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8 Steps to Developing a Better Workflow in Aperture


Today Mark Jaquith shares some tips on developing a workflow in Aperture.

Aperture, Apple’s excellent image processing and organizational tool, can really help take your workflow to the next level. I’ve been using it for over two years (to the tune of over 10,000 images), and I couldn’t imagine going back. That said, it is a complicated application with a fairly steep learning curve. And even if you learn all the screens and all the keyboard shortcuts, Aperture doesn’t hold your hand. It is a tool, not a workflow. It is up to you to craft a workflow that fits your needs. In the many months I’ve been using Aperture, I’ve tweaked and refined my workflow. What follows is the system I use.

Step 1: Importing

My number one rule for using Aperture and not losing your sanity is to never ever babysit an import. Don’t try to sort your photos. Don’t try to view your photos. Start the import and walk away. I put Aperture on a dedicated “space” in OS X Leopard to reduce the temptation. Aperture does a lot of hard work when importing, and performance is unbearably slow. Don’t torture yourself.

Because importing is such a bear, I recommend you do it all at once. Even if a card has photos from more than one project, import them into one project and sort them out later.

Speaking of projects, it might be a good time to settle on a method of sorting your photographs. I use a project for each distinct “event,” and store them in folders by year. I have smart folders for each month of the year. Remember that smart folders give you a lot of flexibility, so don’t make your organizational structure more complex than it needs to be.

I have a “To be processed” folder which is where new projects go on import. My projects stay there until I’m completely done processing them.

Step 2: Prepare for sorting and processing

Before sorting, you should turn on Preview Mode. It makes sorting a lot faster. Next, reduce the size of your thumbnails so that you can see more at a time.

Step 3: Auto-stack

If you shoot in burst mode, you likely have a lot of near-duplicate photos that you just took to eliminate blinking or to shift camera shake odds in your favor. This is what stacks are for.


Reduce the size of your thumbnails to give yourself a bird’s eye view of the project, and then click Stacks » Auto-Stack. Slowly move the slider to the right (be patient, it lags a bit). You’ll see your bursts start to merge together as stacks with a grey background. The goal here is to correctly group 80% of your bursts. Don’t spend a lot of time agonizing over getting the groups perfect, just get yourself most of the way there.

Step 4: Tweak your stacks

Now, go the final 20% of the way with your stacks. You’re going to have some photos that don’t belong in a stack, photos that do belong in a stack, and stacks that need to be split or merged. Remember that stacks are for near-duplicate photos. If you are shooting an extreme action sequence, it’s likely that the shots aren’t really duplicates. You could have someone running, jumping, and then splashing in a pool. Those are distinct shots, so split them out.

Keyboard shortcuts will be your savior here. Use the arrow keys to select images. Use shift and the arrow keys to select a range of images. To create a new stack or add an image to a stack, select the images and press Cmd-K. If you want to add an image to an existing stack, you just have to select the new image and one of the existing images—no need to select them all. When I’m done with a stack, I like to close it with Shift-K (repeat to open) to mark it as “stacked.” At any time you can press Alt-; to close all stacks or Alt-' to open all stacks. To split a stack, or pop an item off of the front or back of a stack, select the item to the right of the split point, and press Alt-K.

Step 5: Make your picks

A pick is the image from a stack that is the best shot. It is the one that appears as the representative image for the stack when the stack is collapsed. More importantly, you can exclude the non-picks from searches and smart folders, which allows you to forget about all those duplicate images (unless you want to revisit your pick!)


Start by expanding all your stacks with Alt-'. Then go through your stacks and pick the best of the bunch. If you select multiple photos, you can compare them head to head (depending on your Aperture screen setup). I like to use the loupe tool (keyboard shortcut: `) to examine the focus point and then flip between two images for quick A-B tests. Use Cmd-[ to move an image up in the stack, Cmd-] to move it down. Use Cmd-\ to promote an image to the top of the stack. Again, I like to collapse stack as I complete them during this step.

Step 6: Keywording

Keywording may play an important role in your Aperture library, or it may play a minor role. It completely depends on you. I photograph a lot of people—candid shots of friends and family, so I keyword people by name (in an “individuals” folder).

The way I do it is to start at the first photo, identify one of the people in the photo, and then scroll through the rest of the project looking for that person, and Cmd-clicking to highlight those photos. Then I use the Keyword bar to enter that person’s name. Then I pick the next person in the photo and repeat (or move to the next photo). This is much faster than keywording photo-by-photo.

Don’t forget to expand your stacks before keywording. If you keyword the pick of a collapsed stack, the non-picks won’t get the keyword.

Step 7: Rate picks

Collapse your stacks, and rate all the picks and standalone images. My scale is:

One-star: Keep

These images aren’t very good, but aren’t accidental photos of my shoes, so they stick around, but are usually excluded from normal viewing.

Two-stars: Show

These are for decent photos that I either have no inclination to share, or it would be redundant to share.

Three-stars: Share

These are for good photos that I want to share.

Four-stars: Boast

These are the ones (along with the fives) that I’d show people as representative.

Five-stars: Call National Geographic

It’s good to have goals. Not many photos get this rating!


Step 8: Back up

You do have a good file backup regime in place, right? Kick it off. I don’t delete photos from my memory cards until they’ve completely entered into my backup system.

Mark Jaquith is one of the lead developers of WordPress and an amateur photography enthusiast. He enjoys low-light candid portraits and is therefore loathe to remove his 50mm f/1.4 lens. You can see his photographs on Flickr.

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Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse

is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals.

He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

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