This post is part fantasy, but more importantly a really close look at a beautifully designed program for RAW image, and general photography managing and editing: Apple's Aperture. This post also piggy-backs on my previous post on the current Photo Editing State-of-the-Art in 2021.
I made a post with the above image on an Aperture Users Group I belong to asking members if Apple re-introduced Aperture for 2021, what would they like to see in it? The answers where diverse and interesting, and we'll cover some here (hence the fantasy part). I thought this image of an old vintage car with modern components was a good metaphor, but my point in posting to the group was to say "without greatly changing the underlying Aperture paradigm or UI aesthetics." Meaning not making it like most other modern photo software.
When most people start with a new program, we take the default interface as "set" and simply use the tools given. Fortunately most programs let you tweak the interface, even if it's just a little bit. This is one of my required "wants" in any photo editing software. Some allow far more ability to make the interface your own. Aperture, which was discontinued in the summer of 2014, is a great example of software customization. For example if you utilize the top toolbar, you can add or delete a total of 53 different tools, not including the default set.
I think all of the modern programs in this genre also allow you to map your own keyboard shortcuts to make your editing faster, especially if you are a keyboard junky (I on the other hand am not, but I do utilize several ones I have memorized or mapped.) This too is a must have in my software, and Aperture already comes with a ton of shortcuts built in (if only I would learn them). There is one vital shortcut that Aperture doesn't allow, but I will discuss that in a bit.
If you want to go full interface minimal in Aperture (without going into fullscreen mode) you can, and here knowing keyboard shortcuts comes in handy.
This is my current default Aperture layout after I was doing research for this post and exploring the program more deeply than I ever had before. I love the clean, elegant minimal style of this set up, with all of my tools and options just a keyboard shortcut or a menu drop-down away. There is nothing to distract your eyes from the task at hand. No extraneous tools like other programs have to clutter the interface with. It's like having a really clean desk/workspace with well organized drawers at your fingertips. But wait, there's more!
If on the default layout I want less of the grey interface without going into fullscreen mode, I can bring up the Inspector HUD (short for Heads Up Display) with a click of the "H" key and place it over the grey Inspector (they function identically). The HUD panel, like all the HUDs in Aperture are floating panels you can drag anywhere in the interface, and close when not needed. One other cool feature about HUDs: wherever you last "parked" a HUD on the screen, the next time you open it up it will appear in the same location. This applies to the Loupe tool as well. And yes, each has a quick keyboard shortcut for easy on/off switching. Very cool concept.
You can of course go into Aperture's beautiful fullscreen mode by clicking the "F" key, and then the "H" key to bring up the Inspector HUD. In this mode, your tools all move to the minimal top bar. This set of tools, a few that were included in the Default interface on the bottom, are set and not able to be modified. You do have the option to lock the tools on screen or have them hidden until you place your cursor in the area and they drop down. The same behavior applies to your filmstrip if you configure it to be hidden until you cursor over the lower portion of the image frame when it will appear in an elegant fade-in. You can also lock the filmstrip to stay in view if you want, and hide it again as you wish. One caveat on working in fullscreen mode: you lose access to the "header drop-down" features like being able to access the import images interface, etc. and you will have to exit fullscreen to do that. If you know your keyboard shortcuts to bring up HUDs, etc and access other tools you can use those in fullscreen. It's a mode ideally meant for full featured image editing.
On the fantasy side of requests for a modern Aperture feature or features from the group post was to have a built in HDR, Pano, and Focus Stacking tool set. I mentioned that both Affinity Photo and Photoshop have those features, and speaking for Affinity, the tools are really robust. That Aperture already has a great built-in plug-in roundtrip feature to these and other programs (like NIK HDR Efex Pro 2 here), there isn't much point in Apple re-inventing the wheel for inclusion in the Aperture tool set.
Aperture was the first, and as far as I know the only image editing software, that really utilized the floating HUD (Heads Up Display) paradigm, and frankly I think it is brilliant. I don't know why more modern image editors didn't learn from great Apple UI design. As with anything in Aperture, there are usually 2-3 ways to access a tool or feature. You can choose to use the Keyword HUD which you can access via a dropdown menu and simply click & drag any keyword or set of keywords onto your image to apply it, or there is a keyword controls toolbar you can activate which will expand and appear on the toolbar at the bottom. Aperture has a lot of keywords included for almost all genres of photography. Either method can be accessed via a keyboard shortcut.
If you have the Keyword tool set on your toolbar, you can access the keyword HUD that way too. It's also part of the fullscreen tools.
The super powerful Quick Brushes tool is always available, even in fullscreen mode or if you have the Inspector hidden. (you can also access Quick Brushes by dropping down the Add Adjustments menu in the Inspector and clicking the Quick Brushes flyout.) Quick Brushes that are already active or have been used on an image will have a dot next to them. Clicking a brush brings up a Brush HUD with the tools name.
Choosing a Quick Brush tool puts the adjustment in the tool stack (called "bricks") in the Adjustment Inspector and brings up the Brush HUD which gives you access to some very powerful features for how the adjustment is applied. This gets to a feature that Aperture is missing that I would like to have in a new version: Aperture has no keyboard shortcut (and no way to map one) for showing/hiding a mask. You can only access that feature in the Brush HUD. Very annoying. And while we are at it on improving the brush tool, being able to quickly cycle between brush, feather, and erase with a keyboard stroke would be great!
A great feature Aperture includes is the ability to add additional Brush Adjustments of the same brush type to your stack for greater and very subtle effects. You can add additional ones by clicking the gear wheel to the right of an adjustment (this works for any adjustment) and choosing "Add New (named) Adjustment." If it's a Brush Adjustment the HUD will appear and you can adjust the parameters as you like, as well as the Intensity before/after brushing. It's a really powerful way of working and quite versatile.
