Tackling 54,000 Photos With Two Programs

Taking photos is fun. Sorting and editing them is not.

I’ve got 54,220 photos on my computer, including a few would-be National Geographic covers but far more out-of-focus portraits and poorly exposed sunsets that I’ve never bothered to fix or delete.

Thanks to plummeting prices on digital SLR cameras, amateurs like myself can now experiment freely with artistic shots, taking hundreds of photos without spending a small fortune in film. But those experiments generate a lot of homework by way of virtual stacks of photos in need of processing.

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Lightroom’s dense panels of options.

Adobe Systems Inc.’s (ADBE) Photoshop is famous for helping photographers extract the most out of their shots in a digital darkroom. But at $699, Photoshop costs as much as a new camera and takes a graduate course to master. Moreover, Photoshop was designed to edit a single photo at a time, not for sorting through a collection.

A new generation of software from Adobe and Apple Inc. (AAPL) has emerged to fill the gap between Photoshop and entry-level photo-management software like Apple Inc.’s iPhoto and Google Inc.’s (GOOG) Picasa. For people who have graduated from point-and-shoot cameras, Adobe’s Photoshop Lightroom 3 ($299) and Apple’s Aperture 3 ($199) offer tools to organize large collections and tackle the nitty-gritty of digital developing and re-touching.

I’ve been testing Lightroom (for Mac and PC) and Aperture (for Mac only) to organize, process and share photos I took at my friends’ recent wedding. While both programs were designed with professional photographers in mind, I found they were effective at helping a hobbyist like myself whittle 400 photos to just 40 in less than an hour.

The programs also let me edit photos far beyond the basics of brightness and contrast. One shot moved from the reject to the favorites pile after Lightroom let me take advantage of my Canon camera’s advanced image format to boost the exposure of an image taken during a dimly lit reception.

Many professional photographers have a strong preference for one of the two programs. I preferred the overall aesthetic and photo-editing tools in Lightroom for extracting the best from my photos. Nonetheless, Aperture’s strengths lie in some nifty organizational tricks, and I would recommend it for people interested in three specific uses: upgrading from a large iPhoto collection; taking video with an SLR; or tagging photos with locations.

At their core, both Lightroom and Aperture are databases, but don’t let that scare away your inner Ansel Adams.

Lightroom’s database gives you tools to organize your photos into folders on your computer, create collections from across folders, and tag photos with keywords, star ratings, and other features. For people like me who are lazy about applying tags to describe photos, Lightroom offers a spray-can tool to virtually “paint” keywords on bunches of photos at one time.

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Aperture’s approach to cataloging is borrowed from iPhoto. You put your photos into “projects” (known as “events” in iPhoto), which the software will suggest when you import images from your camera based on groups that were taken around the same time. You can also add keywords, ratings and other tags.

But Aperture has two more tricks up its sleeve. You can tag photos based on the people in them, using the same technology Apple built into iPhoto to recognize faces. While that’s a good idea, I found that Aperture (like iPhoto) didn’t do an ideal job at distinguishing faces, especially in profile.

Apple says the face-recognition function works best if you identify both a couple of front-on and profile photos for any person, and also let it finish going through your whole collection before using it.

More useful is Aperture’s ability to tag photos geographically. Some new cameras collect GPS data with each shot and Aperture charts that info with pins on a giant world map, making it fun to track a journey or search for all the photos taken in one place.

Unfortunately, the majority of cameras don’t capture GPS data, but Aperture does offer some tools for adding in location data after the fact, such as importing it from a photo taken by an iPhone at the same site. Lightroom can also record GPS data for photos, but you have to work with third-party plug-ins to get the same functionality as in Aperture.

It’s in the digital darkroom that both programs earn their keep. The biggest reason an SLR-owner should upgrade beyond a basic photo editor is so he or she can work with so-called RAW files, sort of digital negatives that use extra data from the camera’s sensor to give you artistic control over factors like exposure long after you’ve shot the photo. Both programs work well with RAW, and moreover, editing photos on both programs is nondestructive, which means you can undo any changes you make—all the way back to your original photo—even after the photo has been saved. Sometimes the sky really can be too blue.

I found Lightroom’s editing features to be the most intuitive. It uses a three-paned screen clearly showing all of the available adjustments, your photo, and a history of the changes made to the image. I felt Aperture made me hunt for some of those features, but some users may prefer its optional floating palettes to Lightroom’s dense panels of options, and also its elegant system for brushing changes onto an image.

Lightroom boasts some cutting-edge editing features, such as the ability to adjust photos based on profiles of the lenses used to take them. That’s especially useful if you are working with a wide-angle lens that can distort images. With the click of a button, a warped wall at the edge of a wide-angle photo is made vertical again. The lens profiling wasn’t automatic with my older-model Canon SLR, but still worked.

To be sure, there are well-known Photoshop tricks that neither of these programs can do, such as stitching two or more photos together. They also can’t digitally cut your ex’s head out of photos. But if you really need to do that, finding the right photo-editing software is the least of your problems.

And to my disappointment, both programs are missing an increasingly popular service called HDR, or high dynamic range, where you merge photos taken at different levels of exposure into a new photo that takes the best aspects of them all. To make these sorts of images, you have to download external plugins. That’s the occasion I most missed Photoshop.

Finally, the programs both offer tools to showcase shots in professional-looking books and prints as well as on websites like Facebook and Flickr. Lightroom has the most options for producing Web galleries.

Aperture will appeal to users with cameras that do the newest trick in digtial SLR photography: take video. Such videos, which can feature beautiful photographic characteristics like short depth of field, can be imported and edited right in Aperture. The videos can be included in the software’s handsome mixed-media slideshows without the need for a separate video-editing program.

Either Lightroom or Aperture is a worthy upgrade for any semi-serious photographer. Both are available to download for free limited trials and I’d suggest testing the workflow of both before committing your photo collection.

Walter S. Mossberg and the Mossberg’s Mailbox will return Sept. 16. Email Geoffrey Fowler at geoffrey.fowler@wsj.com.


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