Cataloguing software can organize your entire photo collection, but how does it work and what do you look for?
Cataloguing software is based around an image database. This database may be called the image ‘catalog’ or a ‘library’. It stores image thumbnails and previews, links to the original file’s location and all kinds of image ‘metadata’. This can include EXIF shooting information embedded by the camera, IPTC metadata like captions, keywords and copyright information.
Examples of programs that use a single central database, or catalog file in the way are Lightroom and Capture One. Apple Photos works in this way too. You can create more than one catalog with these programs but it’s typically simpler to stick to one.
Where your files are stored
The first step with cataloguing programs is to import them into the catalog or library. The software will do one of two things. Usually, it will leave the images where they are on your computer and simply ‘reference’ their location – these are ‘referenced images’. Here, the catalog file or files are in one location, and the references images stay in their original location.
Some programs will import (or copy) the images into the catalog file itself. These are called ‘managed images’ since only that software will display them and they are not directly visible or available to other programs. In this case, you get a single large catalog file, or set of files, which contains both the image database and the images themselves.
There are pros and cons to both systems. A catalog which works with referenced images will be much smaller because the images are stored outside of the catalog, but it’s easier to inadvertently lose the link between the image and the catalog. This can happen if you move or rename images with other programs, Windows Explorer or the Mac Finder. Sometimes you can ’synchronize’ a catalog to restore the connection with files and folders on your computer.
Managed catalogs have the disadvantage of being closed to other programs, but it’s much easier to stay organised. Your whole photo collection is in a single file in a single location, and you don’t have the same issues with ‘disconnected’ or ‘missing’ images.
Adobe Lightroom Classic only uses a referenced file management, Lightroom uses a managed catalog stored in the cloud. Capture One offers both referenced and managed alternatives. Apple Photos can also work with both referenced and managed files, but it’s really set up for a single managed photo library. Apple Photos also stores your images in the cloud for synchronization with other devices.
Cloud storage pros and cons
Cloud storage has advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious advantage is that it means your photos are available everywhere, on any device. This is a big advantage if you are into mobile photography, capturing images and video with a smartphone and maybe editing on a tablet or laptop away from your base.
Adobe’s cloud storage has another advantage. It allows the use of Adobe’s Sensei AI technologies to automatically identify objects in your pictures for automatic ‘intelligent’ keywords and searches.
The disadvantages of cloud storage are the extra storage cost (around $10 per terabyte with Adobe Creative Cloud) and upload/download times. You will need an Internet connection wherever you are.
Any cataloguing software which offers cloud storage and mobile synchronization will come with a subscription fee for the storage required, though the software license may include a certain amount of free storage. Sooner or later, this free storage is unlikely to be enough.
Browsing vs cataloguing software
Cataloguing software uses a database approach to offer powerful searching, filtering and organising tools across a large photo collection stored in multiple locations. Browsing software is much simpler, and just shows you the contents of folders on your computer.
The easiest direct example is Adobe Bridge vs Adobe Lightroom. Adobe Bridge is a free utility that comes with most Adobe subscription plans. You use it to view, inspect and organise images in specific folders. It lets you open and edit images in other programs, check and amend image metadata, filter images by type and properties and more. However, while it does have a basic Collections feature, it’s quite slow and limited. If you need to organise thousands of images across multiple folders, you need Lightroom.
Some programs offer a hybrid cataloguing approach, trying to combine the best of both worlds. Exposure X can both browse your image folders ‘live’, store photos in virtual Albums and even apply non-destructive adjustments. You don’t need to Import images into a catalog; instead, you simply ‘bookmark’ the folders you want it to keep track of.
ON1 Photo RAW offers a similar hybrid approach, this time offering a choice between a basic but effective Browse panel and a more advanced Catalog where you specify the folders you want to include. Capture One can also work in a ‘sessions’ mode where it allows live folder browsing coupled with some effective organisational tools.
Cataloging software workflow and interface
Cataloguing software combines image organizing, viewing and editing tools. Sometimes all these tools are available in a single window, sometimes they are split into different modules or panels.
For large-scale organizing and browsing there will be a thumbnail view, but you will typically be able to double-click on a thumbnail to see a larger ‘preview’. (Cataloguing software generates previews so that it can display images faster than having to render the full resolution image.) In Lightroom, this is called Loupe view.
