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Image editing plug-ins the centrepiece of Aperture 2.1  
Friday, March 28, 2008 | by Rob Galbraith
The Aperture changes keep on coming: Apple today has released Aperture 2.1 for Mac, an update that incorporates various bug fixes and feature tweaks. But the centrepiece of this version - the seventh Aperture-related software release from Apple in a little over six weeks - is the rollout of image editing plug-ins to Apple’s pro photo management and RAW conversion application. While Apple has included an example plug-in of its own, the roster of outside developers already working on plug-ins is the real story: among early plug-in creators are Nik, with Viveza, and PictureCode, with Noise Ninja.

Here’s a first look at Aperture 2.1.

Plugged in

Without much fanfare, Apple introduced in Aperture 2.0 an architecture with which third-party developers could create image adjustment plug-ins. Now that v2.1 is out, the company is bringing this feature to the forefront, revealing both how image editing plug-ins work and who has already signed up to make them. Let’s look at who first.

Apple Apple itself is one of the first plug-in developers. Included with Aperture 2.1 is Dodge & Burn, a tool for brushing in tone, colour and detail changes to a photo. Dodge & Burn can of course be used to lighten and darken areas of a photo, as well as adjust contrast, saturation, sharpness and blur.

aperture_21_dodge01.jpg
Burning Brush: Darkening down a bright area using the Dodge & Burn image editing plug-in within Aperture 2.1 (Photo in screenshot by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

All adjustments are applied selectively by brushing them on; the plug-in includes controls for the brush’s size, edge softness and strength (plus subsequent edge feathering, if desired). Wacom’s pen tablets and displays are supported. Brushing on a change within Dodge & Burn’s interface automatically creates an overlay mask for that adjustment and each adjustment type and its associated overlay mask are re-editable during the current Dodge & Burn session.

Though the interface is completely different, the plug-in has a few things in common with Photoshop’s Adjustment Layers, including masking and re-editing capabilities. In this way, you can selectively apply multiple adjustment types - darken one area of the picture and saturate another, for example - then come back and edit where in the photo each adjustment type is applied, or remove some or all of the adjustment types altogether.

Once you click Save in Dodge & Burn, the changes are applied to the version being worked on. We’ll cover how Aperture handles versioning with photos that are going to and coming from plug-ins in a moment.

Dodge & Burn includes the ability to zoom in/out, show the Master image without any Dodge & Burn adjustments and display the overlay mask for each adjustment type.

aperture_21_dodge02.jpg
Edgy: Feathering the edge of a darkened area while the Darken overlay is displayed (Photo in screenshot by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Apple is describing Dodge & Burn as an “example” plug-in, but this understates its usefulness, since you can perform a fairly broad range of selective adjustments with it, and do so with relative ease. We expect that for some Aperture users, Dodge & Burn will quickly become an indispensable tool.

Dodge & Burn is installed when loading Aperture 2.1, either from new or when updating an earlier version with today’s updater. Apple has posted a video tutorial showing Dodge & Burn in action.

Nik Software If Dodge & Burn is the selective adjustment appetizer, then Viveza for Aperture, from Nik Software, is the main course. Viveza is based around innovative image selection and correction technology developed by Nik called U Point. U Point already exists in Nikon Capture NX and is that program’s most compelling image editing feature, while Nik recently began shipping Viveza as a plug-in for Photoshop.

In a demonstration this week at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California, Joe Schorr, Senior Product Line Manager for Photo Applications, showed an alpha version of Viveza running inside a late beta of Aperture 2.1, and it appeared to closely mimic the plug-in of the same name for Photoshop.

Josh Haftel of Nik says that there are differences between the Photoshop and Aperture versions: Viveza for Photoshop contains a Selective Tool and other features meant to work in tandem with capabilities such as layers, masks and Smart Filters in Photoshop, capabilities for which there are no direct equivalents in Aperture.

You Point: Nik Viveza for Aperture. Click to enlarge (Photo in screenshot by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The company is targeting a May 2008 release, at which point Viveza for Aperture will be sold together with Viveza for Photoshop for US$249.95, and existing Viveza for Photoshop owners will be able to download the Aperture version at no charge.

