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How Aperture 3 Will Make Your Photos Better: Curves

I always liked the ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) development module. Lots of controls with curves applies at RAW level. After opening a RAW image with a curves adjustment, there was often not much too work left to be done on it to get a great image.

But when the first great Aperture-Lightroom wars broke out a few years ago, I found myself seduced by the great workflow in Aperture. You are always grading your images and can always improve them with a quick flick of a switch. I also had a terrible experience with trying to move a Lightroom library which flat out died on me. Aperture libraries were  more easily portable. I never cared for either Apple or Adobe’s attempts to get me to keep my images in their internal proprietary folders. Both companies quickly realised that photographers didn’t want their images locked away somewhere and so lightened up on the ingesting techniques.

So after losing ratings on a few thousand images in Lightroom, I ended up using Aperture and really enjoying the interface which was very similar to Final Cut Pro. Still almost every edit session I used Aperture I would be frustrated by the absence of curves. Sure I found ways to work around no curves by getting very good at manipulating Apple’s excellent exposure and enhance features. One could get very close to curves by working with exposure, black point and contrast. In an extreme case, I could always take an excursion to Photoshop.

But the absence of curves was always a wrench in speed and precision of editing. Curves are the single holy grail of subtle and powerful colour and tone editing. Just set your white balance and start working on your curves. By the time curves are set right, there should be very little left to do in a photograph, as long as you are staying in the realistic category.

Adobe knows the importance of curves too, which is why Adobe Photoshop Elements didn’t include curves at all until the latest version and why even now curves in PS Elements are crippled. Curves cannot be applied as an adjustment layer (i.e. non-reversible) like Levels, nor do you have direct control over the S curve. At $700 for Photoshop with $300 updates almost every year, working curves are a very expensive proposition with Adobe.

With Curves now in Aperture, there is a pro level alternative to Adobe and the Photoshop world. You can do all your development in Aperture and only need resort to a bitmap editor for minor tweaks. Workflow is much faster with non-destructive curves built right into Aperture.

Time for some show and tell. Here’s a couple of sample images to show you just how much curves can do for you.

Version one: developed using the Aperture 2’s Exposure and Enhance. Lots of issues with digital noise due to pushing too hard. I ended up having to make the left side of the picture too hot to get enough light on the dancer’s face.

aperture 2 no curves no dodge
aperture 2 no curves no dodge:
(dancers Salvatore La Ferla, Leoni Wahl, Kenia Bernal Gonzales
in choreographer Elio Gervasi’s Geckos, November 2009)

This picture has an exciting look but the middle dancer’s face is much too dark and there is a lot of noise on the wall in the other dancer’s shadow. The male dancer’s pants end up becoming the center of interest.

aperture 3 with curves dodge
aperture 3 with curves dodge

In Aperture 3, with a quick non-destructive dodge and burn, I am able to brighten the middle dancer’s face and cool off the male dancer’s pants. The curves allow me to improve contrast without turning the photo cartoony or generating large patches of image noise.

Apple Aperture Exposure Enhance
Apple Aperture Exposure Enhance

Curiously, the first result required a lot more tinkering. There are eight separate variables in play in the Exposure and Enhance panels to get close to the single intuitive panel of Curves.

Apple Aperture Curves
Apple Aperture Curves

Here’s another example. In this case the first image is the unprocessed RAW image (just use the M button for Master to see it). The second image is modified only with curves. Well not quite, I liked what I was seeing so I cheated a bit and added a quick vignette and burned the sky out behind the model to keep the center of focus on her eyes.

Canon 5D image unprocessed Apple Aperture
Canon 5D image unprocessed Apple Aperture

The unprocessed photo is attractive enough but pale and bled out. The sky is too bright and there is too much to distract from the model’s face. Her eyes and skin don’t have as much pop as one would wish.

Image after curves Apple Aperture
Image after curves Apple Aperture

Here’s how simple that fantastic effect in curves is, with just a big of vignette and burn to improve the core enriching contrast from curves.

Curves Vignette Burn Apple Aperture
Curves Vignette Burn Apple Aperture

How was performance in Aperture 3 on a Macbook Pro 17" 2.5 GHz with Nvidia 8600 512MB graphics card on a 30" monitor?

My photos were on an external FireWire 800 drive with the library kept on an internal 7200 RPM drive with 300 GB of free space. My library includes about 13,000 images and is 50 GB by itself, i.e. mid-size.

  • Throughout the import and upgrade process, terrible.
  • With full-size previews on, terrible.
  • With previews and the absolutely foolish Faces function* completely turned off (generated once at project import), great.

Apparently people who have the integrated graphics chips like the 9400 are suffering now. Typical Apple marketing tricks – stay away from the low end computers if you want to use their pro apps. If you want to save money buy the previous generation high end at end of line, as they will have to support the flagship computers for a few generations (those computers belong to their best customers).

Apple’s Aperture 3 can turbocharge your turnaround as you can get much better images much faster with curves than any other control. Unlike Adobe, pricing as usual with Apple software is very reasonable. $200 to join the game, $100 to continue if you’ve already been playing.

Additional Resources

For another take on Curves for natural light photographs and the new tools in Aperture be sure to watch Apple’s video interview with Chase Jarvis.

* Faces is a junky gadget and should not be included or even turned on. Most pictures do not show a face full front-on. And if you can’t recognise the faces in your own pictures, your problems are more serious than not having the latest version of Aperture. Time to see a senility doctor.


  1. Terry Terry

    The vignette is god awful! Whatever happened to subtlety with effects?

  2. Hi Terry,

    The vignette is intended to be exaggerated. I’m trying to make the picture look like it was shot on a very old manual lens with strong vignetting and move the focus totally on the model. Sorry you didn’t like it.

  3. James James

    Vignette looks fantastic :) Great work.

  4. Steven Steven

    There wasn’t much of an explanation on how to use the Curves tool.

  5. Bolton Peck Bolton Peck

    Aperture was the last piece of Apple software that I really liked. Fond memories of using it, well I still do sometimes when going back into my archives.

    When their updates broke the software on my dual G5 Power Mac, I was done with Apple.

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