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A good workflow is such a powerful, time-saving and inspiring thing. There is even a certain romance to it – a routine of steps melting into the background that lead to a finished photograph. This creates a result to be proud of, one to inspire you to go out and photograph more, be it a product shot, an image from a recent trip to Iceland (everyone seems to be going to Iceland), or an artistic portrait.
It can also be an inexhaustible source of frustration or an excuse for procrastination. I know it’s certainly been all of these things for me, and the latter much more often in the past. The people behind ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate must have had a similar experience, too, but they created tools that set up a solid workflow foundation for any photographer.
Mind you, ACD Systems faces an obvious, towering obstacle by the name of Lightroom, a piece of software that has been the industry standard for nearly a decade now. I’ve used it extensively and exclusively for just about every project in the past seven or eight years. And let’s be honest, for all of its faults, Lightroom has been the most popular choice with good reason. It does many things right.
In light of Adobe’s recent (or was it really recent?) change of policy regarding payment (among other things), however, I have felt the need to take a look around and see if perhaps there are alternatives. ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate is certainly one.
In this article, I will go through a workflow that I’ve been using with Photo Studio Ultimate as I got myself properly acquainted with it. While I realize it’s an entirely subjective approach to managing and editing photographs, I hope that it will at least give you a good starting point from which to individualize.
An important disclaimer: The license to this copy of ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2018 has been provided by the company; I did not purchase it. Having said that, it’s my subjective opinion and findings that you are reading here. ACD Systems (rather happily, I must add) had next to no say in it. My words are always my own.
Many have heard – or even used – some version of ACDSee. No surprise there as it’s around two decades old now and actually precedes Lightroom. But there are few areas where Adobe does not have a monopoly, and while many remember ACD Systems, it’s not nearly as popular as Lightroom. Perhaps undeservedly so, because pretty much everything Lightroom does, ACDSee does too.
First and foremost, Photo Studio Ultimate 2018 is an image management software. It started off as a lightweight viewer and organizer and has not lost the idea over the years. But powerful metadata and organizing capabilities are now complemented by some very useful post-processing tools for both RAW and graphic image files. More so in this high-end version than any other (and there are plenty, which explains the mouthful of a name).
Photo Studio Ultimate 2018 has been specifically designed to cater to pretty much every need you may have while editing – from culling to doing extensive graphics manipulations with layers and masks. In essence, it should be the only software you need. In that sense, Photo Studio’s ambition stretches beyond that of overthrowing Lightroom. It actually has Photoshop in its sights, too. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Going against Lightroom is hard enough already – the newly updated software throws a large shadow. We’ll see if Photo Studio can shine through.
As I have mentioned before, ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate was created to address all the needs of a working professional photographer or artist. As such, it incorporates powerful image management tools as well as those meant for post-processing images and specifically, RAW files.
Naturally, having such vast capability meant a lot of thought has to go into the interface and user-friendliness. After all, having all the tools crammed into a single screen would leave little to no room for an actual image. Let’s briefly overview the ACDSee Photo Studio interface before we get started.
Even this Ultimate version is immediately friendly upon launch, but there is a whole lot going on here. Thankfully, not much is beyond customizing. By going to the Mode Configuration in the General section of the Options dialog, you can get rid of modes you find less useful. I’ve immediately unchecked every mode except Manage, Photos, View, Develop, and Edit. After a second thought, I got rid of Photos, too, as I did not seem to use it at all.
Much like with Lightroom Modules, ACDSee has several different environments for different tasks you may want to accomplish. All of these environments (or modes) are accessible at the top-right of the screen at pretty much any time.
If you look through the screenshots carefully, you’ll notice how the mode buttons in the top-right corner of the interface keep changing. ACDSee offers plenty of options to declutter the interface, and hiding access to modes that you don’t find yourself using is very convenient. In the end, I even disabled the View button since View mode is very easy to access by double-clicking on any image thumbnail. I’ve found the button to be redundant.
The first mode – that opens by default each time you launch Photo Studio – is Manage. This mode is meant for navigating your hard drive, importing images (which by itself is never necessary, but rather handy all the same), applying keywords and filters, and so on. You will likely spend a lot of time here and start your work in this mode more often than not.
