ACDSee Photo Studio 2018 Review: Can It Compete With Pro Software?
Review of: ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2018
Use: RAW Image Editing & Organization
Excellent RAW workflow management and image editing
$10/mo for subscription or one-time purchase $149.99
Ease of Use
Quite easy to learn and use with some user interface issues
Lots of video tutorials, active community, and dedicated support
What I like:
- Excellent Organizational Tools
- Blends Photoshop & Lightroom Features
- Mobile Companion App
What I dislike:
- User Interface Needs Work
- Slow Cataloging
Summary: For casual and semi-professional photographers, Photo Studio Ultimate 2018 is an excellent introduction to the world of RAW editing. It has excellent organizational tools for managing a growing image library, and the RAW editing functionality is equally capable. The layer-based editing features could use a bit more refinement and probably won't be replacing Photoshop as the standard for image manipulation software, but they are still quite capable and workable despite some minor user interface issues.
Overall, the inclusion of all these features in a single program provides an appealing and comprehensive workflow, although it might not be polished enough to satisfy a demanding professional. Pros who have already adopted a Lightroom-based workflow will be better off staying with that setup, although anyone set on looking for a professional-quality alternative should take a look at DxO OpticsPro or Capture One Pro.
Why You Should Trust Me
Hi, my name is Thomas Boldt, and I've been working in the graphic arts for over a decade, but my experience with image editing software dates even further back to the early 2000s.
As a photographer and graphic designer I've got extensive experience working with a range of image editors, from industry standard software suites to open source programs. This gives me a unique perspective on what's possible and what to expect from a professional-quality image editor. While I've been using Adobe's Creative Cloud suite for the vast majority of my image work recently, I'm always on the lookout for a new program that provides advantages above and beyond what I'm used to. My loyalty is to the quality of the resulting work, not to any particular brand of software!
We also reached out to the ACDSee support team via live chat, though the question was not directly related to the product's features. We were originally going to review ACDSee Ultimate 10 but when I tried to download the trial version (which is free for 30 days) I encountered a small issue. In the nutshell, it seems the company is planning to rebrand ACDSee Pro and Ultimate into Photo Studio Ultimate 2018. Therefore, we asked the question (see in the screenshot) via the chat box and Brendan from their support team replied yes.
Disclaimer: ACDSee did not provide any compensation or consideration for the writing of this review, and they have had no editorial control or review over the content.
What Is ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2018?
ACDSee Photo Studio is a complete RAW workflow, image editing and library organization tool. While it doesn't have a devoted professional following as yet, it aims to be a complete solution for professional users as well as more casual and semi-professional photographers.
Is It Free?
ACDSee Photo Studio is not free software, but there is a 30-day free trial with all features available. After that, you have the option to purchase the current version of the software for a one-time fee of $149.99 USD (with the option of adding 1 year of 'upgrade insurance' for $59.99), or you can subscribe to one of three monthly plans.
You can get a single device license limited to personal use for $6.90 USD per month, or a 5 device license limited to personal use for $8.90. If you want to use Photo Studio for business or commercial purposes, a single device license is available for $6.30 per month when purchased a year at a time, or $7.90 month to month.
I'm not entirely sure what the logic is behind the separation of these various pricing schemes, but you can't deny that they are all extremely affordable. Each of these subscription plans also includes licenses for a range of other ACDSee software, further enhancing their value.
Does It Work on Mac?
As of this writing, Photo Studio is only available for Windows, but a Mac version is currently in beta development and available for download. Six different beta versions have been released this year, indicating that ACDSee is committed to the Mac platform, and hopefully they'll be ready to finalize a release candidate soon. To learn more about the beta program, you can find the related information here.
ACDSee Photo Studio Standard vs. Professional vs. Ultimate
The different versions of Photo Studio come with very different price points, but they also have very different feature sets. Ultimate is obviously the most powerful version, but Professional is still a capable RAW workflow editor and library manager. It doesn't offer the ability to use layer-based editing, or the ability to make Photoshop-style edits to the actual pixel layout of your images.
Standard is much less capable, and can't open or edit RAW images at all, but still allows you to organize photos and edit JPEG images. As a result, it's probably not worth considering, since any photographer who is remotely serious about the quality of their work will shoot in RAW.
ACDSee vs Lightroom
Adobe Lightroom is probably the most popular competitor to Photo Studio, and while they each duplicate a lot of each other's features, they also each have their own unique twists on a RAW workflow. Lightroom offers features such as Tethered Capture for taking photos right within Lightroom and lets Photoshop handle any major pixel-level editing, while Photo Studio skips the capture part and includes Photoshop-style image editing as the final stage of its workflow.
