What's the best photo management system for me?

There are a large number of excellent photo editors and/or raw converters available these days, and a smaller but still not insignificant number of digital asset management apps with greater or lesser capabilities. To sort this out, I have to decide what are my own personal requirements. I am publishing this because I think my requirements may be similar to those of many other serious but not full-time photographers.

So what do I require from the system I entrust my photos to?

1, Backup or “drive independence”

My photo files must be safe. Basically that means “reliably backed up.” I want the files to be proof against drive failure, home burglary and/or tornadoes.

This first requirement is important mostly for the options it eliminates. Reliable backup must include off-site backup. But that doesn’t require iCloud Photo Library or Adobe’s storage. It could mean storing master files in Dropbox, or it could even mean using an ordinary cloud backup service (although that’s an extra cost). But it probably means that I cannot put the master files on a separate portable hard drive, because the failure rate for portable drives is not zero, and they aren’t constantly backed up unless they’re constantly connected to a computer — and if you’re moving a hard drive from one computer to another as needed, it will NOT always be connected.

2, Device independence

I’d like access to my photos NOT to be dependent on a single, particular computer. In other words, I want to be able to access my master photos from my desktop computer (iMac) and one or both of my laptops (MacBook Pro and Dell XPS 15). I’d also like to be access and edit photos on my iPhone. Clearly, I need some sort of cloud-based storage for these files.

This requirement is similar but not identical to the preceding one (“drive independence”). 

3, Optimized storage

If I store my files in the cloud, clearly, the cloud storage system needs to have a way of optimizing file size, since my MacBook Pro and iPhone that don’t have nearly enough disk capacity to store full-size copies of all my files. That means iCloud Photo Library, or Adobe Lightroom CC, or perhaps Dropbox with "optimized storage" enabled.

I’ve now eliminated Lightroom Classic CC, because it doesn’t come with a storage plan and if the files are stored in Dropbox, I don’t think Lightroom Classic will sync the libraries. This leaves me with a choice between Photos and Lightroom CC (2018).

Apple uses a complex "smart" system to figure out how much to download to my smaller devices. If I want to edit a file on my MacBook Pro and if that master file isn't already on the MBP's hard drive, Photos will download a copy of the master file. This system seems to work well but I have little control over it. I do like knowing that, since I have selected "Download originals to this Mac" in Photos on the iMac, my master copies are available to me, even if (say) iCloud suffers a catastrophic collapse. I like knowing also that I'm backing up my originals using Time Machine.

Lightroom CC's approach is a more flexible. All of your photos will be uploaded to the Adobe cloud, and apparently Adobe regards the files in the cloud as the masters. But you have the option to store local copies of files, so it looks as if I could set things up with Lightroom CC pretty much the way I have them setup with Photos and iCloud Photo Library, but perhaps with more options. Lightroom CC for example gives me the option to leave the master in the cloud or keep a local copy globally but also on a photo by photo basis. In other words, I can easily tell Lightroom CC on my iMac (with its large hard drive) to save local copies of everything, but override that setting for individual photos that I don't want to delete but wouldn't mind losing if the cloud were to fail. For this reason I like Adobe's approach better. Of course, it simply can't be that easy: Storage in iCloud is a little cheaper than storage from Adobe.

4, Good tools for finding photos

The software I use to access, organize, search and manage my photos should allow me to edit important bits of metadata (like keywords, ratings, descriptions and ideally faces, too) and also allow me to find photos on these criteria or others that I think of. Be nice if the software supported mapping, face detection, finding by camera and/or lens, etc. but those are not essential. Do need to be able to create collections or albums. Note that I use the word “software” rather than app here because I am at least in theory open to the idea of using the computer's own file management tools (i.e., the macOS Finder). But I doubt that would be a good solution.

Apple Photos does a pretty good job, although not nearly as good as Lightroom Classic does. Lightroom CC works somewhat differently but in many respects I think it has more powerful finding and filtering features. Apple has face detection, which Lightroom CC lacks; but Lightroom CC goes way beyond that and can identify locations and elements in photos. For example, even if you've never keyworded a single image with the word "dog", Lightroom CC can find photos with dogs in them.