PictureCode Work on the venerable noise reduction tool Noise Ninja is already well underway, says PictureCode's Jim Christian. The company is targeting a mid-May 2008 release for Noise Ninja for Aperture, and is evaluating whether to do a public beta shortly before that, as they have with both the Noise Ninja standalone application and Photoshop plug-in in the past.

Noise Ninja for Aperture will have near-identical functionality to the standalone version, with most differences being related to how batch processing is performed inside an image editing plug-in vs a standalone application. Price and bundling options are still being determined and will be announced closer to the ship date, says Christian.

The video below shows an early development version of Noise Ninja running in Aperture. Note that the preview window isn't hooked up yet, and that profiling and processing aren't running at full speed either (Noise Ninja for Aperture uses the same processing engine as Noise Ninja for Photoshop, says Christian, and should offer comparable processing performance when the coding is complete).
 
Clean Up: Click to play a brief movie showing an early development version of Noise Ninja in action (Screen movie courtesy PictureCode)
 
Digital Film Tools Power Stroke for Aperture is to ship as soon as possible, says Digital Film Tools' Marco Paolini; he expects that it will be out by the end of April 2008 at the latest. Its functionality and interface are to be the same as the version for Photoshop (which is shown below), while its price has yet to be finalized but will most likely be a bit less than the US$120 the company charges for the Photoshop plug-in now. Information about Power Stroke for Aperture will appear on the Digital Film Tools website at about the time it ships.

aperture21_powerstroke.jpg
Power Lines: Digital Film Tools Power Stroke running inside Photoshop (Screenshot courtesy Digital Film Tools)

dvGarage Two all new tools are being developed:
  • dpMatte is a chromakey plug-in that's slated to ship April 15, 2008 for US$69.
  • HDR Toner is a high dynamic range plug-in that's slated to ship May 15, 2008, also for US$69.
More information about each will appear on the dvGarage website on or just before the release date for the two plug-ins, says Chris Marler of dvGarage.

Other developers that are actively coding image editing plug-ins for Aperture include:
Apple will list image editing plug-ins, as they come available, here.

Now, let's look at how plug-ins work. Apple has created an image editing plug-in architecture within Aperture that allows developers to design plug-ins for a wide range of image editing tasks, as the above list of upcoming plug-ins suggests. Developers also have nearly full control over the plug-in's appearance; Viveza's unique interface, for example, looks about the same running in Aperture as it does in Photoshop.

aperture_21_dodge_menu.jpg
Ready to Edit: Choosing the Dodge & Burn image editing plug-in. It's possible to open an image editing plug-in using a custom keyboard shortcut as well, assigned in Aperture 2.1's Commands preference

The potential power and flexibility of Aperture's image editing plug-in platform comes at a price. The price is that image editing plug-ins exist separate from Aperture's own non-destructive editing tools.

Aperture's native image adjustments operate this way: when you select a RAW file and apply adjustments to it - Exposure, White Balance and so on - those adjustments live as only metadata instructions until it's time to do a conversion of the RAW data into a new, finished file. This conversion, to a TIFF or PSD, takes place when you choose to edit the file with an external application such as Photoshop, for example. In this way, any of Aperture's own adjustments that are applied to a RAW file can be readjusted or removed at any time from that RAW file.

(Incidentally, Aperture adjustment instructions can sit atop photo formats other than RAW, but in an effort to simplify this explanation we're going to focus on editing workflows that start with a RAW image.)

Image editing plug-ins, however, in almost all cases will not exist as reversible, non-destructive adjustment tools. If you select a RAW file in Aperture, then choose an image editing plug-in such as Viveza or Noise Ninja or most of the other plug-ins that are likely to emerge, Aperture will decode the RAW data and create a new, finished TIFF or PSD version and then pass that to the plug-in.

