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“Take Control of Your Digital Photos,” Chapter 3

by Jeff Carlson

This article is a pre-release chapter in Jeff Carlson’s upcoming “Take Control of Your Digital Photos,” scheduled for public release in August 2013. Apart from the introduction [1], these chapters are available only to TidBITS members [2]; see “Streamed Advice for Managing Your Digital Photos [3]” for details.

Choose a Photo-Management Application

Although it’s possible to dump photos into a folder on your computer and call that “organization,” this is one case where I don’t recommend a do-it-yourself approach. My photo-management strategy relies heavily on software to organize images and apply essential metadata. The time you save when tagging and searching for images, in my opinion, justifies the price of a good photo-management program.

But which one? I’d love to say, “Go get this one program and you’ll be set,” but that’s not realistic: your photo library may already be stored in an application that makes it difficult to transition; or you may need something that offers more image-editing features than other programs.

The good news is that there are several interesting options for managing photos. However, their features vary widely: some are designed just for speeding up the import process, some offer a photo-focused view of folders on your hard disk, and some are self-contained photo-management libraries. Because it’s impractical for me to list every program out there, I’ve focused on the features that I consider most essential for effectively managing your photo collection. (I’ll discuss specific programs that meet these criteria—and identify my preference—in a moment.) If you’re unhappy with your current photo organizer and are looking for a better option, keep this feature list in mind:

  • Ratings: The ability to quickly identify which photos are better than others, without having to scan through them every time, is key. Most applications offer a scale of zero to five stars, plus an easy way to assign the rating, such as pressing a number key (4) or shortcut key combination (Command-4). Some applications offer additional ways to differentiate photos, such as applying a flag or colored labels.
  • Keywords: Tagging photos with keywords lets you give context to photos and helps locate related images later. I place a high value on applications that make applying and creating keywords fast and easy; if too many steps are involved, you’re less likely to use keywords.
  • Metadata at import: Just as important as having keywords is the capability to add them to photos during the import process. As you’ll see in Best Practices for Importing Photos, you can save a lot of time by making the software assign keywords and other metadata while it’s ingesting images, so you don’t have to remember to do it later.
  • Smart albums: I firmly believe the computer should do most of the grunt work while I enjoy my photos, which is why I like to use “smart albums”—saved searches that locate and display photos based on criteria I specify—instead of having to manually sort photos into standard albums.
  • Offline media: If you haven’t noticed yet, photos take up a vast amount of storage. At some point you won’t want (or won’t be able) to keep your entire library on your computer’s hard disk, requiring a shift to external storage, such as a removable hard drive. A good application will handle offline media with ease: It should provide a thumbnail image of photos that aren’t available and make it possible to assign metadata without the originals present. When the external disk becomes available again, the application should acknowledge it and let you work with the photos as usual. That way, your entire collection remains intact from your perspective instead of being fragmented among separate libraries on several disks.
  • Portability: The application should offer an easy way to export or move photos while keeping intact the metadata you worked so hard to apply. Most programs are good at this, although one notable exception—iPhoto—fails (as I discuss shortly).
  • Potential longevity: As customers, we don’t have a lot of control over this aspect, but I recommend looking for software that’s likely to stick around. You don’t want to invest time into a program and then realize it’s no longer being updated. Large companies with a history of photo-related development have an edge here, because in theory they have more resources to keep development active—though even big companies can falter.

Bonus: Non-destructive editing. Although this feature doesn’t pertain directly to managing your photo library, I think it’s essential in a photo application. You should be able to apply any number of creative or crazy edits to a photo and yet always have the option to revert to the original, untouched image.

With that criteria in mind, let’s look at how specific applications stack up. Each of the programs I’ve included here—except iPhoto, as you’ll see in a moment—meets the criteria I’ve laid out, is popular, and is affordable. However, if you already use something you like that isn’t on this list, by all means stick with it—the goal of this book is to establish a workflow that makes it easy to tag and locate photos later, not to railroad you into one application.


After laying out what I believe are the important qualifications for a photo-management application, it may surprise you that I’m starting with iPhoto. Apple’s friendly photo application fails in several areas, but it’s also the default photo-management application that comes with every new Mac, so it’s likely you use it or have dabbled with it. Here’s how it stacks up to my list:

  • Ratings: iPhoto offers a scale of zero to five stars for rating photos, plus the option to flag images. You can also reject a photo by hiding it (or deleting it, of course). This may sound like a tiny detail, but unlike many other applications in this list, rating photos using the keyboard involves pressing Command plus the number key instead of just the number key itself; that could trip you up if you switch between programs.
  • Keywords: In iPhoto you apply new or existing keywords via an Info pane, which isn’t visible by default. You can also assign keyboard shortcuts to terms, enabling you to tag an image just by pressing a key (such as “s” for “espresso”)—but, inconveniently, only when a separate Keywords floating window is visible (Figure 1).
    Figure 1: Applying keywords using shortcuts works only when the optional Keywords floating window is visible." />

    Figure 1: Applying keywords using shortcuts works only when the optional Keywords floating window is visible.

