Import & Browse Test: Aperture vs Lightroom vs Photo Mechanic
EDITORS NOTE: Thomas and I discussed this post at length, before he even ran the tests. Should we do it, or shouldn’t we? This site is not in the business of proving Aperture is better or worse than anything else; it’s here to teach Aperture users how to get the most from Aperture, and that’s it. However given what a critical piece of the workflow this is for professional photographers (fast imports), and that this is a significant feature improvement in Aperture 3.3 (even if Apple isn’t marketing it as such), we decided to do it. And once you’re comparing Aperture 3.2 to 3.3, you have to compare to Photo Mechanic as well, which has long been regarded as the gold standard for speedy imports and selects. And once you add Photo Mechanic, you can’t ignore the 300 pound gorilla in the room, Lightroom. So, we decided to compare them all. And as you’ll see, we even gave Lightroom a more than fair shake, trying to improve its result based off feedback from former Lightroom users.
Almost every assignment I do is deadline driven. Sometimes I even show images from a wedding that I’m still shooting. Speed is important to me. I’ll never complain that something is too fast. I’m always wanting it to move faster.
Aperture 3.3 has dramatically improved the speed in which we can look at photos not already in the library. Aperture 3.0 gave us the ability to browse, adjust and export images before they were even all finished copying from the card to the hard drive — this was a massive leap forward in productivity. Now, the Aperture team has taken Aperture 3.3 to the next level with dramatic improvements to handling the embedded JPEG file. They have made the speed in which the images draw to screen much faster.
It made me wonder; is Aperture faster than the other apps pro photographers use to do this? Adobe has recently made made Lightroom 4.1 available. I hear it’s more responsive, and I want to know for sure. Many pro photographers still swear by Photo Mechanic for their deadline photo browsing and metadata duties. They perceive it to be faster than Aperture and Lightroom. Are their perceptions correct? I want to know.
I will import 500 RAW images from a Canon 1D Mark IV into a new Aperture 3.2 library, a new Aperture 3.3 Library, to a folder using Lightroom 4.1 and to a folder using Photo Mechanic. I will use the same 27-inch iMac (12GB RAM, 2.93 GHz Intel Core i7) for all the work. The images will be imported off a 32GB SanDisk Extreme Compact Flash card (60MB/s) using a Lexar FW800 card reader.
I will not rename, or add IPTC. All the import settings will be as much the same as they can be.
The idea here is to see which app is best for importing and looking at rendered images the fastest. So, I will time how long it takes to import and then look at the image in full resolution before moving onto the next image. As soon the image renders, I will push the right arrow button. I will not move through the images so fast that I wouldn’t be able to see what the images are, but I will do it very fast nonetheless. If there is no delay in the rendering, I will still take time to look at the image just as I would during a real shoot. I will do my best to consistent from one app to the next. I will also admit this is where the test is weakest. It’s not an absolute timed import speed because it relies on a human to determine when to advance to the next frame. We can only hope my efforts are consistent.
It took nine minutes to copy 500 RAW images to an external FW800 drive from a CF card. However, it took only five minutes to browse those 500 images. (Because of the way Aperture works, you don’t actually have to wait for the files to complete copying before you can view them at full resolution). That’s a major times savings, especially when there’s over a thousand images on a card and you have multiple cards.
The performance was much better on my iMac than it is on a newer and maxed out MBP, but still leaves room for improvement. It moved along nicely for about 200 images and then started to get jumpy and the rendering would not keep up with the my pushing the right arrow key on the keyboard. I had to slow down and let it catch up. Overall, a pretty good time.
Again, the copy time took right at nine minutes to complete. This shouldn’t change. However, the experience of looking at those photos during the import was vastly improved. There was very little jumpiness. Not once did I have to wait for the embedded jpeg to render, and it took only three minutes to look at fully rendered images. That’s two minutes of time savings for every five hundred images. In a typical football game I shoot about 2000 images — that means I’ll save eight minutes going through those images. On a tight deadline, that is a very long time, especially during half-time. In terms of a wedding, you’ll be able to go through the ceremony photos while the bride and groom are eating. This is a huge increase in performance.
As in Aperture 3.2, this time advantage is from the ability of the app to browse, adjust and export images before they are all off the memory card. This is a key feature. This is why I can be done looking at 500 images in just over three minutes while it actually takes nine minutes for the images to finish copying. This is also why it’s important to have more than one card reader if you have multiple cards to import. In a sporting event, a photographer can shoot in excess of 2000 images in three cameras. This feature allows a photographer to do three imports off three cards and be working before they’re done copying. The other apps will import multiple cards but you have to wait until they are done before going to work.
I’d say that as equally important as the time savings, the experience is better. It’s less frustrating. It feels more natural. I just felt more relaxed and less rushed using Aperture 3.3. It has a feeling of quality.
Adobe Lightroom 4.1
I don’t use this everyday like I use Aperture. I can’t judge the difference between Lightroom 4 and Lightroom 3. But, I can judge the difference between Lightroom and Aperture. It may not be completely fair either because I may not be using it in the most efficient way. That’s one of the reasons I decided to not rename files, add adjustment presets or add metadata. This test is just a simple import using all of the apps.
It took 14 minutes and 27 seconds to import and look at 500 images.
