into their proprietary hidden folder hierarchy which pretty much locks out any multi-tool workflow (with the exception of supporting Photoshop). I understand why they do this but I hate it and it will keep me from using Aperture for the long term. These are my pictures and I don't want them locked away from me. It prevents me, for example, from using another application to straighten an image while maintaining Aperture for the rest of the workflow.

While I'm sure it must be there somewhere, I can't find an easy way to compare before/after versions of edits in a photo. I suppose I can create a new version before making a change and then compare those but then I'm responsible for cleaning up each of those versions and that's pretty lame. Lightroom does this much better. I also can't figure out how the Spot and Patch tool works. Maybe it is useful, but it isn't intuitive.

Aperture has a publish to web gallery feature which is surprisingly bad. The default templates are very boring and while the publish to .mac works nicely, I can't see really publishing my pictures with any of their templates. This should be easy for them to fix but I was surprised that a company that puts so much emphasis on design would blow this one.

The bottom line - Aperture shows a lot of promise but it feels like Apple put more emphasis on looking cool and adding innovative though not as useful features like auto stacks and not enough into a great touchup toolset.

Adobe Lightroom Beta 3

Maybe it is unfair to compare a beta 3 of a product with a version 1.1 but I figure both are the second public release of the product and Adobe has such a head start in technology and expertise, it should be a fair comparison. My first ding against Adobe is that there is no Windows version yet, though I'm sure they'll correct that soon. Beta 3 feels like a halfway point between the Elements applications and Photoshop. It's modal, big text main window feels very consumer-y and is much less elegant looking than Aperture. It is kind of strange that when I am in Library mode, it keeps the filmstrip pane open that I used in edit mode so now I have 2 listviews of my photos open concurrently and as I choose a picture in one, the other one jumps to select the same item. The fact that the filmstrip view animates and the thumbnail view jumps shows some lack of polish that is not unexpected in a beta but icky nonetheless. Aperture's modes work much more nicely.

One big plus for Lightroom is that it gives me the option to keep my RAW files in their original location. Yay! It does have the option to copy them to a secret store but it seems to work just as fine when they are where I want them to be which is great. On the downside, it doesn't do a very good job of dealing with pictures getting deleted by a different application. It does recognize that the picture is gone, but it makes me go through, select each one, and delete it from the database.

Lightroom's best feature is, not surprisingly, in the editing mode (or develop as they call it). The toolset is very nice, though incomplete and I particularly like the flexibility in adjusting color in the photos. The tone curve, split toning and HSL color tuning are quite nice though it can get very confusing in figuring out how they interact with one another. I really appreciate the flexibility these tools provide though they require a Photoshop mindset to really get the most from them -- and I don't have that yet so it is a bit of a stretch.

The biggest problem, though, is that it is SLOW! Painfully slow. Like I'm waiting five to fifteen seconds for things to happen or for pictures to load and these delays happen all the time. I'll make a change of some sort and when it tries to apply it, I'll need to wait several seconds. Each little tweak is tracked separately in the undo chain so if I am just playing around with exposure, for example, and want to get rid of any changes I may need to hit undo 6 times. At least it is very clear what is being undone but it would be nice for some of those changes to get collapsed.

Their web templates are pretty nice, giving options that include a flash gallery though, again, there need to be more options. Hopefully those will come in the final version.

I'm going to keep playing with Lightroom some more, but it feels like it is going to need to have a bunch of books written about it before users will be able to take full advantage of the editing features.

iView Media Pro 3.1

iView Media Pro is not an editor. Sure, it has some editing features but I don't expect it to be an editor so I didn't even try to use them. It is a digital asset management application, though, and it does a very good job at it. It has been the first step in my work flow where I first triage the pictures that are coming in and delete the clearly bad ones. It has also been my solution for posting web galleries since I really liked one of the templates they have. It is fast at indexing the photos and does an OK job at letting me step through them. My biggest complaint is that when I zoom landscape pictures to take the full screen, it uses that same zoom percentage to apply to portrait pictures so they are cropped on the top and bottom. If I set it up so the portraits are fully visible then the landscape pictures take up a small space in the middle of the window leaving lots of wasted screen space around them. Ugh! Lightroom does this very nicely, not only showing me as much of a picture as possible, but also zooming to 100% when I click in the picture (and returning to normal when I click again).

As an organizer, though, it is fast and it is easy to have different sets of photos to work with since it uses a document model for each collection. I would like it better if there was better support for organization by hierarchical tags though I must admit that I haven't spent as much time tagging photos with anything more than labels and ratings.

Well I could go on and on with more data and to be completely fair to all of the applications I probably should. But now I need to go next door and have a drink and watch the trees sway in the breeze and that sounds much more fun. I'll post more pictures of our adventures soon.

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