Software Recommendations

It’s past time that I update my software recommendations. Below are the software products I can currently use and recommend and a brief description as to why. Note: I'm solely using macOS these days. 

Image Ingest/Browsing/Organizing

  • Photo Mechanic (macOS/Windows). US$139. This is my long term workhorse. I’ll warn you up front, it’s geeky, not friendly. But that’s actually why I still use it, as it can do things that other products can’t, at least if you’re willing to learn all its capabilities. PM (as we users call it) can do things like ingest from multiple card readers simultaneously, create a backup of an ingest simultaneously, deal with IPTC and keyword information, assign player or other information based upon shortcut lists you create ahead of time, and even perform simple actions like cropping. If you’re using raw files, PM is one of two browsers that are are really fast (see also next product). I can ingest, browse and rate, and even annotate images faster in PM than any other product I’ve seen. If you need to develop a catalog of images so you can completely organize and find them, Photo Mechanic Plus is a higher cost version (currently US$229) that will do just that for you. 
  • FastRawViewer (macOS/Windows). US$24. FastRawViewer isn’t quite as deep at the ingest and annotating capabilities as PM, but it serves up a different set of options that are useful when browsing raw images: the ability to clearly assess exposure and even make some adjustments that the Adobe converters will pick up. Whereas with PM my concentration is on rating and annotating as fast as possible, with FRV my concentration is on dealing with exposure and setting issues while reviewing images. So yes, I have and use both products, just for different things. Like PM, FRV is a bit of a geeky tool. The features and UI are initially a bit overwhelming to novice users, but like PM, there’s a ton of user customization that’s available if you take the time to learn the full product. (Disclosure: one of the principals of the company producing this product is a friend, and provided me a copy for free; on occasion I’ve suggested changes or features for the program. That said, I have no financial interest in you buying the product; I get nothing for recommending it). 
  • Apple Photos (macOS). Free. Didn’t expect that, did you? As much as we all lamented the loss of iPhotos and Aperture from Apple, I think most people aren’t really giving the replacement, Photos, a real chance. The basic problem here is that Apple is thinking different, and if you don’t get on their wavelength, you’ll just sit there scratching your head wondering what you should do or how to do the thing you want to do. So let me recommend the way to deal with that: my friend Jason Snell’s book, Taking Control of Apple Photos. He’ll step you through learning Apple’s unique terminology and design. But yes, Photos will allow you to build a catalog, browse it, and even develop images in it. On that later bit, one of the key developers behind Apple Aperture has a Photos plug-in that works well (and works as a standalone product, too): Raw Power (US$40). Raw Power will definitely give you a set of tools that help you get your images looking the way you want them to. You can find other Photos plug-ins that do that, as well, but I’d say start with Photos and Raw Power and you should have a Lightroom Light for a lot less money. You just have to learn Apple Speak and Photos Dialect. 
  • Lightroom (Classic CC) (macOS/Windows). US$9.99/month. What started as a simple program to help photographers with workflow has turned into a whopper of a do-all, slice-all, be-all imaging program. In fact, things have expanded so much that if you’re new to Lightroom, you’ll need help (I suggest Matt Kloskowski’s The Lightroom System video tutorial set, usually US$199, but often on sale). A lot of folk are turned off by Adobe’s subscription requirement, but frankly, US$120/year is a reasonable price to pay for a tool that is kept current and keeps adding useful features. And no, if you drop your subscription, your catalog doesn’t go away. Some of the things you can do with your catalog do go away, but LR would continue to work for basic functions. And no, you don’t need to send your images to the cloud to use it (at least Lightroom Classic CC); everything stays local to your computer if that’s what you want. People originally worried that Adobe would constantly increase prices or neglect to add features to LR once it went subscription, but that hasn’t been the case, and I don’t expect that to be the case in the near future. Adobe knows it has a good thing going here, and they’re not going to mess it up. LR is slow to ingest, can use lots of extra drive space if you’re not careful (e.g. previews to improve browsing speed), and has panels all over the place (left, right, bottom, etc.), but none of that really takes away from its power to organize and develop your images. 

