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Asset Management is the Reason I Can’t Quit Adobe

Everyone’s unhappy about Adobe’s subscription pricing model, but until the competition come up with a better assett management system, they’re still the best option.

When I first started taking photographs consistently and began taking this hobby seriously, I ran into the same issue that everyone does – what do you do with all the photos once you’ve taken them. When you’re first starting out something like the Photos app on the Mac or Picture Organizer on Windows might be where you start but the limitations of those apps (no RAW support mainly) will quickly drive you towards a better solution. As the number of photos in your collection increases you realise that free software is probably not going to cut it any more and you need a commercial solution. And for many people the company they choose to spend their money with, was Adobe.

After all, it was Adobe that popularised photo retouching back in the day with the creation of Photoshop. They slowly improved their flagship application over the decades and then added other (supporting) software to their library. In 2007 they released the first version Lightroom, bringing with it the era of RAW image management and non-destructive editing. Since then the software has grown (some might say bloated) and changed over time. It has become one of (if not the) main digital photography tools on most photographers workstation PCs, Macs and laptops.

Then in 2017, Adobe announced that they were introducing a subscription model for their software and that Lightroom 6.7 would be the last version you would ever be able to own outright. This pissed off a huge number of people, but Adobe pushed on with the change and, since so many of us built Adobe software into the very centre of our workflows, we had two options – suck it up or jump ship. I must admit that I wasn’t happy about the subscription model, but at that time, in 2017, I couldn’t see any realistic alternatives and so I began paying for the photographers subscription which gave me Photoshop and Lightroom.

At the time the Photographer’s bundle was priced at a very reasonable $12AUD per month. And a couple of years later it’s not actually that much more expensive at $14AUD. Adobe hit the headlines recently with rumours that they were doubling the price of this suite, but it turned out to be untrue – they were simply trying to ‘guide’ people (through obfuscation) towards their more expensive $29AUD package that includes a terabyte of storage space in the cloud. The $14AUD photography suite is still available and, according to Adobe will continue to be available.

I have no idea whether Adobe’s user base is increasing or decreasing but, their stock has tripled in value since 2013. The evidence online would seem to be that some folks did switch to alternatives, but others (despite the noise they made about it) stayed put. And while I have been with Adobe since the the early ’90s I have certainly not ruled out jumping ship either – as and when another company comes up with a compelling package that gives modern digital photographers what they need, I would have no issue migrating to it.

However that day is not here yet.

Recently I went through one of my regular software searches – a quest to find a (better) alternative to Photoshop and Lightroom for asset management and RAW processing. I downloaded and tested all of the main contenders, put them through their paces, tried using them in my daily photography workflow and compared them to Adobe’s flagships. And while I found considerable cause for celebration in terms of the variety and quality of other applications, I will be sticking with Adobe for the foreseeable future for the simple reason that nobody does asset management as well as them. Here’s how my brief bid for freedom went.

The Argument for the Defence

Before we get into the arguments for and against the various packages, let’s talk about what Lightroom has that makes it so useful.

For many photographers, they can do 95% of their edits in that one application without ever having to go near Photoshop or an alternative photo retouching application. Lightroom has an interface refined over time that is intuitive and quick – and every six months or so Adobe adds a major feature, such as Enhance Details, Dehaze or the Texture slider. By and large, however, they leave the cataloging/asset management side alone. Most of the features that make Lightroom so useful have been there since the early days which makes their exclusion (spoiler alert) so frustrating when they’re missing in the competition.

As far as I’m concerned, these are the killer features that make managing a large collection of images in Lightroom less painful than in other apps – I’m a landscape photographer and so things like tethered shooting are irrelevant to me, so your mileage may vary.

1) Multiple catalogs. This means I can neatly separate professional work from my own images. I can create catalogs for individual clients, for individual jobs, for whatever purpose I’d like. And when I open that catalog I just get those images that I have added to it.

2) Stacks. Believe it or not stacks have been in Lightroom since version 1.0. They enable you to group images together inside the library index and they are an absolute boon. I shoot practically everything bracketed and, using autostacking I can quickly put every image from a shoot with its peers. I shoot a tonne of panoramas too and these can all be stacked together for quick and efficient processing.

3) Collections. I can create manual collections as and when I want or I can create smart collections based around dynamic criteria (all photos taken in the last week, or all five star images I’ve taken on my old 550D for instance). When you have a large number of images (I currently have about 170,000) then finding the right photo quickly becomes a big deal.

4) Filters. I can filter by text, metadata or attribute, such as all flagged images, that contains they keyword ‘beach’ that were taken with my Mavic 2 Pro.

5) Map. This is a big deal if you’re a landscape photographer like me and it’s fair to say that I’d be lost without it. If someone asks me if I have a photo from a particular location I can quickly navigate to that exact spot on the map and filter my images by that location. The visual nature of the map and the ability to easily increase or decrease the search radius makes it infinitely preferable to something like a simple geo-lookup. It’s also fast and enables me to create bespoke geo-collections with ease.

