The Lightroom vs. Aperture plug-in situation

Lightroom PM Tom Hogarty has posted some info about how Lightroom & Aperture compare in terms of enabling image editing via add-on code.  Being addicted to bulleted lists, here’s my summary of where things stand:


  • Pound for pound & click for click, "external editor presets" in Lightroom 2 and "plug-ins" in Aperture are the same thing.  In both cases you pick the external engine that you want to use on your image; jump into that editing environment to make adjustments; and return to your LR/Aperture library with an edited bitmap image that sits alongside your original raw file.  You get the same results with the same number of clicks.


  • Unlike Aperture, LR doesn’t require developers to rewrite code to work as a plug-in.  Instead, it simply lets external apps open/save image data as they normally would.  Less work for developers should translate into more options, sooner, for photographers


  • Perhaps ironically, if you’re using external code like Nik’s Viveza plug-in (available as both a Photoshop & an Aperture plug-in), you’ll retain more editability by bouncing your image to Photoshop and doing the edit there.  Photoshop CS3 adds support for Smart Filters, meaning you can go back and tweak your Viveza (or noise reduction, or lens correction, etc.) settings even after sending the results back to your library.


  • If what you’re after is local image editing (e.g. dodging and burning), Lightroom already offers that as a native part of its development pipeline–no rasterization or external edit required.


  • If what you’re after is Photoshop integration, the Lightroom-Photoshop story is unmatched:
    • The jump is faster and doesn’t require creation of an intermediate TIFF/PSD just to open a file in PS.  (Instead the raw file goes through the Camera Raw pipeline, preserving your LR edits.)
    • You can open your raw file as a Smart Object and apply filters to it, preserving the editability of your raw settings and of the filters.
    • You can pass multiple files to Photoshop at once to create panoramas, HDR merges, or multi-layer PSDs.  This works especially well with virtual copies of the same image, making it possible to composite together multiple raw renderings.  Lightroom + Photoshop is the ultimate 1-2 punch.

0 thoughts on “The Lightroom vs. Aperture plug-in situation

  1. As much as I like Aperture, your last four points are critical. I think Aperture is clearly superior in terms of selecting and choosing images and ranking them. I like it’s loupe tool and just the overall way it works. I find the print module in Lightroom useless for my workflow, but that’s just me. I find Lightroom’s lack of book-making a critical item missing. (I know, it’s coming.)
    But what makes me think Lightroom is really the winner is in the areas you point out.
    Still, neither is a joy to use in terms of metadata entry. They just don’t make it as easy as it could be. They could take a lesson from Bridge (even though it has its own quirks this this area).
    Or even better, look at how Photo Mechanic offers ways to make adding metadata easier and more productive (i.e. easier and faster to do a good job of it).
    Another thing that would be great, but I suspect is on the list of impossible things to wish for, would be to tie into OS X’s graphics capabilities to access Lightroom’s libraries like it can from Aperture and iPhoto libraries.
    If I could do that, then the Lightroom library would be accessible from every open dialog box and application (such as Keynote, Photoshop, Flash, InDesign) that has access to the iPhoto/Aperture libraries. Am I asking too much? (Answer: Yes, no doubt.)
    [I don’t know whether Apple makes it possible to hook up other libraries in that way. I can see how it would be useful, though of course the images in your LR library are always easily available on disk, too. –J.]

  2. To me Lightroom SDK is a Joke!!!
    Developers want the ability to write real plugins for Lightroom. Like more modules like the print and web.
    Why does Adobe need to add the ability to make books, when a developer could write and sell a plugin to do this. That way the developers can build what the people want and update quickly.
    The points about the external editor preset being equal to plugins does not make sense. If the sdk does not include the ability to write plugins that can edit the image non-destructively then how can we ever write a plugin that does anything more than make a tiff or jpg that can’t be changed non-destructively after. If you don’t give us the ability then we can’t do it!
    Take someone like Nik. They should be able to write a plugin that has the controls right in the adjustments in the delvelop module. It may not be true non-destructive editing, but lightroom could apply the settings from the nik plugin after all the other adjustments are made. just do this for the on screen preview and when the image is exported or edited in photoshop. This way you would get the things you want without having to go in and out of different programs which is Killing peoples workflow!
    Also the SDK lacks the real ability to obscure your code so it cannot be copied. So in turn the plugins cannot be sold for real money.
    [I see that you posted the same comment’s on Tom’s blog, and that he responded there. –J.]

