Everyone’s Needs Are Different
Before I get started, I wanted to give a heartfelt thank you to the enormous support and response I have received on this project. Over 400 of you have reat the first piece, and I have gotten a lot of great feedback. I have added several pieces of software to my list, because of this. Also based on my experience and needs, I have removed a couple and may drop more.
I also wanted to say again that this is a very specific project for my very specific needs. Your results will almost certainly vary. Everything I write is from my experience and perspective, and a lot of it is very much my opinion. I knew coming in that things like subscription vs purchase or Capture One vs Lightroom were third rails, and I haven’t been disappointed. But again, I can only write from my perspective and needs to fit my workflow. If you want a full-blown, feature by feature review of any or all of these independent of opinions, there are plenty out there.
I hope you continue along with me on this journey, but I understand if you want to bail. The journey will continue nonetheless.
Now, on to our regularly scheduled program.
First up in the series is the latest from ACDSee, the 2021 edition of their Ultimate product. As I have tried other products over the years, I’ve probably spent the most time either here or with ON1, which I will cover next. There is a lot to like about ACDSee, so I hope I do it justice here.
I should have said this in the Intro, but I am a Windows user and am not looking at any Mac-only software. AFAIK, iMatch is the only Windows only package on my list, but I will note it as I encounter it.
In my opinion, many packages are only for hardcore professionals who have the time to invest in learning the software. Others are suited for beginners that want to click a few buttons and be done. This is one that I think bridges both groups. It’s easy to get started, but like an onion, it has many layers you can pull back as needed.
ACDSee is, in my mind, the most’ different’ of the packages. Other than Capture One, most developers know they are chasing Adobe, so they try not to stray too far from that model. ACDSee looks very different and marches to its own beat. As with Capture One, however, the windows and panels are very configurable, so if you want it to look like Lightroom, you can do that.
I am basing this on the 2021 Ultimate edition, although I own 2018 Standard and 2019 Ultimate. If you want to use it only as a DAM or file manager, just get the Home edition. It’s what they used to call Standard. For my purposes, if I’m going with ACDSee, even if only for a DAM, I’ll go all-in with Ultimate. It’s almost sure that I will use it as an editor at some point, and ACDSeee has some very nice tools.
I’d like to interject here something I said in the introduction. You will hear me use DAM and file manager interchangeably. I understand they are technically different, but for my purposes, they are not. The things I need to do with an iMatch, I can do with Lightroom or ACDSee and vice-versa. The only difference for me is whether the DAM is independent of the processor nor not.
I didn’t see a lot of difference between 2021 and 2020. It is supposed to be much faster, but speed was never an issue for me. Maybe after using Lightroom for so long, everything seems faster. Like many competitors, ACDSee can import your Lightroom catalog. Since my files tend to be untouched RAW files and completed JPGs with little in between, I prefer to start from scratch.
Installation was quick and easy. One of the first things you do is tell the software where your images are. To begin with, and to use the software, you don’t need to import anything. Just browse your file structure and get to work.
As you browse folders and work with your files, ACDSee catalogs them in the background. This will produce sorting and searching capability, create thumbnail previews, and allow the innovative Photos view, a timeline of everything in your file structure. I have only seen this done in iMatch.
The import window has everything you would need, including the ability to use presets. The main things I use in the LIghtroom import are all here: the ability to add copyright metadata, backup simultaneously, and add basic description or keywords. Note that you only need to import if you want to use that functionality; you can just as easily copy the files into your directory structure and go from there. Having said that, the ability to add copyright info and other metadata and automatically create backup copies is worth the extra step.
Culling is fast and easy with ACDSee. Scrolling happens as fast as you can click the mouse or push an arrow key, whether thumbnails, full screen, or zoomed in to 100%; there was no hesitation between images. The standard numeric and color ratings are available. One thing that was a bit quirky, but may be configurable, in full-screen view, pressing a number gave it a rating, in thumbnail view, only pressing a number on a numeric keypad applied the rating. Working from my laptop, that was not possible. However, like with almost everything in this software, those shortcut keys are configurable. While on that subject, in both ACDSee and Capture One, I assigned the G and D keys to toggle between the library and develop modes, so my Lightroom muscle memory would work.
Scrolling through a folder of 100 images at full screen, allowing each to render on screen, took 50 seconds. The same test in Lightroom took over 2 minutes.
Searching is fast and flexible in ACDSee. The quick search was very quick. It found my 97 ducks (yeah, I know) out of 50k images in about 3 seconds. As fast as that was, it has a very configurable search pane that, while not as intuitive as Lightroom’s has just as much flexibility and the ability to save searches.
ACDSee has all the standard metadata fields, plus its own specialized metadata fields. These are stored only in ACDSee, so unless you want to commit to their software forever, I don’t see any advantage in using them. The panels are, again, very customizable. I created a view for the fields I used on every image and saved it in just a few minutes.
Like most packages, it has the habit of alphabetizing your keywords. It can create keyword sets, but I didn’t spend much time there as it doesn’t interest me in a package like this. If I go with a separate DAM, I will investigate keyword sets and/or hierarchical keywords.
In ACDSee, there is basic, and there is basic. Processing is done across two separate modules, Develop and Edit. Develop is where their parametric or non-destructive editing is done. In this, it is similar to Lightroom, but much enhanced as we will get to in a minute. One thing I will bring up about the sliders in ACDSee and hope to remember in others is they share Lightroom’s use of the scroll wheel on the mouse. Being able to adjust sliders one direction or the other with the click of the wheel is something they all should do, but at last testing, many did not.
