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Import & Browse Test: Aperture vs Lightroom vs Photo Mechanic

Thomas Boyd's picture
June 20, 2012 - 1:00am

EDITORS NOTE: Thomas and I discussed this post at length, before he even ran the tests. Should we do it, or shouldn’t we? This site is not in the business of proving Aperture is better or worse than anything else; it’s here to teach Aperture users how to get the most from Aperture, and that’s it. However given what a critical piece of the workflow this is for professional photographers (fast imports), and that this is a significant feature improvement in Aperture 3.3 (even if Apple isn’t marketing it as such), we decided to do it. And once you’re comparing Aperture 3.2 to 3.3, you have to compare to Photo Mechanic as well, which has long been regarded as the gold standard for speedy imports and selects. And once you add Photo Mechanic, you can’t ignore the 300 pound gorilla in the room, Lightroom. So, we decided to compare them all. And as you’ll see, we even gave Lightroom a more than fair shake, trying to improve its result based off feedback from former Lightroom users.

-Joseph @ApertureExpert


Almost every assignment I do is deadline driven. Sometimes I even show images from a wedding that I’m still shooting. Speed is important to me. I’ll never complain that something is too fast. I’m always wanting it to move faster.

Aperture 3.3 has dramatically improved the speed in which we can look at photos not already in the library. Aperture 3.0 gave us the ability to browse, adjust and export images before they were even all finished copying from the card to the hard drive — this was a massive leap forward in productivity. Now, the Aperture team has taken Aperture 3.3 to the next level with dramatic improvements to handling the embedded JPEG file. They have made the speed in which the images draw to screen much faster.

It made me wonder; is Aperture faster than the other apps pro photographers use to do this? Adobe has recently made made Lightroom 4.1 available. I hear it’s more responsive, and I want to know for sure. Many pro photographers still swear by Photo Mechanic for their deadline photo browsing and metadata duties. They perceive it to be faster than Aperture and Lightroom. Are their perceptions correct? I want to know.

The Test

I will import 500 RAW images from a Canon 1D Mark IV into a new Aperture 3.2 library, a new Aperture 3.3 Library, to a folder using Lightroom 4.1 and to a folder using Photo Mechanic. I will use the same 27-inch iMac (12GB RAM, 2.93 GHz Intel Core i7) for all the work. The images will be imported off a 32GB SanDisk Extreme Compact Flash card (60MB/s) using a Lexar FW800 card reader.


I will not rename, or add IPTC. All the import settings will be as much the same as they can be.

The idea here is to see which app is best for importing and looking at rendered images the fastest. So, I will time how long it takes to import and then look at the image in full resolution before moving onto the next image. As soon the image renders, I will push the right arrow button. I will not move through the images so fast that I wouldn’t be able to see what the images are, but I will do it very fast nonetheless. If there is no delay in the rendering, I will still take time to look at the image just as I would during a real shoot. I will do my best to consistent from one app to the next. I will also admit this is where the test is weakest. It’s not an absolute timed import speed because it relies on a human to determine when to advance to the next frame. We can only hope my efforts are consistent.

Aperture 3.2

It took nine minutes to copy 500 RAW images to an external FW800 drive from a CF card. However, it took only five minutes to browse those 500 images. (Because of the way Aperture works, you don’t actually have to wait for the files to complete copying before you can view them at full resolution). That’s a major times savings, especially when there’s over a thousand images on a card and you have multiple cards.


The performance was much better on my iMac than it is on a newer and maxed out MBP, but still leaves room for improvement. It moved along nicely for about 200 images and then started to get jumpy and the rendering would not keep up with the my pushing the right arrow key on the keyboard. I had to slow down and let it catch up. Overall, a pretty good time.

RESULT: 5:24

Aperture 3.3

Again, the copy time took right at nine minutes to complete. This shouldn’t change. However, the experience of looking at those photos during the import was vastly improved. There was very little jumpiness. Not once did I have to wait for the embedded jpeg to render, and it took only three minutes to look at fully rendered images. That’s two minutes of time savings for every five hundred images. In a typical football game I shoot about 2000 images — that means I’ll save eight minutes going through those images. On a tight deadline, that is a very long time, especially during half-time. In terms of a wedding, you’ll be able to go through the ceremony photos while the bride and groom are eating. This is a huge increase in performance.


As in Aperture 3.2, this time advantage is from the ability of the app to browse, adjust and export images before they are all off the memory card. This is a key feature. This is why I can be done looking at 500 images in just over three minutes while it actually takes nine minutes for the images to finish copying. This is also why it’s important to have more than one card reader if you have multiple cards to import. In a sporting event, a photographer can shoot in excess of 2000 images in three cameras. This feature allows a photographer to do three imports off three cards and be working before they’re done copying. The other apps will import multiple cards but you have to wait until they are done before going to work.