  3. From my perspective, having to load a plug-in (Aperture) or round-trip to an external app (Lightroom) are equally miserable tasks. In Aperture, the plug-ins feel like an attempt to wean people off Photoshop, and in Lightroom, round-tripping feels like an attempt to keep people dependent on Photoshop.
    I use both Lightroom and Aperture. When I’m in Aperture, I want to stay in Aperture. When I’m in Lightroom, I want to stay in Lightroom. I don’t want to be loading plug-ins all the time or round-tripping to Photoshop all the time.
    Having to choose between the two methods, I very slightly prefer the Aperture plug-in method simply because it means I don’t have to keep Photoshop running all the time or wait an eternity for it to launch.

  4. There are two things I almost always want to do to images that can’t be done within LR:
    1. Run noise ninja with “autodetect ISO.”
    2. Run PS’ smart-sharpen (at various strengths but usually a fixed radius).
    I’ve tried the droplet technique to automate this process, and don’t like it much. (Error prone, heavy weight, too much brain damage.)
    What I’d really, really like:
    1. Just do a deal with picturecode, or buy one of their competitors and integrate good quality noise reduction into LR.
    2. Let me use plugins within LR directly, including Adobe-built ones inside PS. It’s OK to require a PS license for this functionality (or perhaps come up with a separate product that gets you just the plugins.
    Maybe LR2 makes all this ridiculously easier, but I still haven’t found out how… For example, is there an easy way to apply a droplet to a selection of pictures that doesn’t involve export and re-importing?

  5. Last comment, I promise!
    I really love the automated creation of color profiles in the beta. I own a GMB ColorChecker, and the previous method of coming up with a profile was really tricky and time consuming. But how about taking it to the next level?
    I’d really like to be able to integrate the ColorChecker into my workflow within LR:
    1. I’d shoot one picture in a set with the ColorChecker in the frame.
    2. I’d move the “four little circles” to the corner of the checker (which might not be parallel to the focal plane), and then
    3. With one click get the white balance, color calibration, exposure, black level, brightness, contrast, etc. set to a correct starting point.
    For extra credit, you could also properly set noise reduction (if the checker were big enough to measure per-color noise).

  6. I really like the tight integration of LightRoom and PhotoShop. If I want to stay in LightRoom, of course I have that option, but there are things that PS just does better, or that LR simply cannot do at all. So a painless integration of the two programs is a great idea. Unfortunately, as of this writing it’s broken. Files either don’t get to PS at all, or they get there but don’t come back into the catalog. I assume this will be addressed at some point, but right now it’s frustrating.
    [I’m not sure what might be going on there, as I haven’t heard of others reporting problems. I’d suggest searching the LR user-to-user forum for info. –J.]

  7. Dear John,
    Many people having the same or very similar problem as Wick.
    Would you check out this thread and post your opinion there?That would be great!Many thanks!
    [This is a case where I’m afraid I can’t offer much direct help, especially as I’m taking this week off. I’ve asked the right folks to investigate, however. –J.]

  8. Of course, to get the same plug-in action happening in Lightroom, you have to own Photoshop.
    [No, you don’t. If the third-party code can function as a standalone app, Lightroom can send data to it. A number of apps (e.g. PTLens and Noise Ninja) already run this way . People get hung up on how the other executable is skinned–standalone or plug-in–but in this case the difference is purely cosmetic.
    Most plug-ins are basically self-contained imaging applications that happen to have a modified open/save path (the plug-in wrapper). Making them do interesting things to image data is the hard part, whereas modifying them to run either on their own or in captive plug-in form is not a big deal. –J.]
    That’s a lot of pounds right there. Aperture’s plug-ins work regardless if you have Photoshop or not. I just think that’s worth pointing out. In fact, that’s Apple’s whole point, probably. They want photographers to stop thinking that Photoshop is indispensable (although Aperture’s going to need a lot more than plug-ins before it can really make that argument). Still, the Photoshop requirement is a huge advantage in Aperture’s favor.
    [You’re not comparing apples to apples. If you want to take Photoshop out of the equation, then you’ll likely need the third party to rewrite their PS plug-in code, making it into either an Aperture plug-in or into a standalone app. (I say “likely” because, as I say, a number of tools can already run as either PS plug-ins or as standalone apps, in which case LR users can start working with them immediately.)
    Having Photoshop gives you immediate access to a *re-editable* mechanism for running lots of third-party imaging code and round-tripping it with Lightroom or Aperture. If you’re willing to require your third party to modify their code, then you and they can achieve the same workflow & the same results via Lightroom or Aperture. Aperture’s plug-in model offers no advantage at all.
    By the way, here’s what film FX guy/plug-in developer Stu Maschwitz has to say on the subject. –J.]
    I think Lightroom needs to support Photoshop plug-ins natively (and am fairly sure it already does in the labs ;).

