Suggested Software 2020

One consequence of the various COVID-19 quarantines is that a lot of photographers are spending time working on organizing and editing images. Thus, a common question I’ve been getting this Spring is “what software should I use?” 

That’s not a simple question for a variety of reasons:

  • Software is in constant flux as new versions are released
  • Some people are price sensitive or subscription averse
  • Macintosh and Windows options vary
  • Workflows differ in various options
  • UI differences abound, and some prefer one style to another
  • Cataloging is different than conversion is different than editing
  • Different software taxes computer resources in different ways
  • Training materials for different software varies in quantity and quality

To some degree, picking software is tougher than picking a camera mount. You have more options and there’s way more differentiation.

Let me get one thing out of the way first: if you think you buy software once and never again, you’re simply asking for a rough future. Maybe an impossible future. I’ve been using personal computers for 44 years now. Not a single product I used 44 years ago exists today (nor do the computers I used it on). Yet the text I typed on those original computers has (mostly) survived, because I spent time transitioning it to new software/computers time and time again as products died. 

Your photos are like my writing: they need to survive whatever changes happen in the computer and software industry. 

Thus, before we even start on software choices, let me make one thing clear: you need to have an organized and backed up way of storing your images. You also have to be on the lookout for changes where software stops supporting a format or something you do with the photos. For instance, the Fujifilm S-Pro DSLRs and the Nikon D1x had unusual image sensors that are not simple Bayer patterns. We’ve lost options on how to process raw files from those cameras over time. Likewise, Fujifilm’s current X-Trans is an unusual sensor pattern that even today doesn’t have what I’d call a “perfect” raw converter for, and if Fujifilm once again moves on to a new sensor format—something they’ve done multiple times in the past—future raw support could be threatened if you’re not paying attention.

Which brings me to a myth that still pervades digital photography: that your image files are stored in Lightroom. Nope. Lightroom CC Classic is as it always was: a database of all the things about your photo files. That database does not store the actual original photo (it may store representations of it, depending upon how you’ve got it configured). Even the true cloud version of Lightroom doesn’t store your files in it, it simply wants the files stored in Adobe’s cloud. 

So, first and foremost, make sure that you (and not some software) are managing where your photo files are located and how they’re backed up. 

And away we go…

Ingesting software is the oft-overlooked piece in the workflow. That’s partly because Lightroom Classic has a built-in file ingesting capability, which leads to the myth about Lightroom storing files. Nikon Capture NX-D and ViewNX-i install a separate ingester that’s part of their package (Nikon Transfer). Apple Image Capture is part of the macOS and does image ingest (typically into Photos). 

But if you want my advice, buy Photo Mechanic. It’s not cheap at US$139, and it’s pretty geeky as software goes. But it’s the gold standard for image ingest and is what most sports and PJ photographers tend to use. It can apply IPTC data and keywords during ingest, it can ingest from multiple devices simultaneously, as well as save to multiple devices simultaneously. It’s fast, has a hugely flexible file renaming ability, and it also serves as an extremely fast photo browser and marker (ratings, stars, rejects, etc.). Couple PM with the fastest card reader and SSD file storage, and you can really fly through ingest/browsing.

There’s a temptation to use FastRawViewer instead of Photo Mechanic, because it, too, is a fast browser/marker program. But I don’t like the way they suggest/force your workflow perform image ingest (open the folder with images on your card in FRV, cull, then copy to where you want it). Culling at the first stage of your post-camera workflow can be on the dangerous side. I prefer culling later rather than sooner, for several reasons. First, I change my mind sometimes. Second, as software gets better and better, images you might have rejected for a flaw can sometimes later be corrected to usefulness. Third, by immediately culling, you can’t later do an analysis of what you’re not getting right in shooting; you don’t see your consistent mistakes as easily.

Don’t skimp on the ingest stage. You need something that’s flexible and usable. Even Lightroom is far better than just brute force file copying via the OS. (That said, my teaching assistant does something additional: he makes physical copies of the cards on a backup drive as archive copies as well as ingest his images. This allows him to go back and ingest again if necessary, and find everything he’s ever shot if he wants to analyze his shooting; but it uses a lot of extra storage space.)