You will be spending a lot of time in Manage mode and thus a view similar to this (after some tinkering) should be immediately familiar. The interface is dominated by the Image Grid, as it should be. But that’s not to the detriment of other information, such as metadata and even the Histogram. Navigation is easy and there are some useful quick-access tools at the bottom of the screen for image rotation and comparison.
Photos mode is similar to Manage in that it can be used to find and view images. However, rather than letting you navigate to a specific folder on your hard drive, it shows every image that you have on your computer in chronological order, similar to how Gallery works on your smartphone.
You can choose a specific year to be shown using the Timeline panel (positioned on the left by default), and further narrow it down from there if you need to. Hovering over any given image will show an enlarged preview with some basic information next to it (where the image is stored, its dimensions, and more).
The View mode is at the core of ACDSee and as the name suggests, is meant specifically for viewing images one by one, full screen. In addition to the View mode, which is launched whenever you double-click on an image within ACDSee, there is also Quick View. This is an even lighter image viewer that, by default, launches when you double-click an image anywhere on your hard drive.
It’s part of ACDSee, but also isn’t. For the purposes of speed, Quick View does not launch the full ACDSee software. As is, View mode is already very speedy and gets on with displaying images very well once the software is up and running. A simple task, but one Microsoft has not managed to do well for decades and ACDSee always seems to get right.
An important mode that you are likely to end up using as much as Manage is Develop. This, as the name suggests, is designed for post-processing images. Specifically – it’s the RAW converter environment (similar to Adobe Camera RAW). It offers tools to fine-tune exposure, white balance, noise reduction, and sharpening, along with some immensely powerful tools, such as Tone Curves. I will be paying a lot of attention to this mode as Develop, along with Manage, is what ACDSee simply must get right.
Develop mode holds few surprises to anyone who’s used any RAW converter before, as the fundamentals are usually the same. The screen is dominated by a large image preview and there is a useful Filmstrip underneath for quick navigation within the selected folder. Notice the conveniently presented exposure and camera information right next to it (bottom right corner of the image above).
The left side of the screen is where the main tools are placed by default, but the whole panel can be relocated. See those blue circles? They show which settings have been altered from their default values. Clicking on the blue circle will temporarily disable those adjustments, but not completely discard them.
Complementing the Develop mode is Edit. This is where ACDSee starts to target Photoshop in addition to Lightroom. For some users, it will more or less replace Adobe’s best-known software. It offers layers, masks, and sophisticated retouching tools – suffice to say, too much to cover in this article.
Edit mode is a whole new piece of software, it’s so capable and complex. While some elements are similar to those you will find in Develop mode, a lot is different. There is a Layers panel on the right side, while the left and top portions of the interface are absolutely packed full of tools.
We will cover all of the modes in more detail in upcoming articles. For the purposes of this one, however, we will mostly focus on Manage and Develop, as these two modes are crucial for RAW file management and post-processing.
Import is convenient even if it is ultimately not a must-use feature. It’s still very much an option to just move files from the card to your hard drive the drag-and-drop way if you so wish. But the ACDSee Import tool offers to apply metadata, rename, and backup files and is simply very useful. You can even save import presets to speed up the process further if you regularly do photo sessions of specific types, and it’s easy to classify them. This I like very much as it saves plenty of time once you set them up.
But there is a caveat – the Import tool is really only meant for images that are not yet on your hard drive, but stored somewhere on an external device, be it a USB drive or a memory card. And while you can “import” image files that are already on your hard drive (select Disk from the Import drop-down menu using the top-most toolbar), there is little point to do so as ACDSee does not use a catalog system and you can already see all the images on your computer.
So, after popping a memory card in hit Alt+G (or select Import from the toolbar at the top-left corner of the screen). At this point, you will be asked to select the source device (an external one, such as a USB drive or a memory card) and, once that is done, you’ll be greeted by the Import dialog box.
Using the main Import dialog is rather straightforward. Select the destination via the Location section of the dialog, where you can also specify a backup location for a second copy of the files to be saved. There is an option to rename files and it’s infinitely customizable. So is the metadata changes that you can apply upon import. I try to take care of this particular part of my workflow during import as it means I won’t have to assign all the necessary metadata information to so many files later on.
The import process itself is swift. More so than with Lightroom, as ACDSee does not need to add the RAW files to an internal catalog, and can instead display them immediately. Once the images have been copied to your hard drive (or, alternatively, you’ve navigated to a set of images already on it) with basic metadata hopefully already applied, it’s time to do the tedious task of culling.
