So to summarize the question, is aperture as good at processing/editing RAW images as Adobe Camera Raw? If not, why, what are the differences?
Much of the difference between the two has to do with the way brushes work (for local adjustments) and some features.
In ACR, the adjustment brush works as a multi-parameter brush where you brush in strokes and can adjust quite a few parameters after adding the brush stroke (e.g., exposure, highlights, shadows, sharpening, noise reduction, clarity, saturation, etc.). ACR adds a 'pin' for each new adjustment which can then be selected to change the parameters of that adjustment.
In Aperture, you use what is called a 'brick' which is a panel dedicated to the type of adjustment (e.g., enhance, highlights & shadows, edge sharpen, noise reduction, etc.). In this case, you use each 'brick' (or panel) to change the brushed in parameters for that specific type of adjustment.
In summary; you can add or change more parameters in ACR with one brushed adjustment than you can in Aperture, but both can add or change the same parameters (with the exception of exposure, which Aperture doesn't currently do as a local brushable adjustment).
ACR has arguably better sharpening and noise reduction control. ACR also has a gradient tool and lens distortion correction which Aperture currently lacks.
I do find that brush speed is about the same with a lot of adjustments added, with Aperture getting better marks overall.
All that said, I would be surprised if Aperture didn't receive some of the tools it currently lacks in the future.
As far as RAW decoding goes, Aperture relies on the OS X camera RAW compatibility feature to render RAW files, so you will already have a sense of what that default render is like with iPhoto and Preview. Aperture can alter those parameters either as a RAW fine tuning preset that you create or with the adjustment bricks.
FWIW, I have been using Adobe ACR at work (on Windows) since it's inception; and while I like the results with some images with regards to highlights, shadows, sharpening and noise, I can get there faster with Aperture. I also don't agree with Adobe's new rental policy for the CC line, so won't be investing in their products anymore. I quite like the 'App Store' paradigm.
Hope that helps.
Is the sharpening that much better in ACR? And that being said, would you recommend Aperture?
I think the sharpening in ACR is slightly better, not by a huge margin though. Typically, I use ACR sharpening to remove any softening of the image before rendering into Photoshop. I then use Photoshop to resize and add any output sharpening I think is needed.
In Aperture - with RAW files - the RAW Fine Tuning sharpening setting can be adjusted to mimic what I would do in ACR. Then the normal Edge Sharpening brick is designed for output sharpening.
For most shots, I don't see much difference in my output sharpening. For tricky shots with a lot of detail, I have been using Photoshop's Unsharp Mask filter (with masks and edge find actions) to really see where I am effectively adding sharpening. Truth be told though, these instances are fairly rare since I can brush in or brush away sharpening in Aperture to fine tune.
Of course, this is just my personal taste. Hopefully, it isn't too far from the general norm though.
I recommend Aperture with the following provisos:
- When working in Aperture full screen with brushes while zoomed in to 100% or greater, it can get sluggish after a while. Having 8 GB RAM (or more) and a good graphics card can mitigate the sluggishness to some extent.
- We don't know if a new version will be released this year or not. We hope it will with some of the aforementioned features added (as well as improvement in said full screen scenario).
Note - If a new version comes out and you just purchased Aperture 3, current trend would say you will have to pay full price for the new version (if the Logic Pro X release tells us anything). In other words, no more upgrade discounts, just full version purchases. At $80 for the program, it still can't be beat though.
If iPhoto is behaving well for you in viewing, sorting, general use and rendered results of the images, then Aperture should work well for you on that machine. It should certainly add the next level of organization and image adjustments that go along with shooting RAW.
Sorry to weigh into the argument so late but there are a couple of differences that are significant to me... one in favour of each program:
- In favour of Aperture - Aperture is a post-processing and an organisational tool - ACR is purely post-processing... it has no organisational abilities whatsoever. Of course you're most likely going to use ACR in conjunction with Adobe Bridge (well, I do) which is where the organisation comes in. Why use two apps when one will do though?
- In favour of ACR - Aperture doesn't support graduations - e.g. for darkening a sky. You have to brush these effects in, which is both harder and never looks as good.
I've been using both workflows for quite a few years yet and I still can't decide between them (occasionaly I toy with the idea of using Lightroom but it's a big switch and if I can't decide between two workflows, why introduce a third contender?).