People organise their images in all sorts of different ways, so there is no single ‘best’ image cataloguing software. It all depends on how you like to work and which software offers the most efficient and logical solution for the way you work.
Why do we even need image cataloguing tools?
If you organise your photos by folders and find this perfectly satisfactory, then you can use any number of different programs to keep your images organised. Adobe Bridge is a good starting point as an image browser if you already have Photoshop.
But sometimes folders alone aren’t enough and you need to be able to organise and search images in a much more flexible way. For example, what if you need to find all your images relating to snowboarding, or landscapes in Provence, or taken with a particular lens, or combinations of these things? Very often, we need to search for images using a whole range of different properties, whereas using folder locations limits you to just one.
This is where you need some kind of database-driven cataloguing tool. These work by importing all your images into a database which essentially contains a preview of the image and a link to the original file – you don’t have to move your images to import them into the database, or ‘catalog’, and this means means you can still keep your original filing system.
Typical examples of this are Lightroom Classic and Capture One. These programs ‘reference’ the location of your images in the folders on your computer, and they can display these folders and let you move images around and rename them too. However, if you move or rename images outside this software – in Windows or the Mac Finder, for example – the catalog will lose track of their location and you will have to ‘re-synchronise’ your folders.
Some cataloguing tools offer the best of both worlds, combining database-style search tools with ‘live’ folder views, so that you when you browse your folders they show the images that are actually there, not the ones that the database ‘thought’ were there. Examples include ON1 Photo RAW, Exposure X and Skylum Luminar 4. There is an import process of sorts with these programs, but they also update themselves with your image folder contents.
So here’s my list of the best image browser and cataloguing programs currently available, together with their pros and cons. I have put them roughly in order of merit in my own mind, but different people will work differently, so each of these programs has its plus points.
There are image cataloguing tools I don’t include here, such as Corel AfterShot, either because they are Windows only (I prefer to stick to Mac and Windows compatible software) or because I don’t think they add anything that the programs on this list don’t already cover very well.
All the programs in this list are quite closely matched, but none more so than the top three. None are a perfect or complete solution, but each is very compelling in its own way. And Capture One, for those who don’t need cloud sync and mobile editing, is probably the most compelling of all. For many professional photographers, it’s not the just the best image cataloguing software, but the only one that does what they need.
Capture One offers regular ‘referenced’ image catalogs, but it can also store images within self-contained ‘managed’ catalogs. Managed catalogs have some strong advantages. Capture One goes further still. It offers a ‘Sessions’ based workflow for studio and commercial photographers with a defined capture-select-edit-share workflow, and this Sessions mode can also be used for regular folder browsing with reduced database management tools but ‘live’ folder viewing, filtering, tags, metadata, album creation and more.
|• Referenced OR managed files||• Expensive compared to Lightroom|
|• Sessions based workflow||• No cloud sync/mobile app|
|• Single window interface||• No Lightroom-style ’stacking’ feature|
|• Excellent editing tools|
2 Lightroom Classic
Lightroom Classic is often the default choice for photographers who are already using Photoshop. It now comes in two versions, however, and while the tools and capabilities might appear similar, in both they will take you in two very different directions. Lightroom Classic is the ‘old’ Lightroom. It works with image stored on your own computer, and while it can synchronise with Lightroom Web and Lightroom Mobile, the process is somewhat clunky and deliberate. If cloud access is important to your workflow, then Lightroom CC is the better option.
Lightroom Classic’s cataloguing tools are very good. As well as browsing your images by folder (once they’re imported), you can create Collections (albums), Smart Collections and Collection Sets to store them in – these are like folders for Collections. Lightroom’s other advantage is the breadth of its camera support. Adobe is quick to release updates for new camera RAW formats and supports a wide range of low-end consumer cameras as well as premium and professional models. Lightroom Classic doesn’t run well on every computer, however. If you find it slow and flaky, you won’t be the only one.
|• Good value with a Photography Plan||• Performance issues|
|• Powerful search and filtering tools||• RAW processing not the best|
|• Widest camera RAW and lens profile support||• No ‘managed’ catalog option|
|• Limited but useful cloud sync options|
3. Lightroom CC
This is the newer, ‘web-first’ version of Lightroom. The defining difference is where your images are stored. In Lightroom Classic, your photos are stored on your own computer and drives; in Lightroom CC they are stored online, on Adobe’s own servers. Some files are cached locally to improve loading speed, but your full library is online. The advantage is that all your images are now available everywhere, on any device. The downside is that this storage costs money, typically around $10/£10 per month per terabyte – and 1TB might not be enough as your library grows (all the more reason to practice your image culling skills!). In use, Lightroom CC is quite refreshing after Lightroom Classic. It has a slimmed down, more streamlined, single-window interface, and while it now has almost all of the editing tools in Lightroom Classic, they are presented in a much more efficient, less oppressive design.