Raw converters and Photo Editors

  • Photoshop ACR and Lightroom Classic CC (macOS/Windows). US$9.99/month. Our longest-living raw converter, and one that keeps getting updated for new cameras while adding new features and capabilities (yes, latest new camera conversions tend to be preliminary for awhile, and not optimal). Adobe Converter Raw (ACR; and the LR conversion that uses ACR) has a few wrinkles that sometimes we complain about, but it’s also still one of the most reliable raw converters available. If you convert to smart objects, you can even keep Photoshop in the non-destructive mode for most everything you do. My suggestion has always been to avoid Adobe’s standard conversion and tune ACR to your camera and tastes, which fortunately, is a fairly straightforward project that you only need to do once for each camera. Some of the recent features, such as the Super Resolution one, expand the capabilities beyond what you might think ACR actually can do. And that’s sort of the point: ACR has gotten better with time. We may still complain about some small things, but the big things keep expanding and getting better, particularly masking. ACR is a solid working tool. I use it every day. And that puts me in Photoshop, which has advanced layering and masking tools I use all the time.
  • Affinity Photo (macOS/Windows). US$55 (sometimes discounted). The poor man’s Photoshop. Almost literally. Affinity has done a tremendous job building out near clones of Photoshop, Illustrator, and inDesign. Those of you still stuck on Creative Suite 4 probably ought to be using the Affinity products, because they’re better than the Adobe CS4 versions, though perhaps not as good as the current CC version (at least for Photoshop). No subscription, no elaborate licensing scheme, product doesn’t expire, updates happen regularly. Just like it used to be when we had to walk ten miles through the snow to school ;~). You can even buy a very nicely done physical book that’s sort of half manual, half inspiration, should your need for a paper trail of help arise. The one thing I’d caution about is that Affinity Photo doesn’t extend into the latest/greatest stuff Adobe has been doing—e.g. Super Resolution or the new masking capabilities—and raw support for the camera that was announced today doesn’t exist and won’t for awhile. But Photo does have HDR, panorama, and focus stitching support, plus it even does Smart Objects, which is why I say the CS4 folk ought to move on: Affinity is now starting to supply things you won’t ever get as your CS4 installation grows weeds and cobwebs. And it runs faster and more smoothly. 
  • DXO PhotoLab 4 (macOS/Windows). US$199 (often discounted). If what you’re looking for is a solid raw converter that is more approachable than the Photoshop behemoth and that produces really nice images without a lot of work on your part, I’d suggest DxO PhotoLab. It’s not the fastest raw converter (particularly if you use their excellent Prime noise reduction). It’s also not the best choice for batch processing a lot of images. But it has a lot of automatic capability, and it produces excellent output without a lot of work on your part. 
  • CaptureOne (macOS/Windows). US$?? (read on). I’m a little reluctant with this recommendation. Not because of the product. CaptureOne is another remarkably sophisticated raw converter that can produce excellent results without a lot of work on your part. Moreover, CaptureOne has some of the more sophisticated color controls you’ll find, and it’s probably the one raw converter that can produce the “same” tonality, color, and look from raw images from two different camera makes without a lot of fuss. I’d tend to rank it as the #2 choice behind Adobe for the working professional. My reluctance has to do with a lot of recent marketing and pricing moves the company has made. During the update to version 21, I received four different offers (triggered by four different sources and timings). All had very different pricing. So now I need to pay attention to their marketing programs before upgrading to get the best price? I’m not the only one that was put off by recent promotional campaigns. I receive more email about CaptureOne’s customer practices than I do for Adobe’s, which is saying a lot. When I went to try to get their current pricing, I found multiple prices for multiple options for multiple capabilities. Con-fuse-ing. 
  • Your camera company’s free product. They all have one. They’re all kludgy, missing features, don’t have as much performance, and sometimes can be buggy. But they’ll all net you a raw conversion that looks a lot like the JPEGs your camera creates, and if all you need is a raw conversion every once in a while, this is probably the option you should look at first. 

Plug-ins

Oh, plug-ins. We used to love you, then you went away. Then you came back. Then you became full products sitting on top of full products. Then you spun back into specific plug-ins again. Sadly, in the confusion, we’ve lost a few along the way (I miss Piccure+ the most). Still, I can point to two sets I use regularly:

  • Nik Suite (Standalone/Photoshop/Lightroom/DxO). US$149 (sometimes discounted). First independent, then part-owned by Nikon, then bought by Google, then sold to DxO. Fortunately, these plug-ins are still available and have been updated, which is a good thing, because several of them are solid keepers that should be in your workflow. I regularly use Color Efex Pro and Silver Efex Pro. I sometimes use Dfine. Some of you should be using Vivesa rather than PS/LR sliders and brushes. Perspective Efex I’m still trying to figure out if it provides something I can’t do otherwise (I think it does). Solid suite, with plenty of useful tools. 
  • Topaz Labs AI products (standalone/Photoshop/Lightroom). US$79-99 (sometimes discounted). I was hesitant at first as AI (actually probably more ML, or Machine Learning) has had a rough past. I first used a “neural net” in a product back in 1989, but things have progressed quite a bit since then. Gigapixel AI, DeNoise AI, and Sharpen AI have all found a place in my workflow. But here’s the thing: they’re not always the best choice. BOLO (be on the lookout) for artifacts. Sometimes things go smoothly (literally for DeNoise), sometimes they mess up too much of your detail, sometimes they produce unusual and objectionable artifacts. They’re all on the slow side even with a fast GPU and plenty of RAM. But when they work for an image (or part of an image), they work brilliantly. 
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