Can ACDSee manage a growing photo library as well as Lightroom, but for half the price? We find out.
There’s a wide range of photo-management software on the market, with an equally wide range of prices. Google Picasa is free, making it perfect for casual users. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom dominates for enthusiasts, but its price is too high for most amateur photographers. In between sits ACDSee Pro 4: a highly capable, more affordable alternative.
Its various modules closely match those in Lightroom, with tabs for managing, viewing and processing photos, plus another for archiving and sharing them online. The latter integrates neatly with www.acdseeonline.com, which looks smart and includes some useful features of its own. It's also possible to upload to Flickr, although integration isn't as tight. Printing is well catered for, and slideshows are available for instant viewing or export in a variety of formats including PDF and PowerPoint.
Lightroom is no slouch when it comes to sorting through vast catalogues of photos, but ACDSee Pro 4 is even faster. It took a couple of hours to add our library of 33,000 images to its catalogue, but from then on it took less than a second to show all the photos for a given day or month using the simple Calendar browser. Filtering the entire catalogue by other criteria, such as camera model or focal length, was performed in a couple of seconds. The controls for combining multiple search criteria are much more immediate than Lightroom's, too.
One gripe is that some filter parameters are limited to predefined values rather than ranges. For example, you can view the ISO 100 or ISO 200 shots, but not any value in between. We were able to filter by file type, but Sony and Panasonic RAW file formats didn't appear on the list. Overall, though, the management facilities are easily a match for Lightroom's.
New to version 4 is the ability to view photos on a map, using the coordinates embedded into files by GPS-enabled cameras. Photos can also be tagged manually by dropping them onto the map, and these coordinates were correctly interpreted in Google Earth. The default screen layout for this Map View could be better, but the ability to save and recall custom Workspaces provided an effective remedy.
The Process tab is home to a comprehensive suite of tools: cropping and rotating, colour correction, sharpening and noise reduction, lens-distortion correction, blemish removal, watermarks and various special effects are offered. Localised edits are well catered for, with marquee and magic wand selection tools, plus the ability to feather selections for soft edges. However, while the main RAW-processing tools are applied non-destructively, localised edits are destructive, so it's not possible to tweak RAW-processing options after making localised edits. JPEG processing is always applied destructively, but old versions are stashed away in hidden subfolders, so the workflow for RAW and JPEG images is effectively the same.
The colour-correction tools are as good as Lightroom's, with extensive controls to tweak the luminosity curve with utmost precision. We particularly like the Light EQ, which enables contrast boosts to just a specific range of luminosities. It's also possible to click and drag parts of the image to change the saturation, brightness or hue for a narrow range of hues. Changes are reflected extremely quickly in the preview image, with 18-megapixel RAW files responding almost instantly to user input.
New to this version are corrective tools for vignetting, chromatic aberrations and fringing. They work well, but correcting manually by eye is far more laborious than Lightroom's automatic correction, which is based on a database of profiles for popular SLR lenses. Moving from View to Develop mode made the software disregard the lens-distortion and chromatic-aberration correction data that's embedded into the RAW files produced by Micro Four Thirds cameras. ACDSee tells us that there are no immediate plans to remedy this issue.
We also found Lightroom a little more effective at squeezing the last drops of detail out of RAW images. ACDSee Pro wasn't far behind at low ISO speeds, but the difference was much more pronounced in noisier images. ACDSee Pro's noise-reduction algorithm struggled to cope with RAW images taken with a Canon EOS 60D at ISO 6400, with maximum-strength reduction suppressing fine details while still letting a fair amount of noise through.
Though this is the clearest example of Lightroom’s superiority, there are others. We prefer Lightroom's purely non-destructive approach, even for localised edits and JPEGs, and its comprehensive undo history and virtual copy function make it easy to jump between different versions of an image.
ACDSee Pro's lack of explicit support for dual-monitor setups also counts against it. We undocked the Preview panel and enlarged it to fill a second monitor in Manage mode, but the View, Process and Online modes proved less easy to spread across two screens.
There's nothing in Lightroom to match ACDSee Pro's map-tagging facilities, though, and ACDSee Pro's online hosting facilities are better than Lightroom's clumsy support for third-party hosting services.
All in all, ACDSee Pro puts up a good fight and has plenty going for it. However, those who can afford it should still go for Lightroom, especially if they're eligible for the cheaper Student and Teacher version.