Posts Tagged ‘Aperture’

It’s been quite a while since I last wrote a post on how I go about photographing and creating some of the images you’ll find on my web site, and with the release of a brand new limited edition print imminent I thought I’d chime in on some of the behind the scene shenanigans that went into the creation of that image — She who creates Good Fortune.

Preliminary Stuff

The concept behind this photo would be the coming into being of an entity that was responsible for bringing Fate to the world through the creation of tarot cards. I envisioned an artist standing at an easel painting cards one at a time, with a stack of blank cards on one side and finished cards on the other. Surrounding the figures would be elements representing other celestial and mystical realms, while in the background an even higher mystical figure would look on.

Brush CloseupPlaying the role of “artist” at the center of the new composition would be a figure I frequently refer to as “Marilyn”, solely because she is blonde and has a billowy dress. She was produced by the Marx Toy Company in a set of scantily clad figures known as “Louis’s Beauties”. Her pose, with one hand stretching forward and the other curved inward, would be perfect — so long as I could place a tiny paintbrush in her hand and set a “canvas” before her on an easel. And that’s what you see to the right. I fashioned an easel from wooden coffee stirrers (propped up by undetected Legos), while the paintbrush was made from the end of a toothpick and a skinny strip of aluminum foil wrapped around the snipped ends of an actual paintbrush.

The Photo Shoot

Over the past couple of years my process has become increasingly complex, with elaborate stage sets, and images that are sandwiched together from multiple focus layers (see a past post on the subject of creating focus stacks). Seriously, some of my photos take a month or more to produce. So, in preparing work for my 2013 summer show I decided to go “back to basics” for a set of simple landscape image: one record cover, one stack of 45’s, a primary figure, and maybe a couple of additional figures in the background. Deep focus? Forget it; I wanted the focus to only be on a single character emerging from the center of a record, and the rest of the image could be blurry — like real professional photography!

For these photos I put away my DSLR and my nice L-series lens, and instead chose to use my “walking around” camera — a compact little Canon SD-1000 Elf with a built-in digital macro setting that would be perfect for getting up close and personal with the characters I wanted to highlight. I shot brides and grooms, belly dancers, religious icons, and all sorts of figures — all from a few inches away with a very shallow depth of field (focal length 5.8mm, aperture f/2.8). I was able to take each of these photos fairly quickly, spending not much more than a day or so shooting and adjusting the finished image, while retaining the conceptual and symbolic elements of my more elaborate images.

Staging for She who creates Good Fortune

Staging for She who creates Good Fortune

Above, you see the final staging for She who creates Good Fortune. Very simple. An album cover in the background, a stack of records in the foreground (actually balanced atop alphabet blocks in addition to the book you see), and a handful of objects used to tell the story. The whole scene, from back to front, is about 8 inches deep, with the dancer emerging from the stack of records about 4½ inches from the back. In front of everything is a crude tripod I built out of Legos to compose my shot and hold the camera steady.

IMG_0319As you can see in the photo on the left, the camera sits only a few inches from the action. Given the tight focal length and relatively large aperture, the depth of field is going to be very shallow — exactly what I was seeking to accomplish with this series of macro landscapes. Except…

For this particular photo that wasn’t what I wanted. Focusing on the artist in the center of the record brought her nicely into focus, but left the card she was painting — and even the paintbrush! — out of focus. Likewise, the card being laid down and the mouse were fuzzy, and I felt those elements of the image were just as important (symbolically) as the artist at the center.

So, it was back to my deep focus trick to mask out and combine the in-focus elements from multiple photos to construct a single image. Luckily, for this photo, I’d only have to worry about two images: one that held the foreground in focus and one that held the background in focus (or, actually, just the two farthest tarot cards — the album cover and Loteria blocks could remain out of focus). Easy, right?


Take a look at the two photos below: one focused at the center of the artist’s back, the other focused on the tarot card she is painting. Apart from the shifting of focus from the area around the artist to the area just beyond the artist, notice anything slightly peculiar?

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My deep focus trick relies on overlaying portions of one photo on top of another — provided all the photos are taken from exactly the same vantage point, something my professional tripod does quite well. A tripod made of Legos… not so much. So what you see above is a slight shift in vantage point as I moved the camera to alter the focus. And that means this when the two photos are laid one atop the other:

Foreground and background overlay

Foreground and background overlay — click to view larger image

Well now, THAT doesn’t look very good, does it?

What should have been an easy task of masking out the in-focus elements of the foreground and layering them over the background in one convenient step became a lot more challenging. If you look carefully at the image above you’ll see that the “difference ” (for lack of a better word) between the two images is not merely a simple (x,y) shift of a few pixels. The perspective has actually changed from one image to the next, though not a lot. Want some proof? Take a look at an actual size closeup of the overlay on the left side of the record label:

Photo overlay — left side detail

Photo overlay — left side detail

Note the position of each character in the word “Productions” from one image to the other. The base of the “P” is off by a little, with the better focused image a little higher and shifted a bit to the right. By the time you get to the “n” and the “s”, what had been a little change is noticeably larger. And if you scan all the way over to the right side of the record label…

Photo overlay — right side detail

Photo overlay — right side detail

Yikes! the difference is now very, very noticeable! So much for my plan to simply place pieces of the foreground over the background.

The solution?

Forcing square pegs into round holes

Yep, that’s pretty much what I had to do. Upon closely examining the foreground image I identified nine areas that could be carefully masked out and placed on top of the background, as you can see in the animation below (you can read about how to create brushed masked layers using Apple’s Aperture software here):

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Note that most of the masked layers have been carefully shaped to completely encircle a given region (say, text on the label) with the perimeter of the “puzzle piece” falling on an area of uniform color and texture, such as the brownish-orange of the record label. By creating the layers in this way, and feathering the edges, it became much easier to blend the top layer into the image beneath. In some cases (such as with the Wheel Of Fortune region, below), this wasn’t possible, and the puzzle piece had to cut through a “solid” object. Even in these cases, however, you’ll notice that the edge remains — as much as possible — within uniform regions of the masked layer (as below, across the field of blue on the tarot card).

Wheel of Fortune layer (detail)

Wheel of Fortune layer (detail)

Once all of the layers had been masked and output as transparent TIFFs, assembling the final image became an exercise of dropping puzzle pieces over the background and scooting them around until each was aligned (as closely as possible) with the background. The animation below illustrates how this was done for the text on the right side of the label, first moving it horizontally and vertically, then rotating the image ever so slightly to compensate for the change in perspective from one photo to the next (eyeballing the alignment, of course).

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I also had to slightly resize the layered image to match the height and width of the text in the underlying background. Because these photos were macro shots, the slightest difference in distance (and angle) of the lens to the objects from one photo to the next resulted in similar differences in what was captured by the camera. So, where the width of the phrase “IN THE SKY” might be w in the background photo, it might be w’ in the foreground photo requiring that the dimensions of layered “puzzle piece” be changed to match what it would be correcting. Optics! Cool! (Or not so cool…)

All told I created nine separate foreground layers to assemble the final image and achieve the look I had been seeking. To finish off the piece, I selectively erased some of the background yellow on the tarot card being “painted” to create the illusion of the artist adding the finishing touches on a new card of Good Fortune. Likewise, the surface of the card on the right was erased to give the appearance of a stack of blank cards waiting to be brought to life.

Yes, it was a lot more effort than I’d been anticipating, but I was more than happy with the results, and She who creates Good Fortune was one of the best received images in my summer solo show.

She who creates Good Fortune

She who creates Good Fortune

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Welcome to my third installment in this short series on how to create deep focus images using Aperture. Today we will finally get to all the gory details of dissecting differently focused photos to create a single image where every object in the frame is sharp as a proverbial tack.

Recall from Part 2 that this experiment resulted in 9 photos, each focused on a different part of the scene. From one photo to the next, at least some area of the image is perfectly sharp, while the rest of the photo may be terribly out of focus. Doesn’t it make sense that we could take just the in-focus parts, leaving out the out of focus parts, and construct a single image where everything is sharp and clear?

That’s just what we are going to do.

The Big Picture

Before we get started it’s a good idea to look at the Big Picture before diving into the details. We are basically going to constrct a jigsaw puzzle, where the “pieces” are oddly shaped portions of the nine photos we have shot. Our pieces won’t necessarily have the precision of a jigsaw, where edges align at tight, exacting borders, but they will cover every inch of the canvas and seamlessly fit together to “paint” the entire scene. Our eventual goal will be to create puzzle pieces like the one you see on the right, as transparent TIFF files that can be composited together using a third party application.

Analyzing the image and getting organized

Nine photos means nine copies of every object in the scene. For the photo we’ve been working on, Engine 316 takes a detour on the glorious path to the Hereafter, that means we have nine versions of each and every object in the scene—nine giant devil heads, nine bikini girls emerging from the earth, nine skulls atop the log cabin—but we really need only one. The sharpest one.

Every object appears in every photo — we have nine to choose from!

In preparing to slice and dice this photo into various puzzle pieces I first took a good hard look at the objects surrounding a given point of focus to determine which areas were in focus for that photo, and whether or not that object/area was in the sharpest focus across all nine images. For example, in the “puzzle piece” we examined previously, the AF point had been on the dress of the dancing girl. In examining this particular photograph, the dancing girl (of course) was in very sharp focus. And, as expected, many of the surrounding objects—those within the calculated range of acceptable focus (an inch or so)—were also at their sharpest.

A second very important consideration into building a focus stack is to understand how the objects in your scene stand in “z-order (oooo! ahhh!) relationship” to one another. That’s basically a fancy way of saying that some objects stand in front of others (e.g. the dancing girl on the right stands in front of the menacing devil). Understanding the three dimensional relationship between objects will help you plan how all these puzzle pieces will eventually be layered together.

Think of the objects in your scene as laying on a series of vertical planes or “focus layers.” The background is the farthest layer and stands farthest from your vantage point. In our example, the record album cover (Movin’ On To Victory by Tammy Faye Bakker) is farthest from the camera and—since album covers are nicely flat—is a layer all by itself. The log cabin is slightly closer to the camera, so it (and the figures atop and within) can be thought of as comprising the next closest layer. So too the large devil head which is affixed to the album cover using mounting putty. It’s a tiny bit closer to the viewer than the log cabin, and stands alongside a band of three merry devils, each roughly the same distance from the camera. So the devil head and the three musical devils make up the next closest layer. And so it goes as we inch closer and closer to our vantage point, identifying objects and areas of similar distance from where we stand as the viewer.