While there are some of the same tools under the Edit module, plus a lot more, it is a different process. When you leave Edit mode, you need to decide whether to keep the changes or not, save to the same file, or create a new one. You are making changes to the file, not just the .xmp data. In that way, edit is more akin to Photoshop. In fact, ACDSee makes a good replacement for Lightroom and Photoshop, at least for me. I use Photoshop mostly for simple removals and some light layering. Heavy users of Photoshop can weigh in, but this article wasn’t intended to address Photoshop, although I have included Affinity.
I know this removal isn’t perfect, but A: It’s a freaking horse, and B: it was a two-click edit. Another minute and it would have been perfect. The point is, I can’t do this in Lightroom.
ACDSee allows the use of external editors similar to Lightroom. I could not get Luminar to work as a plugin or external editor with ACDSee, but Luminar is notoriously buggy, so I place the blame there. I used it to get to Photoshop and Topaz without issue. They have presets, called Actions, which are really recorded Macros. It comes with a fairly extensive set, so you don’t have to create your own, but I used it to create my watermarks set. It takes a bit of getting used to, but if you have used a macro recorder in other software, it should be pretty straightforward.
The features I like the best in ACDSee are its LIghtEQ and ColorEQ technology. The ability to control just a tiny section of the histogram at such precision is very nice. You can do this with the sliders or by using the scroll wheel on a particular spot in the image.
ColorEQ works the same way with color channels. I use the HSL panel in Lightroom a lot, and this is far better and more precise. In practice, it’s very similar to the tools in Capture One, but the implementation is different.
In addition, you have the Color Wheel, Tone Wheels, and Tone Curves. I feel they are going after not only Lightroom, but Capture One, but I will have to leave it to someone who has used both much deeper than I have. The almost infinite precision of color management in Capture One is lost on me, but I salute those who have mastered it.
The Edit module has pretty much everything you could find in Lightroom, plus a huge array of selection tools across the top and Layer adjustment tools in the right panel.
The export window looks almost identical to Lightroom and features a similar ability to build presets. This functionality, along with good metadata control is critical to my workflow.
Functionality & Features
One very unique option in ACDSee is its Photos panel, which creates a timeline of your images. You can pull out to see a screen of tiny thumbnails or drill down by year, month, or date. It is convenient for quick browsing or to see images in the context of when you shot them. For people who debate whether to catalog by month or subject, ACDSee can easily give you the best of both worlds.
Speed. IMO, this above all else. I never felt it was hogging resources and, when idle, used almost nothing, so leaving it open was not a problem. This version is supposed to be 40% faster in areas than the last one, but I don’t ever recall speed being an issue.
Also, the footprint on my hard drive was pretty small, although, for this test, I didn't spend a lot of time with the software. It’s my understanding that the library continues to build itself as you use the software.
Noise control was probably weaker than most products. But that was based on working with my old Canon raw files. The Fuji files I am working with now, especially the jpgs have little to no noise, so I haven’t tested that as much.
If you haven’t used it in a while, they have upped their game. There was a time when good documentation was scarce, but the help system is much improved, and they finally hired an excellent presenter to produce their YouTube videos. Alec Watson has a phenomenal series that walks you through all the modules. Documentation used to be a huge complaint, but not so much anymore.
I like the software a lot. In the past, my biggest complaint was that it was very different and had poor documentation. The training videos were so bad, I couldn’t watch them. All that has changed.
This section wasn’t in my original plan, but this is definitely a work in progress. As the articles progress, I will add and change things as I see fit and necessary, and based on the fantastic feedback I am getting. If you read an earlier version of this article, you will know that I changed my test image. I found that in the original two, one had too much wrong with it, and the other not enough. I didn’t get any real-world testing with either. Here is a generic raw image shot last year with my Canon MKIII of a game at Suntrust Field in Atlanta.
As I would in Lightroom, I wanted to crop and straighten first, so I brought it into the Develop Module and clicked on the Geometry tab.
Lens correction, a little cropping, and perspective change was all I did at this point.
Next, I opened up the General and White Balance tabs and adjusted the WB and exposure slightly as I would in Lightroom. I didn’t get too detailed on light yet, as I wanted to show you LightEQ.
There are two ways to use LightEQ. You can place the cursor in various places, where it will display both a sampling of the light along with RGB values and drag the cursor. This is useful for places like this where I want to lighten the shadow part of the stands while keeping the lighter area from going to far.
Or I can use the sliders on the panel to adjust specific parts of the histogram, without affecting other parts.
After making adjustments using both methods, I have the light balance about where I wanted. There wasn’t a vast amount of tonal range in this image, but I did boost the shadows a bit and was able to tone down the blown-out sky to get a touch of blue.
Next, I went into ColorEQ. I toned down the saturation in the greens and reds a touch and brightened some of the colors.
Next, I would tackle Noise Reduction, but there wasn’t any noticeable noise in this image. This is the weakest link in ACDSee, but to be honest, anything with more than minimal noise, I usually go into Topaz DeNoise AI of my current tools. If you are going to denoise in ACDSee, use the Edit module’s noise tools, which are much better than the Develop module.
At this point, with this image, I am probably done.
Before and After in ACDSee