I’d say that as equally important as the time savings, the experience is better. It’s less frustrating. It feels more natural. I just felt more relaxed and less rushed using Aperture 3.3. It has a feeling of quality.

RESULT: 3:15

Adobe Lightroom 4.1

I don’t use this everyday like I use Aperture. I can’t judge the difference between Lightroom 4 and Lightroom 3. But, I can judge the difference between Lightroom and Aperture. It may not be completely fair either because I may not be using it in the most efficient way. That’s one of the reasons I decided to not rename files, add adjustment presets or add metadata. This test is just a simple import using all of the apps.


It took 14 minutes and 27 seconds to import and look at 500 images.

This took much longer than I expected. Not only that, if you continued to press the right arrow key, the image would move along the thumbnails but the large preview would not move with it. This means you could easily miss seeing blocks of images if you weren’t paying attention.

Because of the time it takes to load the images and this very odd behavior, I found Lightroom 4.1 to be virtually unusable for this task. This explains why I see very few using it in photo workrooms at sporting events. I see them using Lightroom after importing with Photo Mechanic or other software, but rarely do I see someone importing, browsing and rating images with Lightroom. Apparently, it does other things very well. This is not one of them.

Since Lightroom’s weakness at importing of memory cards appears to be well known, I decided to do a second test and import from a hard drive. The results were far better. It took eight minutes and ten seconds to look at all 500 images. I was still troubled by how it would easily skip over images without showing them or loading them when the arrow key was pushed too fast. I suspect I missed seeing at least two dozen images because of that. With practice, a user would get a good feel for how fast they could push the arrow key and miss anything. But that pace is maddeningly slow… for me anyway. This better performance is tempered by knowing you have to add at least five minutes of copy time in the finder to this. Actually, more considering the amount of navigation and clicking it would take to make that happen. With multiple cards and the pressure of deadline, I wouldn’t consider it. It’s just asking for trouble, in my opinion.

RESULT: 14:27 or 12:00+

Photo Mechanic 4.6.8

Since this is a test of importing and browsing only. We have to include Photo Mechanic. It’s long been the industry standard for this task. Plus, many Lightroom and Aperture photographers use Photo Mechanic not only for importing and browsing, but also for industrial-grade metadata tasks. Many publications and agencies have systems that were designed years ago to accommodate Photo Mechanic and that hasn’t changed.


Since Photo Mechanic is a very different beast than Aperture and Lightroom, it’s not an apples to apples test. The test here is to import (“ingest” in Photo Mechanic language) and then look at every single image very quickly — as quickly as the app will allow.

When importing, Photo Mechanic requires that the image complete copy over and load into the browser before you can look at it. So there’s no shortcuts — you can’t see an image before the complete file is pulled from the card (it however does utilize the embedded JPEG preview file to draw the image to screen). Unlike Aperture where you can view every photo very soon after import begins (because it copies the embedded JPEG first), with Photo Mechanic you can’t view every photo until every photo is copied.

NOTE: (In the video, you’ll see that I’m frustrated with it wrapping around to the first image if I try to tap the right arrow and the next image isn’t yet ready. I discovered later that there’s a preference to turn this off, but that doesn’t change the time it takes to view — it just lowers the frustration level. The final time below takes this realization into consideration.)

Photo Mechanic does load the images very fast, and much faster than Lightroom. It took only six minutes to copy over and load the images. Once they appear in the browser moving through the full size images is a delight. In this regard it’s every bit as fast as Aperture (both are using the embedded JPEG in the RAW file to do this). Out of the 500 images, I saw only one low res image before it loaded. It seems to me that Aperture figured out how Photo Mechanic was looking at those embedded jpegs in the RAW images and put it work — except that Aperture doesn’t wait for the full RAW image to load before it grabs the next embedded JPEG.

All said, it took about 80% longer to see every image large and in high resolution with Photo Mechanic than it did in Aperture 3.3 (notice that Aperture 3.2 times are very close to Photo Mechanic). Remember, we did the same thing in 3 minutes and 15 seconds in Aperture 3.3.

Then there’s the issue of adjustments. With Photo Mechanic you have to open the image in another app. You have to take the selects to Lightroom, Photoshop, Aperture, or something else. With this in mind, you’ve lost the race. Any time advantage you gained is lost.