Adobe seems to have paid a bit more attention to the nuances of user interface and experience, while ACDSee has been focusing on creating the most complete standalone program possible. If you're already accustomed to the Adobe style of workflow you may not want to make the switch, but for budding photographers who still have to make that choice, ACDSee presents some serious competition at an attractive price.
A Closer Look at Photo Studio Ultimate 2018
Please note that the screenshots I used for this review are taken from the Windows version, and the Mac version (currently beta) will look slightly different.
Installation & Initial Configuration
I have to admit, my first experience with the Photo Studio downloader/installer didn't give me much confidence. It may just be a layout issue on Windows 10, but it seems like a serious image editing program should make the effort to use a program that keeps its buttons fully visible in the window, at the very least. However, the download was relatively fast and the rest of the installation went smoothly.
There was a brief (optional) registration which I completed, but as far as I could tell there wasn't much value in doing so. It didn't provide me access to any additional resources, and you can skip it if you're so inclined. Just don't try to close the dialog box with the 'X' - for some reason, it will think you're trying to quit the program, so choose the 'Skip' button instead.
Once that's all out of the way, you'll see that Photo Studio is organized in a similar way to Adobe Lightroom. The program is broken down into several modules or tabs, which are accessible along the top right. Manage, Photos and View are all organizational and selection modules. Develop lets you perform all your non-destructive RAW image rendering, and with the Edit module you can dig deeply into the pixel level with layer-based editing.
Some of the effectiveness of this module layout system is compromised by the placement of a few 'Manage' module options along the exact same row as the overall module navigation, which makes it a bit hard to distinguish which buttons apply to which feature. This isn't a major issue, but I found it more than a bit confusing when first looking at the program's layout, and only the big red 'Buy Now' button helped separate them conceptually. Fortunately, ACDSee has included a thorough on-screen quick start guide to help new users get accustomed to the software.
Library Organization & Management
Photo Studio provides an excellent range of organizational options, although the way that they are arranged is a bit counterintuitive. Of the five modules in the program, three are organizational tools: Manage, Photos, and View.
The Manage module covers your general library interaction, where you do all your tagging, flagging and keyword entry. You can also do a range of batch editing tasks, upload your images to a series of online services, including Flickr, Smugmug and Zenfolio, and create slideshows. I found this module extremely useful and comprehensive, and many other RAW editors could take notes, with the exception of the fact that you can't review items at 100% zoom without switching to the 'View' module.
The vaguely-named Photos module is simply a way of looking at all of your images in chronological order, which - while it's interesting - isn't really worth its own separate tab, and provides no unique functions other than a sense of perspective. You can filter images, but it feels like this should really be incorporated into the Manage module.
The View module is the only way of viewing the full-size versions of your images, and would also be much more useful as a different way of displaying the 'Manage' module. There's no good reason that you should have to switch between the two in order to see your photos at full size, especially when you're sorting through lots of images and you want to compare several flag candidates at full resolution.
The one thing that I really did appreciate about it was that it uses the RAW file's embedded preview instead of applying any color rendering settings in advance, allowing you to see how your camera would have rendered the image. There's also an interesting touch in the metadata displayed along the bottom of the screen: while the info panel on the right shows the focal length reported by the lens, which is accurately displayed as 300mm. The very bottom row displays the focal length as 450mm, which is an accurate calculation of the effective focal length due to the 1.5x crop factor in my DX format camera.
The Develop module is where you'll do most of your RAW image editing, adjusting settings like white balance, exposure, sharpening, and other non-destructive edits. For the most part, this aspect of the program is very well done, and I appreciate the multi-channel histogram with easy access to highlight and shadow clipping. You can apply your edits to specific areas of the image with brushes and gradients, as well as do some basic healing and cloning.
I did find that many of their automatic settings were overly aggressive in their application, as you can see in this result of an automatic white balance adjustment. Of course, it's a difficult image for any editor's automatic adjustment, but this is the most inaccurate result I've seen.
Most of the tools included are fairly standard for image editors, but there is a unique lighting and contrast adjustment tool called LightEQ. It's a bit difficult to explain simply how to use the sliders in the panel, but fortunately you can simply mouseover areas of the image and then click and drag up or down to increase or decrease the effect on the selected range of pixels. It's an interesting take on lighting adjustments, although the automatic version of the tool is also extremely aggressive.