ON1 Photo RAW has pretty good library management tools and might be a good solution for someone willing to store files locally, but it’s not really setup to meet my requirements 1, 2 and 3 above.

5, Good tools for reviewing and rating images

The DAM app should make it easy for me to review and rate the photos from a shoot quickly. "Easy" means this all has to be done from the keyboard. Evaluating images sometimes means I have to compare two very similar images to see which is better, and it would be very useful if the app I select would allow me to compare similar photos side-by-side.

Annoyingly, neither Lightroom CC nor Apple Photos currently supports side-by-side comparison of images. ON1 Photo Raw 2018 does, but I’ve already disqualified it as my DAM solution. 

But in other respects, Lightroom CC's rating, selecting and keywording tools are clearly better. Photos does not have a number rating system or a "pick" button or labels and keywording images involves clicking in the info panel with your pointing device. I sometimes think Apple is interested only in people who take a million photos with their iPhone and never edit, organize or delete any of them.

6, Cooperation with third-party editing apps

I’d like to be free to edit my photos in several different apps (DxO Photo Lab, ON1 Photo Raw 2018, Luminar 2018). But ideally I’d like the DAM software to have some photo editing tools as well, partly because a quick edit in the same app I use to access my photos is often all I need, and partly because a quick edit is sometimes required to decide if a photo is worth keeping or not.

Photos does a very good job at this, partly because it’s built into the OS, partly because it supports extensions, and partly because it's popular enough to attact attention from third party editors. Lightroom CC on the other hand fails miserably in this category. As of late January 2018, Lightroom CC does not support editing in other apps at all. I'm stunned. Lightroom Classic CC — the old app — was quite good in this respect. 

7, System reliability (trustworthiness, longevity)

When I say "system reliability," I don't mean that I want the system to have low down time or no bugs. That goes without saying. What I do mean is that I want the system I entrust my photos to, to be worthy of that trust, and to allow me to hope that it will be around for a long time.

Ideally, whatever system I set up in 2018 will keep working for the rest of my life or at least until I get tired of playing around with my photos, whichever comes first. I don’t mean “working on the same computer without updates.” But I mean, if I commit to an app today, I’d like to be reasonably confident that it’ll be alive and actively supported in, say, five years. (Nobody can see twenty years into the future with this technology.)

Unfortunately, I’m not sure I trust Apple in this way. I still do not know why Apple canceled Aperture. At one point it was arguably the best raw workflow app in the world. But apparently there were not enough serious photographers using Macs and Aperture to keep Apple interested. In my view, the cancelation of Aperture was a betrayal of its customers, plain and simple.

Adobe on the other has always catered to serious photographers. So here, strong point in favor of Lightroom CC.

8, Support for sharing, printing, exporting

Not sure where to stick this in the list, but I guess I'd be willing to pay a few dollars more for good output options, so I'm placing it just above "Affordability" (the next requirement). Even if the DAM software doesn’t support sharing with Flickr or printing (think, the free version of Adobe Bridge), this can be done from my third-party editing apps and/or via the operating system. It’s useful to me to be able to click the “Publish on Flickr” or “Share via Messages” button in Photos, but not as important as the requirements above.

9, Affordability

I should perhaps add that cost is an issue for me. Apple Photos is free with the macOS, and I get 2TB of iCloud Library storage for about the same price I'll pay to use Lightroom CC with 1TB of storage. But 1TB of storage for my photos will probably work for me for a while. I need to delete a lot of images anyway. So affordability is a tie between Lightroom CC and Photos. The affordability requirement mainly means I'm not considering switching (say) to Capture One Pro and Media Pro SE, while storing images on a large Dropbox account.

10, File format support (specifically HEIF)

As of January 2018, Lightroom CC on my computer does not support the HEIF file format that the newer iPhones provide as an alternative to JPEG for image files. HEIF is not an Apple format but it strikes me as a good idea, my iPhone 7 Plus can use it, and Photos supports this format. Hard to tell if it will survive, but since I'm using it on my iPhone, it's nice that Photos supports it. On the other hand, if I decide to convert to Lightroom CC, I'll just turn HEIF off in my phone and that will be that.

I am happy that Lightroom CC supports .MTS video files.