The list of all the available adjustments in Aperture is not long compared to many other programs, but therein lies it's elegance and Zen beauty. Just what you need for image enhancing, and nothing superfluous that a round-trip couldn't take care of. Don't clutter my desk! Aperture lists the Adjustments in alphabetical order, but that is not how they appear in the Bricks stack. Apple has it's logic for the order that adjustments are placed in, and unlike layers, you cannot adjust the order. And speaking of layers, that was another request from the Aperture Users Group. I explained that once you understand the logic and power of the tools stack, you don't need layers.
Another great feature in Aperture as it is today is you can choose to modify your Bricks Adjustment stack by clicking the gear icon to the right of any adjustment and chose to add it to or delete it from the default set. You can do this with any adjustment, even ones in the default set that have the gear icon. So you could create your own custom set of default Bricks. Very Cool! Just remember you can't change the order that they appear in the stack in relation to each other. Still, very, very cool!
There is a great advantage to being able to use multiples of the same Adjustment Tool, especially if you combine them with the Brushes tool. The level of subtle adjustments you can get, once you understand how it works blows away any other like program I've used with a layers paradigm.
Aperture Today (v3.6) Aperture I Wish For
If I had another wish for an updated Aperture, it would be to include a simple Opacity Slider with each Adjustment Brick. Especially ones that have multiple adjustment parameters in one tool. Once you get the ratio of adjustments to where you like them, and you don't want to affect that balance but you just want the overall opacity to be more or less, I'd like that option. Overall the Color Adjustment tool is fine, but rather limited. I don't want to replace it, it has a vital role in my True B+W Effects preset, but I would love for a new Aperture to acquire a true HSL Color Wheel tool like Affinity Photo has:
Did I mention I love color wheels and find they are a much more powerful tool than a linear color adjustment tool. I guess I just see color in the round! If a new Aperture acquired a new Adjustment brick like this, with an opacity slider of course (no blend mode needed) I'd be really happy!
Now just to check in quickly with another like program to compare the UI aesthetics and features and what I call the feel of the experience, In Capture One Pro you can tweak the interface as well, but not to the degree or with the elegance of Aperture. You can adjust your toolbar, but while Aperture allows you 53 tools to add or subtract, Capture One only allows you 31 tools (neither including the default tools). Now while I've already written in detail about why I dropped Capture One to return to Aperture, to put it plain, after comparing the two side-by-side, feature for feature, tool for tool, and overall experience, I truly found the older Aperture superior for my way of working.
One cool feature in Capture One Pro I do admire that Aperture lacks is the ability to pull any tool from a tool stack out onto the image canvas and enlarge the tool for better seeing, and putting it back in the stack. I guess it would be sort of like Apertures HUDs, but not as elegantly realized. One thing I can't fathom with C1 is you can enlarge the tool freely, but the font on the tool never gets any bigger! For those with older eyes or simply needing glasses to aid in seeing what you're doing, larger fonts would be helpful! Look at all the wasted space. In fact, my other big ask, for any imaging software including Aperture would be to allow the user to increase the fonts anywhere in the program. Even if it's only a Small, Medium, Large setting would be nice.
Another image editor I do like very much (but not for developing RAW files) is Exposure X5. Exposure has a number of well designed tools and features that Aperture does not but I'm not interested in cluttering Aperture with too many new tools.
I will say however that one tool (or tool pair) that both Aperture and Exposure do share is a Clone and Heal Brush (Repair in Aperture), but I am no fan of how Exposure implements their version. The use of an active spot and a source spot "marching ants" connected by a tethered line (which can be moved and resized) is still an old paradigm Aperture abandoned soon after v1.0 was released in 2005. Even Capture One Pro finally fixed a similar issue with its Clone/Heal tool recently (in 2021). I much prefer the simple, elegant way Aperture handles Cloning and Healing (Repair), just the same as it is in Photoshop and Affinity Photo too.
While Exposure uses a layers & masks based paradigm like Affinity Photo and Photoshop, and Aperture is based on the multiple Adjustment "bricks" that can be stacked and masked, really they function as one and the same tool. I like using these two in tandem as needed. On default Exposure has a very clean interface which can be customized, though not to the same extent Aperture can. A few tweaks to the settings and I have it in as elegant a setup as my Aperture, in fact I see them like two well designed desks/workspaces working beautifully together:
Using Exposure X5 as an External Editor to Aperture makes using the unique tools in Exposure a breeze and the round-tripping extends the creative possibilities available with Aperture.
If you've seen my post on using Exposure X5, you will understand why I love the unique feature/tool of the LUT panel in Exposure. If I had one final feature I'd like to see added to a new Aperture, it would be the addition of a dedicated LUT Adjustment Brick just like this (of course with an added gear wheel to create multiple LUTs in a stack and ability to utilize the Brush HUD and tools too.) . It would fit perfectly within the Aperture paradigm and UI.
And the LUT Browser/Importer would be a welcome feature too, as long as it was "Aperture fast!" 😉
So, if a new Aperture were to appear on the horizon, with updated insides for new camera models and OS support, a robust full-featured mobile version for iPad, and just a few tweaks to the existing tools, and two or three new ones, with nothing more or elaborate like so much of what other programs are putting out, just K.I.S.S. and a clean Zen aesthetic and Aperture would be my perfect program. I don't ask for much... really! And as much as an Aperture '21 is unlikely, I'm really happy with my choice of tools, the twin workspaces of Aperture & Exposure X5, and all that can be achieved with them. 😎