You can also work on your image in the Edit module, which contains a number of features that are more Photoshop-like than most RAW editors include, including the ability to work with layers. This allows you to create image composites, overlays or any other type of pixel editing, and although this is a nice addition, I found that it could use a bit more polish in terms of its execution.
I'm not sure if it's just because I'm working on a 1920x1080 screen, but I found that a lot of the UI elements were far too small. The tools themselves are capable enough, but you may find yourself frustrated by continually missing the right buttons, which is not what you want to be dealing with while working on a complex edit. Of course, there are keyboard shortcuts, but these are also oddly chosen. Why make the eraser tool shortcut 'Alt+E' when nothing is assigned to 'E'?
These are all relatively minor issues, but I don't think that this editor will be challenging Photoshop as the industry standard for photo editing and image manipulation any time soon. It definitely has potential, but it needs some additional refinement to become a true competitor.
ACDSee Mobile Sync
ACDSee has embraced the role of the smartphone camera, developing a mobile companion app available for the iOS and Android platforms. The app is extremely easy to use, allowing you to send photos directly from your phone to your Photo Studio installation.
Wireless syncing is fast and easy, and is actually the easiest method of transferring photos to an editor that I've ever used. The app instantly detected my computer's Photo Studio installation and transferred files without any complex pairing or sign in processes. It's always nice when something like this just works smoothly with no fuss.
The Reasons Behind My Ratings
For the most part, the tools included in Photo Studio are excellent. The organizational and library management tools are particularly good, and many other programs could learn a thing or two from the way ACDSee has set things up. The RAW editor is quite capable and provides all the functionality you'd expect from a professional program, although the layer-based editing features could use some additional work. The mobile companion app is excellent and works perfectly.
While the one-time purchase price is a bit high at $149.99 USD, the availability of a subscription that includes the entire range of ACDSee products for under $10 per month provides excellent value.
Ease of Use: 4/5
Most of the tools are quite easy to learn and use for anyone familiar with image editors, and beginners should have no problem learning the basics. There are some user interface issues with the Edit module that can negatively impact ease of use, but this can be overcome with some practice. The mobile companion app is extremely easy to use, and makes it simple to retouch your photos before sharing them online.
There is a full range of video tutorials and an active community accessible online that provides a lot of helpful support. There is also a dedicated support knowledge base, and an easy method of contacting developer support if the existing information can't help you solve your problem. I didn't run into any bugs while using Photo Studio, so I can't comment on how effective their support team is, but I did speak to their sales team briefly with excellent results.
Photo Studio Ultimate 2018 Alternatives
Adobe Lightroom (Win/Mac)
Lightroom is one of the more popular RAW image editors, although it doesn't include the same degree of pixel-based editing tools that Photo Studio offers. Instead, it is available in a subscription package with Photoshop for $9.99 USD per month, providing you with comparably priced access to industry standard software. Lightroom's organizational tools are good, but not quite as comprehensive as Photo Studio's excellent Manage module. Read our review of Lightroom here.
DxO OpticsPro (Win/Mac)
OpticsPro is an extremely capable RAW editor, which has the benefit of using DxO's extensive lens testing data to help provide optical corrections automatically. It does not include any kind of functional organizational tools beyond basic folder navigation, and also doesn't include any kind of pixel-level editing. There are two versions available: the Standard version for $129 USD, and the ELITE version for $199. Read our review of OpticsPro here.
Capture One Pro (Win/Mac)
Capture One Pro is also an excellent RAW editor, although it is aimed more towards the high-end professional market for photographers working with expensive medium-format cameras. While it's compatible with more commonly available cameras, the learning curve is quite steep and it's not really aimed at the casual photographer. The full version is available for $299 USD or a monthly subscription for $20. Read our review of Capture One Pro here.
ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2018 is an excellent RAW workflow management and image editing program that is very affordably priced. Perhaps I'm too accustomed to Adobe software, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well designed the program is, with the exception of a few odd design and layout choices. The cataloging tools are well thought out and comprehensive, while the editing tools cover everything you'd expect from a quality RAW image editor. The addition of layer-based editing complete with pixel editing and adjustment layers makes for a solid finish to this program's workflow.
While it's an excellent piece of software overall, there are a few interface issues that could use a bit more smoothing out. Some of the UI elements are very oddly scaled and indistinct, and some of the separate review and organization modules could be combined to streamline the workflow bit further. Hopefully, ACDSee will continue to invest development resources into the improvement of this already very capable image editor.