Why You Should Trust Me
Hi, my name is Thomas Boldt, and I’m an avid photographer. I’ve worked as a professional product photographer in addition to my own personal photography practice, and I have to admit that before I finished these reviews, my personal photo collection was a mess. I organized my images based roughly on the time they were photographed, but that was the extent of it. Nature photographs got mixed in with experimental abstract art, and occasionally a memory card dump would include some work images mixed in. I would sporadically tag things in Lightroom, but it could hardly be called organized.
So wait, you’re asking yourself, why would that make me trust you about photo management, Thomas? Simple: my need for the best photo management software is the same as yours, and the winner for large collection management is what I’m now using for my personal photos. Once I accepted that my collection needed organization (grudgingly, since I always love photographing more than organizing), I decided that I would only be using the best photo management software available. There’s still some work to do, but I’ve found a system that works quite well – and you can use it too.
Last but not least, it’s important to point out that I received no compensation of any kind from the associated software developers for writing this article, and they had no editorial input or review of the content.
The Ins and Outs of Image Metadata
All photo organization is accomplished through metadata (data about your data) that is included in your image files. It can describe the basics of your camera settings or be as thorough as full keywords identifying subjects, the photographer, location details, and so on.
There is a standardized metadata system called IPTC (International Press Telecommunications Council) which is the most widely-supported cross-program method of tagging. It’s used by many stock photo sites and press associations, and is the safest way to ensure your images are properly tagged. You can read and write these tags natively in the Windows and macOS operating systems, but only for certain common file types like JPEG. If you’re looking at RAW files, your OS will probably let you view the associated tags, but won’t let you edit them. You’ll need a photo manager or editor to do that, since your OS doesn’t know how to re-save your RAW files.
Eventually, Adobe came along and decided that users needed a more flexible system, and created the XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform) standard. This incorporates IPTC tags and allows for some cross-program tagging functionality, but unfortunately, not every program is able to read that data.
Search engines are also relying more heavily on metadata in their efforts to provide the most accurate search results. Having your photos properly tagged when you send them out onto the web can make a huge difference when it comes to gaining exposure! That reason alone should make it worth keeping up with your organization tasks, but unfortunately there’s a darker side to it as well.
IPTC and XMP tags aren’t the only way to generate metadata for your image. Whenever you take a picture, a set of data known as EXIF (Exchangeable Image File) information is encoded alongside your photo. It’s standard, automatic, and covers information like your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO setting, and so on. When you upload your image to social media this EXIF data is usually retained, and it can be viewed by anyone who knows where to look.
Normally, this data is pretty harmless. It’s interesting for other photographers, but most casual viewers won’t care. But if your camera or smartphone is GPS-equipped, your location info is also stored as part of the EXIF data. With GPS systems starting to appear in more and more electronic devices, setting that data loose on the web starts to get a bit more concerning and may be a major breach of your own privacy. If you’re working out of your professional studio, you won’t mind people being able to find it – but if you are posting photos from your home, you might not feel the same way.
The moral of the story: keep a close watch on your metadata. It can help you gain exposure, and help keep your privacy intact!
If you want to read more about IPTC / XMP standards, click here for a quick overview. It’s rather dry, but some photographers thrive on technical details!
Do You Need A Photo Manager?
As I mentioned earlier (maybe confessed is a better word), I haven’t always been the most diligent when it comes to properly organizing my photographs. A few scattered folders based on the locations or dates that I took the photos, and that was about the extent of it. Eventually, I got my act together and organized everything into folders based on month, but even that was a huge chore.
I was a bit surprised to find how much even that small amount of organization made a difference in my ability to find the images I was looking for, but that wasn’t all. The real surprise was that there were a number of great photos mixed in that I had completely overlooked due to my terrible lack of a system. If you’ve got the same problem, then you will definitely benefit from a good photo manager.