  • Metadata at import: iPhoto doesn’t offer any options other than transferring your photos during the import process. (Although I do offer an alternative for iPhoto users in Best Practices for Importing Photos.)
  • Smart albums: iPhoto does offer smart albums, which are easy to set up and access.
  • Offline media: To my surprise, iPhoto does not handle offline media well at all. Photos imported from a camera or memory card can’t be stored on a separate volume—they’re stored in iPhoto’s monolithic library file (actually, it’s a “package” that contains files and folders, but for practical purposes is treated as one file). Alternatively, if you import photos from a hard disk, you do get an option to reference photos in their original locations. However, if you remove a volume on which referenced photos live, iPhoto first asks you to locate the file and then, if the volume is not available, displays a blank screen with a warning icon (Figure 2). It’s maddening, especially for software in its ninth major version (9.4.3 at press time).
    Figure 2: iPhoto’s helpful display when a photo is offline." />

    Figure 2: iPhoto’s helpful display when a photo is offline.

  • Portability: iPhoto stumbles in the portability category. Although you can export photos easily, only JPEGs take their metadata with them. Raw files can be exported, but any keywords or titles you assigned are ignored. You can’t export ratings for any file format. Even third-party developers can no longer access metadata following a recent iPhoto update. And because the photo library is stored in one big file, it’s even more difficult to access individual photos outside of iPhoto.
  • Longevity: iPhoto anchors Apple’s iLife suite of applications, so one would assume it will stick around. Except we’re talking about Apple, so it’s not safe to assume anything.

I’m guessing Apple is working on a major revamp of iPhoto, based on how different iPhoto for iOS is in comparison, and to take advantage of the new method of sorting photos into Collections and Moments in the Photos app under iOS 7. So I’m optimistic that the next big version of the software improves on many of these points. (To read more about my concerns with iPhoto, read my Macworld article Four things Apple could do to improve iPhoto right now [4].)


iPhoto was Apple’s first step toward handling photos under Mac OS X, and it’s clearly aimed at beginners. Aperture is the company’s professional photo application, and it almost feels like it came from a completely different source. Let’s see how it fares:

  • Ratings: Aperture offers up to five stars, a flag, and a selection of seven colored labels. Photos can also be marked as Rejected, which hides them from view.
  • Keywords: You can type keywords into a field in the Info pane. Aperture also offers a stock set of generic keywords (such as Action, Portrait, and Landscape) that can be assigned using keyboard shortcuts (Option plus a number key) or a menu.
  • Metadata at import: Not only can you apply metadata during the import stage, you can create presets to avoid typing the same things every time (Figure 3).
    Figure 3: A metadata preset fills in a lot of information at import." />

    Figure 3: A metadata preset fills in a lot of information at import.

  • Smart albums: Aperture offers more options for defining metadata than iPhoto, so its smart albums are able to perform more complex searches. For example, you can locate photos with specific adjustments applied, such as exposure or noise reduction.
  • Offline media: Aperture correctly handles media on disks that aren’t available.
  • Portability: Like iPhoto, Aperture stores your photos in a single package file by default, making it more difficult to access your photos from outside the application. However, you can opt to instead store your photos in a location of your choosing (which is what I recommend).
  • Longevity: Rumors of Aperture’s demise swirl every few months, then dissipate. The program doesn’t enjoy the success of Adobe’s Lightroom, but Apple has invested considerable time and talent to make Aperture a top professional application. And yet, it hasn’t received a major-version update in four years. I’d normally say that Apple’s efforts to attract top professionals would be incentive enough to keep Aperture active, but look at Final Cut Pro as a counterexample; Apple introduced a rewritten, dramatically different version that alienated many video pros.

iPhoto and Aperture’s shared library format

The last significant change to both iPhoto and Aperture brought a photo library format that can be read by both applications. For example, you can edit in Aperture, close the library, and open it again in iPhoto for someone else to browse or edit.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

Although Adobe crammed “Photoshop” into the product name for branding reasons, Lightroom is quite different from its industrial-strength image-editing sibling. Lightroom was designed to efficiently process raw files and give professionals a way to manage their photo libraries. It didn’t hurt that the Lightroom developers could tap the shoulders of the Photoshop developers and incorporate great editing features, too. (Lightroom and Photoshop complement one another, but the former’s tools are now so good that I rarely find myself editing an image in Photoshop.) Here’s how Lightroom measures up:

  • Ratings: Lightroom offers a scale of zero to five stars, a flag for identifying picks, the capability to mark photos as rejected, and six customizable color labels.
  • Keywords: Lightroom’s keyword support is extensive, giving you two separate panes for adding tags (you can type directly into a field that auto-completes words as you type or choose from a list). Lightroom also has customizable keyword sets. Inside each set are nine keywords that you define and then apply by pressing Option/Alt and a number key. For example, the included Outdoor Photography set includes keywords such as “Landscape,” “Wildlife,” and “Flowers & Plants.” The Wedding Photography set includes “Bride,” “Groom,” “Reception,” and others. Pressing Option-6 in these examples would apply either “Landscape” or “Bride,” depending on which set is active. Having multiple sets saves time otherwise spent typing terms for tags you frequently use.
    Figure 4: Pressing the Option or Alt key with a number key assigns keywords from the selected set." />

    Figure 4: Pressing the Option or Alt key with a number key assigns keywords from the selected set.

