Survival of the species | Adapting to Lightroom after life in Aperture - P1.


First things first: these articles won’t be about persuading anyone to switch from Aperture to Lightroom. I’ve made my choice based on all kinds of reasons that I’m very comfortable with, but I don’t intend to preach a new gospel. However, this blog has always been about my photographic life, my tools and how I use them so it’s only natural to write about this huge shift in my workflow.

Hopefully some of you will find something useful in all of this.

There’s a lot of ground to cover so I’ve decided to break it down. This first post covers my experiences so far with UI and workflow.


You know how moving forces you into getting rid of old junk and starting anew in those fresh new rooms? Maybe that clean Ikea office furniture you always wanted? Switching digital asset manager is a little like that. Everything has to be packed anyway so reorganizing is a given. But you first need to plan the move and get to know the new space and what it offers.

Lightroom is a very different kind of house. A split-level to Aperture’s single view loft accommodations. And it’s built differently too: everything you see in Aperture is an object in a database — folders, projects, albums, everything in the UI is virtual. You can’t import anything without assigning the pictures to either an existing or a new Project, this being the root container.

In Lightroom, that database isn’t at the forefront and at first this threw me off. Until I realized it didn’t matter. You don’t need to think about a database destination when you import your files. What you need is a library view that makes sense.


In Aperture I’ve always followed a project per date nomenclature and organization: top level year folder>month>date_of_project. So I was used to having a very clear timeline of my projects in the library pane:


There’s still some messiness in there but most of it is pretty logical. For each import I’d create a new project, named with the date, inside the corresponding year and month folder. All of this was created manually as needed.

In Lightroom the default Library view felt severely lacking in comparison. It also gave me a headache just from looking at it:


Sure, there’s a lot of info but… Wow. Real hard drive folders (as in NOT virtual), collections, a histogram, a mini develop module plus a grid view AND a filmstrip? Phew.

But then I started playing with the filter bar at the top of the window. I also found Solo mode — which forces sidebars to display only one item at a time — and deactivated anything I didn’t want to see. And slowly, sanity returned. This is my library view today:


A wee bit less crowded. What I love is that I now get the same clear timeline view (in the left column) but this is created automatically, based on the EXIF data. So I no longer have to manually create month folders as the year goes on, nor do I need to import files into a specific project.

I’ve added all the other columns myself and have to say I’m growing fond of this “live” filtering. You can choose the number of columns as well as the data they display. But most importantly: you can save these as custom views and lock both the filters AND the way they’re displayed.


This last point is important. If you don’t close the little padlock icon at top right, you lose the view every time you change sources in the left sidebar. This is the default behaviour and it had me pulling my hair for a few minutes. With the icon in lock mode everything stays put, no matter where you navigate to. It’s not as powerful as Aperture’s ability to remember filters on every single source (folder, project, album) but then it offers a lot more information at a glance so it’s a question of adapting to the differences. And it’s certainly better than seeing that filter pane and all its custom settings disappear every time you click somewhere else.

This view and the way you’ve arranged the sidebars is also retained when moving to another module. So you can have both sidebars and the filmstrip visible in Develop but a clean Library module. I do wish this extended to Survey mode but it’s considered another Library view so it shares its setup with the grid layout.


Speaking of Survey mode: I like this. Yes, it’s essentially the same as Aperture’s Show Multiple view but there’s one huge difference: it doesn’t restrain the number of images to display. As you know, I usually work with series of images  (as opposed to single pics) and I find looking at them all on a single grid extremely useful: it gives me a sense of continuity and helps me determine the best way to pace and illustrate a story, to make the right choices. In Aperture, on a single display, it’s all hunky dory up to 12 images… But at 13 the app drops the display to 11 pics and uses the last cell grid to add the “and 2 more..” line at the bottom of the screen. How sweet. Listen bucko: I know how many images I’ve selected, what I want is to SEE them! I’m a big boy, I can handle it. Push comes to shove I get my glasses.


I know it’s a small detail but it’s annoyed me for years. Lightroom’s equivalent Survey mode has a limit as well but on my 27in display this tops off at 104 images. One hundred and four. That’s a loooong story. A few screenshots:


I’ve also made a change to the UI that I use quite a bit, in Survey mode but in many other places as well: I’ve changed the Lights Out view to pure white instead of the default black. Lights Out essentially puts a solid colour between the UI chrome and the photos, so it looks as though they’re floating on a solid background. With this change I can see one or more images against white at any time, as they usually appear in print or on my website. A very personal choice but something I find useful when editing as well, since we don’t perceive luminance and colour the same way on a dark or bright background. Double hitting the L key has now become second nature. Some Survey views in white:


More than 12… Weee!


One of the aspects of Lightroom that made me reluctant at first is that it tends to feel obstructive, making you constantly move things out of the way. The modular approach certainly exacerbates that impression but the overall UI tends to feel cramped by default. In the Develop module for instance, it can quickly get stifling with both sidebars and a filmstrip. You can hide all these elements independently but as I said, it’s like you’re constantly moving things around to get at the tools you need.

This is especially hard when you’re coming from Aperture’s single window approach and its ability to edit anywhere. It also doesn’t help that I never used the filmstrip in Aperture, preferring to switch from Browser to Viewer when editing by double clicking a picture. I never saw a need to cut into my screen real estate by having a constant thumbnail row at the bottom (or side). But in Lightroom this means switching from the Develop to the Library module and back, which makes little sense as it slows down the process.

Fortunately I’ve found a neat little trick to get around this: I use the Secondary Display. I found this by accident while trying to force OS X to override LR’s keyboard shortcuts. When there’s no actual second display connected, triggering Secondary Display spawns another — floating — window that can access the Library module. So I sized the window to mimic my old Aperture layout and voilà:


I can hit command-f11 to toggle the display on and off but I’ve gone one step further and added this shortcut to a Magic Mouse gesture using BetterTouchTool. Any picture I select in this window is loaded into the Develop module instantly so it’s click in-click out, providing me with something very close to my old Browser/Viewer workflow and preserving screen real estate in the process. Besides, I’ve never been a fan of side scrolling.

So I’m settling in. I’ve mentioned before how I wished Lightroom offered the same sort of keyboard customization we have in Aperture as it would avoid having to retrain my muscle memory. I also find some of the shortcut choices sometimes leave a bit to be desired. But I’m learning to cope. Hopefully this will appear eventually since it seems like a pretty basic feature in a pro app.

Next time I’ll be looking at post-processing and the differences between both applications.


P.S I know about VSCO Keys. I was thrilled — until I saw the price tag. I understand their rationale but… No. Not for now anyway.