All my life I've used compact, point-and-shoot cameras, from a Kodak disc camera to a Canon Digital Elph and a slightly less compact Canon...

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All my life I’ve used compact, point-and-shoot cameras, from a Kodak disc camera to a Canon Digital Elph and a slightly less compact Canon PowerShot S2 IS. Last year, after realizing I wanted to capture better images, I decided to move up to a digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera.

In addition to having more control over the images I shoot (and having a higher learning curve to climb, since I don’t have a 35mm background), I’ve found myself working with photos on the Mac differently.

I bought a Nikon D80 (www.nikonusa.com), which is a step up from the popular D40 and D60 consumer models; the latter are roughly comparable to the Canon Digital Rebel Xti. (Nikon and Canon are the dominant DSLR manufacturers, and the rivalry between them goes back before Mac and PC proponents were throwing witty barbs at one another.)

One strength of a DSLR is its ability to shoot in RAW mode, where the camera captures an image that’s very close to the “raw” image data coming through the lens. Most cameras save photos as JPEG files, which are compressed to save memory.

iPhoto, my photo organizer of choice since its introduction, can import RAW files but doesn’t really take advantage of them: It works with a JPEG rendering of the RAW file, and offers only basic image adjustment tools.

So I turned to Apple’s Aperture (www.apple.com/aperture/), a pro-level application that handles RAW images natively. Apple released a major upgrade, Aperture 2, in February for $199 (or as an upgrade for $99; a free trial version is also available for download).

Aperture lets me organize my photo library and perform adjustments in one program without pushing an image to Adobe Photoshop for editing. Being an enthusiastic amateur, I find that Aperture handles all my retouching needs, tweaking the exposure and converting to black and white with a good deal of control.

Version 2 introduced a few adjustments I find myself turning to often. The Vibrancy slider boosts an image’s saturation while keeping skin tones in check. The Recovery slider, used in conjunction with the new Highlight Hot and Cold Areas viewing option, can pull back on bright areas that would otherwise appear blown out.

Even the Retouching tool is an improvement over the Spot and Patch tool of version 1.5. The best enhancement in Aperture 2, however, is speed. Compared with Aperture 1.5, the new version is zippy. That’s important when first importing photos, as I’ve discovered over the past month.

A lot of sorting

Taking lots of photos on vacation or just around town is one thing. But I’m now facing something completely different. My wife gave birth to our first child in early February, and I freely admit I’ve been photo-crazy since then. My Nikon D80 can shoot three frames per second, which has encouraged me to fire off dozens — no, hundreds — of shots while our daughter wiggles or stretches. I have two 8 GB memory cards, so why not?

Well, sorting through those photos later requires a lot of culling. Pressing the P key enters a preview mode where Aperture displays the lower-resolution JPEG file the camera creates as each picture’s thumbnail.

I can plow through hundreds of photos and rate or reject them without waiting for aperture to render the RAW images. Performance overall has improved, too, because Apple made a number of under-the-hood improvements.

Aperture does quite a bit more than I have room to delve into, such as creating professional and highly editable photo books (great for wedding and event photographers); publishing photos to a. Mac Web Gallery (see gallery.mac.com/jeffc/, for an example); full customization of keyboard commands; and tethering of many camera models to save photos directly from the camera into Aperture.

Aperture 2.1, released Friday as a free update, fixes some outstanding bugs and adds a Dodge and Burn plug-in, the first of many add-ons that Apple hopes will make Aperture an all-in-one editor.

Aperture isn’t the only digital-photo solution, of course. Adobe literally created the market with Photoshop, but Photoshop CS3 (and its price tag) can be overkill for people at my level of photography interest.

Aperture’s direct competitor is Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (www.adobe.com/products/photoshoplightroom/), which I have not used more than a few minutes (in a trial version).

However, last week Adobe brought back Photoshop Elements to the Mac. The last version, Elements 4, is still used by many Mac users who want more editing capabilities than iPhoto offers, even after Adobe left it to die in a development desert. With version 6 ($90 new or $70 upgrade; www.adobe.com/products/photoshopelmac/), the company has returned strong.

Photoshop Elements 6 is almost identical to its Windows counterpart, released last year, with one exception: instead of managing photos in a separate Organizer application, the Mac version ties in Adobe’s Bridge CS3 asset-management application (previously available only with the Adobe Creative Suite). It also handles RAW files and manages some nifty and sophisticated image editing.

On the Web

And if Photoshop Elements 6 is more power and expense than you need, Adobe just this week released a beta of Photoshop Express (www.photoshop.com/express/), a free Web service that lets you upload and edit photos online.

Although not as expansive as a service such as Flickr (www.flickr.com), Photoshop Express offers real Photoshop editing capabilities that help correct most common image shortfalls.

(Full disclosure: I wrote a book, “Adobe Photoshop Elements 6: Visual QuickStart Guide,” and am working on another, “Adobe Photoshop Express Pocket Guide,” both for Peachpit Press.)

I may have started out as a point-and-shoot photographer who only took occasional vacation photos, but the digital era has converted me. My DSLR and tools like Aperture now feed this newfound obsession; I hope my daughter will forgive me when she’s older.

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.