Find the best photo manager to fit your needs

After months of deliberation, I finally brought home a new addition to our family -- a digital SLR camera. With the DSLR comes a plethora of options I didn't have before, with the ability to shoot RAW images being at the top of the list.

My husband and I passed the camera back and forth to take a few test images, which were uploaded to iPhoto on my MacBook Air. Instant crawl. Anything involving the RAW images was a drag on the machine, though it has far more to do with the MacBook Air (11-inch October 2010) than iPhoto. But, it did remind me to ask the TUAW brain trust: Is it time to upgrade to Aperture? What about Adobe Lightroom? What's the best photo manager overall to use?

With the RAW support and the potential increase in picture-taking overall, my needs are poised to outgrow iPhoto's capabilities, and it's the same question that other people will face as digital SLRs grow more powerful and affordable. Here's a quick look at three of the major players out there.

What is a photo manager?

A photo manager is a digital version of a traditional album, where you store images from your digital camera and can organize them into albums. They range from free (if you purchase a new Mac or plan to be an Adobe Creative Cloud subscriber) to US$149. All of them can edit photos, but not manipulate them -- for that, you would need a program such as Adobe Photoshop or Pixelmator. All of them have the ability to create photo books and web galleries, as well as social media integration.

iPhoto 11

Who's it for? Those who are just getting comfortable with handling digital photography and those who want a basic photo manager and editing tools.

Evidence for: It's the lowest-cost out of the three and it's easy to use, especially for photo novices. The learning curve is very low, especially if you're using the iOS version of iPhoto.

Evidence against: Bigger libraries tend to cause the program to hang up. It doesn't handle multiple libraries well, so if they're split up among different machines, you'll want to consider investing in iPhoto Library Manager for $19.95 or the free iPhoto Buddy. You can only access one library at a time. Some users report having issues with photo libraries with more than 10,000 photos.

Cost: $14.99, Mac App Store only. There's no trial version. It's free if you purchase a new Mac.


Who's it for? Professional photographers and serious hobbyists.

Evidence for: For those used to iPhoto, it's a logical next step, and you can import your files from iPhoto. Handles large and multiple libraries much easier. Has some of the same features of iPhoto including the ability to bring in Photo Stream and Faces and Places tagging. Some users prefer Aperture's RAW conversion to Adobe's. You can batch-edit photos, and the full-screen edit mode has a number of fans. You can edit photos more precisely than iPhoto.

Evidence against: It's not the solution to consider if you have a low-powered machine. As Macworld notes, Faces can be a severe deterrent to Aperture's performance.

Cost: $79.99, Mac App Store only. Apple used to offer a 30-day trial, but did away with it.

Adobe Lightroom

Who's it for? Professional photographers and serious hobbyists.

Evidence for: If you can navigate Photoshop blindfolded, then the tools in Lightroom will be second nature to you. Like Aperture, you can batch-edit photos and create workflows. Some users prefer Lightroom's interface, which is more workflow-oriented. You can actually try Lightroom before you drop a lot of money on it. It's a bit more powerful than Aperture.

Evidence against: The price is nearly double Aperture's, but that'll be a non-issue for those who plan to become Adobe Creative Cloud subscribers. It's not tightly integrated with iOS devices like Aperture and iPhoto are. Some find that switching between modules is a bit frustrating.

Cost: $149.99 on its own or $99 when purchased with Adobe Creative Suite. It'll be included in an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. A 30-day trial version is available.

There are other alternatives, such as Google's free Picasa. Most cameras will come bundled with some sort of photo-managing software. One of the drawbacks to all of them is that unless you're going from iPhoto to Aperture, any editing of metadata will be lost.

From parents taking photos of their kids with marching bands to professionals with studios or out in the field, the type of photo manager you wind up with reflects your interest in photography. If you want an easy place to dump photos and share them with the grandparents, you most likely will not want anything beyond iPhoto. If your interest lies in truly crafting your art, then give Aperture or Adobe Lightroom a try.