Third Party Software Overview

In the last ten years the proliferation of digital software has been phenomenal. So much so that it’s difficult for me to even keep up with the names of what’s being offered, let alone to try them out and see how they fare (I do have recommendations in all categories, though, as you’ll soon see). 

Most digital photographers need several types of software to create a complete and useful workflow for their images:

  • Ingest/Transfer. Transfers images from camera or card and allows for renaming, backup, metadata entry, and more. This used to be a distinctly separate category of software, but more recently, other software programs further down the workflow line have tended to usurp these duties, making it less likely that you still need a separate product. On Macintosh computers, the operating system includes this function in a built-in application: Image Capture. Thom’s recommendation: you probably don’t need a separate ingest/transfer program if you’re using one of the organizational or all-in-one programs I note below.
  • Organization/Browsing/Cataloging/Viewing. Products that organize and help you find images fall into this category. Because almost all digital cameras produce only up to 9999 unique file names, and those will all look frighteningly the same (e.g. DSC_0010.JPG versus DSC_0100.JPG), finding an image once it’s on your computer without renaming and/or using an image organization program becomes a fool’s errand. Thom’s recommended products: Macs come with a competent if not particularly well-endowed product: iPhoto, and you can upgrade to the professionally-oriented Apple Aperture, as well. Other excellent and recommended products in this category include Adobe Bridge (a part of Photoshop), Adobe Lightroom, Photo Mechanic, and Media Pro 1 (formerly Expression Media, which was formerly iViewMedia Pro). Plus the all-in-one products listed below do this well, too.
  • Raw Converter. Performs conversion of raw images (NEF, CRW, ORF, etc.). Thom’s recommended products: CaptureOne, ACR in Photoshop CS6, RPP (free, but only on Mac and only for the seriously committed as it’s tough to learn). Thom no longer recommends Capture NX2 (see comments on Nikon Software page). 
  • Editing Program. Allows you to make pixel-level adjustment and corrections to your image data. Thom recommends: Adobe Photoshop CS6, Picture Window 5 (Windows only), Pixelmator (Mac only). Adobe Photoshop Elements is conditionally recommended. While bargain priced, the problem is that if you think you’ll ever move up to the full Photoshop version, Elements is not necessarily a great starting place, as the user interfaces and controls are enough different that you start learning all over again when you switch. But if Elements has everything you need, then it is a reasonable choice. 
  • Plug-in Tools. These products tend to be very single purpose (noise reduction, sharpening, black and white conversion, exposure adjustment, etc.) but also can be better than the tools in even a sophisticated program, such as Photoshop CS5. Most photographers end up with a collection of plug-ins on their computer, and the choice can be highly individual. Thom’s recommended products: three suites are particularly useful: Nik, OnOne, and Topaz. Together, those three suites give you an enormous number of ways to enhance and correct images. In particular, Nik Silver eFex Pro is the best black and white converter, OnOne FocalPoint is a terrific focus modifier, and Topaz DeNoise is perhaps the best of the noise reducers (and you’d get all three of those in the three suites). Also, don’t forget that I provide a set of Photoshop Actions with my Nikon DSLR books that help you do specific tasks.
  • Dedicated Function Programs. HDR (high dynamic range), panorama, and a few other specific types of imaging processes are sometimes best handled by a dedicated program. The precision, control, and output quality of the dedicated programs usually can beat that of the same function in an all-in-one product, even something as sophisticated as Photoshop CS6. Thom’s recommended products: Photomatix for HDR, Nik HDR Pro, Autopano Pro for panos, Nik Silver Efex Pro for black and white conversions.
  • All-in-One Programs. Apple Aperture and Adobe Lightroom are two programs that do almost all of the above (and allow plug-ins to add functionality and can call dedicated programs for the other things you’ll need). They are both excellent choices for someone trying to keep within a budget and who does not want to end up with a complex, multi-product workflow. The only thing I’d point out is that you really need to supplement each with a pixel-level editing program, though perhaps not something as sophisticated as Photoshop CS6. 