I prefer to leave out as many images as I can before I move on to post-processing (during which I tend to drop a few more images), and ACDSee has plenty of filters to make the task easy.
Part of the reason why import is as swift as moving images manually from memory card onto your hard drive is that it is pretty much all that’s happening. ACDSee does not add files to a catalog like Lightroom does. Another important aspect is the image preview – rather than render its own previews immediately, ACDSee uses embedded JPEGs before any edits are applied. Basically, at first, you see the exact same image as you would on the back of your camera. This can be changed in the options, as shown in the screenshot, but I’m not sure why you would. Proper previews are rendered once you start developing the files, but for the initial sorting? Embedded is probably the best way to go about it and saves so much time.
It’s always been a real struggle for me to sort through the initial batch of image files – it’s never easy to judge your work fairly, is it? So breaking the process into several steps has helped me a lot. First things first – ratings. Photo Studio permits a numeric rating ranging from 1 to 5 to be assigned to any file. It’s as straightforward as you think – the lower the rating, the less you like the image.
My routine involves going through images and only assigning a 5 (Ctrl + 5) to the files I find good enough, and 1 (Ctrl + 1) to images that are safe to delete with certainty. Once I’ve done both and the lowest rating images are off my hard drive, I select a rating 5 filter to only see photographs that passed the initial sorting. You can do that by selecting the Filter drop-down menu above the image grid.
Now, I said rating 5 goes to images that are good enough for a reason – by removing a large number of similar images during initial sorting, I make it that much easier for myself to see the photo shoot as a whole and judge which photographs don’t fit. At the same time, I don’t pressure myself to only keep the very best images after the initial sorting, as that may take too much time. So I sort through the 5 rated photographs one more time. This time around, I assign a rating of 4 to images that are not quite what I was trying to achieve. These files get dropped, but should I change my mind, I know they are marked with 4 and are always easily accessible. I may end up deleting unrated files at some point, but I always keep the 4 rated ones just in case.
Hopefully, the second sorting has left me with a small number of photographs that I really like. Now that there are much fewer files remaining, I can give each one a lot more attention. At this point, I tend to go through the files one by one in full screen view (double-click on any thumbnail or select a file and hit View mode) and pre-visualize the final result that I want to achieve as I did while photographing. What sort of editing will I need to do to each one? Will it require conversion to black and white? Is extensive retouching or complex local adjustment of tones and colors going to be necessary?
ACDSee has a lot of filtering, sorting, and grouping options. And I do mean a lot. They can all be used to narrow down which image files you want to be shown. It’s not just the Filter menu, but the ones next to it, too.
More often than not (the photographs I used for this article are a strange exception, which is why I won’t bore you with additional screenshots), around half the images will end up being monochrome as I tend to photograph in such a manner, and they need to be separated from the color images for easier batch processing. For that, I tend to use a color label.
Assigning a label to any given file is just as simple as rating images, only this time you need to use Alt instead of Control in combination with a numeric key. So, for example, Alt + 1 will result in red label (hitting Alt + 0 will reset label to none). I tend to assign the first color label (red) to images that will require conversion to monochrome and the second one (yellow) to those that are part of a panorama and will need merging. The rest of the labels still get used. If there are images of several separate panorama shots located next to one another, I use the remaining colors to separate them for easier visual discerning later on.
Finally, there is one final sort that needs to be done. Using the Tag filter (the \ key), I mark images that will require more complex, graphic retouching than simple RAW converters are rarely designed for. Usually, that would mean moving on to Photoshop at some point. With ACDSee, the built-in alternative in the form of Edit mode is all many people will need. Either way, tagged image files would end up undergoing considerably more complex editing.
To anyone who has used Lightroom (or Camera RAW, or any other RAW image processor for that matter), the Develop mode will be instantly familiar. Perhaps not in the fits-like-a-glove sort of way, at least not at first, but there are definitely no big surprises to be had.
The filters I apply to sorted images – color labels and tags – are extremely helpful for batch post-processing. As selecting a certain filter hides image files that are to be developed in a different manner, I am not only able to apply similar adjustments to several images at a time but I can only see color or black and white images in the Filmstrip too. How is that relevant? Simple – it helps with achieving consistent luminance, contrast, and color of the photographs, as I am able to compare them and notice differences that need compensating for as I work.