Why it is important to maintain background-to-foreground consistency will become more clear in a bit when it comes time to reassemble the image from all our puzzle pieces. For now, just plant the concept in your mind and hang tight!

In any case, after careful analysis of the scene and the photographs I had shot, I broke down the image into the areas you see circled below, as a means of organizing the work to come.

Breakdown of the image into similarly focused regions

I then created a folder for each area to be used as a workspace for generating the photo puzzle pieces, giving each a name like “Log Cabin” or “Devil Head” to help in identifying which objects I wanted that focus layer to include. The numbers that precede each folder name came later, after I had determined the back-to-front order of each layer. In any case, I now had a place to get to work!

Workspace folders for each differently focused area of the photo

Creating transparent focus layers using Aperture

As we saw earlier, our goal is to create transparent puzzle pieces. Strike that. We don’t actually want traditional puzzle pieces with hard edges that fit together like… well, a puzzle. What we want are pieces with soft, feathered, semi-transparent edges, so that the joining of two edges forms a nice, seamless, undetectable blend from one piece to the next. Seems like a job for Aperture’s adjustment brushes, which do an exceptionally nice job of creating soft, feathered edges.

Trouble is… Aperture lacks an “erase with transparency” brush, or any capability for exporting (or importing) images with transparency. That’s okay. With a little help, Aperture brushes can produce exactly what what we are after. The key will be to produce a mask that isolates only the in-focus portions of an image, then introduce that mask as the alpha channel of a TIFF or PNG file.

The steps for creating transparent layers using Aperture actually involve three different applications: Aperture, the Finder, and a third party graphics application that supports the creation of images with alpha channels. We’ll be going into each step in much greater depth than you see here, but a quick summary of process will help you see where we are headed:

In Aperture

  • Select the photo you wish to use as the source for your transparent image.
  • Export this image as an 8 bit TIFF to a folder on your Mac. We’ll call this your workspace.
  • Open an adjustment brick that you do not intend on enabling in adjustments made to this image. I use Black & White for this purpose.
  • Brush away the adjustment from the portions of the photo that are NOT to be included in your layer (i.e. brush away the transparent parts of the image).
  • Disable (but do not remove) the adjustment.
  • Quit Aperture.
In the Finder
  • Locate the adjustment brush that was just created using my technique for copying Aperture adjustment masks.
  • Copy the mask file to the workspace folder where you’d previously exported the unaltered image.
In a third party graphics application
  • Details will vary from application to application, but the basic strategy looks like this:
    • Open the TIFF image exported from Aperture.
    • Add an alpha channel to this image.
    • Open the mask file we’d copied into our workspace folder.
    • Copy the mask image.
    • Paste the mask into the alpha channel of the TIFF image.
    • Save the TIFF image.
    • Voila! We have a transparent TIFF that shows only the portions of the photo we wish to include in our focus layer.

That’s pretty much all there is to creating a single focus layer. Later, we’ll combine all of our layers to create a single composite image with everything in focus, but first we’ll walk through the steps above to create a “focus mask,” finding the mask we’ve just created, and using that mask along with the original photo to create a transparent layer.

Creating a focus mask in Aperture

We’ll use Aperture to create the alpha channel mask for the transparency layers that will be applied to each of the photos in our focus stack. Generating a mask is really easy, as Aperture creates masks when adjustments are brushed into or away from an image. Which adjustment doesn’t really matter, as we only care about the mask Aperture generates, and we will not be enabling the adjustment after our brushing is complete.

I chose to use the Black & White adjustment brush to define my focus masks, as I don’t generally apply this adjustment to any of my photos, and the effect of the Black & White adjustment contrasts nicely with the areas you wish to mask.

Let’s go to work!

We’re going to create masked layers from each of our separately focused photographs. The first one is easy—the background layer, which doesn’t actually require a mask since it will lay behind all of the other layers, and—except for the image of the album cover—will be overlaid by all our other layers. All we have to do is:

  • Select the photo shot with the focus on the album cover and export it as an 8-bit TIFF image. Easy!
Let’s move on to something a little more interesting: the photo taken with the focus on the devil playing the yellow wind instrument. This mask will be used to create our “Devil Head” layer, and—as we determined earlier—will include the three musicians and the large devil head on the front of the locomotive. The mask will not include any of the imagery behind the devils, as that part of the composition will be in better focus in the previously saved background layer.

We’ll edit the devil-focus photo by adding a Black & White adjustment.

  • Enable the Black & White adjustment brick
  • Select Brush Black & White Away and use the eraser to brush over the areas of this photo you want to be shown in the final image. In other words, you are brushing black and white out of the in-focus areas of the photo. This may be counter to what you would have expected, so a picture will surely help.

Color areas in focus; black and white out of focus

The image above was exported after brushing out the areas of the photo we don’t want to include in our focus mask. The in-focus area that will form the mask is shown in color, while the portions that remain in black and white are masked out.

Wow!! That was easy! How cool!

Don’t get too excited…. This is not your garden variety brushing.

Brushing to create focus masks

The strategy for using Aperture brushes to create a focus mask is not quite the same as what you would follow to brush in an image adjustment. Typically, when applying a brushed adjustment to an object, I meticulously fill the object right up to its edge, then feather the adjustment just inside the borders. But, remember, we’re not brushing in an adjustment. We’re defining an area of the photo that contains sharp focus, and—the way the eye perceives sharpness—the region we define must include the edges of objects contained within, plus a little bit of over-brushing that will be helpful in blending this layer with those that will lie below. So…

When erasing areas for your mask, brush beyond the edges of the objects you wish to include in the focus mask!

Zooming the above image to 100% illustrates how each of the four figures has been brushed to just beyond the edges (click to view at full size). Pay special attention to the area around the devil head, where you can see soft glimpses of color beyond the edges of the object.

Zoom at 100% revealing brushing beyond edges of focused objects

Brushing beyond the edges of the target objects is further illustrated by turning on Color Overlay. Here, it is very easy to see where the black and white adjustment has been brushed away, leaving the primary objects contained inside our focus mask, plus juuuuust a little of the background.

Color Overlay view revealing over-brush regions around focused objects

Zooming even closer to 200% (the magnification level I usually choose for fine brushing) reveals the feathering that has been applied to the edges of the Black & White adjustment.

Feathering zoomed to 200%

Feathering is greatest around the large devil head, and less pronounced around the smaller, more intricately shaped objects. The more gradual the feathering, the more gradual the transparency will be for this layer when we eventually blend the masked image with the imagery that rests below.

One last view at how our devil brush has been applied; this time taking a peek at the image with Brush Strokes enabled.

Brush Strokes view

Ah ha! Looks like a mask, doesn’t it? In fact, that’s exactly what it is, and by examining the brush strokes we’re able to determine whether or not brushing is complete. Remember, we’re intending this mask to be the alpha channel that defines the transparent regions of an image layer. White regions translate to areas of transparency (i.e. out of focus areas we don’t want to see), black regions will be opaque (and in focus!), fuzzy areas will be a little of both and will blend with the layer below. Close examination of the brush strokes will quickly identify any areas that are not fully opaque or fully transparent.

Quick note about how Aperture really works!
Aperture treats the white parts of a brush mask as the area over which an adjustment will be applied, so the black portions indicate areas where an image adjustment has been erased. This is exactly opposite of what you find when looking at the alpha channel of a TIFF or PNG file that contains transparency.

Once brushing is complete, we can dig into Aperture, retrieve the mask file, and use this mask as the alpha channel for a layer that has only the in-focus parts of the photo in view.

Retrieving the mask file

Several months back I wrote an article on how to find and copy Aperture adjustment brush masks, and we’ll be relying on that article quite heavily to generate the masks we’ll need to create our focus stackable puzzle pieces. Where that post dealt with copying brushes from one adjustment to another within Aperture, here we merely want to find the brush mask file and copy that file so it can be used as the alpha channel for a transparent image file. You can read all the details here: Aperture brushes unmasked! Since writing that previous post I’ve since committed the task of locating mask files inside the Aperture Library to a Saved Search, which finds any modifications I’ve made today and sorts them by modification date. The most recent brush adjustment will always be at the top.

Saved Search for brush masks generated in the Aperture Library

There it is!

Even though this mask was created with the Black & White adjustment tool, it’s really our focus mask. And once the mask has been located we can copy the file to the workspace we’re using to build this layer of our focus stack. The Finder window below shows the contents of this folder after the mask has been moved and renamed, alongside the full color 8-bit TIFF version of the photo exported from Aperture.

Devil Head workspace folder

With both the photo and the focus mask safe and secure in our workspace folder we can combine these two files to create a single file transparent layer.

Creating the layer using GraphicConverter

I’m going to use GraphicConverter to set the focus mask as the alpha channel for our focus layer. I image other graphics packages such as Gimp, or Photoshop, could serve this purpose equally well. We just require an application that allows for the editing of image alpha channels.

The steps to add, modify, and save an alpha channel in Graphic Converter are not immediately obvious, but once you’ve gone through the process a few times it (like anything that requires computational learning) becomes second nature. We’ll go through each of the steps and illustrate the process.

  • Open the TIFF file (Devil Head – Full Color.tiff) exported from Aperture.

8-bit TIFF of original photo opened in GraphicConverter

With this exported copy of the original photo open, an alpha can be added.

  • Choose Add Alpha/Mask Chanel from the Picture → Alpha Channel menu
Here’s where things get a little tricky, as by all outward appearances there’s no change to the image you see in the window. Trust me, though, an alpha channel has been added, but we’ll need to ask GraphicConverter to show it to us.
  • Choose Show Alpha Channel in new Window from the Picture → Alpha Channel menu

The default alpha channel... boring!

Well now, that wasn’t very interesting, was it? Black regions indicate areas of full opacity, and in this case—immediately after adding an alpha channel to an image—the entire image is opaque. We want to change the alpha channel to reflect the focus mask we created using Aperture.

  • Open the focus mask (Devil Head Mask.tiff) previously created by Aperture and copied to our workspace folder.

Devil Head Mask.tiff opened in GraphicConverter

This looks much more promising! We’ll copy this image and paste it into the alpha channel of the photo we exported from Aperture.

