The Well-trod Path: a Beginner's Guide to how Aperture's major parts inter-relate

Last Modified: Nov 2, 2012 9:19 AM

Aperture is powerful and customizable, but it arrives with little or nothing to help beginners get over the tall conceptual hurdle they must clear before they can continue along the path to profiency and mastery.  The first seven chapters of the well-done Users Manual introduce the interface, but leave many still unsure of how use Aperture.  I knew what things were, but not how they related.  If this applies to you, you may find this Tip useful.  You must know what the parts are and how they relate to each other in order to use Aperture to your advantage.  I call this Tip the but that is more prescriptive than descriptive:  Walk it unless you have a map for a different route.


The Library is your image database. It contains all the information Aperture has about your images: where they are stored on your computer/drives/network, how you have them organized within Aperture, what adjustments you have made to them, all the pre-Aperture metadata (EXIF, IPTC, keywords, etc.) they had before you imported them into Aperture, and all the Aperture metadata (Version names, ratings, color labels, Stacks, additional keywords, etc.) you assign to them from within Aperture. The Library also contains one or more small copies of each image (in effect, thumbnails; in Aperture larger thumbnails are called "Previews").


The Image is the core record in your Aperture database. The database is a giant list of images with a whole bunch of information assigned to each image.


Within Aperture you can view individual images and any grouping of images. You can create a group based on any of the information you have about your images.


The Project is your primary image holder. It has a unique, privileged relationship with your images: Every image must be in a Project; No image can be in more than one Project. You should make a Project from every actual, out-in-the-world photo shoot that you do. Shoot=Project. Stick to this (the mis-naming of "Project" is the worst interface decision made in Aperture).


You will regularly want to view your images in groups other than the Project in which they reside. Aperture provides several specific containers for this (as well as superb tools for creating ad hoc groupings). As a family, those containers are Albums. Aperture includes (regular) Albums, Smart Albums, and the following albums dedicated to special tasks: Book, Light Table, Slide Show, Web Journal, Web Page. Any image can be in any album, and can be in as many albums as you want


As your Aperture database grows, you will want to organize your Projects and Albums. Aperture provides Folders to aid you. Folders hold groups of Projects, Albums, and other Folders. Folders cannot contain images which are not in a Project or Album: You do not put images in Folders; you put containers in Folders.


The organization of your image database is entirely for you to customize for your needs.  (Organizing your database is a different but important topic.)


There are two additional pieces of the Aperture puzzle every new user needs to understand in order to make good use of it.


In additional to what I listed above, your Library may or may not contain your original image files. Each image in Aperture has an Original. Aperture is non-destructive -- your original image files are never altered. If the original image file is contained within your Library, it is called a Managed Original (Aperture's pointer to this file, and the file itself, are both inside the Library). If the original image file is not contained within your Library, it is called a Referenced Original (the pointer inside your Aperture Library points to a file outside your Aperture Library). Referenced Originals bring some important advantages -- but the new user of Aperture can rely on Managed Originals until the need for Referenced Originals arises. Aperture makes is easy to convert your Originals back and forth from Managed to Referenced.


A Version is the name given to the first image as well as to the variants and copies you make of your Original's image within Aperture. The image you see in Aperture after importing a file is the first Version based on your Original.   You use Aperture's tools to make Adjustments to images and to supplement or change the Image's metadata. Each group of adjustments or changes you make to one image is saved as a Version. You can (and should) create as many Versions as you need. Versions appear as images, but are simply text instructions which tell Aperture what Adjustments and changes to make to the original image file. Aperture presents these to you on-the-fly. This is brilliant. It means that Versions are minuscule compared to Originals. The gain in storage and computational efficiency is enormous.


This also means that your images in Aperture do not exist as shareable files. In order to create a shareable file, you must export the image from within Aperture. There is no reason to do this until you need a file to share with programs outside of Aperture.


Aperture, then, is best understood as a workspace for

  • storing
  • organizing
  • adjusting
  • preparing for publication, and
  • publishing

digital photographs. Your workflow is

  • shoot
  • import as Project(s)
  • add image-specific metadata
  • organize into Albums, organize Albums and Projects with Folders
  • make adjustments to images (crop, rotate, change exposure, etc. etc. etc)
  • prepare for publication
  • publish.