This took much longer than I expected. Not only that, if you continued to press the right arrow key, the image would move along the thumbnails but the large preview would not move with it. This means you could easily miss seeing blocks of images if you weren’t paying attention.
Because of the time it takes to load the images and this very odd behavior, I found Lightroom 4.1 to be virtually unusable for this task. This explains why I see very few using it in photo workrooms at sporting events. I see them using Lightroom after importing with Photo Mechanic or other software, but rarely do I see someone importing, browsing and rating images with Lightroom. Apparently, it does other things very well. This is not one of them.
Since Lightroom’s weakness at importing of memory cards appears to be well known, I decided to do a second test and import from a hard drive. The results were far better. It took eight minutes and ten seconds to look at all 500 images. I was still troubled by how it would easily skip over images without showing them or loading them when the arrow key was pushed too fast. I suspect I missed seeing at least two dozen images because of that. With practice, a user would get a good feel for how fast they could push the arrow key and miss anything. But that pace is maddeningly slow… for me anyway. This better performance is tempered by knowing you have to add at least five minutes of copy time in the finder to this. Actually, more considering the amount of navigation and clicking it would take to make that happen. With multiple cards and the pressure of deadline, I wouldn’t consider it. It’s just asking for trouble, in my opinion.
RESULT: 14:27 or 12:00+
Photo Mechanic 4.6.8
Since this is a test of importing and browsing only. We have to include Photo Mechanic. It’s long been the industry standard for this task. Plus, many Lightroom and Aperture photographers use Photo Mechanic not only for importing and browsing, but also for industrial-grade metadata tasks. Many publications and agencies have systems that were designed years ago to accommodate Photo Mechanic and that hasn’t changed.
Since Photo Mechanic is a very different beast than Aperture and Lightroom, it’s not an apples to apples test. The test here is to import (“ingest” in Photo Mechanic language) and then look at every single image very quickly — as quickly as the app will allow.
When importing, Photo Mechanic requires that the image complete copy over and load into the browser before you can look at it. So there’s no shortcuts — you can’t see an image before the complete file is pulled from the card (it however does utilize the embedded JPEG preview file to draw the image to screen). Unlike Aperture where you can view every photo very soon after import begins (because it copies the embedded JPEG first), with Photo Mechanic you can’t view every photo until every photo is copied.
NOTE: (In the video, you’ll see that I’m frustrated with it wrapping around to the first image if I try to tap the right arrow and the next image isn’t yet ready. I discovered later that there’s a preference to turn this off, but that doesn’t change the time it takes to view — it just lowers the frustration level. The final time below takes this realization into consideration.)
Photo Mechanic does load the images very fast, and much faster than Lightroom. It took only six minutes to copy over and load the images. Once they appear in the browser moving through the full size images is a delight. In this regard it’s every bit as fast as Aperture (both are using the embedded JPEG in the RAW file to do this). Out of the 500 images, I saw only one low res image before it loaded. It seems to me that Aperture figured out how Photo Mechanic was looking at those embedded jpegs in the RAW images and put it work — except that Aperture doesn’t wait for the full RAW image to load before it grabs the next embedded JPEG.
All said, it took about 80% longer to see every image large and in high resolution with Photo Mechanic than it did in Aperture 3.3 (notice that Aperture 3.2 times are very close to Photo Mechanic). Remember, we did the same thing in 3 minutes and 15 seconds in Aperture 3.3.
Then there’s the issue of adjustments. With Photo Mechanic you have to open the image in another app. You have to take the selects to Lightroom, Photoshop, Aperture, or something else. With this in mind, you’ve lost the race. Any time advantage you gained is lost.
Photo Mechanic does offer one unique advantage however. If you all you need to do is look at images on a Compact Flash card, make selects, and send those selects, Photo Mechanic would be the tool of choice. It loads images off of a Compact Flash card very quickly at full resolution and the browsing is just as fast as it is from photos copied to the Finder. It also allows FTP uploading from within the app. Nothing will touch it for that very limited task. In Aperture you can view an image while it’s still on the card (just double-click on the thumbnail in the import window), but it’s not full resolution. It appears to be loading a lower resolution preview at this stage. If Aperture gave you the ability to see the full rez file while still on the card, make a few selects and then FTP them with metadata added directly from within the app, I think it would be game-over for Photo Mechanic. This is assuming you don’t need to make any adjustments of course, and for many types of shooting, that’s precisely the case. Keep in mind you probably will eventually need to copy over the complete card, but it may not be on deadline at that point.
(adjusted to total time of import, assuming you view each image as it loads, which you can)
Aperture 3.3 is the fastest app in this test with a total time of just over 3 minutes for importing and browsing 500 images from a Compact Flash memory card. The speed is further realized if you need to make simple or even complex adjustments like toning and retouching of dust spots.
If you are a Lightroom user, you’d be well served to use something else to import and browse through your images. In this test, Lightroom didn’t fare well at all.
If you want to browse a images directly off the card, make selects, and send, Photo Mechanic is the best option. Just don’t plan on making any adjustments to the image. If you do need to make adjustments and have to open the image in another app, you have lost all the speed advantages of Photo Mechanic (and compared to Aperture, there is none).
Here is a YouTube playlist of all five recordings. These are unnedited and show the complete process from start to finish, including all of Tom’s commentary. Again please note that a feature was discovered in Photo Mechanic after the recording, and the written results above are reflective of that.
All videos are recorded at 1080p.