Taking on Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture is a tall order, not just because those programs’ well-established user base, but also because of Adobe’s deep pockets and imaging expertise. But, after 20 years in the business, ACD Systems has its own photo-software chops, as shown by the depth of capabilities in the company’s ACDSee Pro 3 application ($169.99, direct). In some respects, ACDSee Pro 3 is even more powerful than Lightroom, though it’s less polished in its interface and lacks some features offered by Lightroom. ACDSee Pro 3 is Windows-only, but there’s an ACDSee Pro for Mac in beta.
Both professional digital photographers and serious amateur DSLR users turn to apps like Lightroom, ACDSee, and Aperture to import, organize, view, adjust, and editing their work. Since DSLRs generate huge raw file formats proprietary to Canon, Nikon, or whichever camera manufacturer’s product the photographer uses, simple photo editing software usually isn’t up to the task. Of course, the photographer could choose to shoot in smaller JPEG mode, but this limits what he can do with the image later in software processing.
When you first run the app, a Quick Start Guide appears over the interface, offering to take you through a tour of its modes and tasks. This is a great help, considering the extensive amount of modes, features, and tools in the program.
Like Lightroom, underneath ACDSee builds a database, or catalog to save all your image file preferences and edits. This means the originals, or negatives, are left untouched, so you can always revert to the photo’s original state; you can save files containing your edits with the Export command.
Both editors also offer plug-ins, but there’s a wider range of offerings for Lightroom—in fact, Adobe maintains an online plug-in-sharing section on its site for this. One important set of plug-ins that you can use in Lightroom, Photoshop, and Aperture, and Corel PaintShop Pro are those from Nik Software, which do things like precise sharpening and color effects and are a standard among pro photo editors.
The ACDSee interface is similar to Adobe Lightroom’s; choices at top-right take the user through the program’s four major modes: Manage, View, Process, and Online. Lightroom takes a slightly different approach, with five choices instead of four—Library, Develop, Slideshow, Print, and Web. Viewing in Lightroom is part of the Library mode. The Manage mode in ACDSee is for importing, browsing, organizing, and searching for photos. The calendar pane on the left can also show folders or Favorites.
The main window is arranged in a left panel control, central viewing area, and options on another panel on the right. It’s very customizable: You can turn panels on and off, and even have them float in separate windows. And the way you set up your windows and panels can be saved as workspaces for future use.
Before you do anything else, you may want to set up the Device Detector, which sits in the system tray and senses when you’ve plugged camera media into the PC and offers to import its contents. Personally, I’m not sure that this is any better than an AutoPlay option that pops up when you plug in media anyway—which ACDSee also provides. Oddly, Lightroom doesn’t offer a similar functionality.
Organizing Photo Collections
Once you’ve got some images imported, you should switch to Manage mode, in which lets you view by folders, calendar entries, or Favorites. When you click into a folder, you’ll see all your images; moving the cursor over a thumbnail enlarges the image (to me, this is more helpful than Lightroom, which shows filename, date, and size on mouseover). Double clicking brings up a full-screen view—meaning now you’re in View mode. But back in Manage, the right pane offers rich options for viewing photo and file info—aside from ACDSee’s own data such as caption, notes, keywords, categories, and ratings, you can see complete EXIF data, file properties, IPTC info (which indicates identity and rights), and even a custom panel that combines info from any of these.
Categories and Ratings options let you limit view to photos that, for example, you shot at F3.5. You can choose a focal length range to limit displayed images. Lightroom, goes further, letting you choose pictures by lens with which you shot them. Another difference is that Lightroom helpfully only displays one thumbnail for the same shot you recorded in RAW+JPEG (ACDSee shows both). But ACDSee offers an Event view similar to iPhoto’s, and you can even view calendar months to pick days photos were shot on.
Both programs support the same open RAW DNG format, but Lightroom also offers identity plates for pro photogs to ID their images on screen and in print. ACDSee does offer watermarking, which can accomplish the same goal, but it’s not as automated.
