Migrate from Aperture to Lightroom

Edit (January 2019): It took me a long time to fully import my Aperture libraries to Lightroom! I started this process in February 2016 and migrated my last pictures in January 2019. A few things have since then changed, so I’ve updated this post accordingly.

A TL;DR version of this post is available below, summarizing the steps in my migration workflow.

The release of Aperture in 2005 aligned well with my increasing interest in photography at the time. Like many Apple products before, Aperture offered a unique combination of powerful features, ease of use, and good integration with other Apple products and workflows. After years of trying out various tools to (first) organize and (as I started researching photographic techniques) retouch my photos, Aperture was combining both in a unique way. I was convinced and soon bought a copy of the software. And again, like many Apple products before, a competitor soon released a very similar product. Adobe Lightroom came out in early 2007, and quickly become the market leader.

Even as I watched many of my photography friends progressively adopting over to Lightroom, correctly identifying the winning horse early on, I refused to see the writing on the wall and stuck to Aperture. My behaviour in that aspect is pretty acutely described in Alex Allen’s essay “Why we treat tech companies like religions” (mentioned on Spark #295):

And when you’re that tied in to an ecosystem, you have a motive to want to defend and validate the choice you’ve made

But of course all my photography friends were right to choose Lightroom, as demonstrated by Apple finally announcing they were pulling the plug in 2014. We are now in 2016 and I believe my period of mourning denial has lasted long enough. It is time for me to migrate to Lightroom. I spent some time thinking of the best way to do this and experimenting, and I’ve decided to document the process here in case someone finds it useful.

1. Upgrade to Aperture 3.6

Lightroom has a handy feature for importing Aperture libraries (Adobe being all to happy to welcome the Aperture castaways…). After briefly considering starting from scratch, I decided to use it to at least import all the metadata I had been carefully adding to my pictures (geolocation, tags, etc.). However the Lightroom import wizard warned me that my version of Aperture wasn’t the latest, and that it could cause some errors while importing, without however offering any details on what exactly would be impacted. I wasn’t able to find more information online about that either. In the end, I decided to upgrade to the latest version of Aperture, which wasn’t entirely straightforward with my setup. I have an older Mac Pro which I am loathe to run on the latest OS X version for performance issues. The last version of Aperture (3.6) does not run on anything prior to Yosemite, however. I ended up upgrading my Mac Book Air to El Capitan, install the latest Aperture on it and use it to upgrade my libraries. Convoluted, yes.

Edit (January 2019): I did eventually upgrade my Mac Pro to El Capitan and was able to finish my migration with fewer complications.

To make things even easier, I had bought the software (and any subsequent updates) as a physical DVD (2005, early adopter, remember?). But Apple at some point decided to distribute updates only through their App Store. Updates are only available to users who have previously bought the software on the App Store. Problem for me, since I had purchased a boxed version of the software. After scouring the forums for a solution that did not involve downloading a shady torrent file, I found mention of a user in the same situation who got Apple Support to add Aperture to their App Store purchases. I dutifully called the support line (my favourite activity in the universe). Let’s just say it wasn’t a short call. And it required me refusing to purchase Aperture again at some point (sic) and being a big enough pain that I finally got redirected to someone who understood the situation and provided me with a one-time code to “purchase” Aperture at no cost on the App Store. I was then able to upgrade to the latest version. Finally.

2. Split my library into manageable chunks

Now armed with the latest (and last) version of Aperture, I tried starting the Aperture import wizard in Lightroom, which asked me to locate an Aperture library and then started “verifying” it before offering me any further option. I waited several hours before eventually aborting the operation, since there was no sign how much longer this would take. It was evident my Aperture library was too large to be imported in one go, I would have to split it into smaller chunks. Doing it in batches also made me less nervous about missing a step and then having to start all over again, or messing everything up somehow.

I decided to do this by year. I first created a series of smart collections, filtering by date

Then I exported each as a separate library. I didn’t check the boxes to copy the originals or the previews into the exported library. I wanted to keep the originals in their current location. As for the previews, I knew I was going to have to rebuild them anyways (see next step).

The only drawback from this method is that Aperture doesn’t recreate the full collection structure when creating sub libraries this way:

Original Aperture library
New Aperture library after filtering by date
After import in Lightroom

I only realized this after importing a few year’s worth of images into Lightroom. This is annoying but not really a big problem, as I can always filter images by date or keyword and recreate most of these sub-collections in the future if I ever need to.

3. Preserving adjustments – kind of

Sadly, I knew that all nondestructive adjustments made to my photos in Aperture would be lost when importing into Lightroom. However, the Lightroom importer will try to import “high quality previews” if they exist. So to at least keep a flattened version of the photos I had edited in Aperture, I made sure to generate a fullsize preview of all edited photos. I started by making a smart library containing only images to which I had applied adjustments:

I then set the previews to full-size by selecting the largest possible size and quality setting in Preferences:

Finally I forced Aperture to recreate a full-size preview for all those images by selecting all images in my smart collection, and selecting Photos->Generate Previews while holding down the Option key (this will force generate them even if they are up to date). This increased the size of my Aperture libraries significantly (by a factor of 3), which was expected.