  • Choose Select All from the Edit menu.
  • Choose Copy from the Edit menu.
  • Select the window that contains Devil Head – Full Color.tiff alpha channel.
  • Choose Paste from the Edit menu.

You would think that with the black mask now replaced, we’d be done. Not so! As things stand, GraphicConverter treats the image we’ve pasted as an opaque black and white image that sits in the alpha channel. Black is black and white is white, and there is no transparency to be had! We need to turn the opaque black and white mask into an alpha mask with transparency.

  • With the content of the window still fully selected (choose Select All from the Edit menu if that is not the case), choose Create Alpha/Mask Channel from Selection from the Picture → Alpha Channel menu.

Alpha channel converted to provide transparency

Now, if you switch back to the window containing the original photo exported from Aperture, you’ll see our focus layer in all its transparent glory!

Original image now transformed into a focus layer with transparency

We can now Save As this image back to our workspace folder as an 8-bit TIFF file with transparency. We’ll call it Devil Head Layer.tiff to identify it as the layer of our focus stack that has only the four figures you see above in focus. If we open this file in Preview…

Demonic puzzle pieces!!

We’ll go through the process of creating transparent focus layers for each area of focus in the original photo, generating images like the one above for each. Once all our pieces are ready, we can start assembling the composite image.

Constructing a single in-focus image

We’ll use a third party application to combine all of our focus layers into a single image that has every object in sharp focus. Lots of graphic applications are capable of this task (GraphicConverter, Photoshop, Gimp, etc), so choose the application with which you are most comfortable. Just make sure it is capable of managing several layers of VERY LARGE images. In the case of the image we’ve been working with, I ended up with 10 layers, each of which was in excess of 34 to 40MB, so the final image weighed in at close to 400MB before it was flattened into a single layer.

If you’ve ever observed the way an artist constructs an oil painting, you’ll typically see him or her first painting in the background, then layering in foreground objects from back to front as the objects move closer and closer to the vantage point of the viewer. We’re going to do the exact same thing in building a single image from all of our layered puzzle pieces. Remember, as we were brushing the original images we made sure to include detail just beyond the edges of each object. By layering from back to front we insure that the sharply focused objects of a newly applied layer will always lie in front of objects that fall behind. We’ll illustrate these benefits in a moment.

The process for combining all the layers in a third party application are fairly straightforward:

  • Create a new document window.
  • Set the canvas size to match the dimensions of the photos exported from Aperture. In our case, we’ve been working with 3888 x 2592 pixel images.
  • Drag a focus layer from the workspace folder and drop it onto the canvas.
  • Set the position of the just dropped image to the origin, (0, 0).
  • Do the above for each of the focus layers.
  • Finally, export the combined image as a single 8-bit TIFF.

Normally, we’d lay down our background layer first, then apply all other layers atop this background. It’s good practice, however, to first skip the background layer and lay down all subsequent layers, one at a time against a white background to make sure that all the oddly shaped “puzzle pieces” fit together without gaps in between. Let’s take a closer look at this process by watching a quick animation of how the layers of our sample photo fit together.

Now, a stationary look at all the layers except the background.

Overlay of all layers but the background. Any unexpected white space?

Where you see white space the background layer will show through when we assemble the entire composite image from back to front. If white space is showing where you hadn’t planned on seeing the background, it’s time to go back to the brushing drawing board and adjust your focus masks. In preparing the layers for this photo, the initial composite construction revealed slight white gaps between many of the layers; primarily along the surface and faces of the record stacks. To correct those problems I went back into Aperture to alter the Black & White adjustment brushes so that my virtual puzzle pieces would overlap and blend correctly.

In the overlaid image above, the only white spaces we see are intended to peek through to either the background album cover, or the light tent (which will be cropped out of the final composite image).

Strange but true phenomenon!

Recall a statement I wrote much earlier in this series:

…and because the objects inside the light tent don’t move (ha! we’ll see about that…) capturing the images would be simple.

Well, in assembling this photo I discovered that the objects inside the light tent did move! In particular, the little tiny Dia De Los Muertos devil on the left had moved slightly. So too had the large devil head on the left. When overlaying their layers atop the background I discovered that the edges of those figures in the background where “bleeding through” the feathered edges of the foreground layer. Why? Because I light my photos with 1,500 watts flood lights, and—even though the complete photo session lasted no more than a minute—the heat generated by that much light does not agree particularly well with vinyl records and mounting putty!

To correct these very slight problems I offset the devil head layer by one pixel to perfectly align it with the background, and I extended the focus mask around the Dia De Los Muertos figure by just a bit to obscure the offset image that had been bleeding through from the background.

As you create your own deep focus images you’ll want to similarly examine the joining points of your layers and make slight adjustments to your focus masks to achieve a seamless blend between layers.

So… how does it look?

Actually… great!! Yes, it’s a lot of work, but the results are excellent. Remember the complex puzzle piece we saw at the beginning of this post? The one with all the fine brushing around the dancing girl? Here’s a detailed look at how that layer joins to the log cabin layer that lies beneath.

Detail of the joining point between two layers at 100%

The layer blend around the dancing girl and the referee’s flag are perfect. Even at 200% magnification it’s very difficult to see where one layer ends and the next begins. Here’s a 200% zoom of the Dancing Girl layer, focusing only on the area around her outstretched left arm.

200% magnification of the Dancing Girl layer

Now, the same area of the photo after it has been layered on top of the Log Cabin layer.

Detail of the joining point between two layers at 200%

Even at 200% zoom it is very difficult to see, exactly, where one layer ends and the next begins, but objects in both layers are in sharp focus—which is exactly what we want!

Making image adjustments to focus stack images

There are (at least) two strategies that can be used in making adjustments to images created using my focus stack technique.

    1. Individual photos can be transformed into layers (i.e. our puzzle pieces) without any adjustments, combined, then imported back into Aperture as a single TIFF image. The TIFF image can then be adjusted to create the final image.
    2. Each photo can be separately adjusted, then transformed into a layer, with the final image composed outside Aperture.

I actually used a combination of these strategies in creating Engine 316 takes a detour on the glorious path to the Hereafter. Each of the nine original photos were given the same adjustments for Exposure, Levels, and a few other things that I knew would apply to the whole photo, independent of any single object or area. Photos were then individually adjusted where objects within that photo could benefit from specific brushed improvements (Noise Reduction, Colors, Vibrancy, Definition, Retouching, etc…). After the layers were combined, I imported the resulting TIFF file back into Aperture where the final image was cropped and a vignette was added.

The final result with everything in focus.

Engine 316 takes a detour on the glorious path to the Hereafter

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short series on how to use Aperture brushes to create deep focused images, and I hope you’re inspired to see what you can do to extend the capabilities of the tools we’ve been given to improve our photos.

Please let me know if you have questions. I’ll do my best to clarify things were I can!

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[Updated 4-4-12 with a short note on focusing options]

In our previous post I presented a lot of background information about the process I use to take my photos, and a problem that arose with a recent session where the stage I had constructed exceeded the limits available to my lens to achieve satisfactory focus. To circumvent the problem I decided to experiment with focus stacking, and see if it would be possible to create a single, seamless image from a series of separately focused photographs.

Going in, I had it in my head that I would take 9 separate photos—one at each of the nine auto-focus (AF) points supported by my camera, a Canon XTi. Each of these photos would, therefore, be focused on a different area of the target scene, and (in theory) I’d be able to somehow mask and layer these images in post production to create a single image where every object would be in sharp focus.

Since I shoot my images from a camera mounted on a tripod, and because the objects inside the light tent don’t move (ha! we’ll see about that…) capturing the images would be simple. I used an aperture of f/9 for each photo, set the camera to auto exposure, and carefully reselected nothing more than the AF point from one photo to the next. While I could have chosen a larger aperture to insure even greater sharpness at the point of focus, I decided to go with the much more conservative f/9, as my lens works very nicely at that setting, and—fearful of going too shallow—I wanted a reasonable amount of depth at each AF point, which I theorized would make the post production effort to seamlessly combine the images a little more forgiving.

The image below illustrates the nine AF points as viewed through the camera’s viewfinder. You can click on the image to see a larger view and better distinguish each point of focus.

AF points using a Canon XTi (click for a larger view)

As you can see, focus points fell on:

  • The train in the very back
  • The woman standing at the base of the log cabin
  • The dancing girl on the right
  • The “lizard woman” just below and to the left of the dancing girl
  • The “scorpion woman” emerging from the records at the bottom center
  • The “snake woman” at the left center
  • The middle devil playing the yellow-ish horn
  • The leg of the woman in blue (Tammy Faye!) riding the train
  • The right hand of the girl emerging from the record hole at the center of the composition

Note that two of the 9 AF points fell on the record album, while none fell on any of the objects that were closest to the camera. This was an unfortunate residual effect of the stage construction and the vantage point from which I chose to shoot the photos. The points falling on the record album are on the same plane, farthest from the camera, so I’d only need one when it came time to eventually create my focus stack. The objects in the foreground that fall below the lowest AF point would be slightly more problematic.

The photo above was taken with the AF point set to the top middle, falling on the people sitting inside the train. It is worth zooming in to see how the image is focused at this point relative to other areas of the photo:

Left: Detail at AF point
Right: Detail at foreground, far from AF point

At the point of focus everything is nice and sharp, while in the foreground 14 or 15 inches away from the AF point the image is unacceptably blurry. That’s okay, of course, since in post production the blurry part of the photo will be replaced by in-focus imagery from a completely different photo.

Recall that the objects in the foreground (like that very blurry “spider woman” above) did not have the good fortune of falling within any of the AF points supplied by my camera. We’ll pause momentarily while those of you with superior camera equipment snicker.

::: snicker! :::


Okay, back to my nine measly AF points. To bring the “spider woman” and other foreground objects into focus I took one extra photo with the AF point on the “scorpion woman” at the bottom of the photo, though for this photo I set the aperture to f/18 to get better near focus depth.

Focus on “scorpion woman” at f/18 to bring foreground into focus

Though I’d wanted to keep the aperture constant throughout the stack of photos, I really didn’t have any choice on the foreground image, as f/9 would provide only about an inch and a quarter of acceptable focus in front of the point of focus; roughly from the face of the “scorpion woman” to the right (hidden) side of the “spider woman.” At f/18 I was able to extend the near focus to almost two and a half inches, bringing nearly everything in the foreground into an acceptable range of focus. Yes, by deviating from the aperture used in all the other photos I’d face some other challenges during post production, but I found this to be an acceptable tradeoff.