  9. Plugins have one advantage – they can look at or modify metadata from any image in Aperture, and also fetch additional images to work with as required. You mentioned that you can pass multiple images to Photoshop easily but an Aperture HDR plugin can take in multiple images as well – and honestly some of the more powerful plugins feel just as tacked on to Photoshop as they do Aperture.
    Plugins also of course load way faster than photoshop, and speed of workflow is a big reason for using these programs.

  10. Does Lightroom 2 support anything like the Export plug-ins Aperture included with Aperture 1.5 (Examples:, or are Lightroom’s “plug-ins” geared mostly for editing the images?
    [LR does indeed support export/workflow plug-ins. I’m on vacation at the moment (yeah, hard to tell, I know), so I’ll try to share a list soon when I have more time. | Update: Here’s the Lightroom Exchange, where you can find a Flickr uploader, Web gallery template, and more. –J.]

  11. Thanks for explaining everything. It is great to know that the missing plug-in support in Lightroom is a real advantage for the user. You guys are the smartest!
    [Neither Tom nor I said that we wouldn’t like to improve beyond where we are now. We simply sought to point out the real-world equivalency of how LR & Aperture call third-party imaging code. You get the same wine from two slightly different skins. –J.]
    Hey, you just gave me another inspiration! Why not remove the Photoshop integration from Lightroom. Then more people would learn to value Lightroom itself and would not be distracted by Photoshop anymore. This could really boost Lightroom sales!

  12. If the third-party code can function as a standalone app, Lightroom can send data to it.
    Okay, but that’s a big “if.” None of my PS plug-ins will run as stand-alone apps. If I want to use them, I have to boot Photoshop, which is really inconvenient on my current hardware. My two Aperture plug-ins don’t force me to boot Photoshop or to leave it open all day. For me, not having to boot Photoshop is a huge advantage.
    Still, I don’t know any Aperture users who really like the way plug-ins work in Aperture. Which is to say, the way developers have skimped in their implementation. The Aperture plug-in API (or whatever) allows raw data to be passed to a plug in, so maybe things will improve, but what we really want is for the plug-ins to transparently add adjustment bricks and to work non-destructively. Lightroom’s definitely ahead in this area, although most of it is too slow to use on my machine. Bummer.

  13. My company mainly develops Photoshop plugins and would like to create Lightroom versions of our products. Now that a Lightroom SDK does not seem to become available in the near future we are quite tempted to create Aperture versions of our Photoshop plugins.
    [Have you considered the stand-alone route? –J.]
    We would rather like to spend our time developing Lightroom plugins. Is there any hope for a full-featured Lightroom SDK before Version 3 or 4 of Lightroom?
    [I have to defer to Tom on the SDK roadmap. –J.]

  14. As I already wrote to Tom: There are more than 50 host applications that can run our filter plugins (including Photoshop and several freeware applications), so there is no problem using our plugins together with a host application as a “standalone” external editor with Lightroom 2. So there is no real need to create special standalone versions of our plugins.
    Additionally we cannot sell standalone versions of our plugins as “Lightroom plugins”, which would be possible with real Lightroom plugins considering their advantages. Additionally we could develop special plugins which would make only sense within Lightroom and not as standalones.

  15. I use Aperture only because I can’t stand Adobe products anymore. I have no idea where all the top experience designers went but I can guarantee they aren’t at Adobe.
    [Thanks for the uselessly non-specific feedback. –J.]

