Mothership & Scout

As the plane clears 10,000 feet, I open up my MacBook Air and launch Aperture 3. We bank to the north and I look out the window at the lights over Las Vegas. Just a few hours earlier, I was finishing off the last day of a multiday bicycling event where I captured more than 5,000 images at a series of bicycle races and a bike ride called the Mobile Social.

David Schloss prefers the ultraportable MacBook Air to the MacBook Pro when he’s on the road. Its solid-state components have plenty of power for managing an on-location photo project, and the size is a help with modern travel restrictions.

While I’ve already uploaded some of my selects, it’s time to get into heavy editing. I plug in the hard drive with my photos—the backup drive is in my luggage—and I’m already deep in my work by the time the drink cart rolls by. I’m a longtime Apple Aperture user, but many of the principles in this article apply to software like Adobe Lightroom, as well.

Before I land, I’ll have keyworded, captioned, rated and organized my images. When I get home, I’ll move the Library over to my desktop and its RAID, make some adjustments on the larger (and calibrated) screen of my Mac Pro, and then I’ll be done. I close my eyes, sit back, relax and enjoy the rest of my three-hour flight.

The Digital Camera Bag

With the right software and computer hardware, it’s possible to shoot, edit and submit photos—all while still on location. And back in the studio, it’s just a few clicks until shots are transferred and archived.

In the field, I start with a MacBook Air, a choice that has gotten me a few looks among photographers who prefer the more powerful MacBook Pro. Always looking to optimize the ratio between power and portability, the MacBook Air is my companion on most shoots largely because it’s so light, and as of the last few iterations, blazingly fast. It also boasts a 12-hour battery life, SSD (solid-state-drive) storage and a Thunderbolt port. Aperture makes use of the SSD’s speed, and Thunderbolt operates at speeds that make FireWire and USB look pokey. Combine these two technologies, and I have a blazing system (Fig. 1).

My portable drive option is LaCie’s Rugged USB 3.0 Thunderbolt, which includes both the Thunderbolt connector and a high-speed USB 3.0 port, enabling it to connect to just about any modern computer at high speed. It’s encased in a large rubber bumper that has saved many of my drives from failure as they have fallen off tables as I work on location.

Back in the studio, I connect my MacBook Air to my desktop Mac and RAID by either Ethernet or Thunderbolt (depending on how much data I need to transfer) and move my data over, syncing it with Aperture and starting a backup.

In The Field

The first step in starting a new job is to create a new Project. Aperture stores photos in Projects, which are self-contained parts of a library into which photos are dumped during import. There are two schools of thought on Projects. One is to create a new Project for each part of a shoot and to put them into a folder for the event. Using this system on something like a wedding shoot, for example, I’d create a folder for the event and a different Project to contain each part of the day: preparation, ceremony, reception, etc. (Fig. 2).

The other way, and my preferred way of working, is to create only one Project per job and to create Albums and/or folders under each project to organize my data.

I prefer this methodology because it allows me to have one discrete container for each paying job, something that makes it easier to find things that match my invoices, and it makes it easier to make sure I’ve copied everything over to my desktop machine when I’m done with a shoot. However, if I’m on a multiday shoot or one where I know I’ll exceed the capacity of my internal drive, I’ll create a new Library on an external Thunderbolt drive. That makes it easier for me to port the shoot over to my desktop system—instead of having to connect my laptop in Target Disk mode or connect over the Ethernet, I simply plug the hard drive into my desktop and select the Library from Aperture’s Import/Library menu option, at which point Aperture asks me if I want to switch to the Library or merge the Library with my existing one (Fig. 3).

This is one of the most powerful features of Aperture: the ability to meld one Library into another. When I shoot on the road, the Library I create will quickly become part of my larger, master library when I’m back at my studio. That leaves me with a choice when I’m in the field—managing or referencing my images, which controls the way in which Aperture stores my files.

As a nondestructive image editor, Aperture uses Library files, which are catalogs of the images being managed by Aperture, as well as a list of all the actions taken on those images. Remove red-eye? That’s an instruction in the Library’s catalog. Add metadata? That’s really an instruction in the catalog, too.