It was my choice to use each of the nine AF points as the basis for my focus stack, as it suited the composition of this particular photo . You may do just as well choosing to use only two or three points of focus, depending on the conditions of the scene you are shooting. The techniques we’ll discuss in part three will work just as well with a stack of three photos as they will with a stack of 9 or 27. Also (and this did not occur to me at the time), I could have brought the extreme foreground imagery into focus my using the often ignored manual focusing controls of my camera. Tsk, tsk, tsk… I rely too much on auto this and auto that.

Stay tuned for Part Three of the series where we’ll dive headlong into the post production lunacy that is creating a single image from 9 separately shot and edited photos in Aperture.

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I’m sure you’ve all seen those fancy HDR photographs of ominous clouds, imposing buildings, and rapturous sunsets. They are all the rage and all over the internet. The basic technique is simple: take several shots of the same scene, each at different exposure values, and use some specialized software to layer all these images together to create a single image that brings out the most dramatic lighting aspects from each of the individual photos.

That’s not what this post is about.

This post is about focus.

I’m paranoid about focus. I use a super steady tripod. Mirror locking. A remote shutter release. I wait 5 or 10 seconds after the mirror has dropped to insure that no lingering vibrations are present. I listen for passing cars and planes passing overhead. I wait for complete quiet and, still, I hold my breath. Only then do I release the shutter for the split second it will take to capture my image with a minimum of interference. Even then, I go through the same process a second time, just in case I missed anything that might bring the slightest bit of vibration into the equation. I don’t know, maybe I somehow made the lens move with an impure thought.

One day I was thinking about HDR photography, and the potential for using similar concepts to create deeply focused images. If an single image could be created from multiple exposures, why not a single image from multiple photos taken with different focusing? After a bit of research I discovered that the technique I was pondering is called “focus stacking,” which is frequently used in macro photography. Moreover, as expected, software packages exist for the sole purpose of stitching together deeply focused images from multiple shots.

That’s nice, but I prefer doing things myself. Besides, I didn’t have an immediate need to focus stack, so I placed it on a back burner where it could get a few cycles of my brain now and then in the event that I’d ever need (or want) to conduct an experiment.

And that’s what this post is about: developing a DIY technique for building a focus stack from Aperture, Apple’s high end photo processing software.

The Background

I’ll be the first to admit that I am a different type of photographer. I don’t take pictures of people or trees, ferris wheels or stunning sunsets. I don’t go on exotic shoots, take vacations, or ask loving couples to “look serious but in love.” No, I don’t do any of that.

I take conceptual photos of bizarre scenes I build myself from records, books, toys and interesting objects inside a 30″ light tent in my studio. This, of course, is quite fun! It’s also quite challenging. You see, I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and I want every object in the frame to be as sharp and in focus as possible. In developing my style I’ve always preferred to maintain deep focus from foreground to back, as my photos are filled with lots of small, relevant details that act as clues in deciphering the story being told. This can be devilishly hard to do when shooting a fairly deep scene from a close, low angle. My solution is usually to focus on an object somewhere near the middle of the scene using a calculated depth-of-field, and shoot a half dozen shots using a different aperture value for each. I then select the shot that brings the most objects into focus, and use that as my master for all image adjustment.

Hey! Why don’t you just choose a smaller aperture like f/18 and increase the exposure? That’s Photography 101 for increasing depth of field!

True! Of course, I’ve never taken a photography class and I just barely know how to use one third of the settings on my camera, so I just go with “what looks good to me.” While a small aperture might deliver an image that is, technically, “in focus” from foreground to back, at no point is the sharpness as sharp as the sharpest objects when taking the same photograph at a much larger aperture. This may not be true for an image you take outside at a distance, but it most definitely is when shooting in my studio, so I’m not a big fan of aperture values above f/14.

Enter, the scene that’s just too deep for one point of focus

Recently, I completed work on a new photo, Engine 316 takes a detour on the glorious path to the Hereafter, a piece that spent several weeks set up in the light tent while I constructed the stage, worked on the composition, and finalized placement of all the figures and objects. A photo of the staging is below, taken from well above the point at which I intended to set up the camera.

Staging for "Engine 316 takes a detour on the glorious path to the Hereafter"

The camera was placed just outside the light tent at a height somewhat below the two Lego “towers” (functioning here as stands for two spot penlights illuminating the kewpie dolls standing inside the log cabin on the right).

The light tent is 30 inches wide at its base, and the scene being captured fills a great deal of that space. The width, however was not the problem. The greater challenge was the depth of the scene which, from the record cover in the back to the “scorpion woman” in the right foreground is approximately 17 to 18 inches. Under most conditions, 14 or 15 inches of depth would be no big deal, but when the camera is to be placed 19 or 20 inches from point of focus (the “scorpion woman” emerging from the records at the center of the shot)… you have a huge, almost insurmountable problem!

Initial attempts to set a single auto-focus point, or multiple evaluative focus points failed to bring enough of the scene into sharp focus, and with good reason. According to depth-of-field calculations, the best I’d be able to expect with a 36 mm focal length from my shooting vantage point was about 5 or 6 inches of depth before the focus began to noticeably break down. Sure, I could have decreased the focal length to increase the depth of field, but this would have altered the photo in two ways. One, the scene would no longer “fill the frame,” as the lens would have effectively been pulled back from the point of focus, thereby limiting my ability to print the scene as large as possible. Two, small changes in focal length alter the perspective of the shot, so when the focal length changes, so too does the position of each figure relative to all the other figures; an effect that is magnified when shooting from very close to your subject.

I saw this photo as a perfect opportunity to experiment with the concepts I was still mulling over for creating focus stacks from within Aperture.

In subsequent installments over the next few days we’ll discuss how the photo was eventually shot, and how I was able to successfully construct a deeply focused image from multiple images exported from Aperture.

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This post is a long and perilous journey into the technical abyss! If you’re currently grinding towards a deadline on a crucial project, and simply must know how to put an image on the back page of an Apple “mini book” RIGHT NOW, scroll down to Creating Custom Book Themes where all the technical step-by-step stuff begins. Alas, you’ll miss out on all the entertaining background minutia, and my usual distractible writing. Hey, I’ve been there too! So come back later and re-read for your enjoyment!

Download my custom book theme that supports back pages for mini books:

Custom Mini Book Theme


Several months back I took a break from my usual ramblings on art, music, and pop culture to write an exhaustively long post on how to copy and reuse adjustment brush masks in Aperture, Apple’s high end photo management software. That post was born from my frustration with what I perceived to be a sorely missing feature in Aperture, and has proven to be wildly successful with photographers who, like me, spend ungodly hours fine tuning every last visual aspect of the images they capture.

Being an engineer by training, it has long been my belief that anything is possible; it’s all just software. Send a man to the moon—software. Rig a presidential election in a third world country—software. Time travel is within our grasp. It’s all just software.

Brief aside, just to prove a point
Take the horror classic, The Fly (either the 1958 original, or the 1986 remake starring Jeff Goldblum). How do you think he made all that magical atoms-flying-through-thin-air teleportation possible? Software! And why did he end up becoming a mutated half-man half-fly? Yes, that’s right! It was clearly a software bug (no pun intended). With just one line of code, disaster could have been averted!

if (species(sourcePod) > 1 && any(species(sourcePod)) == FLY)

So, yeah, software. If Apple’s software doesn’t do what I want… I’ll just figure out how it works and see if I can come up with a creative solution to make it perform as I wish.

Recently, I had yet another occasion to devise a workaround to a limitation in Aperture, and I thought I’d share it with the rest of the digital photo community. This little bit of software mayhem involves the design and customization of Aperture book themes. By no means, though, is this going to be an exhaustive study on the subject, but it will hopefully provide you with just enough information about how the themes work and can be modified. Moreover, my example will show you how to do something not otherwise possible with Apple’s built-in themes: produce mini books with custom back covers.

The background

Deluxe Edition box cover

Over the past couple of months I’ve been working on producing a Deluxe Edition package for Plastic Prophets of Vinyl Redemption, the digital coffee table book of my photography I created for the iPad. The deluxe package delivers the digital book on a flash drive worn around the neck of a kewpie doll packaged inside a custom designed box. A bunch of additional features are also stored on the flash drive and included inside the box: PDFs, desktop patterns, stickers, a COA, and other things. One of the extra special features is a limited edition 32 page “mini book” containing many of the full page images from the digital book. I used Aperture to design the mini books, which Apple prints at 3.5 x 2.6 inches with a soft bound, wraparound cover. Cool, right?

Well… almost.

You can have any back cover you want… as long as it is white. Ugh!

In designing the mini book to accompany the deluxe edition of Plastic Prophets, I was disappointed to discover that the one and only Small Book theme does not allow customization of the book’s back cover. Most other themes provide this capability, either by setting the front cover to be a two page spread (back on the left, front on the right), or providing a dedicated Back Cover page as the last page layout in the book. No such luck when laying out a small book! By default, the layout of the front page consists of a large photo occupying the upper three fourths of the cover, with space below to provide a title on a white background. Kind of boring, but like any page in Aperture’s book design interface, the layout can be modified in all kinds of way: photo cells can be resized, text boxes can be changed, and the background of the page can be set to a different color (though, alas, not in the Small Book theme).

For my book, I removed the title field and expanded the photo box to fill the page. I then dropped in my cover page, which I had designed in another application and previously imported into Aperture as a large JPEG.

Small Book - cover layout

To the left is a screen capture showing the initial cover page in place. The arrow points to the disclosure triangle that, when clicked, normally displays a popup menu of the cover layout choices for the current book theme. However, no matter how hard you press, no matter how long you hold down the Control key, and no matter how much you wish and hope… there’s no way to get the Small Book theme to show the popup that would otherwise allow you to select a different cover page layout.

And that’s because…

There are no additional cover layout options for the Small Book theme!

Likewise, scroll to the bottom of the page list where, in other themes, you are able to select the last page in your book and choose from one or more back cover layouts, and you discover that the last page in the list is just that… a normal page; the last to be printed inside the book before what you had hoped to be a custom back page. No way to change that in Apple’s Small Book theme. Boo! Hiss!

