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March 2008

Jonathan Briggs

Until now, one of the major disadvantages of the RAW image format has been its distinctly ‘application dependent’ nature. In other words, you only get to see and use the image when you’re in an application that can read it. Detail, colour rendering and dynamic range are all great, but on-demand access hasn’t been a strong point. RAW processing software has tended to be a little too ‘stand-alone’ for its own good - until now.

Since professional photographers shoot images to be used and shown to the world - through e-mail, slideshows, websites, or just the immediacy of being able to say “hey, look at this picture” - life would be a whole lot simpler if our RAW files could been seen and used all of the time. If the applications we utilise to tell the world about our photography could automatically know the content of our image library and read those files, metadata and all, we’d be on the fast-track to feet up time in front of the TV, or pursuing that long-awaited personal project. The question is: “How can this be done?”

The short answer is one word: Leopard, Apple’s new operating system (OS). In simple terms, it’s taken the concept of ‘core image’ processing to a new and really rather handy level. Its predecessor, Tiger, had begun the task by bringing us drag-and-drop functionality between Mac applications like Aperture and Mail, but Leopard delivers real integration for the RAW workflow at a professional level. By using Aperture 2 you are giving the computer a central database of all your photographic work. Your other Mac applications tap into this asset library and show you what you’ve got exactly as it stands in real time, adjustments and all. Mail now provides a new Photo Browser that tracks your RAW processing as you go and the Aperture Library is ever-present in the Media Browser found in iWeb, Keynote, iDVD, Pages and the other iLife and iWork applications.

©Martin Gisborne

The new Photo Browser button in Mail gives direct access to the Aperture Library. Just drag and drop images into the Mail message, no matter what their format is.

©Keith Rankin

The Aperture Library can also be found in the Media Browser section of all the different Mac applications, shown here in iWeb. There’s no need to export images to use them on the web, as the Mac taps into the central Aperture database and does the conversions for you behind the scenes.

The point is that RAW files can now be seen and then used directly by Mac applications. There’s no need to export, move, or re-format them. The icing on the cake is that the Finder can show you RAW files without any application being open at all. And with the addition of Time Machine, it’s almost impossible to lose anything ever again.

The Mac has always been designed with creative individuals in mind. We tend to think visually, and are not so keen on lists. Leopard takes this a step further by providing a new way of seeing things called Cover Flow. Rather than viewing listings of file names, thumbnail icons or indeed the column-view structure of a drive, we now have access to a jukebox-style flick-book of our folders. If you think this sounds a bit gimmicky, hold your fire. Let’s be honest, photographers aren’t great at naming files. When was the last time you couldn’t remember what you’d called a picture? Or for that matter the final, finished, client-approved file? It’s a regular occurrence in real, imperfect, life.

Cover Flow means you can flick through folders of images with ease within the Finder, with no loading time for an application. What’s more, it reads RAW as well as just about any image format. Say you know there’s a file you really need, but it’s deep, deep down in your image archive. You can’t remember the name you gave the file, but the image is still fresh in your mind. Plug in the drive, select Cover Flow (all the different Finder views can be cycled by using the keys Apple + 1, 2, 3 or 4) and you’re away.

©Steve Winter

Cover Flow brings visual navigation of folders to the Mac for the first time, giving a flick-book view of the contents.

The companion to Cover Flow is Quick Look. Maybe there were multiple variants of a similar file, and only one of them was really sharp in the right place. No problem. Select any image in the Finder and then hit the Spacebar. This activates Quick Look and gives a large visual of that file. Click the arrows at the bottom of the screen to move into full screen mode if you’d prefer. If you’re in a folder of images, just use the Shift + Down Arrow keys to expand the number of files running in Quick Look on the fly.

© Steve Winter

Quick Look can be accessed simply by pressing the Space Bar, and gives a detailed rendering of the file.