Both ACDSee and Lightroom let you play audio notes your camera may record with an image, but ACDSee actually lets you record a new audio note from the PC. Lightroom just treats the audio file as a “sidecar” file.
There’s tons of software that can display and show groups of photos—it’s the processing that sets ACDSee (and Lightroom) apart. The Process mode has two sub-views—Develop and Edit. Lightroom combines these two into one Develop view, but I think the separation makes sense. The first is where you correct exposure, white balance, and colors. A histogram and exposure warning indicator help you see basic properties of the image. The latter tells you the percentage of pixels over and underexposed, or clipped.
For some adjustment categories, there are auto-correction options—the cursor turns into a magic wand that applies the program’s best guess for lighting, and an eyedropper lets you pick a neutral color to correct white balance. Finally, Curves let you selectively bump up or down tones. Lighting and Tone Curves both have Auto button, the latter of which is quite effective. Each adjustment category has a reset icon, letting you undo all actions within that category.
Any adjustments you make to a photo can be pasted to another photo, or you can develop individual photos or batches of photos using presets you’ve saved earlier. And after you’ve applied Develop processing, your image in the Manage view gets a small “D” in its thumbnail to let you know you’ve worked on it. I like how ACDSee lets you change the zoom by 2 percent increments, where Lightroom only offers increments like quarter size, third size, half size, along with fit, which fits the whole image into the viewing area, and fill, which fills the viewing area with your photo horizontally.
The Edit section lets you get even more creative. Whereas Develop changes affect the entire photo, Edits can be applied to an area you can select by freehand lasso tool, magic wand, or marquee. And you can save selection areas if a lot of pictures have the same area you want to edit. One feature here that tops what’s in Lightroom—lens geometry correction. Adobe wants you to buy Photoshop for that, while ACDSee throws it in with the rest of the tools. It works well, letting you straighten curved lines in a fisheye photo, for example, but Photoshop plug-ins that correct for specific lens at specific focal lengths are preferable.
Printing and Sharing
ACDSee provides its own online galleries, and you can upload to these from inside the software. You can also create an ACDSee online account from within the software. You get 2GB of file storage with purchase of the software. For $25, you can upgrade your storage to 25GB for a year. The design of the online galleries is dark, pleasing, and brings the viewer’s attention to the photographs. But they lack sophisticated geo- and face-tagging found in Picasa. Also, slideshows aren’t full screen. ACDSee can also upload to Flickr and other image hosting services, as well as directly to FTP storage. You can create a Flickr account from within the program, and set Flickr resizing and privacy options.
Lightroom can also generate Web galleries using plain HTML or Flash. ACDSee has nine HTML gallery styles to choose from, and you can save settings changes you make to them. Another option in ACDSee is to create a SendPix temporary gallery for sharing with friends, and the program can create PDF and PowerPoint files as well. And it creates beautiful, configurable slideshows, which you can even turn into a video and burn to disc.
Printing options in ACDSee include a standard choice of sizes and thumbnails, wallet-size, fax, and full page print. Lightroom offers a bit more here, including custom templates.
A couple of general observations: I did manage to crash ACDsee a couple times while adjusting curves in Windows Vista. But I do prefer ACDSee’s local help to Lightroom’s Web-based help, which can take a while to load, is inconsistent, and obviously isn’t available if you’re not connected to the Internet.
ACDSee offers pretty much everything you’ll find in the pricier Adobe Lightroom 2 ($299), but the latter offers a more polished interface and a larger ecosystem of add-ins, as the standard tool of choice of professional photographers. Look for a review of the upcoming Lightroom 3 (now in beta) to see which of these products earns our Editors’ Choice. For the pro-sumer photographer who wants to get into the world of DSLRs, ACDSee is a great choice, and it’s perfectly powerful enough for pros—even in some cases exceeding Lightroom’s features. Professional photogs, however, will probably want to stick with Lightroom, while casual shutterbugs who want to spruce up and share their snapshots should stick with my consumer photo software Editors’ Choice, Picasa.