Last page layout options — no back cover!

Resigned to these limitations, I went ahead and ordered the requisite 3-pack. I mean, no back cover is better than no book at all, right? Here’s the set of books as they arrived from Apple (love the little individually wrapped plastic pouches!).

Mini books using Apple's default Small Book theme

The books are, of course, very nicely printed, and look great inside and ou- Oh, wait… Okay, they look great inside, and they look half-great outside. That bare back page just looks so ridiculously incomplete! Agree? Of course you do! Wouldn’t the book look so much better with a printed back cover? Again, you agree! And so I put the now seldom used engineering part of my brain to work figuring out how I could get Aperture and Apple to put something wonderful on that frustratingly vacant back page.

The failed workarounds

Before we get to the “How I Did It” good stuff (and feel free to scroll down to the discussion of how to create custom book themes), let’s take a look at some of my failed attempts to print on the back cover, and perhaps learn something about how Aperture books work.

It’s obvious that Apple’s print labs have the capability of printing on the back cover, as that feature exists for all other softcover book sizes. In fact, Aperture actually generates a back cover for small softcover books—it’s simply blank. Let’s take a peek at the PDF.

PDF generated by Aperture for the Small Book theme

Ah ha! See that? The first page of the PDF generated by Aperture is a double-wide page that combines your illustrated front cover with a blank back cover, which will be printed on a single 7.59″ x 2.75″ sheet of paper that wraps around the interior pages to form the front and back covers—just like we saw in the printed test books.

Wait a second! 7.59 inches?!?! Isn’t that a LOT wider than two small pages?

Yep! We’ll have more to say on that intriguing topic in a bit, but first, let’s consider the PDF. If this is the source delivered to Apple and subsequently fed into their printers, doesn’t it make sense that an image placed on the left side of that looooooong page would also be printed? I mean—come on!—it’s the same piece of paper! Right?

My first thought to force Apple to print a back cover was to intercept the PDF file at the Preview Book stage, modify the first page of the PDF with a back cover image, replace the PDF in its super secret temporary folder, and then allow Aperture to blissfully continue with the Buy Book process. Brilliant!

Except… it didn’t work.

Oh yes, Aperture dutifully uploaded my Franken-PDF to Apple’s print servers, where it was summarily rejected with an email claim of “a problem with my order.” I tried all kinds of things to get the servers to accept a modified PDF file: simply annotating the back cover space, deleting a page, changing the file’s modification date, and more. But every attempt resulted in a failed order.

Aperture itself seemed to be happy with my changes, with the failures always coming on the back end. As near as I can tell (and I didn’t go to the trouble of confirming this 100%, so take my theory with a grain of salt) Aperture likely tells the print service, “Hey! I’m about to send you a big ol’ file, and that file is EXACTLY 42 bazillion and 12 bytes long!” The print service gets all happy, makes room for a gigantic file, and waits for all that glorious book data to arrive. The print service (though generally happy) is also more than a little inflexible and insists that the file it receives is precisely the length that Aperture told it to expect. One byte too many, one byte too few; and the print service becomes annoyed, assuming that Something Bad Happened™ when Aperture tried to deliver the book over the sometimes flakey internet. Basically, this is standard Computer Science 101, protecting the customer from receiving something they had not expected.

Theories aside, this meant was that Apple’s print service would only accept a modified PDF file if the length of the file was exactly the same as the PDF originally generated by Aperture. And good luck modifying a PDF without changing the file size…

Back to the drawing board…

If the PDF could not be changed it only made sense that a better workaround would be to somehow get Aperture to generate a PDF with a back cover for me. The pesky print service would be no wiser, and—hopefully—would print an image in the space reserved for the blank back cover.

Digging into Book Themes (AKA — The Good Stuff)

For this example I’m going to create a new version of Apple’s one-and-only “mini book” theme, Small Book, adding the otherwise missing ability to layout back cover designs. As you might suspect, Aperture stores its book themes inside the application package.

  • Open the Finder and locate the Aperture application
  • Select the Aperture application and control-click to show the pop-up menu of things you can do with the selected file
  • Choose Show Package Contents from the pop-up menu to open the folder containing the package contents of Aperture

Package Contents of the Aperture application

The themes are stored a couple of directories deep within this folder, but not far:

Contents : Resources : Book Themes

Book Themes folder inside the Aperture application package

And there they are!

Each folder contains the collection of book sizes that can be designed using that particular theme. So, for example, if you peek into Art Collection you’ll find three folders:


Each folder contains the set of files that together define the features and layout options that are available when designing a book of that theme and size. If you were to create an extra large book based on the Art Collection theme, the features of the theme and your design options will be dictated by the files inside Art Collection : ExtraLarge.

Aperture recognizes that a particular book size is available for a given theme based on the presences of these folder names. In addition to the three standard sizes noted above, one more special folder name is available to identify support for Apple’s small books:


Only one book theme includes a Mini folder, that being Mini Picture, and that’s exactly where we’ll find the definition files for the Small Book theme. To be on the safe side, we’ll copy Mini Picture to a safe location outside the Aperture package where we can more easily make changes. This copy of Mini Picture (which we’ll call Custom Mini Picture) will be the basis for our brand new book theme that will support back cover layouts.

Anatomy of a theme folder

Let’s take a look at the files and folders contained inside the root directory of Mini. Remember, our focus is going to be on providing support for back cover layouts, so we’ll talk about the folder contents in three parts: Image Files, Nice To Know, and The Essentials. That’s right, the first two sections don’t really play a role in customizing the back cover, so feel free to skim your way down to those juicy essentials. Or, stick around for a quick introduction to other aspects of theme customization.

Contents of a theme folder

Image Files

Preview.tiff is an image file Aperture displays in the Theme picker dialog to illustrate how books created with this theme will appear when printed. Similarly, Thumbnail.tiff is used by the Theme picker to represent the book in the list of book themes. You can provide your own TIFF images with these names to give your book a custom look in the theme picker. I left these images untouched in my custom theme, choosing instead to distinguish my theme simply by its name.

Nice To Know


These three files allow you to define the default appearance of various book design capabilities such as EXIF display formats, photo color washes, and (duh) text styles. For example, if your theme would benefit from images that sport overly saturated colors, you could add a new item to the Photo Filter popup by modifying the contents of PhotoFilters.plist. We’ll save the details of how to do this for another post!

Aperture provides further theme customization opportunity via an additional set of files and folders in the root folder of a theme (though not present in Apple’s Small Book theme). These customizations include definitions for background colors, picture frames, and other graphic elements. Like the filter, format and text styles above, we’re going to defer in-depth discussion for a future post.

The Essentials

Where better to begin a conversation about theme files, than with a file called Theme.plist? Promising, no? Every theme variation (Extra Large, Large, Medium, etc) includes a Theme.plist file that provides a dictionary of essential information about the theme in XML format. Required dictionary terms and their associate data type, include:

version (integer)

Basic source control, and usually set to 1, though if changes are made to a theme this number would be changed.

type (sting)

Identifies the book size defined by this theme. Recognized values include:

    • ExtraLarge (for Extra Large books)
    • Standard (for Large books)
    • Medium (for Medium books)
    • Mini (for Small books)

Theme.plist also includes terms that dictate the placement of page numbers (pageNumberMargin), as well as those that identify default settings for the text style and EXIF formatting items discussed above under “Nice To Know” (defaultTextStyle and defaultInfoFormat, respectively). Browsing around Apple’s collection of themes and you’ll also encounter items that specify map styles (defaultMapStyle in the Photo Essay and Journal themes), prevent photo frames from being resized (disableFrameScaleAndRotation) and… well, there’s a dictionary item called size that remains a bit of a mystery.

All well and good.

Excerpt of the Theme.plist file for Large Picture Book

Much more relevant to our goal of creating back covers for mini books is the rest of the file, which serves as a table of contents for the various page layouts available under this theme. Note the specific use of the term “table of contents.” While a quick scan of the file reveals all kinds of page-related information, these terms are by no means a complete list of all the page layouts supported by the theme; that information appears elsewhere, and will be discussed below. Rather, this data serves as a guide to various groupings of related layout types, that make up various sections of the a book or Aperture’s book design user interface. These groupings include:


Each of these sections is expressed as an array of strings that identify page layouts the user can choose from when designing that particular part of his or her book. repeatingPages and orderedPages are somewhat special, as they define sets of pages used by the Aperture UI when constructing the initial layout of a book. We mention these special terms only to contrast with how cover pages are treated in Theme.plist. Though most themes support a variety of cover layout designs, the dictionary entry for cover pages is not specified as an array of strings. To illustrate, let’s take a look at the cover page definition for the Small Book theme:

<key>frontSoftcover</key> <string>01_Cover</string>

You might think that makes perfect sense, as the Small Book theme provides only one cover layout and—as we know—no customizable back cover. What about a more a more capable theme? Picture Book supports two front cover layouts and two back cover layouts, so let’s take a look at Theme.plist for that theme:

<!-- Default SoftCover pages -->
<key>frontSoftcover</key> <string>01_FrontSoftCover</string>
<key>backSoftcover</key> <string>01_BackSoftCover</string>

That’s it. Only two of the four layouts is defined, and neither dictionary item is an array of XML terms. Aperture possesses lots of internal logic for the treatment of covers, and relies on the presence of frontSoftcover and backSoftCover to define the structural “root” for those book elements.

We’ll get back to Theme.plist in a moment to begin making changes for our custom theme. First, though, to dig a little deeper into the anatomy of Aperture page layouts, let’s continue examining the contents of the theme folder.


Inside the theme folder you’ll notice a handful of language specific folders for English, French, German, Japanese, and Chinese:

zh _CN.lproj

Each of these folders contains a single file—Localizable.strings—that Aperture uses within its user interface to communicate information back to the user in his or her chosen language.

Yay! Translation! Good stuff!

You might assume that this file is inconsequential when extending the design capabililites of an existing theme. You would be woefully wrong! While the file does contain language translations, it is also used to define various theme capabilities, including available background colors, filters, photo frames, and… page layout options.