This all applies to PDF files too, multi-page and all. But it’s with groups of files that Quick Look really makes sense. Select a set of RAW files, hit the Space Bar and you enter Quick Look, now with some extra options. Hit the Play button to show a slideshow of the set, or use the index button to see a contact sheet-style representation of the selected images. The choice is yours. Note that Quick Look does not depend on being in the Cover Flow Finder mode either. You can use it anywhere and everywhere on the Mac – you’ll notice the option now present even in incoming emails with attachments.

© Martin Gisborne

Groups of files can be viewed in Quick Look too, which then gives access to a contact sheet-style presentation of the contents.

The functionality of being able to view RAW files without the need for any application is a real bonus after a shoot. Use it to get an ultra-fast run through of new work. Just copy the files to your desktop, select all the images in the folder and see the results immediately with just a couple of clicks.

Another really useful feature of Leopard’s central image handling is that you can carry pictures with you when using the Application Switcher (Apple + Tab). If you’re in Aperture, select a few thumbnails from a project you’ve been working on. Start to drag the thumbnails across the screen. As soon as the red number appears, press Apple + Tab to bring up the Application Switcher. You still carry the images with you and can decide which application to take those images to by dropping them on the icon. For instance, point to the Mail icon and immediately create a new email message with those images. Alternatively, go to iWeb and keep the mouse or track pad held down, then select the point on the web page you need and drop the images where you want them. A neat stack of images appears. In the background, the Mac OS has converted the images into a suitable format for that application, so that even if the selected files were RAW, they’re now ready for the web.

© Keith Rankin

You can drag and drop files from Aperture directly into other applications using the Apple + Tab command.

Whilst Aperture 2 is obviously not the only RAW processing software available to photographers, it’s the only one fully integrated into your digital life and hence your business. Using the same central image handling technology, Apple’s Mail software now gives you the Photo Browser in the menu bar of a new message. This gives direct access to all the images in the Aperture Library. It’s important to realise that this image browser is being regularly updated according to the present status of an image in Aperture 2.

Even better is the fact that the Spotlight search facility is incorporated into the Browser, meaning that you can carry out live text searches of your entire Aperture library from within your Mail message. In the Photo Browser, click on the top-level Aperture icon and then enter search text in the spotlight field at the bottom, and the Library is filtered as you type. This makes image selection for email to a client so straightforward. All that’s left to do is simply drag and drop into the body of the email, and then use the live resize button in the bottom right-hand corner to decide on the file size you require.

This ease of use and integration operates in just the same way across Mac applications such as iWeb, iDVD and Keynote. Bringing up the Media Browser in any of these applications is all that’s required to access the full structure of your Aperture Library, complete with Projects, Albums and Smart Folders. What’s more, easy access isn’t just limited to Mac applications: head for the Place command in the File menu of Photoshop or InDesign, go down to the Media header in the sidebar and click Photos. The Aperture Library is available there too – that’s seriously useful.

© Martin Gisborne

The Media browser containing the Aperture Library can also be accessed from within Adobe Photoshop and InDesign applications.

New publishing options in iWeb now make it an effective tool for professional photographers.

So, we now know that image handling is well controlled in Leopard, but what about photographer-friendly means of using our pictures? Taking iWeb as an example, the application has been significantly revised in conjunction with the new OS. For the first time, it can truly be described as a capable web authoring system that can be realistically utilised by a professional photographer.

Top of the list of upgrades is the new Set Up Personal Domain function. It used to be that simple publishing of a website was limited to using your .Mac account. Unfortunately, that gave us rather undesirable web addresses. Yes, you could always publish to a folder and then manually upload to a web server, but that didn’t exactly hang with the Apple logic of a user-friendly interface. Now iWeb allows us to set up any domain name as an integrated alias to our .Mac account. In practice what’s happening is that the website is published to your .Mac account as normal, but with an overlay of your personal domain. In real life it is seamless – you just need to remember to register and activate the .Mac address with Google and other search engines, rather than the personal domain URL.

