There has long been room in the market for a competitor to enter this growing software niche and deliver an image management suite for a reasonable one-off fee that the hobbyist photographer would consider fair. In most instances they have come up short - the RAW processing is usually excellent - but they are found lacking on the image management side of the equation. So I eagerly anticipated the release of the latest version of ACDSee Photo Studio and the possibility that someone might finally do a better job than Adobe. Spoiler alert - they haven't. Not completely, anyway.
The venerable ACDSee suite first came out in 1994, a full 13 years before the first release of Lightroom, so it's not like they haven't had some time to work out the wrinkles. ACDSee have done a better job than most other companies, but there are some key differences between this and Lightroom that remain a deal-breaker for me. My requirements are fairly specific though and you may find that this software is the perfect addition to your photography workflow. Let's talk about all the good stuff first.
Firstly of course, this is a one-off purchase of $100 here in Australia and $70 in the US. If you subscribe to Adobe's Photography plan, which gets you Photoshop, Lightroom and Lightroom Classic, then you'll pay $171 for the first year alone, so for just over six months of fees to Adobe you could own this software outright. That's a pretty sizeable advantage any way you look at it. And it's not like you're buying software from some start-up that might drop off the face of the earth after a year - ACDSee have been in this software sector since its very beginnings.
This is a streamlined bit of software that ran fast and smoothly on my two year old iMac. This appears to be mainly due to the use of a hierarchical database instead of a relational one in Lightroom. You can use it as a full-blown workflow suite, importing images directly off your SD-card, copying them to an archive somewhere and tagging, categorising and keywording them along the way. Alternatively you can simply fire it up and point it at your photo archives and it will catalog them. There is even an import tool for Lightroom which will transfer your metadata including ratings and keywords. Unfortunately it won't import your .xmp sidecar files from Lightroom so you'll lose any edits you made to the RAW file. I did a test save of metadata in Lightroom and it had no impact on the Photo Studio file at all but it did grab content, keyword, contact and IPTC image metadata.
Keywording and rating images in Photo Studio is fast and simple and can be automated if you want. The library view, which sits under the 'Manage' tab shows you thumbnails of your images and you also flick to the 'View' tab which has a large image/filmstrip layout similar to Lightroom's Develop module. One welcome addition to the software is the inclusion of a map, which is one of the key features I use regularly in Lightroom and which makes my life considerably easier. It's not as flexible as Lightroom's but does include stuff like reverse geoencode and the ability to drag a set of images onto a location on the map to add GPS data to those files. All things being equal, PhotoStudio's digital asset management capabilities are amongst the best I've tried, but they are not in the same league as Lightroom and its Sqlite database.
The develop module is where you create all those non-destructive RAW image edits. It includes a pretty standard selection of tools that enable you to manipulate RAW image data and a couple of fancy light and colour tools that raise this software up a couple of levels. Edits are categorised into Tune, Detail, Geometry and Repair sliders and these can be applied globally or using brush, linear or radial masks. It all worked well, though I did find the equivalent tools here much stronger than their Lightroom equivalents.
In terms of one-click functions such as presets, there is a colour LUT tool that can load .cube files and some basic built-in presets. You can also save your own presets which is handy if you have a set of base-line tweaks that you tend to apply to all of your images. It's a basic but well-rounded set of tools, sliders and features, but there was nothing in here that could in any way be considered innovative or unique.
That's the good stuff, let's talk about a few negatives. My first surprise on that front was that I couldn't actually edit any of my Fujifilm X-T4's raw files. This is because the software only supports the uncompressed RAW format on all of Fujifilm's cameras which is unfortunate. I don't tend to use the uncompressed format because it takes up more space and has no huge benefits in terms of quality. It's a bit of a shame, but in ACDSee's defence, Lightroom sometimes does a less than spectacular job of rendering my X-T4's .RAF files.
The latest version of Lightroom has some terrific new masking capabilities, including AI selections but Photo Studio uses a more traditional linear/radial approach. It's a much more basic toolset, but it's possible to achieve similar results if you're prepared to finesse your masks. The software's also missing all of Lightroom's more advanced tools, such as enhance, HDR and pano and mean that you will need an external editor if you want to combine shots in some way.
In terms of the library management there is no stacking feature. This is something I use all the time in Lightroom as I usually shoot bracketed images and Lightroom automatically stacks those bundles of files into their own virtual folders so you can get a better overview of all the images in that folder. You can select multiple images in Photo Studio and add them a separate sub-folder, but it's not a useful facility when you have several hundred images in your import.
I guess the single biggest drawback with this software is that it feels a few generations behind Lightroom. All of the basics are in there, but there's none of the marque tools that make my asset management and RAW processing simpler and more effective - stuff like being able to filter using the map (the 'just show visible' filter) or the colour profiles, the smart collections, the plugins, the collections, the presets and the aforementioned HDR, pano and enhance tools.
The Adobe suite comes with cloud space and access to mobile versions of the desktop apps and ACDSee have taken on board. Your purchase grants you access to a Mobile Sync app that enables you to send photos and videos directly from your phone to your Photo Studio library along with any edits you made on-the-go. It's a neat value-add but I'm not sure how useful it is in practice since most iPhone users already use iCloud to store photos, but I guess it saves a middle-step of exporting your photos from Apple Photos to your media library.
I was impressed by this latest version of Photo Studio and I suspect that for many photographers it will do everything they want and more. It's a polished application that feels Mac-like and I found it to be both fast and stable. If I had to plump for any DAM application apart from Lightroom, then this would certainly be it. The lack of a subscription will be very tempting to many people and it's an actively developed application that will only improve over time. Recommended.