Near the bottom of the file you’ll find a series of string definitions that identify the types of page layouts that can be specified when using this theme. For Small Book, these definitions look like this:

Page layout popup

pages.01_Cover = "Cover";
pages.02_Title = "Title";
pages.03_Photo = "1-up";
pages.04_Photo_Full = "1-up Full";
pages.05_Photo_Spread = "1-up Spread";
pages.06_Blank = "Blank";

You should immediately recognize the strings on the right side of each definition as text that appears in the popup menu when changing page layouts, as illustrated in the example to the right. You’ll also notice that a portion of the left side, 01_Cover, matches what we saw in the frontSoftcover term in the Theme.plist file.

This is where things get interesting, and just a little bit murky…

Page names inside book themes

Aperture page layouts are specified in Localizable.strings by string identifiers of the form:

pages.nn_xxxxxxx = text string;

Where ‘nn’ is a two digit number, and ‘xxxxxx’ is a name to this page. The ‘xxxxxx’ name component of the identifier is especially interesting, as it maps directly to a corresponding plist file in the theme’s Pages folder. The plist file contains the default layout for that specific page in XML format. Let’s compare the identifiers in the Small Book theme to the contents of the Pages folder:

Pages folder for the Small Book Theme

The mapping, therefore, of page layout identifiers to page layout files, looks like so:

pages.01_Cover ➞ 01_Cover.plist
pages.02_Title ➞ 02_Title.plist
pages.03_Photo ➞ 03_Photo.plist
pages.04_Photo_Full ➞ 04_Photo_Full.plist
pages.05_Photo_Spread ➞ 05_Photo_Spread.plist

Astute readers will notice that there is no corresponding plist file for the identifier, pages.06_Blank, which otherwise appears in the Localizable.strings file. As you might guess, there’s generally no need to define a page layout when that page is intended to be blank… as long as the pages of your book are white! Some book themes (notably, Stock Black) include a layout for blank pages, if only to specify that the background color of that page is black. Even though a page layout file may not be necessary, an identifier for blank pages should still be included in Localizable.strings to provide that menu option when laying out a book—and Aperture applies its own internal logic to do “all the right things” with blank pages.

Continuing our peek at the Small Book theme and working backwards from the “Cover” item in the page layout popup:

“Cover” ➞ pages.01_Cover ➞ 01_Cover.plist

Which is where we can find the XML code that produces the default cover page layout for the Small Book theme.

Where do these page layout identifiers come from?

The format of the page layout identifiers is very important, and seems to dictate how Aperture will apply logic to the availability of each page layout as a book is being designed. Exactly how this logic is applied and how the desired behavior dictates the name and number components of an identifier remains a bit of a mystery. I suspect that the relationship is somehow defined in portions of the application I’ve as yet been unable to explore. In any case, my experience has shown that there is a fairly strict set of identifiers, and the page definition strings in custom themes must match these identifiers exactly.

Page identifiers for cover layouts

Luckily, defining page definition strings for front and back covers is fairly straightforward, following a (mostly) predictable pattern, and that will suit us just fine in our effort to create back covers for Apple’s mini books. From the examination of other softcover themes, Aperture offers two front cover layout variations, two back cover variations, and a single front’n’back wraparound spread. There are additionally a handful of theme-specific (and mostly legacy) cover layouts that don’t follow the general pattern we’ll discuss here, as well as a fairly robust suite of variants for laying out front and back cover flaps (which apply to only hardcover books).

Most every book theme provides the following list of page layout definition strings for the design of softcover books:

pages.01_FrontSoftCover = "Front Soft Cover - Default";
pages.01_BackSoftCover = "Back Soft Cover - Default";
pages.02_FrontSoftCoverBleed = "Front Soft Cover - Bleed";
pages.02_BackSoftCoverBleed = "Back Soft Cover - Bleed";
pages.03_SpreadSoftCover = "Spread Soft Cover";

However, as we just saw, Apple’s Small Book theme defines its covers differently:

pages.01_Cover = "Cover";

No back cover, no two-page spread option. No wonder you’re not able to design a back cover!

Creating Custom Book Themes — Let’s make changes!

Okay! Time to start making changes! Remember, we’re working on a copy of the Mini Picture theme, which we’ve renamed Custom Mini Picture. Let’s start by making changes to Theme.plist. Recall that this theme includes only a single cover dictionary term:

 <key>frontSoftcover</key> <string>01_Cover</string>

For our modified theme we want to introduce back cover layouts, and provide a wider selection of choices when designing front covers (including a two-page front’n’back wrap). So let’s bring our Custom Mini Book up to par with other softcover books. In Theme.plist we’ll replace the above front cover term with terms for both the front and back covers. We’ll also add a little documentation, because documentation is good!

<!-- Default SoftCover pages --> 
<key>frontSoftcover</key> <string>01_FrontSoftCover</string>
<key>backSoftcover</key> <string>01_BackSoftCover</string>

Notice that we are also changing the string for the frontSoftcover to match the nomenclature used by other themes. Like documentation, consistency is also good!

Those are the only changes required to Theme.plist. Save your work, and we’ll next redirect our attention to Localizable.strings. The first modification we’ll make is to the theme name.

At the very top of the file you’ll find:

/* Theme Name */
ThemeName = "Small Book";

This string is the name of your theme as it will appear in the Aperture theme picker dialog. To distinguish our custom theme from the original theme, let’s change this string:

/* Theme Name */
ThemeName = "Small Book with Back Cover";

Next, we’ll modify the page definition strings to include a set of definitions that will support a variety of front and back cover layouts. We’ll replace the default cover:

/* Pages */
pages.01_Cover = "Cover";
pages.02_Title = "Title";
pages.03_Photo = "1-up";

With the full list of five cover choices supported by other themes:

/* Pages */
pages.01_FrontSoftCover = "Front Soft Cover - Default";
pages.01_BackSoftCover = "Back Soft Cover - Default";
pages.02_FrontSoftCoverBleed = "Front Soft Cover - Bleed";
pages.02_BackSoftCoverBleed = "Back Soft Cover - Bleed";
pages.03_SpreadSoftCover = "Spread Soft Cover";
pages.02_Title = "Title";
pages.03_Photo = "1-up";

Notice that we have completely eliminated 01_Cover, replacing it with the more standard 01_FrontSoftCover, while adding in several additional cover variants. That’s all that we need to change in Localizable.strings. Once again, don’t forget to save your work! We”ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to make similar modifications for each of the language specific files included in the theme folder. 🙂

Making modifications inside the Pages folder

We can now focus our attention on the page layouts for each of our five new cover variations. As we saw earlier, the layout for each page available in a given theme is stored in the Pages folder. For the lone cover provided by Apple’s Small Book theme there was only one file, 01_Cover.plist, but as we saw above, we’ve changed instances of 01_Cover to 01_FrontSoftCover. We’ll likewise need to replace 01_Cover.plist with a new file, 01_FrontSoftCover.plist so that Aperture will be able to find our layout modifications.

01_Cover.plist file name changed to 01_FrontSoftCover.plist

Let’s venture inside the file for a peek at how page layouts are structured. We won’t be making many changes, as we want to retain the default front cover layout in our custom theme. We will, however, use this opportunity to explore the file, and make note of several important highlights.

Page layout for the default front cover

The default front cover is a typical XML file containing dictionary terms that define the physical layout of customizable elements, such as placeholders for photos and editable text field. At the top of the file is the one XML term we plan on changing:

<key>type</key> <string>Cover</string>

As you would guess, we’ll update this term to mimic the name that now identifies the default front cover in Localizable.strings:

<key>type</key> <string>FrontSoftCover</string>

The remainder of the file consists of a single dictionary element that defines an array of customizable UI components. For the default front cover, these elements consist of a front cover photo, plus a text field for the book’s title. Each array element is itself a dictionary of terms that define where this UI object will appear and how it is to be displayed. Most of these terms are fairly straightforward and provide a lot of flexibility in laying out the default UI for a page:

type (string)
Specifies the type of UI object defined by this element. Values include:


identifier (integer)
Identifies this UI object on the page. I’m assuming that the identifier is intended to be unique and sequential, as this is the case for most other themes. This value is not unique, however, for the UI elements in the cover layout file of the Small Book theme. Apple sets the identifier value to 1 for both the photo cell and title text field, so I left these values unchanged in my custom theme.

size (string)
Specifies the width and heigh of the object, expressed in inches: [width, height]

Specifies an anchor point for the UI object—i.e. “the top left corner of the object is at….” Aperture will render the UI element relative to this specified point. The location is expressed in absolute coordinates with the origin at the lower left corner of the page. Again, values are expressed in inches as: [x, y].

The above terms may appear in the dictionary for any UI object. TextField objects are extra special, possessing an additional set of terms for specifying the style, alignment and default contents of text:

style (string)
Specifies a name term found in the TextStyles.plist file that identifies the default style to be used for rendering text typed into this field.

alignment (string)
Identifies the default alignment characteristic for text typed into this field.

default (string)
Specifies an identifier mapping back to the Localizable.strings file, that will contain the default text to appear in this field when new pages are added to a book. For example, in Apple’s Small Book theme. the cover page layout specifies that the book’s title field defaults to the identifier: InsertATitle. A quick check at Localizable.strings reveals that InsertATitle is replaced by “TITLE HERE”, which is the text you’ll see in the title field when a Small Book is created.

With our single change to the default cover page now in place, this file can be saved and we can go about the task of creating additional cover layouts for the front and back cover, as well as a two page spread that will print on the front and back.

What about the rest of the cover pages?

Now that we’ve seen how Aperture treats cover pages and page layout in general, we can define the remaining cover pages required for our custom mini book theme.

But you don’t want to watch me type, do you? Nah!

Instead, download my Custom Mini Book theme here, and follow along as we discuss aspects of the custom theme that provide the ability to provide bright and colorful back covers.

