A New Year – A New Aperture Workflow

I’ve used Apple’s Aperture pretty much ever since I acquired a MacBook Pro back in the summer of 2009. I still have that same Mac but have been realising over the course of the last year that my image management and workflow using Aperture have been somewhat lacking to say the least. Problems include:

  • A large Aperture library which has become slow and unwieldy (my Mac only has 160 GB of hard disk storage and it’s pretty much full, two thirds of which is taken up by images in one form or another).
  • Finding old images is becoming increasingly hard. Masters are spread between the Aperture library as well as being stored in the OS X file system itself.
  • There is no link between RAW masters and processed JPEGs which makes it hard to go back and find a RAW file if I want to tweak it and update the JPEG.
  • My backup regime is a bit hit and miss with me largely relying on Time Machine rather than using Aperture Vaults to backup images.
  • My workflow is basically all over the place! There is no consistency in how I create ‘final’ images and which software I use in the process. I also, at various stages use Pixelmator, onOne’s Perfect Photo Suite, Photoshop Elements and  Analog from Realmac Software.

So, with this hassle map in mind, I decided to take the opportunity of some downtime over Christmas to re-design my workflow and image management ready for a new start in 2014. Here’s what I came up with and which I have just started using. I don’t claim this to be a professional grade workflow, I’m sure there will be some tweaks I need to make over the coming months and it may not scale particularly well once I start acquiring large numbers of images but it has to be better than what I have used so far! The diagram below summarises the overall flow with each of the numbers corresponding to steps explained subsequently.

Aperture Workflow v1

Step 1: Split into separate libraries.

Previously I had all of my pictures in a single Aperture library. Big mistake! No wonder it was so large. Even though I did not keep the masters in there (in which case it would have been huge) it soon became too big to manage effectively with over three years worth of images in there. By default Aperture creates a library called Aperture Library.apLibrary in the Pictures folder. The first decision was how best to carve up this one big library into smaller ones. There seemed to be two options: by date or by subject. I went for date and decided, initially at least, to create a new library each year. I reckon if that becomes too large before the year is up then I can create a library per half or quarter year or even per month if I get really prolific in my picture taking.

Step 2: Manage image masters.

Never having given too much thought to this I used to import images from my camera’s card using Aperture. The master was copied into a folder on my MacBook with a reference to it from Aperture (i.e. the images were not stored in Aperture). I’d usually rename the images whilst copying to something more meaningful. When I got around to it I’d copy the MacBook folder onto a separate hard disk (or two) for backup purposes. Sometimes when I only had a few shots on the card I’d copy straight into Aperture (i.e. no master on the MacBook). All in all a bit of an ad-hoc process. As of now I’ve instigated the following for managing images:

  1. I copy the files (drag and drop) from the camera card onto two external drives (backup 1 and 2) into a new folder (see Step 3 for folder naming convention).  Only when I have these two folders created do I think about deleting the images off the card.
  2. In Aperture I create a new album (see Step 6 below) and import from one of the drives. I now keep the master in Aperture so I can disconnect the drive and work just in Aperture.
  3. Once I’ve reviewed the photos I want in Aperture I can delete masters and all versions safe in the knowledge I can always go back to the external drive should I want to re-import something.

Step 3: Instigate a folder and image naming scheme.

Folders on the back up drives are named in the format <date> <name> where <date> is in the form yyyy-mm-dd and <name> is any meaningful name for the shoot (e.g. the location, client name etc). So for example 2014-01-03 Warwickshire. Folders always appear in sequential order over the year. These folders are further categorised into a year folder and finally into a top level folder called RAW (I also have a Subject folder, see Step 6). So the complete folder structure for the above file would be RAW/2014/2014-01-03 Warwickshire. The image below shows the folders on one of my backup drives.


I’ve decided to keep the file names the same as when they come off the card. Renaming things does not really add anything if you keep to this strict folder naming scheme. The only potential advantage of renaming is that search engines would be able to find these files if you upload to the web but I’m not too worried about.

Step 4: Instigate a library backup scheme.

Aperture uses something called Vaults for backing up libraries. A Vault is a container that holds an exact copy of the library. This includes projects, originals, and any versions you’ve created. I create a vault for each library and use the two backups for storing the vaults so everything is in duplicate. This can be done from within Aperture (click the Show Vaults button at the bottom of the Aperture Inspector). You are told when the Vault is out of sync with the library however you have to manually instigate the syncing. My plan is that when/if one of the backup drives fail I purchase another one and copy the spare onto that. That’s not happened yet but I know it’s only a matter of time.

Step 5: Instigate a general backup scheme.

As well as backing up RAW and processed images and Vaults to the backup drives I also use Apple’s Time Machine for general backing up of the MacBook drive. This gives another level of security as the Aperture libraries will also be copied there. As I don’t intend keeping RAW files on my MacBook though these will not be copied to Time Machine.

Step 6: Manage images in Aperture.

Now everything is named logically and backed up, at least in duplicate with some things in triplicate, we can concentrate on what is in Aperture itself. Aperture has folders, projects and albums for organising images. Here’s how I organise my images:

  • I create a Folder for each major area of interest, currently these are Studio, Travel and Flora.
  • In each Folder I create a Project for something I am doing within that area of interest. For example Portraits in Studio or Landscapes in Travel.
  • In each Project I create an Album for a particular assignment or photographic session. For example the name of a model in a portrait session or the name of a location in a landscape assignment.

The screen shot below shows an example of the above.

ApertureAs I mentioned earlier I import into the Aperture library directly from one of the backup drives. I try to tag all images with basic metadata and then review the images once imported. I categorise images according to the following ranking scheme.

  • * Keep
  • ** Will use on my Tumblr or maybe Facebook.
  • *** Will use on my blog (i.e. here).
  • **** Will use on my web site and possibly print.
  • ***** Earth shattering image, would be great as wall-art (I don’t have too many of these).

Anything that is not categorised I delete from Aperture (master and all copies). I can always go back to the backup and re-import if I change my mind later.

In terms of editing I use Aperture for basic RAW editing (white balance, exposure and other enhancements like contrast, saturation etc plus some cropping and straightening as required). For more major enhancements including converting to black and white and masking, layers etc I’m more and more using onOne’s Perfect Photo Suite. This works as an Aperture plug-in so you can launch it within Aperture and save the output back into the Aperture library as well.

Once I have an image I’m happy with I export it as a JPEG. I have various folders, both on my MacBook and in various cloud stores like dropbox where I keep these. If I’m copying to a web site like Tumblr I usually keep the low-res JPEG on my MacBook as well just so I can go back to it and use elsewhere if necessary. Exported images I basically store by subject, so the name of a landscape location, or model etc. These subject areas I both copy out to my backup drives (that’s the other top level folder I have on those as well as the RAW one) and also backup with Time Machine. If the images are for a client then I share them using dropbox.

That’s pretty much. Like I said I’ve only just started with this scheme so may change a few things as I go through the year but hopefully this will be a vast improvement on the chaotic scheme I’ve used up till now. One useful reference source I’ve found for Aperture is the book Apple Aperture 3: A Workflow Guide for Digital Photographers by Ken McMahon and Nik Rawlinson.

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