  • Metadata at import: Lightroom can apply metadata during import, including presets that you choose. For example, I have a “Jeff Standard” set that includes the keyword “jeffcarlson” and IPTC data such as my contact information. I also create sets for specific projects that contain terms relevant to them, such as when I’m taking photos of products.
  • Smart albums: Lightroom’s implementation, which Adobe calls Smart Collections, is thorough like Aperture’s and also lets you nest search criteria (making it possible, for example, to locate all photos tagged with “Disneyland,” shot using a Nikon camera, and marked with a Red or Blue label).
  • Offline media: Lightroom notes that an image is offline, but doesn’t stress about it. You can still view the photo, and read and edit its metadata (Figure 5). Lightroom 5 also offers a feature called Smart Previews, which creates proxy photos that are about 5 percent the size of the original. You can make image adjustments even when the original image is offline; since the changes are non-destructive, they’re applied to the image when you reconnect the volume on which it’s stored.
    Figure 5: Offline photos are visible and even editable in some circumstances." />

    Figure 5: Offline photos are visible and even editable in some circumstances.

  • Portability: Lightroom uses a database to track where photos are stored, but doesn’t try to keep them in one large library file—I can easily browse my disk structure to locate images if I need to. It also supports saving metadata to sidecar files (leaving raw files unaltered) or into the JPEG images.
  • Longevity: Lightroom is currently the leader in this category of software, and Adobe supports it fully. I don’t see it going away anytime soon.

Adobe Photoshop Elements

Photoshop Elements started life as a “Photoshop Lite,” an inexpensive image-editing alternative to the full-blown Photoshop. Over the years, as more people embraced digital photography, Photoshop Elements broadened its scope to include photo management too. The addition of a second application, the Elements Organizer, puts it into the same category as the other programs I mention in this chapter. However, it stumbles in a few places, making it less than ideal:

  • Ratings: The Organizer offers zero to five stars, but no option to reject, flag, or label photos.
  • Keywords: Image tags, as the Organizer refers to keywords, can be applied by typing in a field like many other applications. If you’re masochistic, you can create image tags first and then drag them to photos. But you’re not.
  • Metadata at import: The Import window includes the option to apply just creator and copyright information to incoming photos (Figure 6). You can also apply a metadata template to incoming photos, though you have to set up that information in the separate Elements Editor application before you import. You can’t add keywords during import.
    Figure 6: Photoshop Elements offers very little option to apply metadata at import." />

    Figure 6: Photoshop Elements offers very little option to apply metadata at import.

  • Smart albums: The Organizer’s version of a smart album is called a saved search, and it operates similarly to a smart album except for one key difference: you can’t edit it later. If you want to change the parameters of a saved search, you have to duplicate it, edit the criteria, and save it as a new saved search.
  • Offline media: The Organizer stumbles here, too, with behavior similar to iPhoto’s.
  • Portability: Photos are not stored in a central location, as with iPhoto, making it easy to locate images outside of the program. You can also save metadata to image files or to separate XMP sidecar files.
  • Longevity: Photoshop Elements, now at version 11, is a stalwart of Adobe’s lineup (and I’ve heard rumors that it’s one of the company’s most profitable products as well).

Import Tools and Directory Viewers

The field of photo tools is broader than the list of applications I’ve included here, but after careful consideration, I’ve left a few notable contenders off the list because, although they do their respective jobs well, they don’t offer the full range of photo-management features I consider essential.

Photo Mechanic [5], for example, earns high regard by professionals because it’s an extremely fast tool for importing and tagging photos. However, it doesn’t manage your library, offer smart albums, or provide a way to view your entire collection of photos. Its developer, CameraBits, is working on a product called Catalog [6] that will work with Photo Mechanic, and when that’s released I’ll be eager to take a look at it.

Another category of applications that I call “directory viewers” is also available, which includes Adobe Bridge [7] and Google’s Picasa [8]. They give you a photo-centric view of files in your hard disk’s folders, and can track metadata for you. But they aren’t designed to encompass your library as a whole, which I think is a key capability of a good photo-management system.

Jeff’s Recommended Application

I’ve put a lot of time into these applications, but the one I use for my main photo library is Lightroom. iPhoto is too limited for my needs, and version 9.4 (iPhoto ’11) has actually worsened the product (which is why I’m looking forward to what Apple does next with it).

For a few years I relied on Aperture, but switched to Lightroom because the latter has consistently offered better performance. (However, for this type of metric your mileage will definitely vary depending on your hardware.) Again, I’m not suggesting that you rush out and buy Lightroom if you already have something that works. But if you and I were sharing a drink and you asked for my preference, Lightroom would be it.

Read More: About [9] | Chapter 1 [10] | Chapter 2 [11] | Chapter 3 [12] | Chapter 4 [13] | Chapter 5 [14] | Chapter 6 [15] | Chapter 7 [16] | Chapter 8 [17] | Chapter 9 [18]