6) Watermarks. Lightroom makes it extremely easy to add a watermark to an image in precisely the location I’d like an in precisely the way I want it to appear.

7) Speed. Despite the fact that Lightroom’s looking after 170,000 images in my main catalog, it runs quickly. I know photographers with considerably more images than that who have no dramas either. The main constraint on the performance of my catalog seems to be the physical media they are stored on – several large external hard drives in my case.

8) Plugins. I can extend the functionality using third party plug-ins.

The Alternatives

When I began this most recent search for an alternative to Adobe I downloaded and tested Darktable and RawTherapee (both free and open source), Photo MechanicACDSee 5 for Mac ($49AUD), Luminar ($85AUD), Affinity Photo ($79AUD) and ON1 Photo RAW ($79AUD).

After trying the two free applications, I quickly ruled them out on performance and cataloging grounds – of the two RawTherapee was definitely the better RAW processor – but they were way too lacking in asset management terms for my needs. And as much as I liked Affinity Photo (it’s definitely a direct competitor to Photoshop now) it’s a straight image processor, so it was ruled out too. Photo Mechanic was kicked into touch too, because even though it focuses almost entirely on the management side of things, it lacked things like stacking. That brought it down to ACDSee, On1 and Luminar.

It quickly became apparent, in my testing, that ACDSee 5 wasn’t going to cut it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, it’s just too basic for my requirements. Looking at their website it would seem that the Windows version has way more bells and whistles than the Mac one, so if you are a PC user it could still be worth checking out.

Bearing all of that in mind, I focused most of my attention on On1 and Luminar as these seem to be the only real contenders to take Lightroom’s crown.

On1 are working hard to attract disenfranchised Lightroom users over to their side of the fence. In fact on their website they have a whole section devoted to ‘switchers’. They point out that you can transfer your Lightroom settings over, enjoy layers functionality and own the software forever. It’s a clever play and not without its merits, but the truth is that On1 Photo RAW 2019 is not as good as Lightroom, despite the layers feature and some other cool little features. I found it to be a bit laggy (even on my top of the line 32Gb 2019 iMac). And, despite some early promise, I found the asset management in particular to be lacking. No stacks, no map and no collections. It does have albums and smart album functionality (which looks like a straight rip of Adobe’s) and you can flag, rate and colour your images, along with changing metadata.

It’s pretty clear that On1 have worked hard to incorporate the features that Adobe users are used to. For instance the Export functionality borrows heavily from Lightroom’s with similar size, watermark, naming and sharpening options and a couple of extras (tiling and gallery wrap) thrown in for good measure. I found moving around inside folders and collections to be laggy, but would forgive that if there were stacks and a map feature. I’d also suggest that On1 need to reconsider they way they’ve designed the interface because it’s all over the place, with small granular toolbars situated on every perimeter of the screen and in no particular logical order. This all means that it’s not conducive to a streamlined workflow as you process your images.

Luminar (I tested version 3.1) came closest to tempting me away from Lightroom if only in terms of processing RAW images. I’ve tried all the many and varied RAW processing applications that are available for the Mac and Luminar 3 is definitely the next best thing to Lightroom. It has a great interface, which is highly customisable so you can make it work exactly the way you want. You can add only those sliders you actually use on your images and then save it as a custom workspace. More importantly there’s some genuinely innovative stuff in there, such as the A.I. powered filters that can enhance the entire image or just elements of it (such as the sky). I got better results editing my RAW files with Luminar than I did with any of the Lightroom alternatives and I subsequently installed Skylum’s Flex (basically Luminar in Lightroom plug-in form) as an alternative editing solution.

Rather than relying on a database in which to store metadata, Luminar simply accesses your photographs in the file hierarchy you’ve created yourself. You can add folders (or indeed entire drives) to the sidebar for easy access but there’s no requirement to do so – you can just as easily simply browse to a folder and work from there. Further to this the software has a Quick Edit facility that enables you to edit straight off the SD-Card if you want. Adding folders to the sidebar is fast (because it’s basically just indexing them) so it’s possible to get up and running quickly. However it has only the most rudimentary image browser – no stacks, only the most basic filtering, no smart albums, no maps. So for processing RAWs, it’s great, but as an asset manager, Luminar 3 is not much use.

We're not there yet ...

The day may well come when I jump ship to another asset manager/RAW processor but that day isn’t here yet. All of the alternatives to Lightroom have features I’d love to see in Adobe’s application, but when it comes to straight asset management, they have a long way to go. It seems to me that even applications that concentrate almost completely on asset management (such as Photo Mechanic) still don’t do as good a job at managing large collections of photographs as Lightroom does. Adobe’s application is not perfect, but it’s feature-packed, fast and flexible and, while the competition are snapping at Adobe’s heels, they’re not within biting distance yet.

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