When you're done in the plug-in and you apply the adjustments you've made, those adjustments are applied destructively as the plug-in window closes - the pixels in the photo are changed. While Aperture's plug-in architecture does provide the option to developers to create plug-ins that don't change the source photo's pixels, at least not initially, none of the plug-ins announced so far work this way. And since doing so would in most cases add a layer of complexity to how image editing plug-ins are integrated into the workflow by Aperture users, it's unlikely that we'll see many developers choose to build plug-ins that operate in this fashion.

aperture_21_stack.jpg
Pair Up: The Master RAW image (left) and the version created by invoking and making changes within Dodge & Burn (right). Note that the circle-and-dot badge indicating a version created by an image editing plug-in is the same badge used to indicate a version created for an external editor

In other words, Aperture handles RAW photos it's sending to an image editing plug-in much like it handles photos it's sending to an external application: it first renders a new image file - applying any adjustments in the process - and then passes that on. This means that for some, a workflow that calls on an external application to do some of the processing - noise reduction with Noise Ninja inside Photoshop, for example - will be just as efficient and effective as one that brings that same processing into Aperture itself.

There are, however, three important differences between sending a photo to an image editing plug-in rather than to an external editor, differences that give the image editing plug-in route some interesting potential.
  • First, an image editing plug-in can request and receive the RAW image from Aperture: when you select a RAW photo and choose an image editing plug-in, the plug-in can ask for RAW data rather than a finished TIFF or PSD. Yes, this means what you think it means: Apple has provided a mechanism for alternate RAW converters to be used within Aperture. It's still not possible to send from Aperture a RAW file in its RAW form to an external RAW converter, such as Camera Raw in Photoshop. But it now is possible for someone else's RAW converter to live and work within Aperture. This is potentially very cool, but the coolness of this will be realized only if developers choose to implement RAW converters as image editing plug-ins for Aperture, and as of this writing there are none announced that we know of.

  • Second, an image editing plug-in can open single or multiple photos simultaneously. Apple's own Dodge & Burn is an example of a single photo plug-in, as its adjustments are meant to be done to one photo at a time. dvGarage's HDR Toner is a multi-photo plug-in: it takes in several photos and blends them together into a new, high dynamic range one. Multiple photo support is also what facilitates batch processing, as an unlimited number of files can be selected and sent to a batch-capable image editing plug-in.

  • Third, an image editing plug-in's developer can choose to embed, inside a private tag in the picture file, metadata that describes the plug-in settings used to process the picture. These settings can be subsequently loaded back into the plug-in. How this will work and where it might prove to be beneficial probably won't become clear until a few developers release plug-ins that take advantage of this feature (Apple's own Dodge & Burn does not).
It's possible, in the words of Joe Schorr, to combine Aperture's own adjustments and an image editing plug-in's adjustments to create an "Aperture sandwich." The filling is the adjustments made by an image editing plug-in, the bread on the bottom is the native Aperture adjustments made before calling on an image editing plug-in and the bread on the top is the native Aperture adjustments made after saving/closing the plug-in.

This capability can lead to some confusion. For instance, if you apply native Aperture adjustments and then invoke an image editing plug-in (other than a RAW converter), Aperture's adjustments are applied and a TIFF or PSD version is handed off to the plug-in. Make changes in the plug-in, save the result and those changes are made to the recently-created version. If you then choose to edit that version in Photoshop or export it as a JPEG, the combination of Aperture's initial RAW adjustments and the image editing plug-in's adjustments will be reflected in the output. So that's all good.

If you instead opt to apply additional native Aperture adjustments to the plug-in created version, those additional adjustments will be reflected in the Browser thumbnails and Viewer previews, and those adjustments will automatically carry through to an exported JPEG (or other file format) or when you make an additional version using the Duplicate Version command. But the additional adjustments will not be applied by default if you choose to edit the version in an external editor or open it up in an image editing plug-in.

The reasoning behind this is to prevent innumerable TIFF or PSD versions being created as you work in this new image editing plug-in world. It does mean, however, that if you've built an Aperture sandwich, and you want to send the completed product to Photoshop, you'll have to force the additional Aperture adjustments to be applied, or what opens in Photoshop won't look the same as what you were working on in Aperture. In early goings with Aperture 2.1, we've found this behaviour to be a bit jarring.

To force the additional adjustments to be applied, a new version created and the result sent to Photoshop or to an image editing plug-in, hold down Option and Shift before choosing an [Edit With] option. By doing so, [Edit With] becomes [Edit a Copy With] and the resulting new version created includes all the changes made in the Aperture sandwich.