Photo Mechanic does offer one unique advantage however. If you all you need to do is look at images on a Compact Flash card, make selects, and send those selects, Photo Mechanic would be the tool of choice. It loads images off of a Compact Flash card very quickly at full resolution and the browsing is just as fast as it is from photos copied to the Finder. It also allows FTP uploading from within the app. Nothing will touch it for that very limited task. In Aperture you can view an image while it’s still on the card (just double-click on the thumbnail in the import window), but it’s not full resolution. It appears to be loading a lower resolution preview at this stage. If Aperture gave you the ability to see the full rez file while still on the card, make a few selects and then FTP them with metadata added directly from within the app, I think it would be game-over for Photo Mechanic. This is assuming you don’t need to make any adjustments of course, and for many types of shooting, that’s precisely the case. Keep in mind you probably will eventually need to copy over the complete card, but it may not be on deadline at that point.

RESULT: 5:52
(adjusted to total time of import, assuming you view each image as it loads, which you can)


Aperture 3.3 is the fastest app in this test with a total time of just over 3 minutes for importing and browsing 500 images from a Compact Flash memory card. The speed is further realized if you need to make simple or even complex adjustments like toning and retouching of dust spots.


If you are a Lightroom user, you’d be well served to use something else to import and browse through your images. In this test, Lightroom didn’t fare well at all.

If you want to browse a images directly off the card, make selects, and send, Photo Mechanic is the best option. Just don’t plan on making any adjustments to the image. If you do need to make adjustments and have to open the image in another app, you have lost all the speed advantages of Photo Mechanic (and compared to Aperture, there is none).

Screen Recordings

Here is a YouTube playlist of all five recordings. These are unnedited and show the complete process from start to finish, including all of Tom’s commentary. Again please note that a feature was discovered in Photo Mechanic after the recording, and the written results above are reflective of that.


All videos are recorded at 1080p.


Comparison Lightroom Photo Mechanic
Adobe Lightroom Apple Aperture Photo Mechanic
macOS Windows
Thomas Boyd

I wouldn’t dispute that Lightroom is the slower/weaker application in these tests but you need to check the preview generation settings in LR as this effects the import speed greatly (hint: set it to use embedded). Also you don’t have to import anything to inspect and reject photos, you can do it in the import dialog directly and then just import the good photos.

Whether this is practical or not though who knows ?


Thanks for the tips. I’ll ask Tom to look for the “use embedded” option.

As far as viewing the images on the card, are you able to see them at full resolution? That’s the Photo Mechanic advantage that even Aperture doesn’t have — Aperture shows a low-rez version there. We’ll check it out for sure, but if you happen to know…


-Joseph @PhotoApps.Expert
— Have you signed up for the mailing list?

I can say that the test was administered with default preferences in LR4.1.

Aperture also allows selection or deselection in the import window. This is not the test chose to do. That works with some assignments of course, but I would never do that on deadline with weddings or sports. I want to archive every frame, or at least look at them carefully later.

Of course, in my experience, most Lightroom users I see working, do some sort of work around like that.

Okay, I just did another test with the preview generation settings set to embedded and sidecar files.

With an import of the same 500 images from a hard drive. To get through those images it took 11 minutes…and this was not from a memory card. It was from a hard drive.

I would even go as far to say that it felt more sluggish and I saw more pixelized images that hadn’t loaded. I had to wait. It still skipped images without showing if the arrow key was pressed to fast.

I have to conclude this setting does not speed up the import and actually makes it less enjoyable, if that’s possible.

If any Lightroom users think I should run another test with some special setting that improves it’s import performance, please let me know. I have this test down to a science and it will only take about 11 minutes!

Great information. Thanks.

As a fellow photojournalist who has used Lr since the very first pre v1 release beta … I knew what the results of this test were going to show.

Lr does many things well … importing images to the point you can actually begin working on them faster than other options is not one of them … Lr works differently than other apps … even with workarounds … that particular point does not make it inferior … just different.

In fact, as Tom can verify, many photojournalists who prefer to work with Lr as time permits, use Photo Mechanic on the front end of the process to speed up their initial workflow as a method of saving valuable time on deadline … For myself, I am seeking to use as few applications as necessary to get the job done … not just RAW processing which is Lr’s top forte …

As I am deep into my exploration of moving to Aperture for my complete workflow … I find the increased speed of importation in v3.3 to be a plus … not the main factor I am considering (there isn’t enough time or space to discuss that here) … but an important consideration nonetheless …

Thanks for taking the time to run the test and share the results …

I agree that there are certain circumstances where using Lightroom makes perfect sense. I’ve even had to use to satisfy a client’s workflow. They wanted to be able to open a RAW images in Lightroom/Photoshop and see how I wanted the photo to look at then make changes to accommodate their output. Lightroom does that. Aperture does not. That scenario has arisen exactly one time since I started using Aperture in v1.0.

