There are some kinds of software that not even the mighty Apple can make user-friendly, no matter how hard it tries. That doesn't stop Aperture 3 being a very good desktop application, but straightforward it certainly isn't. The principles are all there, and it comes from the right place.
The package is aimed at professional and enthusiast photographers and bears a striking resemblance on the outside to the considerably more basic iPhoto. Now that the Faces and Places features have been added, it's all quite familiar at the surface level.
The corkboard background is much the same with the stylised Polaroid print graphics for each separate person tag and, unsurprisingly, the software does a similarly excellent job of detecting the faces in all your snaps. That said, the so-called smart recognition process doesn't feel quite as intelligent when you sit down to use it and, for a feature that's supposed to take a lot of the work off your hands, you do rather feel like you're doing the lion's share of the tagging by having to tell your machine who each face belongs to. The newly added "unnamed faces" tab gives you an idea of just how many it has missed.
The other major transplant from iPhoto is Places which probably works a little better even if it's a feature that slightly fewer people will use. To get the most out of it, you really need GPS metadata attached to your photographs, so either grab a module for your camera or appreciate that this is where your low-res mobile phone pictures will really come into their own. You can, of course, use the Google Maps and Apple database to find the locations where you shot the images for yourself and, although doing this manually isn't quite as straightforward as you might like, once you get the idea of how to switch the map pins to draggable mode, it's easy enough.
Most of the time you might wonder exactly why you need to assign a location to your shots - particularly when you discover your entire library was only taken in three separate places now clustered with red flags - but it really comes into its own for holiday snaps. Even if you haven't set your camera's clock, Aperture 3 can identify the sequence in which you took the snaps and display the route you took with your photos as annotations to the map - a very nice touch for recording your travels.
Once you've organised your shots and you want to start drilling a little deeper, you can select any one of your photos and start taking things a little more Photoshop. Now, this is largely where the trouble lies. What Apple has impressed that it's trying to do is to make image editing a simple process. The issue is that it isn't. It's a rather complicated process, and there are just too many options, scales, sliders and graphs for anyone to make it much easier.
That said, Apple has done okay here, and the nice part about the approach is that Aperture 3 offers just about enough of what you can do with Photoshop in terms of image manipulation, but has managed to present it in an original enough way to be distinct. Apple has dispensed with the need for the user to know about masks, paths and layers while still allowing for a huge palette of tools that you can select in and out of existence by checking and unchecking boxes.
Occasionally, you do forget the order in which you did things and might prefer a little menu that doesn't exist to take you back one step or two but, with a little getting used to, the Aperture method seems to work.
Probably the best new feature of this software is the addition of Brushes which allows the user to brush in effects on top of photographs with a simple tool. All you do is select the size and softness of the brush, and the strength of the filter, and start pasting it in with your mouse. You can use the technique to dodge, burn, sharpen, soften skin, change shadows, intensify colours and all sorts. Best of all, there's an automatic edge detection technology as well so that you don't have to be too careful about where you drag the cursor. It will leave a tiny border at the edge but, if you zoom in, you'll find it's just the one pixel and you can quite easily fill in the gap at high magnification if you need. On the whole, though, it's unnoticeable.
As well as Brushes, there's also a huge number of sliders and scales to play with including very popular tools like curves which will have you mucking about for hours on end. Of course, if it's all too much for you, Apple has added a list of adjustment preset filters and effects that you can actually customise and add to yourself, once you start getting the hang of things. It comes set with some simple ones like sepia, black and white, and auto expose but you can edit the list as you wish.
What's also nice is that this latest version allows you to do all this in full screen mode with a HUD that disappears so you can take full advantage of your nice, big, Mac, LED-backlit screen. Once proud of your work, you can switch to the Metadata tab which will tell you what the settings and stops were on your camera and where you took the snap in the first place.
Now that you've got your shots just as you want them, Aperture 3 includes both advanced slideshows and book publishing options for hard copies of your collections. The books are either from one of a handful of specially selected and seriously expensive top end companies, in Italy and other places around the world, or you can opt for the one that Apple offers which is both far cheaper and perfectly respectable.
As for the advanced slideshows, Apple has really gone to town on this one; allowing users to create presentations with HD video cut in as well as audio clips and complete tracks from iTunes too - so long as they're DRM-free, of course. Admittedly, it's an impressively flexible addition with lots of thought put into it - including recording your own on-screen annotations, fades and timings - but you do wonder if it's the kind of thing a professional photographer might leave to the video guy or a proper Final Cut Pro instead.
Aperture 3 is undoubtedly a good bit of software with some excellent features added to the last incarnation. However, it is hard to see many professional photographers and enthusiasts switching from Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop to go through the hassle of learning another software package of a type that's notoriously complicated to get to grips with. Naturally, it's worth upgrading if you're using the previous version already.
The other main section of potential punters would also be iPhoto users who've outgrown the program and are looking for more than just cropping and categorising. The trouble here is that it's quite a big jump and slapping a great histogram in the user's face the minute they click on the Adjustments tab doesn't really help. There will be plenty of people who buy Aperture 3 as a step up and consider it a mistake but, if you fit into this group and you're willing to persevere, the application does offer plenty of rewards.