The good news is that there's some competition again for software to edit and catalog raw images, the detailed and flexible file formats from higher-end cameras. The bad news is that anybody buying the software has a harder choice to make.
Please vote in the poll here, and share your reasoning in the Talkback section below to enlighten others.
Photographers would be best to think carefully about which software to purchase, and not just because of the necessary investments of time and money. Unlike applications such as Photoshop, which can easily be substituted or used in conjunction with other software, Lightroom and Aperture are equipped to extend their tentacles to manage your library of images.
In essence, that means the software can be a gatekeeper to your data--not the original images, but the editing settings, titles, captions, tags, and organizational structure. For me, having a rich, searchable catalog is definitely worth it, but tread carefully before you commit, because it'll be difficult to extricate yourself.
Apple was first to enter the higher-end photo software market with Aperture in 2005, but the software languished at the same time Adobe Systems released and rapidly updated Photoshop Lightroom over 2007. But now Apple is back in the game with Aperture 2.0, which reproduces some features in Lightroom, boosts performance, and has a price tag $100 less than Lightroom's $300.
Pros and cons
Both packages are solid overall, but there are some features I preferred with one or the other. Here's how I see things stacking up--be warned, though, that I've used Lightroom for countless hours but by comparison only dabbled with Aperture 2.0.
Let's start with the interface. I like Lightroom's pull-out panels--as many as four--that can be deployed or tucked away as needed. Most of the time I only have zero, one, or two showing.
But I think Aperture makes smart design decisions with a few interface options. Its movable panel isn't very obtrusive, and now in 2.0 you can toggle it easily between editing, tagging, and file management modes. For me, editing and adding metadata such as titles, captions, and tags are much closer operations than the big divide between Lightroom's develop and library modules would suggest, and I don't like switching back and forth between editing and tagging.
Speaking of metadata, though, one option I like better with Lightroom is the ability to assign five colors to photos (but where's the keyboard shortcut for purple?). The one- to five-star ratings that both packages offer is dandy, but I use colors to classify photos in other ways.
It looks to me like Aperture has a better search interface, especially for complicated operations that combine multiple parameters such as keywords, date ranges, and the handy photos-I-actually-edited filter. I've sometimes gotten bogged down swimming through Lightroom search. And I love the smart folders feature, which automatically updates a folder that's been set to watch for a particular attribute. For example, with Lightroom, I would love for the software to automatically add a photo with a specific recurring tag to a particular collection.
On to editing. For sophistication, I'd give the edge to Adobe, though to be fair I haven't looked in detail at important aspects of Aperture, namely noise reduction and edge sharpening. I sometimes find those wanting in Lightroom.
I like Lightroom's targeted adjustment tool (TAT), which lets you adjust the tone curve as well as color saturation and luminance by clicking on the relevant portion of the image directly and dragging the mouse up and down. And Adobe was smart to actually employ user testing to determine which colors are individually adjustable--orange has more psychological importance than most software, including Aperture, gives it. And I'm a big fan of tone-curve adjustments, though I sometimes wish Lightroom divided the curve up into five or six subranges instead of four.
One unknown is the plug-in future of both applications. Right now Lightroom has a software development kit for export options, and there's work of unknown scope to come. Apple said it's future SDK will permit editing plug-ins, too, which Adobe says is a difficult challenge. On the other hand, Adobe's already got some editing plug-ins of a sort, with the ability to import custom settings for all manner of adjustment options.
One major edge Lightroom has had is much earlier support of the raw image files of new cameras. Apple said it was held back by an overhaul of its raw-processing engine and that things should now go more swiftly, but it'll take real work to win back the hearts of disgruntled Nikon D300 owners. In the meantime, Apple now can make use of Adobe Systems' Digital Negative (DNG) format as an intermediate step to handle raw files Adobe supports and Apple doesn't.
Something Aperture does better is vignetting, the darkened corners that once were a lens deficiency but now have caught on (altogether too widely in my opinion) as an effect to focus attention on the center of an image. Lightroom can fix lens vignetting or add it to a full image, but if you want to apply the effect to a cropped version of the photo, only Aperture offers that mechanism.
Correcting lens problems is a real issue, though, and Lightroom has a chromatic aberration correction I find very useful. It lets you fix some of the magenta, red, yellow, and blue fringes that show up in high-contrast areas, especially near the corners of images, and it also can alleviate the purple fringing overall. Aperture lacks this.
Performance is better with Aperture 2.0 (it was faster on the dual-core iMac I played with than Aperture 1.5 was on a quad-core Mac Pro I used for Aperture 1.5), and a particularly nice feature is the ability to work in a preview mode that employs only JPEGs--either the images built into the raw image or an Aperture-rendered version. You can't edit with it, but it's good enough at least for the first pass through a photo shoot to delete the duds and add tags and titles.
Looking beyond editing, my expertise thins out because I don't do much in the way of exporting photos to Web galleries or printing at home. But I will note one Aperture advantage: Apple expanded its book-export options with 2.0, and Lightroom has no answer so far. That's a drag for wedding photographers and amateurs (like me) who want to whip up a quick birthday present for the grandparents.
Of course, one of the biggest advantages Lightroom has is a Windows version, and that alone is likely to ensure its market dominance over Apple. And where Apple has a lot going on with iPods and iPhones, image editing is Adobe's bread and butter. Should those externalities be factors, too? Weigh in.