When images are stored inside Aperture’s Library file, too, the images are Managed. When they’re stored outside the Library (with Aperture keeping track of their location), they’re called Referenced.

Having the files inside the Library means that they’re easier to deal with—one single file contains both the images and the catalog. But, as a single file, it’s theoretically more prone to damage. The idea is that a hiccup on the hard drive might make the file unreadable, and the images would be stuck inside the Library forever.

Generally, I recommend photographers manage their images as Referenced because of the theoretical risk to having images in one directory and because it enables a photographer to jump directly into a folder and grab a photo manually without Aperture, should the need arise.

That said, when I’m on location, I usually store my files as Managed, for a few reasons. The first is that I always have one or more backups of my images. Since CompactFlash cards are so (relatively) inexpensive, I now bring enough of them with me to cover a whole shoot without having to reuse a card. That gives me a backup that’s nonvolatile and easy to manage, so I don’t really worry about the theoretical risk of a corrupted Library. The second reason I don’t worry much is that I’ve never seen an Aperture Library that’s so corrupted that it was unusable, though I do know it’s possible to have this happen in the case of a major drive failure. But for the shoots I’m doing on the road, this isn’t a large risk or an issue (Fig. 4).

Aperture allows users to select their image storage methodology on a per-import basis (images can be switched from Managed to Referenced easily) simply by selecting to store them in the Aperture library, or in another location during import. So when I’m working on a shoot, I make sure I have the Store Files drop-down on the Import Settings/Aperture Library options set to Aperture Referenced (Fig. 5).

Until I change this, any imported images are stored in the Aperture Library and
I’m good to go. As I shoot, images are placed inside the container file of the Aperture Library, and I know that, should the need arise, I simply have to grab the Aperture Library and transfer it to another hard drive.

When I’m on a location shoot that takes me far from home, I take a few extra backup steps that aren’t necessary if I’m right back at my studio. First, I copy the entire Library onto another drive. This gives me a consolidated backup of the information as of the completion of my shoot. If I’m working with a client, I’ll sometimes pass that drive to the client for safekeeping. Usually, though, I’ll FedEx the drive to myself, which gives me a backup of my data that’s stored separately than the carry-on luggage I bring on the plane.

Bringing It Together

When I’m back in the studio, I begin the easy task of bringing my shoot into my main Library. Because Aperture is able to work with hundreds of thousands of images, I have one main Library for all of my work shoots. And, largely, this also contains all of my casual photography, as well.

The location of my Library determines my next step. If I kept my Library on my laptop’s drive, I connect it to my Mac via Thunderbolt and boot into Target Disk mode (which makes my laptop act like a hard drive). If my Library is on an external drive, I connect that to my desktop via Thunderbolt.

At that point, I simply select File > Import > Library, and Aperture shows a dialog box that says, "Do You Want to Merge this Library?" with the choices to Add or Merge the images. There’s also a description of the process, which boils down to "merging updates any matching files and adding creates a new image for each image imported."

The ability to merge or add files is an important feature of Aperture that most people overlook, and it’s part of Aperture’s ability to export any portion of the main Library as a smaller sub-library. That means that I can add a shoot to my Aperture Library and then later take that shoot (or even just a few images) with me to continue working with it on my laptop, and when I bring it back into Aperture, all the files I’ve changed can be seamlessly merged back into the main Library.

In the case of my typical workflow, there’s no difference between merging and adding, since none of the photos lives in Aperture yet. I simply tell Aperture to add the new Library to my main Library.

At this point, I have a main Library that contains all of my images—a file that’s Managed in an imported Library that remains Managed in the target Library. My next step is to select all of my images and choose File > Relocate Originals and point the dialog box at my current directory of Referenced images (Fig. 6). After my images are Referenced, I let my backup system run, copying the images from one RAID to another, and then I’m done.

David Schloss is a veteran photo industry journalist and an accomplished professional photographer. He’s also the owner of Gypsy Donut & Espresso Bar in Nyack, N.Y.

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