You will also be able to use editing tools directly on the image. In Lightroom Classic this means swapping to the Develop module, and ON1 Photo RAW has a separate Develop panel within its editing tools, but other programs may do everything within the same window.
Across all desktop cataloguing software, the convention is to have the organizing tools in a sidebar on the left and the editing tools in a sidebar on the right.
Cataloging software tools
The advantage of cataloguing software’s database approach is that it offers many more ways to organize and even edit your images.
For a start, it can pull together tens of thousands of images on your computer into a single location without physically moving them. You can then organize them into ‘albums’, also called ‘collections’ in some programs, which are like ‘virtual containers’.
The difference between albums and folders is that a photo can be in lots of different albums, but only ever in one folder. Most cataloging software will display both albums/collections and folders. The folders display will show the actual image locations on your computer, and this is useful for basic image organization and housekeeping.
Many cataloguing programs also offer ‘smart albums’ (or ‘smart collections’). With regular albums or collections you add images manually; with smart albums you simply choose some specific criteria, such as camera model, ISO setting or keywords, and the smart album will find and display matching images automatically.
Cataloguing software can also search for images based on criteria you specify or filter the contents of folders or albums based on the same image properties.
It also offers features like color labels, which you can use to color-code images for your own purposes, star ratings, and ‘flags’ to highlight ‘picks’ or ‘rejects’. You can use cataloging software to ‘cull’ unwanted photos or duplicates, though many photographers will prefer to do this before they import photos into the catalo, to as part of the import process.
Non-destructive editing and RAW processing
Cataloguing software can also edit your images ‘non-destructively’. This means that your adjustments are non permanent and can be undone or changed later – your original photo always remains unaltered.
The non-destructive editing tools in programs like Capture One and Lightroom are now so good that you may hardly need regular photo editors like Photoshop at all.
Global adjustments like levels and curves, white balance and so on are just as effective, and it’s also possible to carry out quite sophisticated ‘local adjustments’ using gradient masks, radial masks, adjustment brushes and other tools. These too can be changed or removed at any time.
A key advantage of cataloguing software is its ability to ‘edit’ RAW files seamlessly alongside JPEGs, TIFFs or other regular image files. With traditional photo editors like Photoshop and Affinity Photo, you have to put RAW files through a one-way ‘develop’ process before you can work on them, but with cataloguing software that’s not necessary.
With cataloguing software you can also create ‘virtual copies’ (‘versions’ in Capture One). This makes it possible to try out multiple different treatments on the same image file without having to physically duplicate it and take up more storage space.
This ties in with another clever feature of non-destructive cataloguing tools – the ability to apply and then modify one-click ‘presets’. These are combinations of image adjustments to create a specific effect, and there is a huge market in third-party Lightroom presets, for example.
There will be editing jobs that cataloguing software can’t do, typically detailed retouching, layered image composites and specialised effects, but most can use plug-ins or external editors for this kind of work.
Exporting and batch processing
The key thing to remember about any editing changes you make in a cataloging program is that they exist only as processing instructions within that software. If you want a processed image to share with others or to publish online, say, you need to export a new, processed image file, typically a JPEG or a TIFF file. You can export images individually or select multiple images for batch processing.
Best cataloguing software
- Adobe Lightroom Classic: Probably the most popular cataloguing software of all and available as part of the Adobe Photography Plan. It’s powerful and effective, though can be slow
- Capture One: Twice the price of Lightroom Classic but with superior RAW processing and editing controls and an efficient single-window interface
- Adobe Lightroom: The ‘web first’ version of Lightroom has mostly the same editing tools as Lightroom Classic, but weaker organizing tools, and relies on fairly expensive cloud storage
- Exposure X: A great non-destructive analog effects and editing tool that also has a really slick hybrid browsing/cataloguing system that others could emulate
- ON1 Photo RAW: Offers both ‘browsing’ and ‘cataloguing’ tools, though there is some crossover and the distinction could be clearer
- Apple Photos: It’s easy to overlook Apple’s free photo library/cataloguing tool. It’s not that powerful but has cloud synchronisation built in – you can create additional libraries, too