My introduction to “real” photo management happened when I outgrew iPhoto and installed Aperture. I learned quickly enough how powerful managing photos was, from staying organized to changing dates to adding GPS coordinates. Back then, I used it to create web albums and even made a slideshow movie. If I forgot to set up the camera’s date, I’d later marvel at how well Aperture handled the change on gigs of photos. I was amazed at how it would efficiently move a library from one drive to another when I upgraded to a 1 TB RAID. I remember RAW editing, too, and my workflow back then changed to getting the shot, the moment and then finalizing it in post, eventually creating my own visual style and a Pacific Northwest take on bicycle photography.
Much has changed since my initial forays into professional photography, mostly related to cloud services, much more bandwidth and the surge in mobile devices. It wasn’t that long ago when a mobile workflow was a new thing. I wrote about mobility back then, and just now iOS supports RAW, and ever-more-powerful tablets can work with the file sizes. Depending on the shoot, some of my photos never touch a hard drive or desktop.
When Apple killed Aperture, photographers didn’t have much choice but to switch to Lightroom, and now with Adobe changing the Lightroom ecosystem—changing the desktop version’s name to “Classic” while removing the non-subscription version and creating a new cloud-based Lightroom CC—many photographers are once again looking for alternatives that don’t require a subscription.
The good news is that there are plenty of programs to choose from, but before I get into that, I want to note that Lightroom CC is a tremendous reboot of the photo-editing and photo-management tool, intended for a new era of computing. It’s very limited in functionality right now, but clearly, the foundation is there for a new, more powerful workflow.
True disruption in tech happens about every 25 years, and mobile devices and cloud computing are changing how we work, so Adobe has built a consistent and replicable experience across all your devices, anticipating how we work today and, more importantly, tomorrow. That said, tomorrow isn’t here yet, and professionals can’t wait.
Now, let’s go through the various choices in photo management and editing apps. These are listed in no particular order. To try out the various applications, I used the same set of photos—278 DNG files, taken recently with a Leica Q.
All In One
Phase One Capture One Pro 11. Capture One Pro is the leading contender to Lightroom, and an all-around fantastic photo management and editing tool. The program is infinitely customizable, providing a suite of professional-level editing tools that mean fewer round-trips to Photoshop, a color-editing suite that’s unrivaled and a RAW processing engine that’s considered one of the best on the market.
Capture One Pro also includes a tethered shooting tool that reduces the time studio photographers spend shuttling cards around and allows them to instantly see how their images look.
The recent update, Capture One Pro 11, increases performance (the company claims up to 50% increases in catalog loading times and much better speed across the board), new annotation tools for collaborative feedback and a reboot of the Local Adjustments tool, which is now called Layers. The new Layers section has new masking and mask refinement tools, plus the ability to brush on levels and color adjustments.
For photographers with massive catalogs of images, Capture One Pro provides the most thorough and professional file and asset management outside of Lightroom Classic.
Price: $299 for a single-user, three-seat license.
Alien Skin Exposure X3. The legendary plugin is now a photo editor and organizer, competing in the market of “faster than Lightroom.” I expect plugin users will find the app to their liking, with over 500 built-in presets, and tasteful effects, too, that are set up in 27 categories. The film emulations cover pretty much the history of photography. What it does well is offer photographers an extensive feature list, including customizable effects and all of the editing tools in one window. What it doesn’t offer is a non-cramped or decluttered interface, and it requires initial setup and learn-to-use time.
ON1 RAW 2018. ON1 RAW 2018 is a program that “auto-imports” all photo libraries without reprocessing tens of thousands of previews—that’s really the way to get started, and if blazing speed is a premium. How ON1 manages your photos is an important distinction because it gives you a choice of editing them where they are or creating a Cataloged Folder with sidecar files for nondestructive edits and metadata. ON1 is also investing much time in its community and promotes its growing ecosystem as a major benefit compared to a corporation like Adobe. What ON1 does best is engage its users and launch fast. What I didn’t like is the modal interface that requires you to switch between browsing for files and editing.
Price: $99, with a $129 Pro bundle
DxO Photo Lab. Best known for its camera ratings, DXO also offers Photo Lab, an app that utilizes U Point Technology, which is control points for tools like filters dragged over an area. It’s a neat way to edit versus painting a mask. Photo Lab also leverages DxO’s camera lab for automatic corrections to help improve lighting, remove haze and reducing noise. DxO is best for photographers into the science and technology of pixels.