We've only been using image editing plug-ins in Aperture 2.1 for a short time, and only Dodge & Burn at that. The above behaviour notwithstanding, getting familiar with how they integrate into an Aperture workflow has been simpler than expected, in part because the way image editing plug-in versions are integrated is basically the same as externally-edited versions.

Image editing plug-ins are a powerful new Aperture feature.

Apple has already seeded a not-quite-finished release of the image editing plug-in software development kit (SDK) to some developers, including those whose upcoming plug-ins are listed earlier in this article. Starting sometime in the next few weeks, Apple will be making the final version of the SDK available to a wider group (interested developers can email Apple at aperturedeveloper@apple.com).

The new image editing plug-in SDK will be separate from the export plug-in SDK that's been available since the fall of 2006.

But wait, there's more

There are number of other smaller but still welcome changes in Aperture 2.1, including:

Set the Adjustment bricks that appear by default Up until now, to change which adjustment palettes, or bricks as Apple calls them, appear when you select a new photo to work on has required you to manually hack Aperture's .plist preferences document. In v2.1, the default set can be readily changed, no hacking is required. If, as an example, you always want the Monochrome brick to be visible when you begin adjusting a photo, choose [Add to Default Set] from the Monochrome brick's popup menu. Conversely, if you don't want to see Highlights & Shadows each and every time you start work on a new picture, choose [Remove from Default Set] from that brick's popup menu.

It's not possible to create multiple adjustment brick sets. Bricks that aren't visible by default can still be displayed when needed by choosing them from the popup menu at the top of the Adjustments pane.

Flip photos A new Flip adjustment brick enables photos to be flipped left/right and up/down.

aperture_21_pref.jpg
In Depth: Select either 8 bit or 16 bit TIFF or PSD to send to an external editor
8 bit or 16 bit to Photoshop Now, when using the external editor function of the program, a preference allows you to select either 8 bit or 16 bit TIFF or PSD as the output option, rather than just 16 bit as before. The file format and bit depth selected here also dictates the version format and bit depth when invoking Dodge & Burn plus other image editing plug-ins to come (though an image editing plug-in can also choose to override these settings and request a RAW file, as noted earlier, or even a different format and bit depth of finished file).

Expanded vignette settings The Vignette adjustment has been tweaked to allow for a greater range of control and more pronounced vignette, when desired. For a vignette that changes exposure, the maximum Amount value is now 20.00; for gamma, 5.00. Both topped out at 2.00 before.

To go beyond Amounts of 1.00, you must enter the values numerically, use the arrow keys or drag your cursor across the number value. The Amount slider itself still stops at 1.00.

Streamlined EXIF updating Starting with Aperture 2.0, additional EXIF metadata fields are extracted from imported photos, including the model of lens attached to the camera. In Aperture 2.1, Apple has made it easier to grab this new information from photos already imported using an older version of Aperture, by including an EXIF update command that works on selected projects, albums or photos. To use, choose [Reread EXIF From (item)] under the [File] menu.

aperture_21_crop.jpg
Made to Order: The Constrain popup menu in the Crop HUD
Refined cropping The Constrain popup menu options in the Crop HUD have been simplified, melding together common vertical aspect ratios (4 x 5 and 8 x 10 are now a single option, for example) and eliminating the inverse (that is, horizontal) equivalents for each: instead, you'll use the Switch Aspect Ratio button between the width and height fields to change from vertical to horizontal for a given ratio.

There are also five new entrants: a 16 x 9 (high-definition television) option, plus two for prepping pictures for slideshows: one that grabs the proportions of your primary monitor, and another that grabs the proportions of your secondary monitor, if you have one. Rounding out the list is Custom, which enables you to enter any width and height you wish (it's not possible to add your own collection of aspect ratios to the popup list, however), and Master Aspect Ratio, which crops to the proportions of the Master image.

aperture_21_book.jpg
New on the Menu: The new PDF popup menu in the Book Print dialog
New book theme, options A new book theme called Snapshots has been added, and within the Print Book dialog the Save as PDF button has become a popup menu - much like the PDF button found in the Print dialog of other applications in Mac OS X - that enables you to save book pages as JPEGs or TIFFs (among other options) so that they can be included in a slideshow or for some other use that isn't a book. This streamlines a process that has already been possible, but was klunky to do.

