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Digital photography development software April 29, 2009

Posted by CK in Design, Software.
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With the new dSLR already at home, it was time that I look for some decent software to manage the photographs. I had already decided that, having a 8Gb SDHC in it, provided for shooting in RAW only (it can do approx. 450 photos like that). I found the software provided by the manufacturer to be quite simplistic (albeit necessary to download the images to my computer, unless I use a memory card reader). So I was in search of something more powerful.

The search criteria was:

  1. Mac OS X Intel binaries;
  2. Can do RAW;
  3. Provides reasonable DAM capabilities.

The usability criteria was:

  1. Does not require reading the manual from first to last page in order to use it for the simple tasks;
  2. If possible, is not a resource hog;
  3. Does not cost an arm and a leg to buy it (and of course, if it’s free, so much the better.

So I searched around in digital photography sites, forums, etc and found the following candidates (in no particular order):

The whole exercise took some time but eventually I’m glad I did it. I’ll now briefly discuss about them; please keep in mind that, intuitiveness and being able to use it for the absolute basics without consulting with the manual, was a must for me. Also, this is my own personal opinion, and it does not come from a professional. So it’s a good idea to try for yourself and not rely on my limited perspective, when you are choosing where your money will go.

  1. Aperture: I had very mixed feelings about Aperture. The interface is plain superb, its library functionality is great, and it could read my iPhoto library — which was probably to be expected. On the other hand, I found myself completely stuck twice, without knowing how to get back to processing. I found it confusing (and I *did* give it a second chance). Additionally, it was very resource demanding. So that’s out.
  2. Lightroom: I liked Lightroom immediately. Although it lacks the impressive presets of other candidates (e.g LightZone), its interface was extremely sensible, and I could find my way around it immediately. I imported a few photos in a collection, processed them, applied a lot of corrections, got the result I wished for, exported them. Voila. The controls were intuitive, there were many options –and all the things you would expect to find anyway–, also area-specific corrections and non-destructive editing. So I was very happy with it, except for its price tag. At a $US 300 (list price), this was the most expensive of all.
  3. LightZone: LightZone was love at first sight. Its mechanisms for adjusting exposure selectively, the re-light (IIRC) action, the presets (esp. for B/W but also the “Wow” ones, if you’re into heavily modified photography) are simply amazing. No real DAM capabilities, but it doesn’t claim to do so anyway. Overall, a non-destructive photo-editing super-hero. BUT (there’s always one): Looking around many forums, it appears that its users are much annoyed by the lack of updates to support more recent cameras (just look at the LightCrafts forums). The company was developing and released a few days ago a low-end, consumer-oriented image management software (Aurora) and apparently all resources were committed to it. LightZone users are now in hope that it will get updates soon.
  4. Bibble 4 / 5: Bibble 4 is quite simplistic (e.g. does not offer adjustment for specific part of the picture). It has been out for a long time now, and while Bibble 5 is in development (which is a long time now), support for it has been dropped. Looking at the Bibble forums, the complaints are far too many for this reason, and people are jumping from the bandwagon. Bibble 5 was initially scheduled for end of 2008; then end of Jan 2009; it’s now April 2009 and there are no news, no announcement from the company, other than that they are working hard on it. There are preview versions available, but they are too unstable. I was very sad to find out things are like that, because the interface of Bibble 5 is very nice indeed, it appears that its functionality eventually will be great (see the screencasts on the web site), the price is very competitive, but it’s not here now. So that’s out too.
  5. SilkyPix: I liked SilkyPix quite a lot. You can immediately tell that this is well thought-out software, the editing capabilities are easy and produce very nice results. Apparently it remains actively developed and it’s the software that Panasonic provides with its cameras so you can expect good support. The only thing that let me down is that there is no area-specific editing. But overall I was quite pleased with it.
  6. Elements: The little brother of Photoshop is targeting the consumer market, those who wish to do some image processing but do not wish to spend much money. Elements offers a lot of effects, inherited from Photoshop, and it’s a very complete piece of software for generic use. However, I wanted something which has digital photography at its core and as a primary target, to increase chances that it remains as such in the future. So I ruled Elements out.
  7. iPhoto: Pros: I am very familiar with its image library functionality. Cons: I don’t really like its image library functionality 😉 Plus, its editing capabilities are quite simplistic.
  8. The GIMP: The GIMP is open source software with which I am somewhat familiar, from my Linux/BSD days. I have it installed anyway, but never used it too much. I found out now that it does RAW, so it can definitely be used as an editor (it has no DAM functionality, as this is completely out of scope). GIMP is a powerhouse but, a) it is destructive, and b) the version ported to Mac OS is a pain to work with, due to its strange behaviour regarding window focus. Basically you have to click twice on windows to select editing tools etc. This is due to the X11 layer, I believe. So although GIMP will stay in my disk, I think I’ll only use it when I need something very strange/fancy.

So after all this, I had to chose between SilkyPix, LightZone and Lightroom. The first was nice and the least inexpensive, with very nice results but no area-specific editing. LightZone was somewhat more expensive, with all the basic features I was looking for (I can do without specialised DAM if needed), good results, but the complaints about development being stalled are a bit scary when you’re an amateur and make such a time investment to learn how to use some specialised software (not to mention the financial investment). So eventually, I went with Lightroom. It’s feature-complete, it is supported by a big organisation so chances are it will continue being actively developed (especially since it’s so successful with photographers) and there are books about it. It is, unfortunately, the most expensive as well, but I find it to be a good investment.

Again, this shallow analysis is just according to my personal taste and level of expertise (which is really too low in the image editing space), and therefore there are no suitability claims. Make sure you see for yourself, if you’re also in search of something like this!

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