If you’re managing tens or hundreds of thousands of photos spanning several years, you absolutely need to keep them organized. All the great photos in the world are worthless if you can’t find them when you want them. But if you’re just managing your holiday snapshots and your Instagram photos, you’re probably better off with a simple folder system. It might be worth exploring some of the free options, but casual photographers won’t get nearly as much benefit from a paid program.
After all, it’s important to remember that even the best photo manager won’t instantly organize, tag and flag all your photos. You still have to do the large majority of the work yourself – at least until the days when artificial intelligence gets reliable enough to suggest the tags for you!
How We Evaluated
Please note that for the sake of simplicity, I will use the term ‘tag’ interchangeably as a way to refer to metadata, keywords, flags, color codes, and star ratings.
Since the process of organizing an entire photo collection can be extremely time-consuming, it’s important to make sure that the program you’re using is up to the task before you start. Here are the criteria I used while testing and assessing each of the programs in this review:
Does it offer flexible tagging methods?
Every photographer has their own method of working, which is part of what makes each photographer’s style of work unique. The same holds true when it comes to organizational systems. Some people will want to work one way, while others want to invent a new approach. In order to support that, a good photo management program will offer several different methods of organization such as EXIF data, keywords, star ratings, color coding, and flagging.
Does it provide any automatic tagging features?
Some of the photo management programs on the market today offer some interesting automatic tagging options. Lightroom Classic has the ability to automatically tag faces of the people in your photographs, and thanks to advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence, we’ll soon be able to have additional keyword tags automatically suggested. Adobe is in the process of deploying an AI platform known as Sensei that will include the feature, and other developers will soon have to follow suit. It may be a while before we find this in every program, but the part of me that hates organizing can’t wait!
Does it provide good filtering and search tools?
Once you’ve actually flagged and tagged all your images, you’ll still need a good way to search through your catalog to find the specific photos you’re looking for. The best photo organizers will also provide intelligent search tools and different ways of displaying your images to help bring clarity to your collection.
Are its tags readable by other programs?
One of the biggest pitfalls of an organizational system is that sometimes, programs change or get discontinued by their developers. When you’ve invested countless hours carefully tagging all your images, the last thing you want is for the developer to close up shop and leave you with an out-of-date and useless cataloging system. Not all programs have a way to share your tags with another program, but the ability to import a previous cataloging system can be a big help when it comes to future-proofing your carefully organized collection. Ideally, you’ll want to include the majority of your tags in the IPTC system, but it doesn’t currently support color-coding, star ratings, or flags. You’ll need XMP support for that, but even then, there won’t always be full compatibility between programs.
Is it fast and responsive?
When you’re working with a large collection of high-resolution images, you want to be able to sort through them quickly without having to wait while the program catches up. Some of this will be based on the tech specs of your computer, but some programs handle large files better than others. Good photo management software will read files quickly to let you focus on the task at hand instead of watching a ‘Loading…’ wheel spin.
Is it easy to use?
Right alongside responsiveness, ease of use is a major concern for a photo organizer. Filing is rarely an enjoyable task, but if you have to struggle against your program as well as your lack of interest in organizing, you’re going to wind up putting it off – maybe forever. A program that prioritizes ease of use will make the process much easier. Who knows? You might even find yourself enjoying it.
Is it compatible with multiple operating systems?
Photographers work with both macOS and Windows, although the Mac users would probably argue that it’s better suited to their needs. That debate is for another article, but a good photo manager will be available for multiple platforms and multiple versions.
ACDSee Photo Studio
ACDSee has been around since the very earliest days of digital imaging on home computers, and their expertise really shows. ACDSee Photo Studio is available in a number of flavors, but the Home edition is almost exclusively a photo manager. It is available for all versions of Windows for $89.99. There is also an unrestricted 30-day free trial available, but it does require the creation of an account in order to complete the launch process the first time you run it.
There is a Mac version of ACDSee available, and while it doesn’t work exactly the same way, my research indicates that it’s just as capable as the Windows version. You can read our detailed review of this program here.