HOWEVER, Lightroom CC does not support plug-ins, nor any external editor except Photoshop (hmm), and you can’t create Virtual Copies to try out different looks. The latest Lightroom CC update adds Versions, but they are not the same thing.
|• All your images are available everywhere!||• Monthly storage cost|
|• Clean and efficient workspace||• Photoshop is the only external editor|
|• Consistent look for web and mobile versions||• No Virtual Copies|
4. ON1 Photo RAW 2020
ON1 Photo RAW takes a hybrid approach to image cataloguing. You can use its Browse module to pick through your image folders individually and then use the Filter tools to find images by label, rating, camera EXIF data, keyword and more. You can also combine filters for more specific searches. But you can also ‘catalog’ folders for more advanced searches. The trouble is, the boundaries between both options are quite blurred, and even after you’ve used the software for a while you might not form a clear picture of how these two approaches work together. Worse, while ON1 Photo Raw does offer Collections, its support for Smart Collections has been withdrawn, which remains unexplained but is perhaps connected with the new ON1 360 cloud sync service.
This is an optional add-on which carries a lower monthly charge than Adobe’s 1TB plan, but only replicates Lightroom Classic’s manual collection-by-collection synchronisation, not Lightroom CC’s all-your-pictures-everywhere approach.
|• Folder browsing and cataloguing combined||• Smart Collections have been withdrawn|
|• Optional ON1 360 cloud sync||• On1 360 is not a full match for Lightroom CC|
|• Ambiguity over browsing vs catalogs|
5. Exposure X5
Like ON1 Photo RAW, Exposure X offers a hybrid approach to folder browsing and image cataloguing, but in a much simpler and less ambiguous way. Once you’ve ‘bookmarked’ a folder, Exposure X will index it and offer both ‘live’ browsing of the folder contents and database-style search tools. You can create both Collections and (unlike the lates ON1 Photo RAW) Smart Collections. It also has filtering tools and a support for ratings, flags and color labels.
Exposure X does not have a cloud sync option, but it does store its metadata in local folders, so this is accessible to other computers (and other Exposure X installations on these other computers). Exposure X can be a little slow to scan/search a large image library and populate Smart Collections, but its approach is effective and – just as important – easy to understand and work with.
|• Straightforward browsing and cataloguing||• Not always fast with big libraries|
|• ‘Live’ folder browsing, Collections and Smart Collections||• No cloud sync option|
6. Skylum Luminar 4.3
Luminar 4.3, the latest version, has the most advanced browsing and cataloguing tools – though this is relative, because they are still quite basic. You do need to ‘import’ your image folders into the Luminar library, but once you’ve done that the folders are updated ‘live’ in Luminar if you make changes both within Luminar and outside it. You can create Albums, but Luminar has only just been given search tools (version 4.3) and basic ones at that, which can search using file and folder names but not camera EXIF data or keywords.
Luminar can be considered and effective image browser with the added advantage of ‘virtual’ Albums, but its search tools remain primitive and it’s not in the same league as the rest for in-depth image management.
|• Simple ‘live’ folder browsing||• No Smart Albums|
|• Support for Albums||• Very limited search tools, even now|
|• Shortcuts to dates, recent edits, recent additions||• No cloud sync|
Really, is that it?
There are a few programs not included in this best image cataloguing software comparison because I don’t cover them on Life after Photoshop. This is because I stick to programs I would definitely recommend rather than listing every single Photoshop alternative on the market.
I am familiar with Corel After Shot Pro 3, for example, but I find its cataloguing tools to be no more than average and its RAW conversions quite patchy. I have similar feelings about ACDSee, even though on paper its feature set looks good (my apologies to both companies).
I haven’t included the Organizer app that comes with Photoshop Elements, either, and that’s because while it’s a perfectly good tool to get started with, it’s a bit of a dead end. If you decide to move on up to Lightroom or Capture One, say, you’re going to have to learn a whole new environment.
I’ve also been told off in the past for not including Photo Mechanic, but that’s a file browser, culling and metadata tool, not an image cataloguing application. Ultimately, if you find a simple browser like Photo Mechanic or Adobe Bridge is adequate for your needs, then you don’t need any of the programs here.