Next up, we have finding and selecting images you want to work on. Both PM and FRV work well at that, as long as you were very structured in how you saved images to your system (see this article on File Hierarchy). But most of you are probably doing something different.

Indeed, this is the arena where Aperture and Lightroom duked it out for many years: they organized and cataloged your photos, and allowed you to browse that organization conveniently. These days Aperture is gone, replaced by Apple Photos. We also have Google Photos, and other products such as Mylio that attempt to do the same thing. 

That said, the gold standard for managing your image files is probably still Lightroom CC Classic. Which brings us to another myth surrounding Adobe and the Creative Cloud. If you stop your subscription to a Adobe Photography Plan that includes Lightroom CC Classic, everyone thinks that Lightroom stops working. 

That’s not exactly true. The catalog and browsing options are still available after a subscription lapse. The Develop and other modules stop working, though. It’s a bit like you freeze your catalog in time when you let a subscription lapse. You still have full access to what you’ve done, but no access to changing things or using most of the output features. 

Adobe’s marketing of Lightroom these days leaves a lot to be desired. The competing and multiplication of Lightroom versions leads them to make statements like “anywhere editing.” While true if you want to dip into the various different aspects of Lightroom—including the iPad these days—most people should be using Lightroom CC Classic as their “mothership” and only dipping into the rest of the Adobe ecosystem as needed.

Because Lightroom was developed by and for photographers and has a long, storied history, it has features in it that others are still trying to catch up to. Even Adobe (with the iPad and Cloud versions of Lightroom). That’s one reason I put Lightroom CC Classic at the gold standard level.

Plenty of products exist in the organizing and cataloging space, including components of larger products, like some raw converters. If you type “image cataloging software” into a search engine, you’ll get millions of hits, a lot of sponsored ads, and you’ll see which of them are best at search engine optimization (SEO), but you won’t get a lot of clarity. Even Wikipedia’s lists and tables are incomplete and out of date because there is so much activity in this space.

I personally don’t use Lightroom (at least not in the way most others do). I keep my files well named and highly organized in the OS, then use Photo Mechanic to browse and forward to my raw converter or image editor, when necessary. If I had the time, I might take a whack at using Lightroom more, but a lot of my paid work is time sensitive, and my methods focus on that. It takes me longer to do the things I do in Lightroom, thus my avoidance of it.

I mentioned raw converter or image editor, so let’s move on to those. They may or may not be the same program. For me, they are, because Photoshop CC is what I currently use for both (most of the time). I’d call Photoshop CC the gold standard to which everything else aspires. 

Let’s start with raw conversion. Converters have proliferated, though I’m not sure how they’re all going to survive long term. The major players here would be our gold standards of Lightroom/Photoshop, plus CaptureOne, DxO PhotoLab, Skylum Luminar, and ON1 Raw Converter. Plenty of other converters exist, including free ones from the camera makers themselves.

But if free is what you want and you own a Fujifilm, Nikon, or Sony camera, the gold standard is CaptureOne Express for <Brand>. This is a slightly cut-down version of a very mature and capable product.

One problem with the raw converter space is that it is “noisy.” You probably see a constant stream of “updates,” “offers,” “new features,” and “limited-time sales” as you browse around the Web. That’s because these companies have marketing/sales departments that are aggressive and constantly working the Internet. For instance, all but Adobe are big users of affiliate referral fees, which is why you see the rumor sites constantly hawking raw converter software. 

The order that I presented the major players in raw converters two paragraphs ago is basically the order I’d suggest you investigate the major raw converters (Adobe, CaptureOne, DxO, Skylum, ON1). All have trial versions, so there’s no penalty to looking to see which one you might prefer other than using a chunk of your time. I would say this in addition: raw converters now need plenty of computer horsepower (typically RAM, sometimes GPU or CPU cores). The more that’s been added to the software capabilities and the larger our megapixel counts get, the harder we work these programs. Don’t be evaluating software on a six-year-old computer with limited RAM.