Apple has also released two additional workflows for this menu:
  • Import PDF Pages as Images
  • Render PDF as Images to Keynote
They're available bundled together in an Aperture PDF Workflows download here.

Expanded AppleScript The Reveal verb can now be applied to the selection of projects and albums, while AppleScripting the import and export of projects is also now possible.

In addition, a free, AppleScript-based downloadable tool called Aperture Caption Palette has been developed that provides a floating window in Aperture in which to add caption information and ratings to photos (to access once installed, choose [Aperture Caption Palette] from the scripting menu). The main appeal of Aperture Caption Palette is the fact that type is displayed in a much more readable font size - either 18 pt or 36 pt - than Aperture's own text fields, and that it can be used with your feet up on the desk: Aperture Caption Palette supports voice command, text entry and even the reading back of entered text using MacSpeech Dictate.

aperture_21_caption_palette.jpg
Write On: The Aperture Caption Palette

Aperture Caption Palette requires both Aperture 2.1 and OS X 10.5.2. Access for assistive devices in the Universal Access system preference must be enabled; Aperture Caption Palette will enable this for you on first launch, if necessary.

Other interface refinements Apple has made various other tweaks to the program's interface, all of which are nice, albeit minor, improvements. These include:
  • aperture_21_allprojects.jpg
    All in All: The All Projects toolbar button
    An All Projects button now appears on the toolbar, giving quicker access to the All Projects view. Note that if you've customized the toolbar prior to installing the 2.1 update, you'll need to manually move the All Projects button onto the toolbar once the update is loaded.

  • In the All Projects view, you can now sort the projects from newest to oldest or oldest to newest, rather than just oldest to newest as before. There are a couple of ways to alter the sort order, including choosing the order you prefer from the [Sort All Projects View] submenu under the [View] menu.

  • The toolbar at the top of the screen will now appear on the second display, if you have one, when Aperture is set Mirror, Alternate or Span for the second display. Previously, the toolbar would appear on the main display only and only when Full Screen mode was enabled for that display; this change puts the toolbar closer to where your mouse is likely to actually be when making edits on a two-display setup.

  • When you click the Stop Session button in the Tether HUD, a warning dialog will now appear before the tether session is ended.

  • Smart Albums will now find and display photos located inside a stack.

  • GPS information is more readily displayed: in v2.1, you can display the location of a
    selected photo by choosing [Show on Map] from the [Image] menu or by right-clicking on a photo and choosing [Show on Map].
In addition, the Aperture 2.1 update information notes that fixes have been made in the following areas:

• Image import
• Image migration
• Erasing memory cards after import
• Quick Preview
• Batch Change
• Auto-stacking
• All Projects view
• Tooltips
• Smart Albums
• Tethering
• Adjustments inspector
• Viewer
• Loupe
• White Balance
• Definition
• Lift & Stamp
• Handling of externally edited images
• Reconnecting referenced files
• Keyboard customization
• Deleting images
• Metadata presets
• Book themes
• Borderless printing
• Webpage/web journal export
• Exporting versions
• Export plug-in support
• AppleScript support


The long list of additions, tweaks and fixes in 2.1, coming quickly on the heels of v2.0.1 and various other updates that have impacted Aperture since mid-February, is still missing a couple of relatively small changes that have been on our wish list for some time: the ability to import photos while simultaneously grabbing the metadata from an associated XMP sidecar file (such as those created by Camera Bits Photo Mechanic and various Adobe applications), plus an adjustment preset control that would configure the settings in multiple adjustment bricks at once. We've also been bedevilled recently by an apparent bug in the import of DVDs full of photos, and the problem persists in v2.1.

This is by no means the complete list of what we'd like to see changed in Aperture going forward, but we do hope that these three things will be addressed in the next incremental update.

For those with Aperture 2.0 or 2.0.1 installed, Aperture 2.1 is now available via the Software Update Mechanism in OS X 10.4.11 and OS X 10.5.2. Alternatively, it's available as a standalone updater. Aperture Caption Palette, which requires both Aperture 2.1 and OS X 10.5.2, is available here. A list of the RAW formats supported in Aperture 2.0 and later is here.

Revision History
March 28-30, 2008: Added information from third party plug-in developers.

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