While photographing, I tend to leave white balance in Auto as I know my camera will get it more or less right. As for exposure, I tend to work in manual mode, especially in high-contrast lighting where prominent highlights and shadows are plentiful (as was the case with these product shots). Manual mode means my composition does not affect the exposure when dealing with the same basic scene, so while there is always the chance I may end up under or overexposing, (having gotten used to setting up my own exposure, it does not happen often), there is also more consistency shot-to-shot.
And that makes adjusting exposure in post-production much simpler, as I can apply the same corrections to a few images at a time. That’s made easier by the Filmstrip in Develop mode – just select a few images and apply the adjustments as needed. Alternatively, you can process a single image and then copy/paste the settings onto a different image. Both actions are accomplished by right-clicking on the thumbnail in the Filmstrip to first copy, and then paste settings to a corresponding file.
After adjusting the white balance and exposure sliders (which, strangely and inconveniently enough, only allows 4-stops of adjustment, 2-stops each way), I had a solid starting point from which to move on to more specific tone and color adjustments.
ACDSee has plenty of tools for that, perhaps even too many. In the General section of Develop tools, there’s Highlight Enhancement and Fill Light sliders. Both of these can only be set in one direction, meaning a positive adjustment or nothing. What’s more, Fill Light encompasses a very broad range of tones, from dark ones all the way to highlights. So if you’re used to Lightroom adjustments of highlights and shadows, you’ll find it a little sensitive. On the other hand, Fill Light might just save you if you’ve underexposed your RAW file by more than the 2-stops the exposure slider allows you to compensate (with modern image sensors, you may find yourself doing that on purpose, too).
Either way, it’s a good thing there’s an alternative tool in the shape of Light EQ, which is much more akin to the blacks/shadows and whites/highlights adjustments Adobe’s software incorporates. Using it is also very easy – simply select the tool and click on any area of the image. Light EQ will adjust the tones automatically – brighten them up if you click on a shadowy area, and bring the tones down should you click on a bright, highlight-intensive bit of the image.
Want more control? Choose Standard (which I prefer), or Advanced mode (a touch confusing), which will allow you to click-and-drag on the photograph itself, in addition to using the sliders. Clicking on any tone will adjust it across the whole image – drag up to increase brightness, down to deepen the shadows or restore highlights.
In case Light EQ is also not to your liking, there’s the trusty Tone Curves tool. These tools tend to work pretty much the same everywhere. In simplicity lies its strength, as the Tone Curves tool is immensely versatile.
I can’t stress enough how powerful (and sometimes complex) the seemingly boring Tone Curves tool is. As you can see from this before/after comparison above, not only does it affect tonal contrast, but also color. Pull down the shadows and you’ll notice saturation increase. You may find yourself needing to compensate for the increase in saturation via the Saturation slider or the Color EQ tool. Either way, Develop mode offers plenty of control over all the tones in your image.
For the images I tasked myself with editing, I mostly used a combination of Light EQ, Tone Curves, and Color EQ, setting up each one to taste. The latter is, again, extremely versatile and works much like HSL panel does in Lightroom. It allows you to adjust the saturation, brightness, and hue of each individual color channel (see screenshot above). As you may notice in the screenshots, I went for a very desaturated look (mostly the red, orange, and yellow channels). Whatever you choose to do, Color EQ offers plenty of control and is perhaps by far my favorite tool in the Photo Studio Ultimate Develop mode.
Lastly, I added a little warmth to shadows using the Split Tone tool (Shadows Hue set at 44, Saturation at 4, and Balance at 24), and adjusted Sharpening in the Detail tab of the Develop Tools panel.
Scratch the surface, I told myself when I started writing this article. At least scratch the surface. I am still unsure if I managed to do that.
There is more luck than planning involved in my choice of images for this article. Should I have gone for something more demanding – an artistic portrait, perhaps – it would have been at least twice as long. ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2018 (to use its full set of names) is immensely packed with tools and settings. So much so that I used only a small fraction of what Develop mode offers for my product shots.
Black and white conversion was left untouched, so were the local Develop Brush and Gradient tools. These edits required next to no Geometric correction or attentive use of noise reduction, not to mention Edit mode. Even so, it has proved to be an exceptionally versatile bit of software. My hope is this article has provided you with an insight into how ACDSee works and how it can be used as part of an efficient, stress-free workflow for your business and artistic needs.
Disclosure: ACDSee is a paid partner of dPS.
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