Download the theme and navigate to the Pages folder:

Pages folder for the Custom Mini Picture theme

In this folder you’ll find page layouts for each of the five cover choices discussed earlier in this post. There are two front covers (01_FrontSoftCover.plist and 02_FrontSoftCoverBleed.plist), two back covers (01_BackSoftCover.plist and 02_BackSoftCoverBleed.plist), and a single two-page spread cover (03_SpreadSoftCover.plist). We’ve already discussed the contents of the default front cover, and the full bleed cover variants for the front and back offer little in the way of excitement (both contain a single PhotoCell element that fills the entire page… yawn). Let’s move our attention to the default back cover, 01_BackSoftCover.plist, which is displayed below:


As you’d expect, the dictionary for this layout begins by defining the type as BackSoftCover, matching the file name and all the other relevant information pertaining to this layout in Theme.plist and Localizable.plist. More interesting is an added dictionary term in the Photocell element: leftPage, which possesses an additional attribute, mirrorLocation, which defaults to true. To be honest, I don’t know exactly what this does and why it would be an attribute of the photograph and not the entire page. I included the term in my custom theme to mimic the structure of other themes that support back cover designs. Applying a little guesswork, I suspect that leftPage has some kind of role in the logic Aperture applies to force back covers to always fall on the left side of a side-by-side page layout. (Wish I could be more helpful there…)

More interesting (and, our ultimate goal!) is to see how the layout for a two-page wraparound cover is defined. The two-page cover for my custom mini theme is defined in 03_SpreadSoftCover.plist, and we can examine the contents of the file below:


Okay! The layout isn’t that much different than that of a single page; we have a type (SpreadSoftCover), a PhotoCell, and a TextField for the title. Two aspects of this file make a two-page spread possible:

<key>spread</key> <true/>

Setting the spread attribute to true tells Aperture that the layout for this cover will encompass a pair of side-by-side pages, and trigger other logic that prevents specification of a standalone back page. Give it a try! The last page of a book design can only se set to one of the various back cover choices when the front cover is not designed as a two-page spread.

The second notable aspect of a two-page spread is the width of the PhotoCell element, which is set to 7.08 inches and placed at center of the two-page spread. 7.08 inches matches the width of a mini book’s internal spread pages, and provides for a little bit of edge bleed for photos dropped onto the page. This element is also placed relative to a center point—a nice, effective way to provide center alignment for UI objects.

Installing the custom book theme

Installing a custom book theme is simple:

  • Quit Aperture
  • Open the Finder and locate the Aperture application
  • Select the Aperture application and control-click to show the pop-up menu of things you can do with the selected file
  • Choose Show Package Contents from the pop-up menu to open the folder containing the package contents of Aperture
  • Navigate to Contents : Resources : Book Themes
  • Drag the Custom Mini Picture folder to Book Themes

Custom Mini Picture book theme installed!

Using the new theme

Once your custom theme is installed it can be used like any other Aperture book theme, but now with all the new features you’ve added!

Custom mini book theme in the theme picker

Click on the Theme button in Aperture’s book interface, select “Small” from the Book Type popup, and you’ll find the new custom mini theme added to the list of available themes. With our custom theme selected we’re now able to modify the front cover design from a menu of several layout options, including a full bleed cover and the deluxe two-page wraparound design we sooooo covet.

Multiple cover choices for mini books!

And what about the back cover?

With the front cover set to one of the “Front Soft Cover” page layouts, scroll to the bottom of the book, select the last page, click on the popup disclosure triangle, and…

Selectable page layouts for the back cover!

Voila! We now have the ability to design a back cover for a mini book!

I know what you’re thinking…

Oh sure, it looks nice… but what about the PDF sent to Apple?
And will Apple even accept such a monstrosity?
I mean—come one!—front and back covers living in sin!

Excellent questions! First, let’s go through the book buying process and preview the PDF file that results from our modifications. Remember, this is a small book designed to have separate front and back covers.

Mini book PDF when separate front and back covers are included

Awesome! We now have an image on the back cover of the PDF that will be sent to Apple’s print service! But don’t click Continue and commit your money just yet…

What about those two strips of white space? One on the left, and one splitting the center between the front and back cover images? That looks… weird. Actually, it is completely normal for a softcover book!

The thin strip in the center is expected. That’s where the single-piece, softcover, wraps to form the book spine. This strip matches the page background color. In the example above, since our custom theme doesn’t define a background color, Aperture assumes white. For other books the default is black, or tan, or some other color.

Okay, I get that. It doesn’t look very good, but I get it.
What about that other fat strip of white on the left?

I admire you’re aesthetic, because—no—it does not look very sharp at all. But that is what you get when you place a full-bleed photos on the front and back covers. We’ll take a look at a more effective design in a moment, but first let’s discuss the “fat strip” on the left.


Remember the mystery of the 7.59″ wide PDF pages we discussed waaaaay back at the beginning of this post? Aperture generates that extra wide page for the front and back covers when preparing the PDF that will be sent to the print service. As we know, mini books are printed 3.5 inches wide, though, while the internal pages of the PDF are a bit wider at 3.63 inches to provide about an eighth of an inch of excess printing to insure a full bleed when the pages are cut. Two pages side by side would be roughly 7.25″ including the bleed for the front and back covers. That’s more than a third of an inch unaccounted for! What gives?

No matter the length of the book, the cover page in the PDF is always 7.59″ wide. In assembling the book Aperture determines the width of the spine based on the total number of book pages. In the example above, the cover page was generated for a book containing 32 total pages. Let’s see what happens to the spine when Apple’s skimpiest (20 page) book is created:

Cover PDF for a 20 page mini book

Ah ha! There’s no ugly spin space at all! And what if we create the longest (100 page) book possible?

Cover PDF for a 20 page mini book

So, as you can see, Aperture “slides” the back cover to the left as the number of pages increases, and trims whatever remains on the left edge before binding. Here, for a very thick book (nearly a half inch!) the white spine doesn’t look so bad. In fact, you may have created Large or Medium sized softcover books in the past with perfectly reasonable results. Alas, the margin for error for book binding shrinks with the size of the book, and who knows where that skinny bit of white will fall when assembling a thin book.

Design practices for mini books

You’ve probably noticed that most softcover themes default the front and back cover layouts to designs that center a photo on a uniform colored background. Why would that be? Simple. The process of cutting pages and assembling a book is not nearly as precise as the pixel perfection of a computer screen. To illustrate, take a look at the PDF for a softcover book created with the Medium Picture Book theme:

Front and back covers using Medium Picture Book theme

Note how the default background color unifies the front and back covers. When the page is cut, and wrapped around the internal pages during binding, there’s a little bit of leeway in where the wide cover is folded at the spine. With a uniform color spilling from front to back, an error of a fraction of an inch isn’t going to be noticed. But where two full bleed images are separated by the skinny strip of white we saw in the PDF generated for out custom theme… a fraction of an inch is the difference between a sharp binding and a sloppy binding.

I chose to skip support for background colors in my custom mini book theme, as I had a specific goal in mind for the back cover imagery I wanted to include in my special edition books. Luckily, adding support for backgrounds is relatively simple. We’re not going to go into the details here, but it all comes down to adding a plist file that defines the RGB values for your background, placing that file in the Backgrounds folder, defining the background in Localizable.strings, and adding a reference to that definition as a dictionary term in the front and back cover page layout files. Take a look inside the Medium Picture Book theme and the process should be fairly clear.

My solution — the Spread Cover

Adding a two-page spread to the front cover page

For my special edition mini book I wanted to create a colorful wrapped cover without white space on the spine. The solution was to set the front cover layout to Spread Soft Cover—one of the new cover variants added to the Custom Mini Picture theme. The cover graphics for the front/back spread was created in another application, then imported back into Aperture and dropped into the double-wide photo cell. Preparing this image required a bit of careful thought, however, as—even with a two-page spread—Aperture will generate the cover page in the PDF at 7.59″ wide. And as we’ve seen, that page will be trimmed to an overall width that accommodates the variable-width spine. As always is the case when printing an Aperture book, careful review of the Preview PDF prior to placing your order is highly recommended!

PDF Preview spread cover for Plastic Prophets of Vinyl Redemption

As above, I was aware that a small amount of the left side of the back cover would be trimmed during binding, so I chose a textured background for the back cover that would easily “survive” any cut of the printer’s blade. I also right shifted the image and logo by just a little, again understanding where the left edge trim mark would be for a 32 page book.

The proof is in the printing

So… did it work when my custom theme mini book was sent to Apple?

Mini books printed with full color back covers!!

It did!!

Feel free to use my custom mini book theme to provide back cover graphics for your mini books, and please contact me if you run into any problems or have questions about customizing book themes.

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I thought I’d take a break from my usual ramblings about music and the arts for a quick little sidetrack into technology. So if you’re here to see what I think of the latest Woody Allen film (brilliant and Oscar-worthy!!) or were hoping to find a post about my newest photo (which features an anatomical view inside a giant kewpie)… come back later. Actually, that’s not entirely true; I’ll be using my latest photo as the backdrop for sharing a tip for using Aperture, Apple’s pro-level application I use to manage and adjust my photos.


If you’re not quite up to reading some of the background of how and why I decided to come up with this hack, jump down the page to the step-by-step instructions marked “How to copy Aperture brushes.” If you stick around, though, I promise to make your reading interesting…

I’ve been using Aperture since its very first version when it represented a nice step up from iPhoto. Aperture provided the ability to apply a much wider range of adjustments to your photos: definition, vibrancy, tweaking individual colors, and more. In those early days, adjustments were applied evenly across an entire image, so you had to be very, very careful that adjustments did not collide with one another. A deft hand was required, for example, to marginally adjust the yellow petals of a flower without the unfortunate side effect of making any people in the photo appear as though they had acquired Hepatitis-C.

The latest version of Aperture introduced the concept of brushes, which allow adjustments to be applied to very specific and well constrained areas of a photo without impacting the entire image. Think of Aperture brushes as the digital equivalent of applying an effect through a stencil that’s been placed over your image.

In typical Apple fashion, a “brush” is really just an easier-to-understand name for much more complex computer science principles like layers, alpha channels and… masks. Lots of other applications foist these decidedly unfriendly concepts onto poor unsuspecting users, then go the extra step by building cumbersome user interfaces around these powerful tools. Aperture’s not like that. Instead, you have a brush. Easy.

In my work, brushes have been both a blessing and a curse. Where in the past I had a finite set of tools for improving images en totale, I can now brush away to my heart’s content until EVERY LAST OBJECT ON THE SCEEEN has undergone the touch of my digital spell. It’s great!

Though the Aperture brush feature provides a convenient way to detect the edges of an object as the brush is moved around the screen, this feature is not so sophisticated that it takes on the geographic capabilities of a paint-by-number canvas. Adjustments frequently “paint outside the lines”, and to this end brush strokes can be erased, sized, and adjusted for softness and opacity.