Within the iWeb interface, we can find some worthwhile functions for the photographer. For example, try dragging an entire Aperture Project or Album out of the Media Browser and drop it into an iWeb page. What you get is an integrated slideshow system complete with scrollable filmstrip functions you can show or hide, plus controls for including captions, download options and sizes. You can also access a head-up display to control the overall layout. With the RSS subscribe function viewers can link to your site and be kept up to date with your progress. No knowledge of html is needed here – it’s the kind of structure we’ve been paying web programmers too much for too long to create for us.

©Keith Rankin

iWeb also now incorporates a full slideshow facility, which can be created by dragging and dropping a Project or Album straight from Aperture, complete with all your adjustments, via the Media Browser.

A much-ignored element of the Inspector panel in iWeb is the Metrics section. Although this sounds like it will include numbers, it’s really not complex. Hidden here is a Rotate control. Select an image you’ve dropped on your website, and simply twirl the button to place the image at any angle you like. Additionally, you might be keen for all pictures to appear at exactly the same custom pixel dimensions - you can set that in here too.

The Metrics panel of the Inspector in iWeb allows custom picture angles and specific placement and dimensions of images.

Our photographic assets are the raw materials of our businesses. Many photographers back up religiously, others do it when they remember and the remainder hope disaster will never strike them. Leopard and Aperture 2 work together to remove the chance of data loss and protect you in the event of a hardware failure. It’s said that anyone who hasn’t experienced serious data loss through the failure of a drive is an accident waiting to happen – a ticking time bomb. There are some helpful tools out there to give us a bit of prior warning (Smart Reporter is one such piece of shareware that keeps an eye on the condition of your internal drive, with a satisfying green light up in the menu bar), but effective back up is just a routine that we’ve got to embrace.

The third-party shareware Smart Reporter (the green icon here on the left hand side) can give you a little advance warning of drive failure, but it’s no reason to ignore formal back up procedures.

Leopard takes the weight off the photographer by introducing Time Machine. Time Machine takes hourly back-ups of your Mac, and to access a file that was present a week ago, you step back in time and pick it up. For example, imagine you’ve accidentally trashed a file that a client is now screaming for and you’ve emptied the trash bin as well. You know it was on the desktop a few days ago, but now it has gone. No worries, step back in time until the file is shown and restore it to the present day.

© Steven Winter

Time Machine literally walks you back hour-by-hour, day-by-day, showing the contents of folders and locations at the chosen time. Find the file you’ve lost and click the Restore button in the bottom left corner to bring it back to life in the present.

There are some photographer-specific tips necessary to make this rather unlikely concept work smoothly. First, nominate an external drive as the Time Machine location and then limit the areas it handles. Hence it is sensible to exclude the Applications folder for instance, and indeed the Aperture Library – more on this in a moment. To cut to the chase, Time Machines works very effectively as your safety net for individual files, your business documents and so on.

Choose to exclude your Aperture Library and external drives, and Time Machine will keep a track of the Mac’s own hard drive without you even noticing it working.

The Aperture Library meanwhile is likely to become a large single database file. Hence it’s a better idea to utilise Aperture’s own built-in back up system that’s designed to handle this data. Create a Vault; give it a name and a location on a drive external to your Mac and update the Vault. This creates a mirror image of the exact status of everything you have present in Aperture. As the status of the Aperture Library changes whilst you import more files, work on Projects and add data, you’ll notice that the recycle icon on the Vault gradually moves to red. This means it’s time you updated the Vault. Simply connect the relevant drive and Update again. A Vault can be used to Restore an Aperture Library on any Mac, making it a portable access source to your entire library.

Make a Vault of your Aperture Library located on an external drive, update it regularly, and you achieve the necessary goal of your image assets always being up to date in two places at once.

Leopard takes photography-specific functionality to a previously unseen level. Essentially it handles all imagery centrally, making our image assets available to view and use on-demand, and keeping time-consuming admin tasks like backup off our ‘to-do’ lists. And that ultimately gives you more time to spend behind the camera.