Teaching with Aperture

by Ben Long

In June, Steve Simon and I had the good fortune to teach a two week photography class to the photo students at the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute. Celebrating its thirtieth year, OSAI is a two week arts camp for 14 to 18-year-old Oklahoma students. Held in the beautiful Quartz Mountain State Park in southwestern Oklahoma, the program offers photography, writing, ballet, modern dance, orchestra, acting, film and video, and chorus, the camp is unique both for the faculty it attracts, and for the cross-disciplinary experience that the students get. Our students got to shoot performances of many different kinds, collaborate with writing students, learn to shoot head shots and portraits, and more. As a teacher, one of the most startling things about OSAI is the calibre of the students, both in terms of dedication and focus, and in terms of the quality of their work. The students have to work hard to get in to the program, and once there, they make the most of it.

What also impressed me this year was how much easier it is to teach and manage a lab using Aperture.

Thanks to Holland Hall, a private school in Tulsa, we had a luxurious lab of 18 iMacs (this is in addition to the exceptional darkroom facility) and the students worked exclusively on Aperture. Not one student had used the program before, but quite a few had Photoshop experience. I was expecting a bit of a learning curve, and so tried to initially keep them to simple activities - importing, browsing, and rating. Within a day, though, they had - on their own - discovered the loupe, stacking, and many editing functions. We quickly threw out any planned teaching agenda and just tried to keep up with the students' questions.

Part of the ease that the students had stems, of course, from the fact that they've used complex software their whole lives, and so are not afraid to explore. But I think it's also a testament to Aperture's design that completely novice students could take to the program so quickly. When we first showed them Aperture, a few students expressed disappointment that they weren't going to be learning Photoshop. These were also the first students to say, a few days later, "how much does a Mac like this cost? I'd like to get one so that I can start using Aperture."

As a teacher, Aperture presents many advantages. First, since the toolset is the same for raw or JPEG, you don't have to teach separate workflows and editing processes. Yet you can still teach the full range of raw tools and advantages. In the limited time of a two-week class, this is a huge bonus. Most importantly, thanks to Aperture's comparison features it's very easy to focus on the photography end of digital photography. Whether working with individual students, or presenting to the entire class, the ability to throw up multiple versions of an image was crucial to discussions of what makes one image work and another one not.

Managing a lab of eighteen computers can be a real headache, but Aperture offers some important advantages that greatly streamline your IT concerns. First, because all of our machines were networked together, it was simple enough to perform Vault backups to a central server, which was a critical function given the electrical storms that raged during the two weeks, and regularly knocked out power. Of course, this also facilitated the ability to restore, should a student accidentally wreck some work.

Ultimately, each student was working towards a selection of three images that would go in the final gallery show. By asking them to place their best images into specific albums, it was easy for us to move from machine to machine to see the student's final choices. From there, we could work with them to narrow their best images into a final three, which went in their own album. It was then easy for us to, when the students were away, find the correct images and get them assembled as needed.

I wanted to return the computers in the same state that they were loaned to us, so I used OS X Server to facilitate the configuration of each machine. I created a user account that was configured precisely the way I wanted it (with many applications removed so that the students wouldn't be distracted) and all printer settings pre-configured. Using Server, I was able to automatically install this image onto each machine over the network. After camp, it was an easy process to use Server to restore the machines to their original state.

Of course, I don't need to sell most of you on the merits of Aperture. But even with all my Aperture experience, I was surprised to discover some previously hidden advantages of using it as a teaching tool.

You can view a full selection of shots of the lab, as well as the final student gallery here.