Edit (January 2019): I came back several months (OK years) later to finish the import process for my older images and my library wasn’t increasing in size during that step, which I found odd. I checked the location of the referenced files and sure enough, Aperture had lost track of the location of the originals. I fixed it by using File->Locate Referenced Files before reprocessing the previews.

I repeated this process for each of the yearly libraries I had created in the previous step.

When I first tried to import my new smaller Aperture libraries into Lightroom, I realized the importer was taking forever trying to validate the last opened Aperture library before letting me select which one I wanted to import. To stop wasting time on this step, I created a new empty Aperture library and set it as my current library before switching to Lightroom to start the import process.

4. Import into Lightroom

Edit (January 2019): It turns out that the Aperture importer plugin has a tendency to hang after importing 1000 images or so in recent versions of Lightroom Classic. The workaround is to install version 6.0 of Lightroom Classic (from 2015, then called Photoshop Lightroom CC) and use that version to run the importer. Older versions can be installed from the Adobe Creative Cloud app by clicking the little arrow next to the Install/Update buttons and choose Manage>Other versions:

I decided to import the photos into a blank Lightroom library, to limit interference with existing workflows. After creating a new library, I then ran the Import from Aperture plugin, selecting each of my smaller Aperture libraries in turn to import from, and setting the target path to be consistent with my new Lightroom workflow.

In the options panel, I made sure to check the first checkbox to import the full-size previews for adjusted images I had generated in the previous step. I also opted to leave the referenced files in their current location on my hard drive.

I then took a deep breath and clicked Import. I found the process to be reasonably quick, about 20-30 minutes for each year of photos. After each import, I checked that the images were all properly referenced, checked a few folders and keywords. At first I was alarmed that I was ending up with many more pictures in Lightroom than in the original Aperture libraries, before remembering that the additional images came from the generated previews.

5. Cleanup

Aside from the fact that the adjustments I had made in Aperture couldn’t be imported and would have to be replicated one by one if I ever needed to reprocess an image, I found the transition to be reasonably smooth. I only realized later in the process that using smart albums to split my Aperture library into smaller libraries lost some granularity in my collections structure, but that’s a relatively minor annoyance. Some metadata cleanup was necessary, notably I noticed that accented characters in keywords appear to have been improperly converted. I decided to fix those over time as needed.

The other cleanup operation that I had to do was that some images (notably scanned images, and some coming from older cameras and smartphones) were not appearing in the right order. It turns out, Lightroom relies on the “Capture date” field to order images in chronological order and that field wasn’t properly filled for those images. This can be easily fixed by filtering by date unknown and then adjusting the capture time to mirror the file creation date for those images.

Screenshot of the Lightroom Metadata Filter, displaying photos with unknown dates.
Screenshot of the Lightroom fix date setting.

In the end, I realized that what took me the most time (apart from convincing myself to move to Lighroom already) was figuring out each step of this workflow. Once I had them in place, it was a matter of replicating a series of operations and letting the importer do most of the work. Since it took me a bit of research to put this workflow together, I figured it might interest someone else, thus I documented it here. Hope it helps!

TL;DR – My Aperture to Lightroom migration workflow

  1. Be sure to run the importer in Lightroom version 6.0 (2015). The importer doesn’t work well in newer versions. You can install older versions of Adobe apps by clicking the little arrow next to the Install button in the Adobe Creative Cloud app.
  2. Make sure you have a recent backup of your Aperture library, just in case.
  3. Check if you have images in the Aperture trash. Either empty it before going further, or if you want to keep your trashed images, apply a tag to them, because Lightroom will import them and mix them up with the others. Note that you can’t add a keyword to images when they’re in the trash, so you might need to put them in a temporary collection, add your tag or mark them as “rejected”. Note that if you use smart albums to split your library, the trashed images will not be imported.
  4. Split your Aperture library into smaller ones (e.g. by date) by creating smart albums with the proper limiters and then exporting each album as an Aperture library.
  5. For each of the smaller Aperture libraries:
    1. Make a smart album with the “Adjustments… are applied” rule
    2. Go to Preferences, under Previews select Photo Preview: Don’t limit
    3. Select all images in your adjustment smart album, press the Option key and select Photos->Generate previews (this will force generate them even if they are up to date). This will increase the size of your library significantly. If it doesn’t, something is probably not quite right! Start by checking that Aperture can locate all original files (File->Locate Referenced Files) and fix if necessary before trying again.
  6. BEFORE starting the import process in Lightroom, make a new empty Aperture library and exit Aperture with this library active. This will reduce the time Lightroom will try to “check” Aperture’s library when launching the importer.
  7. Import each of your Aperture libraries by using Lightroom’s Import from Aperture plugin, making sure to set the target location for referenced files to be consistent with your current Lightroom workflow. Click the Options panel and select all checkboxes to extract the full size previews you created in step 5 and import them as separate files, and to keep the referenced files in their current location instead of duplicating them.
  8. Once everything has been imported, cleanup your metadata as required, checking for missing capture dates.

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