ACDSee does an excellent job of walking you through the initial setup process, including a quick guided tour that covers all of the most important functions of the program. If you accidentally close it or need to refresh your memory, you can launch it again at any time, but the interface is designed in such a way that it’s not too hard to figure out on your own.
Most of the time you’ll probably be working in the ‘Manage’ window, as you would expect. This allows you to see all the images in a given folder in a variety of ways, although using the default thumbnails is probably the most efficient way of sorting through them. I increased the size of the thumbs, as the default size was too small for easy viewing, but otherwise the default interface is perfectly workable.
From here, you can tag any and all of your images with star ratings, color labels, and ‘Pick’ flags which are perfect for identifying your final choice image from a set of possible options. You can also review all of your ITPC and EXIF metadata, although keen-eyed users will note that the color labels appear in the ‘ACDSee Metadata’ section, and don’t get passed between programs. Star ratings that I gave photos here, on the other hand, appeared when I viewed the same images later using Adobe Bridge, so those seem to be embedded in the file through some other method (although it isn’t immediately clear how).
At the bottom of the metadata pane, you can switch to the ‘Organize’ tab, which will allow you to quickly add keywords to your images. You can do this individually or by selecting multiple images and choosing from your established keywords, which prevents you from accidentally creating a bunch of similar but distinct keywords by accident.
While the Manage pane is definitely the most useful way to review your files, ACDSee does include an interesting timeline-based method under the confusingly-named Photos tab. It gives you an almost stream-of-consciousness method of reviewing your images altogether, and you can choose to view them based on a year, a month or a week. It may not be the most efficient way to review, but it’s a good way to get a sense of perspective on your body of work as a whole.
At any time, double-clicking a thumbnail will bring you to the View window for a much larger view. You can still use your keyboard shortcuts to tag, flag, star and add color labels to your images in this mode, which makes it much easier to choose the winner between a set of similar images. The only thing missing from this mode is the ability to compare two images side by side, which seems like a real missed opportunity.
The only time that I had a problem with ACDSee was when I switched to Edit mode. It should allow me to do some very basic adjustments on my images, but it consistently failed to load the RAW files shot from my D7200. It warned me that my images were 16-bit color depth, and that any changes would be saved in 8-bit, but when I clicked OK the image never finished loading.
Strangely, when I tried it with 16-bit RAW files from my old Nikon D80, it worked perfectly. This is likely due to the specialized RAW format that I set the D7200 to use, but since we’re more interested in the photo management aspects of the program, I chose not to hold that against it.
Outside the program itself, ACDSee also installs a shell extension called PicaView. Shell extensions are visible when you right-click on a file in Windows Explorer, and with PicaView installed, you’ll be able to see a quick preview of the file as well as some of the basic EXIF data. This is extremely helpful when you need to find the right file, although you can disable it in the Options section of the Tools menu if you don’t want to use it.
That’s not all it can do outside of the program, however. If you want to include your smartphone images in your photo collection, ACDSee Mobile Sync will allow you to quickly and easily transfer images to your computer wireless. No more complex import process – you just select the images you want, and press Sync, and they’re available on your computer. The app is available for both Android and iOS, and is completely free.
Overall, ACDSee Photo Studio offers an excellent range of ways to interact with large photo collections, and makes it much easier to sort and tag lots of images at once. With the exception of the small issue editing lossless NEF RAW files, it handled everything I threw at it with ease. I’ll be using it to bring order to the chaos of my photo collection, and hopefully, I’ll discover even more great images that I lost somewhere along the way.
The Paid Competition
If ACDSee isn’t something you’re looking for, here are some alternatives you may consider.
SmartPix Manager 12
SmartPix Manager is available for all versions of Windows as far back as XP, although nobody should be using it anymore. At $49.50 it’s a bit on the expensive side for a photo manager, but it also has the ability to handle video, audio and text files if desired.