  16. Can anyone let a prosumer (me), who just switched over to a Mac Pro from a PC, whether Lightroom 2, Aperture 2 or Nikon N2 is best for organizing photos etc. I am a Nikon D200 user. Which one has the easiest learning curve and is most intuitive? Also, I am using Photoshop CS3 Extended.
    [Lightroom offers unbeatable Photoshop integration and unmatched image adjustment controls, among many other things. –J.]

  17. Marketing speak aside, the only “unbeatable Photoshop integration” Lightroom has is the current ability to open a RAW (or any) file as a Smart Object directly. If Adobe were to open the way for other RAW Converters to open their files this way (including Aperture), that “advantage” is moot.
    [FWIW, I’d very much like to make Smart Object support as flexible as possible. Other companies (e.g. Nikon) have written raw import plug-ins for Photoshop, but I’m not sure whether these could be wired to work as ACR does with Smart Objects. –J.]
    The ability to open images directly into the Merge to HDR function of Photoshop or to create panoramas is nice but hardly “unbeatable”. Save a click or two here is not groundbreaking. Aperture can easily open any files (RAW, TIFF, etc.) in your library into Photoshop for further work, and when you save and close the file (no need to ‘Save As’ anything), it will appear in Aperture alongside your original file, already stacked.
    As to John’s assertion of “unmatched image adjustment controls”, this is true. No other RAW conversion software will exactly match another dial for dial, slider for slider, number for number. That said, there are many who love either the Lightroom/ACR output controls or Aperture’s really well implemented image editing controls (and some who don’t like either. I happen to love Aperture’s output and controls). I can’t speak to Nikon N2.
    Lou, I would recommend you look around the web (taking everything with grains of salt, especially when it comes from the company itself). A good source to start is at O’Reilly Digital Media and Derrick Story. He gives some of the most unbiased, even-handed reviews/advice and information on both Aperture and Lightroom. Also check out Apple’s excellent series of videos on the Aperture website. Also, “Inside Aperture” is excellent as well as “Aperture Users Network” are chock full of information.
    Finally, if you have time, you can always download free 30 day trials of each software (again, I’m not sure about N2), and see for yourself. Everyone’s opinions, including mine, are just that. See what you think. If time permits, you may want to use each application alone for the 30 days, to fully get the sense of each.
    I hope this is somewhat helpful. In the end, ignore the hype, only your opinion matters.

  18. I know this has been discussed many times but I feel that people at Adobe have been missing a few points:
    1. External applications cannot work with RAW image data prior to demosaicing step.
    This is especially of interest for noise reduction plugins because best NR can be obtained before demosaicing the image.
    2. External applications are cumbersome to use
    They equal three more steps for each image in the catalog, and often require creating extremely large documents for passing data back and forth wasting resources (disk space) and slowing down the process (disk is the slowest path for data exchange in a computer).
    3. Some editing steps are inherently “destructive”
    Once you process the image using some NR application or plugin just touch any develop settings before that step and you will have to redo the NR step. That means launching the external application again, passing the files back and forth, etc. It’s a loss of productive and creative time squared.
    In my opinion, Adobe should expose a hook for NR plugins in Lightroom as early in the editing process as possible, preferably before demosaicing or just after demosaicing but before exposure/WB/whatever settings get applied.

  19. I might as well elaborate a bit on a NR hook idea:
    You should make an option to use built-in Camera RAW NR or to use plugins instead of default Camera RAW NR. That shouldn’t be so hard to implement.
    Another usefull thing to have would be a hook for tone mapping (like Photomatix Tone Mapping plugin) where a plugin could have access to 16-bit data from the camera so that we can use Tone Mapping instead of or in addition to the standard exposure/brightness/contrast/curve controls in Camera RAW.
    So, for implementing noise reduction and tome mapping we actually need Camera RAW hooks and API, not Lightroom.

  20. I don’t want to make this an advertisement for Topaz Labs, I found that this discussion interesting and just want to add to the discussion (especially as a response to some of you who were asking for the 3rd party (host or plug-in) application (instead of PS) to be invoked from Lr or Aperture.
    Topaz Labs recently released a product called Topaz Fusion Express, it allows Aperture users to use Topaz Labs’ Photoshop plug-ins without having to have Photoshop installed. This may be what some of you wanted. Topaz Labs also plan to release a standalone application that can be invoked from Lr and it will allow Lr users to use all the Topaz Photoshop plug-ins (again, without having to have PS installed).
    Check out Topaz Fusion Express for Aperture at:

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