However, I can’t think of a time where I would say slower is better. I can say with 100 percent conviction that faster is better.

Faster is better for my workflow needs. But, just as important, I don’t like watching software do things I need done. I don’t like sitting in my office on a nice day. I don’t like waiting. It’s time I could better spend doing things I do like.

In fact, if Lightroom 4.2 was all the sudden faster than Aperture I would switch immediately. There would be no good argument for staying.

(By faster, I mean the entire workflow).

One of the “features” that many are experiencing with Lightroom is that, when you first launch it, and go from the Library module to any other, there is a delay (“beachballing” on Mac). For instance, on my 2010 MBP (i5 2.3Ghz with 8gigs of RAM), it takes the Book module in excess of 20 seconds to load. After that, it’s pretty quick. But….sitting there for 20 seconds the first time is just plain ridiculous.

As tempting as it is, I don’t want to turn this into a Lightroom bashing forum. Both apps have annoying beach ball behavior during different operations. They always have and probably always will. It’s the nature of the beast.

Indeed … I’m not aware of any imaging app that won’t struggle at least a bit when you start throwing 20-30MP RAW files at them ….

Thanks for clearing the embedded testing up Thomas, I wasn’t sure how much it would help. I use LR now purely from an image quality perspective, but I still miss Aperture’s UI and “far better library management”

Thomas - understood. Right now, I’m running both LR4 and Aperture 3.3 side by side. From a speed only standpoint, Aperture is hands down the “winner”.

I’m a sports shooter, and I use a combination of Aperture & Photo Mechanic. I have to say the latest update to Aperture 3.3 really makes a substantial improvement on time in my workflow. Being able to use the camera previews saves my at least 15 minutes if working in Aperture.

That’s what I’m talking about!!

Believe me, when you are sitting in a tunnel under a stadium sending photos at 10:30 p.m., your hands are so cold you can barely type, 15 minutes might as well be an hour.

I have a disk with over 50,000 image files. They are a mix of raw, PSD, TIFF and JPG files. A very large majority are raw files of multiple makes and models of camera raw files (Nikon and Canon). Most of the raw files were previously converted to DNG format and some of them are camera native raw files (crw, cr2, nef).

I created a new Aperture Library and kicked off an import to Aperture 3.3 as a test where the images are copied into the library. It appears I’m getting about 7000 per hour reading from a FW800 drive and writing to a USB2 drive. Aperture is configured to use embedded previews.

I’m watching the Activity Window to see exactly how Aperture is importing them. It is reading all the metadata (“loading assets”), saving previews to the database, then copying the files into the Library. I suspect as the import gets to newer files the pace will slow as the raw files are larger. I started shooting digital with a 5MP Canon and 6MP Nikon. I now have a 12MP Canon G11, as 12MP Nikon D300 and 36MP Nikon D800. The Nikon’s are by far the most represented in my archives.

I have also been watching Applications > Utilities > Activity Monitor and Aperture is only consuming under 4GB of RAM in my 16GB iMac.

My import completed. It took over 12 hours for 50,717 images. That is an average of just over 4000 images per hour. This included copying them all into the Library and building previews for those that did not have embedded previews.

Regarding your comment about PM starting all over again when browsing. When browsing in PM it will return to the first image when it reaches the last image you are browsing. This is actually a nice feature but it can be turned off.

Also, I don’t believe it updates the images you are viewing in the background if ingesting while viewing. If you have imported 10 images when you started viewing in full screen, it will only browse through those 10 even if 10 new images are imported in the background.

PM is extremely fast when browsing. It shows a full screen preview almost instantly, while Aperture uses a few seconds on my computer (reading embedded preview?). It feels a lot faster than Aperture so your findings are intersting.

I am desperately in need of help with my Aperture 3.3.1 and vault not backing up since I downloaded OS X Lion two weeks ago. The library is 133,000 images living on an external HD, the vault lives on another external HD. The vault only backs up 3/4 of the way, then quits. I rebuilt my library, which restored some corrupted images, but it still won’t do a full backup on my vault. I tried deleting the vault and created a new one, and still no backup. And now the library is doing something completely messed up – no matter what album I click on, it points to the same album of images. I can click on a project and view all the images that are actually in that project, but somehow the vault problem is causing my library to show images from the same album over and over no matter how many different albums I’m clicking on. I’m a professional photographer here in Los Angeles who obviously needs to learn a lot more about Aperture, but for right now I am desperate for help in getting my library backed up properly so I can get back to business. I need someone to walk me through this stuff in person. I will pay for your time. Please email me at [email protected] Thank you.

