I guess my topic can raise a few eyebrows. But my intention is all good and I will explain my reason below. Please note, I am not here to discuss about features but rather concentrate on RAW files rendering between the two softwares. Features can be found elsewhere online and to be frank, I don’t use too much fancy stuff anyway.
Many of you who follow my blogs will know that I am a London wedding and portrait photographer. I have been a long time Canon user and Canon EOS 5D Mark II is (yes and still is) my current workhorse. I have used the original 5D and only just sold it last year but my Mark II has been my buddy since its launch in 2008. So it’s been a few years and with some mileage on its clock. Yet it’s as reliable as ever. I haven’t had a problem at all, touch wood.
Since the Mark III was announced last year, I did ask myself many times about upgrading but I held that thought every time I looked at the those images it produced online. Many of its latest features were not interesting enough to me, apart from the new focusing system. The fact is, and an important one, that it has similar image quality as my perfectly capable Mark II. Lastly the price is just ridiculously high. That also prompted me even more about switching to Leica. As a modern wedding and portrait guy, I don’t really need too much features and all I need is a good image taking machine and some proper lenses. Leica fits the bill and it holds its value way better than either Nikon or Canon.
So just how much technologies has changed since 2008? Not much to my eyes, camera manufacturers simply play with resolutions and gimmicky functions like Wi Fi, GPS… etc. It’s nice to have but definitely not essential unless I am a social or paparazzi photographer. I don’t like sharing my images without checking them thoroughly and processing. Perhaps that is just me.
However, last month I discovered something. While I was busy studying the idea of upgrades or switching to different system, I had a new idea – software. My current set up is to shoot Canon in RAW format, then I use Apple Aperture to process the RAW images then export them to Photoshop for final touch up and effects. I have been using Apple Aperture since its first release and I have not tried any other RAW processors. I know each software has a different rendering engine and the results could be different. But I’ve never expected this.
Out of curiosity, I downloaded Adobe Lightroom 5 to test. The result was simply shocking. Aperture has been my professional buddy for years and I am more than happy to continue using it until my cameras die. However, I shoot a lot of high ISO in low light situations so I always struggle with noise, not that my clients notice anything but I am a perfectionist. I have used noise reduction pluggins for Aperture but with little success, (I don’t really mind noise so long they look natural like film grains) so I rather just leave it sometimes. Canon’s shadow noise is famously fuzzy with lots of luminance and chroma noises (red and purple patches). So it’s not very nice if I want to lift those areas. The problem is that this is evident even at low ISOs.
I shoot a lot of weddings and 99% of the time groom will wear something dark. So it becomes quite a bit of work to make those images look good. I always thought that may be Canon will have a camera soon that will solve all this. But no. Nikon has been quite good at this but I don’t fancy the large files of D800 and the too littles of D700. File size is perfect for me with the Mark II. Canon’s RAW files seem to be a lot cleaner and sharper in Lightroom, however. As a RAW shooter, I know there are lot of parameters that I can adjust but no matter how I change settings in Aperture, I just couldn’t get the same look in Lightroom. I do prefer the colours straight from Aperture but that I can easily change in Lightroom. Oh my lord, the chroma noise almost disappears in Lightroom! Their RAW engine seems to be way better in analysising surrounding pixels and adjust the colour levels accordingly to make chroma noise less obvious. It also enhances in pixel level too. It means I get a lot more dots visible on screen but the result also means that it’s sharper. Aperture seems to mush up the pixels to give me a little more ‘smooth’ looking surface, well… kind of.
I guess the noise is the big thing as this is something that I was struggling all this time in high ISO settings because I prefer to use natural light photography to have a more natural effect. Lightroom also has very effective noise reduction, way better than all the plugins I’ve tried. Features like lens profile and correction are very good additions too. All in all, I am very impressed with Lightroom’s RAW engine and features.
Here’s an example shot I did when I visited a Leica dealer a couple of weeks back. This image is capture using my Canon EOS 5D Mark II, ISO 6400 and aperture at f/3.5.
This is a straight output from Adobe Lightroom 5 direct from RAW with all default settings (i.e. no additional sharpening or anything). I have highlighted a few area with a 100% crop below so you can see the differences in terms of RAW conversion between the latest Lightroom and the dated Aperture engine (yes, they just released version 3.5 but there’s no change in the engine department).
This you can see with little difference between the two but it seems Aperture retain a little more highlight detail than Lightroom (but it can be restored anyway because it’s RAW). But the shadow area already showing a subtle difference, you will see Lightroom definitely has more details.
Here’s the biggest surprise! Look at the detail Adobe manages to extract from Canon’s RAW file? The entire dark area looks cleaner and sharper, despite more ‘grains’ per inch. Remember though, these are jpeg straight from the RAW engines from both and no other adjustments are applied. Aperture just looks mushy and FILLED with annoying chroma noise. It doesn’t matter what I do in RAW refinement, it just cannot achieve the same as Lightroom. Adobe has done a fab job here really.
Now you see, Lightroom has extracted every pixel detail from the RAW file and analyses it. The result is more uniform spread of digital grains (or noise) with similar colours so it appears to be smoother. Aperture has done some kind of pixel binding and mushes them together and tries to make it look smoother. But the result is a more grainy, patchy appearance. It just looks wrong.
Finally, Lightroom’s pixel analysis has result much sharper lines. Aperture just looks a little soft by comparison. Though I can apply some sharpening and boost the detail but it will also exaggerate the appearance of the noise. Anyhow, I much prefer Lightroom’s look. When I apply just a little luminance noise reduction, the file just looks superb!
However, it terms of usability, I still prefer Aperture’s much better, simpler and cleaner user interface. There are a lot to praises about Aperture still but I do think I need Lightroom to process the RAW for now and continue using Aperture to organise my library. I am not seeing Apple updating Aperture anytime soon and I must say that it’s getting a little dated now. I am not suggesting Lightroom is the solution either but it’s an alternative for some users.
I am a very loyal Apple user and I was very proud when Apple announced Aperture and I thought it was a very compelling and innovative product. Adobe and others took years to catch up but Apple has finally falling behind in their photography software category. No matter how much they update their iPhoto software, it can never meet professionals’ demands. The quality of files that Apple’s RAW engine just simply outdated and needs to be looked at, very much of an urgency, before all professionals jump ship to other RAW processors.
Let me know your thoughts though, perhaps there’s other settings that I can do to get better output from Aperture.
Apple please, update your RAW engine and give us Aperture 4 rather than 3.x.x.x.x.x.x.x.x.x It’s been a while since the ‘revolutionary’ product last updated. We, all professional photographers, need something good from Apple.
Thank you for reading my blog and please support my work and this site by buying stuff from Amazon via the link at the bottom (only if you need to buy stuff of course).