During the initial startup phase, SmartPix requires you to import all of your images. This is a much slower process than some of the other managers I reviewed, although it does provide the opportunity to apply keywords while importing. For my situation, that wasn’t particularly helpful since my images are stored in month-based folders, but if you store things differently it may be helpful. I was able to bypass it by selecting no keywords and checking the ‘Do not prompt me’ box, but the initial import process is still quite slow despite my computer’s tech specs.
Once the import process is complete, you’re taken to the main interface, where it turns out that you actually CAN just browse through folders. It also still needs to build thumbnails for each image imported to the media library, which completely defeats the purpose of an extremely long import process. Color me unimpressed.
It’s possible to add star ratings and keywords, but the process for this is so needlessly complicated that I can’t imagine taking the time to do it for more than a few photos. If you want tags that actually help you find specific images, this would take an extremely long time.
Hilarious note: the first time I ran ThumbsPlus, it crashed on loading because my main drive didn’t have a volume label, which it apparently uses to differentiate between drives. Since I didn’t want to accidentally wreck my backup drive, I simply named it Local Disk (which is the default name anyways).
Like some of the other slow managers that I reviewed, ThumbsPlus seems to disregard the JPEG previews embedded in RAW files and insists on creating a new thumbnail for each one. This is an incredibly slow process, but at least it doesn’t prevent the user from loading the program while it scans the way SmartPix does. That upside is short-lived, however, because the rest of the program doesn’t make waiting worth your while.
As a photo organizer, it doesn’t really compare to the more comprehensive and polished programs I reviewed. It offers basic flags and the ability to add metadata keywords, but there are no star ratings or color labels to help you choose winning images. There also seems to be an issue with importing basic EXIF data, as it messes up the organization names for certain tags.
One unique and surprising feature of ThumbsPlus is the ability to write Python scripts to process your images. I have a hard time seeing how this would be of help to most photographers, but if you happen to also be a programmer, you might get a kick out of writing scripts. Unless this specific feature appeals to you, you’ll definitely want to look elsewhere for a photo manager.
Adobe Bridge CC
If you use any Adobe Creative Cloud software, you probably already have Adobe Bridge CC installed. Even if you don’t have it installed, you may have access to it through your Creative Cloud subscription. It’s not available on its own, but it acts as a companion program for the rest of the Creative Cloud software suite as a way to bring all your digital assets together.
Like ACDSee, it doesn’t require an import process to start working with your images, and this is a huge timesaver. It also shares basic star ratings with other programs, although that seems to be the extent of its cross-program compatibility beyond IPTC standard tags, unless you’re using Adobe programs. If you’re a Lightroom Classic CC user, your tagging system will transfer between the two, although you’ll have to refresh your Lightroom catalog with the data from Bridge when you make a change. Irritatingly, this process removes all the adjustments that you might have made to the image in Lightroom, even if all you did was add a star rating.
It feels like Adobe really dropped the ball here in terms of interoperability, especially since they control the entire ecosystem. They had the chance to make a great standardized system, and they couldn’t be bothered. While Bridge has some definite advantages in terms of speed and polish, this kicks it out of the running for best photo manager.
After a few seriously bad programs, IMatch 5 was a very refreshing change. It still required importing all my files to the database, but at least it provided concrete information about how long it would take. The interface is simple but well-designed, and there is a much more extensive set of labels, tags and star ratings than I found in any other program I reviewed.
IMatch also offers an interesting option for professional photographers who need to share work with their private clients. By installing the IMatch Anywhere extension, it becomes possible to browse your database (or selected portions of it) over the web. None of the other programs I reviewed offered similar functionality, so IMatch may just be the best choice for photographers who work closely with clients.
Overall, IMatch is an excellent choice for managing large numbers of files. The only places it loses out slightly are in the ‘ease of use and ‘fast and responsive’ category, and it is definitely not intended for casual users. If you have more patience than I do or you’re not interested in ACDSee, IMatch is a very good fit for the professional photographer with a huge image collection. Priced at $109.99 USD, it’s the most expensive program I reviewed and it is only available for Windows, but it may be just what you need.
