Dissecting the Look | post-processing in Aperture 3


UPDATE: download link at the end of the article has now been fixed.

I’ve been asked several times about my workflow when it comes to processing colour images in Aperture 3, especially since I started the X100 series. Compared to black and white processing this is something that’s not quite as cut and dry — which explains why it’s taken me awhile to write about it.

This won’t be a comprehensive tutorial about everything Aperture can do. Just a glimpse into what I use and how I use it.  It’s all very subjective and based on my personal (as opposed to client/commercial) work. I won’t be giving out recipes either, mainly because I don’t believe in them. Certain images require a particular type of processing that others don’t or can’t handle. Hopefully this article will point you to features you might otherwise have overlooked.

About that look

On the Flashbus tour in Boston David Hobby showed how he used various light sources to build layers when lighting his subject. It was an amazing demonstration and the pictures were fabulous. He did however show us his masters with a strong disclaimer about how he usually NEVER showed these files to ANYONE and how uncomfortable it made him feel . The reason? Master files are not the final image. Period. They’re a starting point.

We hear a lot about the capabilities of various cameras and lenses — X100 included.

But if you’ll allow me a bit of a rant: while it’s crucial to nail your vision in-camera with regard to all the basics (WB, aperture, shutter speed etc), the fact is a lot happens in post. I know this will be heresy for the purists who insist on OOC (out of camera) photography, but there you go. What I shoot is a capture. In post, comes interpretation. Ansel Adams did it with chemicals and film exposure: we do it with software. No different.

What I’m looking for when I’m shooting is the best possible capture: the right depth of field,  motion interpretation and file quality. The right moment. That’s the matière première. The clay. But the final look? That’s all post.

Some photographers take this to extremes, others do fairly small changes. There’s no right or wrong here, it’s all personal taste in the end (unless you’re a photojournalist which means a stricter set of ethics). But it’s an important step. The truth is this: pictures you see around you in magazines, or billboards aren’t OOC. Doesn’t matter if you’re shooting a D3 or a Hasselblad — post is where the picture comes alive.

That’s why David Hobby, master that he is, doesn’t usually show his original files.

Besides, there’s nothing pure about OOC. You’re simply accepting the camera manufacturer’s choice of image processing. Which is fine if that’s your choice as well. But before digital there was no such thing as OOC — unless you were shooting Polaroid.

Ok. End of rant.

Bricks: go forth and multiply

Aperture 3 introduced three new features that transformed it into a true post-processing tool:

- Curves.

- Brushes.

- The ability to create multiple instances of adjustment bricks.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: this last one is absolutely key to the power of Aperture 3. It’s essentially the equivalent of layers in Photoshop. Combining multiple instances of bricks with brushes allows for very complex image editing.  I routinely use several instances of many of Aperture’s built-in adjustments, especially Curves.  Everything starts with Curves. And ends with them as well. Let’s just come right out and say it: Curves are da bomb :)

Speaking of which…

This is my goto curve:

I know, it’s not an S-curve. It has three points and boosts the midtones quite a bit. When used on black and white images I find it brings me close the Tri-X film look. On colour images it feels like Kodachrome. That’s my take anyway.

This isn’t set in stone though: I adjust this for every single image and usually brush it in and out of certain areas. I also usually add other different Curve bricks to the mix. Every image is different, unless they’ve all been taken under the same conditions in which case the Lift & Stamp tool is a really, really good friend. Still, I start with this curve shape 99% of the time and adjust accordingly.

Spin that wheel!

One of the most under-utilized features in Aperture 3 is the Tint Wheels, found in the Enhance brick. Part of it is probably due to the fact that they’re hidden by default (you need to click on the small disclosure triangle below the Vibrancy slider), but another reason is probably that this adjustment is usually described as nothing more than a way to get rid of a bad colour cast.

Fact is, it can do a lot more. I’ve already talked about how the wheels can be used in black and white photography for either tinting or split-toning (those articles can be found here and here if you haven’t already read them).

Their use isn’t as broad when dealing with colour pictures since their effect can quickly become garish. But I’ve come to use one feature on almost everything I shoot with the X100: tinting blacks and midtones. I usually favour a slight bluish tint on the blacks — midtones are open for debate. I find this makes the files look more like film; The key here is to be subtle.

Blue on blacks - green on mids

I sometimes combine this with a slight desaturation (saturation and vibrancy) in the Enhance brick (as shown). Here’s an image shot out of a cab in Paris:

without tint wheels

with tint wheels

There’s nothing wrong with the first version. But the second one has the feel I was looking for. Like I said, personal taste. Now, what does the original look like? This:

flat enough for ya?

Yes, I do feel naked showing it to you ;)

But everything’s there as far as content: it’s the right framing, my DOF is where I want it to be, the exposure’s pretty much ok (important since I shoot JPEG with the X100), it’s simply not yet what I had in mind — it’s only the right capture.

Adding focus

Opinions vary on the use of vignetting. Some see it as a gimmick that’s way too popular on Flickr. Frankly I tend to use it quite a bit. I do however systematically use brushes to control where I want the effect to fall. Combined with the right amount of dodging and burning (using curves and brushes), this can be an effective way to add focus to an image, to lead the viewer’s eye and accentuate the pictures overall flow.

I tend to use much more intense vignetting on black and white images, mainly because I like my monochromes to be very contrasty and dramatic. Again, a matter of taste. For reference: I’m on gamma 99% of the time.

OOC - zero adjustments

curves etc

vignette et all

the moment captured

the moment visualized

Define me

Aperture also has an adjustment called Definition. It’s part of the Enhance brick but it also conveniently lives as a Quick Brush. It’s easy to get carried away with this slider and get a very fake HDRish look that can be too much. I usually use the Quick Brush version and apply it on very select parts of a picture — usually the ones already in sharp focus. Another way of leading the eye and adding depth.

Contrast: less is more

The Contrast Quick Brush sits in my default adjustment layout. But I rarely use it to add contrast: I instead use it to brush it away. Out of every adjustment I’ve talked about so far this is probably THE most subjective. But I’m mentioning it because I truly feel it’s an important part of the X100 look I’ve been developing these last few months, something many of you have been curious about.

I basically just brush away contrast from certain areas, usually on the edges of a picture. It’s very subtle but it makes the image look a little washed out. In a good way.


brushed in lower contrast

What do you mean no recipes?

Fine. You win ;)

Yesterday I received the following tweet from Michigan photographer Don Rabideau:

“Speaking of amazing, when are you going to publish your black and white preset for aperture?”

To which I responded that I didn’t really use presets, essentially because I find most images contain way too many variables to make them entirely useful. But having said that… Presets can be very good learning tools. I certainly learned a trick or two from examining third-party presets when Aperture 3 first came out, even if I didn’t end up using them.

So below are three presets that will hopefully act as useful add-ons to this article. Just remember: they may not look the same when applied to your pictures. But at the very least, you’ll be able to see first hand how the various looks were achieved. Note however that there is no brushing included, all adjustments are applied to the entire photo.




You can download the full pack containing all three presets here.

It’s already over?


Image processing is a complex subject and there are probably as many methods as there are photographers. But I do hope this has been useful to some of you and that I’ve managed to answer at least a few of the questions you’ve been asking.


Equipment used:

If you find this site interesting and of value, then you can help by using

this B&H affiliate link to order equipment - Thanks :)