Price: $99 for the Essential Edition and $149 for the Elite Edition
Skylum (formerly Macphun) Luminar 2018. With millions of installs for its software bundles, the company shipped Luminar 2018 in November and teased a future organization module, which will give it much of the organizational power of tools like Lightroom and Alien Skin Exposure X3. The company recently changed names to Skylum from Macphun, and fans of its bundles will feel right at home working in the app and toggling into others.
Where I found Exposure X3’s interface to be very complex, Luminar’s layout is simple, yet customizable. Built-in RAW processing means that photographers can get the best possible results from their images, even adding effects like sun rays and a matte filter (for a “vintage” look), while the LUT (Look Up Table) Mapping features allow photographers to apply film styles and effects. In addition to upcoming file management, the program will be adding Adobe plugin support.
Pixelmator Pro. Not available at press time, the folks behind the affordable, yet powerful Pixelmator have reimagined their editing workflow and simplified editing tools with machine learning for the upcoming Pixelmator Pro. The company is short on details, but early teaser videos showed a drag-and-drop interface, illustration tools and a real-media-simulating painting toolset complete with brushes and realistic media. Whereas Pixelmator has allowed people to ditch Photoshop, Pixelmator Pro looks like it’s aiming to make people ditch the whole Creative Cloud suite of design tools.
Price: Not set at press time
Anthropics Technology PortraitPro And LandscapePro. For the photographer looking to perform simple, yet powerful adjustments to either portraits or landscapes, the stand-alone PortraitPro and LandscapePro excel at quickly enhancing images. Portrait photographers can fix skin texture and tone, and even add virtual makeup to a subject, while LandscapePro allows for one-touch replacement of skies, the creation of reflections in water and more.
The user interface walks you through the points needed to improve a photo with intelligent, adaptive guidance and a super-easy interface. In a few minutes, I was trimming up my body and controlling the lighting in a photo of a harbor I took recently.
Price: $59.95 each
CameraBits Photo Mechanic. It’s like the developers of Photo Mechanic grabbed the file-managing aspects of Aperture and turned them into a stand-alone app. Sure, it’s more complicated than that, but if you’re after a program for ingesting mass quantities of photos and then quickly rating and organizing them, Photo Mechanic does that well. It doesn’t offer an editor, figuring that your final post-culling is to open them in Lightroom. Photographers, frustrated with Lightroom’s sluggish import and that darn modal windowing, find this a good alternative. However, it seems even older than Capture One, and probably is. The company that makes it, Camera Bits, started in 1996.
Build Your Own Cloud
If you don’t want to sign onto Adobe’s cloud service, building your own cloud is certainly an option. Google Photos will recognize a camera or SD card when mounted and automatically ingests it and then uses its AI to organize images, all for about $10 a month. Google Photos works pretty much like your phone does, cataloging your photos into buckets.
The more software-savvy photographer with time to set up a system should consider Synology’s NAS (network-attached storage) tools, like the DS916+ model. A NAS allows any user on a network to save and share files, and it has a suite of tools, including “hot folders” that will sync from an app or a desktop. The Synology hardware/software package is about running your own cloud that replicates pretty much everything Google, Amazon, Microsoft or Apple do, and, in this instance, Adobe, too. There’s no free lunch in computing, so what you save in monthly fees you’ll pay in maintaining your own collection of drives.
Price: A Synology DS916+ NAS costs $599 for the bay and another $130 per 4 TB drive. That’s $1,199 total, not including the days spent setting up the cloud services.
Switch It Off?
We don’t think the changes to Adobe Lightroom are enough to justify a switch. Lightroom Classic still exists and works as well today as it worked yesterday. Lightroom CC will bring a host of new features as it evolves, for tomorrow’s workflows. I don’t believe in switching wholesale because of a change to a program, but I do think you should know what tools are available. Many people don’t know how many photo-editing tools are on the market, and photographers should use what they come to prefer. Whatever you use, it’s a really great time to take photographs knowing there are applications that will suit your style and needs. Reflecting on Adobe’s changes to Lightroom, though, it’s probably time to think about your next camera and to understand that changes in technology don’t wait for anyone.