MAGIX Photo Manager
MAGIX Photo Manager was one of the more frustrating programs to install. The free 29-day trial version requires a serial key that can only be obtained by creating an account with MAGIX. During the installation process, it asked me to install a number of additional programs that I was completely uninterested in, including a music creation program and a system cleaner. I don’t know if these programs are bundled into the full version installer, but it’s usually a red flag when a developer tries to get you to use someone else’s programs during the installation process.
MAGIX was quite slow to generate thumbnails from each image, and seems to be more focused on exporting images and creating slideshows than it is on actually managing your images. You can set basic star ratings, keywords and categories, but the window for doing so is not visible by default, and once you enable it, it shows up as a tiny window as though it were an afterthought. When you factor in the fact that MAGIX costs $49.99, you’ll see that there are definitely better options for photo management.
Free Photo Managers
Of course, you don’t have to pay to get a good photo manager – but it’s usually worth it for managing a large and growing collection. Most free photo managers don’t provide the same level of flexibility and polish that you’ll find in a well-designed paid competitor, but there are a couple that stand out. If you’ve only got a few images to manage or a limited budget, here are some good free alternatives that will help you keep your photo collection under control.
FastStone Image Viewer
FastStone Image Viewer lives up to its name: it is definitely fast. It uses the embedded JPEG previews included in the RAW files to achieve its speed, which makes me wonder why some of the other paid programs don’t do the same. Unfortunately, it only has limited tagging capabilities, allowing you to flag a photo as a pick or not. You can view the EXIF data for each image, but you can’t add keywords, ratings or any of the other options you’d expect from a paid program. If you’re looking at JPEG files, you can add a JPEG comment, but that’s the extent of it.
It also includes some basic editing features, but you wouldn’t want it to replace a dedicated image editor. If FastStone ever gets around to incorporating some additional tagging and metadata features, it could have a solid competitor for some of the paid programs on this list. You can download it free from FastStone here.
XnView is similar to FastStone in that it is very fast, but it has some better image organization features. In addition to tagging photos as picks, you can also set star ratings color labels, and assign categories. You can’t add or edit any keywords, and it doesn’t support IPTC metadata, but you can view EXIF and XMP data (though in its raw XML format).
The main problem with XnView is that it’s not nearly as user-friendly as it could be with a bit more thought. The default interface is oddly designed, and hides some of the most useful organization features.
With a bit of customization, it can be made much more workable, but many users won’t have the know-how to edit things. Of course, you can’t argue with the price, and XnView is definitely better than some of the paid options I reviewed in this list. If you’re on a tight budget and you don’t mind working with a cramped interface, this might be just the photo manager you need. You can download it here free for personal use (Windows only), though if you plan to use it for a business there is a license fee of € 26.00.
Honorable Mention: DIM (Digital Image Mover)
This is probably the simplest possible photo organization tool, but not because it’s user-friendly – quite the opposite, as you can see in the screenshot below.
It’s available for Windows and Mac here, but all it really does is sort a huge unorganized set of files into your choice of subfolders. I’m including it because it’s what I used to sort my mess of files into neat year- and month-based folders, which started me on the journey to a properly organized photo collection. I strongly recommend you create a backup of your images first in case you make a mistake in the configuration, but once you get the hang of it, the process is quite fast. It might just help you see the value in a properly organized photo collection.
A Final Word
So there you have it: a review of some of the best photo management software available, and along the way we also discovered some of the worst. At least you won’t have to waste the time finding out for yourself!
After all, you’re going to need that time for actually organizing your photo collection, no matter what program you choose to use. Until machine learning and AI-powered tagging becomes available to the general public, we’re going to be stuck sorting our photos by hand. But with the right photo manager, you won’t have to wait to build a well-tagged collection.
Now go get organizing!