For other file formats, Apple seems to update its support for raw files about as quickly as Adobe does. My cameras are all supported.

11, Editing in the cloud

Now we're in deep water indeed. But this is a topic about which I have strong feelings. 

Adobe Lightroom CC has been designed to allow editing in your web browser, if you wish to do that. And the app in your browser has all the functions that the native app on your hard drive has. This probably goes most of the way to explaining why Lightroom CC does not have quite all the functions available in its predecessor, now-called Lightroom Classic CC. With the new Lightroom CC, you can access and edit your files even if you do not have access to any of your own devices. 

With Apple Photos? While I can view my photos at iCloud.com, I cannot do anything with them. I can't even edit metadata.

This is not an oversight. Apple's main products are the Mac and the iPhone, both of which are closed platforms. To run macOS or iOS you need to buy a Mac or an iPhone. Apple's willing to use servers to sync files between users of its own devices, but it is not keen to provide access to that syncing cloud service on devices other than Macs or iPhones. Why? Because Apple is not really a software company, it's a hardware company. Apple doesn't want more people using Photos, they want to get more people buying Macs and iPhones, iPhones especially, since they are where the profits are these days.

This is why Apple will not allow its wholly-owned subsidiary FileMaker to build FileMaker Go for Android. It's a massively obvious idea, with a huge potential market, but it would mean that FileMaker users (who already can work on PCs running Windows) would now be able to continue using their Android phones, too.

This short-sighted, self-interested view is also the reason that Dropbox is so superior to iCloud Drive. Dropbox is platform agnostic so you can get to your files from any device. And it has a terrific user interface. iCloud, on the other hand is really intended only to work with Apple devices.

It's hard to argue with Apple's financial decisions, but I don't care about that: I'm not an investor in the company. The right decision here is the one that works best for me. As it happens, precisely because cloud-based apps work so well for users, I believe that software in the cloud is the future for nearly everything. Apple doesn't realize it but Google has already won this battle, and Adobe here is following Google's lead.

12, Image editing tools

Last on the list for a reason. Yes, I would like my DAM software to support some kind of editing. Sometimes I need a quick adjustment to exposure or contrast to tell if an image can be saved or not. Adobe Bridge + Camera Raw might do the trick. And of course if the DAM app's image editing tools are really good, well, that's great.

But this is last on my list because of requirement 6 above: “cooperation with third-party editors”. I am willing to do my important editing in DxO Photo Lab or Luminar or ON1 Photo RAW, if I have to. Not sure whether I’ll keep all of them forever, but they are all excellent. I'm still making up my mind about ON1 Photo RAW 2018 and Luminar, but I am pretty sure I'll stick with DxO Photo Lab forever.

And notice that this requirement comes after requirement eleven ("editing in the cloud"). It looks to me like, as of January 2018, Lightroom CC is at least as capable an editor as Photos in High Sierra. Photos hasn't quite evolved back to the app that Aperture was, but it has gotten better every year. Lightroom required some devolution in order to work as a cloud app; that's why Lightroom CC is less capable in some key respects than its older sibling now called Lightroom Classic CC. If I select Lightroom CC, I'm going to continue to edit in DxO Photo Lab but I'll have to go to a little more trouble. Given how good Lightroom CC's tools are, perhaps I would stay in Lightroom more than I stay in Photos.


So what is the best photo management app for me?

It’s pretty clear there are only two choices that more or less answer all the requirements above: Adobe Lightroom CC or Apple Photos. 

While Photos meets my first three requirements (safety or drive independence, device independence, and optimized storage), it does not answer requirements four (good tools for finding images) or five (good tools for rating and selecting images) as well as Lightroom CC. Photos definitely doesn't do as well with requirement seven (long-term system reliability). Given Apple's tendency over the last forty years to abandon projects, I simply don't trust it. Photos does provide good support for third-party editors and for output (printing and sharing with services like Facebook and others). But requirement eleven (cloud editing) puts Apple on the wrong side of the future.

It took me close to a month to get all of my files into Apple Photos on my iMac and then uploaded them all to iCloud. The thought of downloading everything again and then uploading it all to Adobe's servers gives me a big headache. But that's the way I'm leaning at the moment.