A few overall comments about software:

  • Photoshop (and Aperture and Lightroom) aren’t perfect. While Photoshop does HDR, noise reduction, panorama stitching, and more, be careful about relying upon one tool to do everything. What I’ve found over the years is that Photoshop (or substitute another well-endowed program here) often does a good job, but a dedicated tool does a better one. My goal has always been extracting every last bit of quality I can from my images, and that has almost always required using Plug-ins and Dedicated Function programs in addition to the Adobe heavy-hitter.
  • Camera makers have never proven they know how to do software right. Many cameras come with free software or offers for low-cost software. But in the entire history of digital imaging, I’ve yet to see one of these products perform up to the same levels as even modest third-party, independent efforts. Often the one thing the camera-maker products do well is get the raw conversions down better than the defaults for third party products, but this usually comes at the expense of speed, memory and core processor usage, funky user interfaces, bugs that don’t get fixed, unexplained and unfixed crashes, and in the case of Nikon, slow response to Apple and Microsoft’s operating system updates. Over the years, the gap between third party software and the camera maker’s software has gotten bigger. Stay with the camera maker’s software at your expense.
  • What you shoot and how you use it defines what you need. JPEG shooters doing photography mostly for email and the Web will have different workflow and set of program needs than raw shooters who are looking to make large prints. Align your software choices to your chosen workflow.


I’m often asked about what software to use (or what I use). There’s no simple answer that will apply to everyone reading this. However, I’d suggest that the following is a good starting point:

  • Start with an all-in-one program. You need to get your images over to your computer and organized so you can find and work with them. Aperture and Lightroom are excellent starting points, as they give you not only this but far more, including a very competent raw converter. 
  • Add an editing program. Figure out how you’re going to get pixel level changes in your images. Photoshop CS6 is where most of the pros end up, but there are other choices (see above).
  • Figure out the gaps and weaknesses. If you start doing a lot of HDR, panos, black and white conversions, or anything else that’s off the main shoot-organize-convert-and-output stream, this is when you start looking at dedicated programs, plug-ins, or perhaps even other converters or editors. 


Unfortunately, you’ll discover the same thing that the rest of us have discovered in two decades of shooting digital: your workflow will definitely change over time. Indeed, it’s difficult to keep workflow constant for any long length of time because lots of other things impinge: operating system updates, software updates, new cameras, new techniques, new software abilities. That’s one reason why I think a strong organizing program with a long future ahead of it needs to be at the center of your workflow, and that pretty much brings us to Aperture and Lightroom as a starting place (or alternatively, relying upon your own folder/file structure and using a browsing program like Photo Mechanic or Adobe Bridge).


Thom’s current workflow summarized:

  1. Ingest, rename, rate, save and back up into hierarchical folders using Photo Mechanic.
  2. Move folders into desktop structure when I return home.
  3. Convert using Photoshop CS6 (sometimes RPP for problematic images).
  4. Post process using Nik, OnOne, Topaz plug-ins, plus Photoshop tools and actions. 
  5. Ingest into Lightroom/Aperture.
  6. Output from Lightroom/Aperture.


Yes, you read that correctly. I do not use Lightroom or Aperture up front in the workflow. That’s mostly because I don’t feel either one travels well, and most of my images are acquired while traveling. For over a decade I’ve used filename and folder hierarchies to organize my images and find them quickly, and I find it simpler to keep doing this than it is to use and trust the all-in-one organizers in the field. Essentially, you’re always merging or importing databases when using the all-in-one products in the field and on the desktop, and you’ve got to be careful to watch where image data gets put and how it integrates into the main database. Ironically, Lightroom adds extra steps to my field workflow, thus I don’t use it in the field.

One last thing: at Step 3 for panoramas I’ll often use Autopano Pro instead. While Photoshop has gotten better at panos in each generation, I still feel it isn’t quite up to the level of some of the dedicated programs. Moreover, I can drop a folder I know I shot panos in onto Autopano Pro and it’ll find them automatically.   

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