Thomas Boyd writes: “with Photo Mechanic you can’t view every photo until every photo is

Thomas, a Photo Mechanic expert tells me your statement is incorrect. One of the reasons many people use Photo Mechanic for ingest and initial review is that “within 5 to 10 seconds of starting an ingest you can see the first thumbnail, click on it, and be viewing at 100 percent zoom, and then just hitting the “next” arrow to see the subsequent images as they are transferred.”

You didn’t have this experience in your test??


What Thomas means by that is that you can’t see the photo once transfer has started until it’s transferred — so the emphasis in his statement is that you can’t see EVERY photo until EVERY photo is transferred (to further clarify, you can’t see photo #100 of a 100 image shoot until photos 1-99, and then 100, are copied). While this may seem obvious, in Aperture, the JPEG previews are copied first, which copy very fast, so you have every one of the 100 photos in front of you before all the photos are actually copied off the card. Aperture still has work to do, yes, but as soon as you click on a photo (even #100), that is prioritized and copied off the card immediately, so you can view it full size — even if there are still piles of other photos to come off. Which in many cameras is beside the point anyway, because if the camera produces a full or even half-size JPEG, you are looking at an image that’s big enough to judge sharpness and if it’s a keeper or not.

In short, you can view every single one of your photos in Aperture before they are even completely copied off the card. Photo Mechanic doesn’t do that.

-Joseph @PhotoApps.Expert
— Have you signed up for the mailing list?

This is a very interesting debate. I’ve used LR since it was released and will shoot an average of 500-1000 min per day, at big events 3000+. My workflow is actually now what’s called a proxy workflow.

I use an eye-fi card with my dual slot 1d and 5d’s. RAW saved to the CF and small jpg saved to the Eye-fi, this is then beamed directly to my iPad almost instantly. Often I will give the iPad to the client, for example in a field last week, the MD of the company had the iPad and could see in realtime (ish - 2-5 sconds per pic) what I was taking and ask for corrections. Limited time and only 1 chance with both machines and people so had to be exactly right.

He then gave it to the marketing lady who as I was shooting zoomed in, flagged and rated the images. This was a unique situation, but the way I do it when the client isn’t choosing the images, is that I’ll rate and mark the images either while the images are importing to the MAC (Dual XEON with 10gb RAM and SSD’s) or before I even get back.

I set the photos importing and just do something else while they import. That way I’m not wasting time, I rate while on the train, while waiting in a queue, while images are importing. Then I just click the sync button and all my selections are transferred automatically.

My workflow is tens times (subjectively speaking) than it was before. I spend so little time actually rating at my MAC now, I just have to wait for the previews so I can edit them, hence going any making a cup of tea or doing something else, look at emails or make a call. No wasted time!

Well that’s my workflow and it’s very fast because I work around the slowness of import by tagging outside. The sync only takes 30 seconds to a minute for 1000-1500 images and that includes dealing with conflicting metadata (which can be added through PhotoSmith, again saving time!).

My 2 cents worth!


Interesting workflow for sure. Some questions; you said you used Lr since it came out but you didn’t make it clear if you’re still using Lr, or if you’ve now switched to Aperture? I assume for transferring from the Eye-Fi to the iPad you’re using the Eye-Fi app? Also for the rating and flagging images on the iPad, then syncing to the Mac, what are you using? If Pixelsync, are you still running Aperture prior to 3.3? I understand that broke there.

Great workflow… can’t wait to hear more!


-Joseph @PhotoApps.Expert
— Have you signed up for the mailing list?

I am an amateur but have found myself with a workflow problem as it takes for ever, hours actually, for Aperture to copy the raw files i shoot so that i can work with them. It seems that my workflow is the same as your experiment with the exception that the copying phase of the import takes hours for about 600 to 800 raw files. I have Aperture 3.4.3 running on an iMac i7 3.4GHz with 8GB ram and the CF card from my Canon is plugged into a USB card reader.

I am changing the file name during import and adding keywords but nothing else. I also find it slow to index between images but mine seems to run into issues quite a bit sooner than your experiment did.

Anyway, in case I am doing something that is very wrong and you guys can point it out, I’d be interested in ANY suggestions to speed up the import process. I take girls basketball photos for my daughters’ team and sent a few, years ago, to the local paper. They now use my photos every week but Tuesday night games kill me as they need the photos that night and my workflow took me until 1am today to do what they asked! As an amateur, this has turned out bigger time problem than I thought but so far with the kids and parents really appreciating the effort, that’s made it worthwhile!

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