I spend a lot of my postproduction time painstakingly outlining and filling in the dozens of irregularly shaped figures and objects that inhabit each of my photos. To illustrate, let’s take a look at a typical brushed in adjustment from my latest photo, Clinical study at the Mary Shelley School of Theologic Medicine.

Overlay of a brush on a single object

In the image to the right you see a color overlay of the brush I applied to add a little definition to a tiny plastic figure of a circus performer. Brushing around the roller coaster of nooks and crannies that define the figure takes a lot of time, but once complete I’m confident that the adjustment being applied will take effect on the entire object; nothing more. Great! Looks good.

But what if I decide that the exact same object could benefit from another adjustment? Maybe a tweaking of the color tint or a touch of vibrancy? Surely, there must be a way to copy all that complex brushing from one adjustment to another.

Uh… no, there’s not.

Usually I just bite the bullet, set the screen zoom back up to 150%, and draw in the new brush as my fingers cramp and my shoulders scream. While working on the new piece, and faced with several regions of the photo that could benefit from multiple adjustments, I finally reached my “re-brushing threshold” and developed a nice little process for applying the same brushing mask to multiple adjustments, thereby GREATLY reducing the time that would have otherwise been required for postproduction.

Time to share!

Aperture applies each of its brushed adjustments through TIFF files, which (as stated earlier) act just like stencils. Each adjustment you make to a photo will have a corresponding TIFF file hidden away inside your Aperture Library. Change or move the TIFF files, and the area to which an adjustment is intended will change. The secret to copying a brush created for one adjustment, to a second adjustment, is finding the correct TIFF files and simply moving around some files. Easy!

Well, it’s not quite that simple… A single brushed in adjustment can actually result in many, many TIFF files, each representing your progress in applying brush strokes, resting your hand, and applying more brush strokes for the same adjustment. Aperture keeps all these intermediate “half brushed” files around, so… it’s important to find The One True TIFF for the adjustment you wish to duplicate.

How to copy Aperture brushes

Let’s dive right in and see how Aperture brushes can be copied from one image adjustment to another! For this example we’re going to be looking at one of my recent photos, Clinical study at the Mary Shelley School of Theologic Medicine. In this photo I wanted two different vignette effects — a subtle amount on objects in the foreground, but a much more aggressive effect on the background. I also wanted to apply edge sharpening over the background at different levels than I was anticipating for the foreground. So, for the background: two adjustments; one brush.

  • First, the vignette effect was carefully brushed onto the background portion of the photo. You can see an overlay of the finished brushing below:

Overlay of the brush to apply a vignette adjustment – click to view larger

Painting the adjustment around all of those foreground objects was no mean feat! I definitely did not want to go through that process again when it came time to add in edge sharpening.
  • Quit Aperture
  • Open the Finder and locate your Aperture Library
  • Select the Aperture Library and control-click to show the pop-up menu of things you can do with the selected file
  • Choose Show Package Contents from the pop-up menu to open the folder containing the package contents of your Aperture Library

Package Contents of the Aperture Library

Note that one of the items in the Aperture Library is a Masks folder. This is where Aperture stores the TIFF overlay for the brushed in adjustments for ALL of the photos in your library. If you regularly use brushes in your work, there will be a lot of deeply nested files and folders stored in Masks, and the TIFF files you encounter will not be, simply, “finished” brushes… you’ll also find plenty of work in progress, so it becomes very important that you find the one great and true TIFF file that defines your finished set of brush strokes.
  • Select the Masks folder and choose Find from the File menu
The Finder will display a typical search window from which you can look for the TIFF file that represents the adjustment you want to duplicate. In my case, it’s the vignette effect I just created.
  • Specify that you want to search in “Masks” and you want to search for “Last modified date” is “today”

Searching for the vignette adjustment I just added

The results of my search is shown in the image above. That oddly named file on the right sure looks like the complex brush I just created, doesn’t it? You can verify that this is the correct file by checking the modification date and viewing it in Preview. I like to sort the results by “Date Modified” to make sure I’m finding the most recent version of the adjustment brush.
Update for Yosemite (OS X 10.10)
Good news! The Finder is once again able to search for files within package contents! So, once you upgrade from Mavericks to Yosemite you will no longer need to find the changed masks using the Unix method described below. Yay!!
Update for Mavericks (OS X 10.9)
With the introduction Mavericks it would appear that the Finder is no longer able to correctly search for files within package contents. Boo! Hiss! Hopefully this is merely a bug that will be corrected in a future version of the OS, but for now we need to turn to alternate (and more painful) means of locating the mask for the adjustment we just brushed in… Unix! Yep, if you’re running under Mavericks you’ll have to open the Terminal application and do the following:
  • Move to the directory that contains Aperture’s brush masks. The easiest way to accomplish this is to enter the following into the terminal window:
cd /Users/yourusername/Pictures/Aperture\ Library.aplibrary/Masks
  • Search for all of the files that have been modified during the past 30 minutes:
find . -mtime -30m -ls

The results will be output to Terminal as a Unix file listing, which includes the date and time that each of the files (and directories) was last modified. It should look something like this:

726528 0 drwxrwxrwx 5 jpurlia staff 170 Jan 31 10:10 ./0/0v
5062687 160 -rw-r--r-- 1 jpurlia staff 80706 Jan 31 10:10 ./0/0v/0vnnvhr5TpGemd6ul6ltzg.tiff
733809 0 drwxrwxrwx 4 jpurlia staff 136 Jan 31 10:08 ./s/s7
5062669 112 -rw-r--r-- 1 jpurlia staff 55530 Jan 31 10:08 ./s/s7/s7Hgm3rPQZOtML0rDigiVA.tiff

Yuck, right? From this information you’ll need to look at those timestamps and the path to the file that contains the elusive TIFF file. In the example above, the most recent TIFF file was modified at 10:10AM on January 31st. The information that follows is the path to that file, which we see is in a directory  named:


which itself is inside another directory named:


You’ll then need to navigate to that subfolder within “Masks” to find the file — in this case, the file named:


Yep… pretty darn annoying.

What if you want to find a mask you created earlier in the day? Or yesterday? Or last week? There the task becomes a little more difficult, but certainly not impossible. The easiest approach is to open Aperture, locate the adjustment you wish to clone, and make a slight “non-change” to the brush by either quickly brushing over an area that is already brushed, or (preferred) erasing an area without the adjustment. All that’s needed is one quick touch of the brush and the modification date of the TIFF file will change (even though the brush does not).
  • At this point it is a good idea to make a copy of the TIFF file and move the copy to a safe place for later use. I like to maintain an Adjustment Masks folder (in the Finder’s file system and outside of Aperture) for each of my photos for this very purpose. Don’t forget to option-drag when moving the file, otherwise your original brush will be lost!
  • I also like to rename the file to something that will be easy to find when I want to apply a new adjustment to the same region of the photo. In the image below, the name of the file has been changed to Background Object.
TIFF file after copying from Aperture Library and renaming
We can now focus on creating a brand new adjustment that will use the same brush shape we just saved.
  • Open Aperture
  • Select or add the adjustment brick that is to have the identical brushed region as your saved TIFF file

Adding a new Edge Sharpen adjustment to the photo

In the image above I am adding a the Edge Sharpen adjustment that I only want applied to the background — the exact same region that just received the prior Vignette adjustment.

  • Give your brush a nice wide radius and quickly brush in an easily recognizable shape like a big ‘X’, a circle, or a square

Quick brushing of Edge Sharpen — The shape is unimportant!

There. We have now edge sharpened everything inside the smiley face. Of course, we don’t want to sharpen inside a smiley face; we want to sharpen inside the brushed region we previously created and saved for the vignette adjustment.
  • Quit Aperture (once again)
  • If you’ve closed the previously opened Package Contents of the Aperture Library you’ll need to reopen it and once again navigate to the Masks folder
  • Choose Find from the File menu
As before, the Finder will display a search window where you can look for the TIFF file containing your quick, easily recognizable brush strokes.
  • Specify that you want to search in “Masks” and you want to search for “Last modified date” is “today”

Searching for the quick brush strokes we just made using the new adjustment brick

And there’s our smiley face! (The vignette mask is still there as well, and will be as long as you’re performing these operations in close proximity to one another.) Once again, it is important to verify that this is, indeed, the brush that was just created, so sort by “Date Modified”and make sure this really is the most recent version of your quick adjustment.
We now want to replace the TIFF for the smiley face with the TIFF of the brush we had previously saved.
  • Open the folder that contains our quickly rendered brush by control-clicking on the icon and selecting Open Enclosing Folder from the popup menu

Opening the folder that contains the TIFF for the new adjustment

  • Copy the previously saved TIFF file for the original adjustment into the folder containing the TIFF file for the new adjustment. Again, option-drag is your friend!! You want a copy, not necessarily the original file.

The previous saved TIFF file copied into the folder containing the new brushed adjustment

Getting Aperture to apply the previously saved brush is now just a matter of changing the same of the saved TIFF file to match the name that Aperture had created for the brushed region we just created.
  • Rename the saved file to match the name assigned to the file created for the new adjustment
  • Delete the file Aperture had created for the new adjustment
I’ll leave it up to you, the reader, to apply your favorite steps for renaming and deleting files… but here’s one way to do it using the example above:
  • Select and Copy the name of the smiley face file: %bjGyLKoRLO9K6M06AIP1Q.tiff
  • Drag the smiley face file to the trash
  • Select the name of the saved file: Background Object.tiff
  • Paste to change the name of the saved file to: %bjGyLKoRLO9K6M06AIP1Q.tiff
  • Press ‘Enter’ to complete the file name

After renaming the saved adjustment file and deleting the new adjustment file

As illustrated above, the TIFF file that Aperture will use to apply the new Edge Sharpen adjustment now contains the same shape we’d previously created for applying the vignette effect. Yay!
  • Open Aperture
  • Select the Edge Sharpen adjustment we had previously brushed in with a smiley face
  • Turn on the Color Overlay for the brush, and…


There it is! No need to go through the agony of “repeat brushing” around all of those tiny, tiny figures!
And that’s it for this little foray into technology. I hope this proves useful to you until such a time that Apple adds the ability to copy and paste brush masks in a future version of Aperture.
I’ll be back posting about art and culture soon, though I do have one more pretty cool Trick of Technology up my sleeve for a future post. Think iPad, photography, and illustrated books made easy.

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