So how is a raw converter different than an image editor? Generally this boils down to changing things at a global level (usually non-destructively) versus getting in at the pixel level (which is destructive). I use Photoshop for both things, but be aware that most programs that call themselves raw converters don’t allow pixel-level manipulation (though they may have brushes that can apply to areas). 

There’s one program that’s very much like Photoshop that needs to be mentioned: Affinity Photo. AP is very close to a clone of Photoshop, and it’s available both on the iPad as well as macOS/Windows. At US$50 (currently on sale for less), AP is almost a no-brainer purchase, as it gives you a low-cost Photoshop ability if you don’t subscribe to the Adobe Photography Plan. If you’re buying into another raw converter, I’d tend to recommend you pick up AP just in case you need to follow along with a a Photoshop tutorial or get in and edit pixels. 

Finally, we get to plug-ins. In Ye Olden Dayes of Digital, plug-ins were pretty much the only way we could manipulate things above and beyond the basics. I worked on my first plug-in back in 1994. Heck, Nikon once even had a raw conversion plug-in for Photoshop. These days, we don’t use plug-ins very much. Many of the plug-in abilities got subsumed into the Adobe (and other vendor) products over time. 

That said, there are still reasons to consider a few plug-ins. These days I’m down to basically four, two of which you can’t buy any more. My set that you can still buy is Nik Tools and the Topaz Labs AI tools that can act as plug-ins (not all do). My reason for using these is that I believe that I get a finer degree of control and better results than the built-in options within Adobe’s products. For instance, noise reduction. Nik does a better job of doing isolated NR, while Topaz does an overall better job if you have enough CPU/GPU horsepower. 

The two plug-ins I still use that you can’t buy any more are Skylum Intensify, and Piccure+. Skylum claims that everything in Intensify is in Luminar. Yes, but it’s in different places with different UIs and doesn’t work the way I’m used to with Intensify. In a couple of isolated cases, you can’t quite do the same thing as in Intensify, and you generally can’t do it as quickly. Don’t change my workflow!

Piccure+, which does deconvolution sharpening better than any tool I know of—and far better sharpening than anything else with a little care on the settings—unfortunately is no longer available to purchase, apparently due to the death of its developer. Someone should pick up the IP and make a newer version of it, though that might be tied up in an estate. 

So, what do I basically recommend?

  • Ingest with Photo Mechanic (second choice Lightroom)
  • Catalog with Lightroom (or manage on your own)
  • Convert with Lightroom/Photoshop
  • Pick up the Nik/Topaz plug-ins if you’re seriously into fine level manipulations

Yet you have plenty of other choices these days, and because most software has free trials, you shouldn’t be afraid to try other products to see if they suit your needs. 

Finally, one further comment. Another myth is that Adobe software is much more expensive than everything else. That’s both somewhat true and somewhat false. I average about US$100 a year paying for Lightroom and Photoshop, which is down from my average before Creative Cloud. Wait, that’s less than US$10/month! Yes, it is. If you pay attention, around the holidays you can usually find deals on annual Photography Plan purchases. Last year Dell offered that for about US$95. Sometimes Amazon or B&H will have one-day deals. I’ve pointed to these deals more than once in the past (you are reading my site every day, right? ;~). 

Other cataloging or raw conversion software tends to get major for-money updates once a year now, and those tend to run from US$50 to US$80 if you opt-in early, more if you don’t jump on the updates when they first become available. 

So, no matter what your choice of core digital photography software is, you’re likely to be paying at least US$50/year, and more typically US$80-100/year. Adobe’s at the high-end of that range, Skylum seems to be consistently at the low end of that range. 

I’d strongly discourage you from thinking that software purchases are “one and done.” Programs often break at OS updates, new cameras (and lens profiles) come out that you may need the latest update for, and everyone is introducing useful new features and trying to catch Adobe (while Adobe tries to stay ahead of them). Bugs tend to get fixed when software companies have a reliable revenue stream (subscription or updates), and companies tend to stay in business supporting their software if that revenue stream is still running. 

Do yourself a favor and budget a yearly amount to keep your software up-to-date.

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