This category of software isn’t really well-defined, so you may very well not know what I mean by it. So I’m going to start by describing the “use case”.
Many photographers will come back from a shooting session with large numbers of very similar photographs. A sports photographer may be using full-speed continuous shooting (maybe 8 or even 10 frames a second) as he tracks the ball down the field. A wildlife photographer may shoot hundreds of images of a small bird as it hops around a few branches on a tree 50 feet away. I sometimes shoot 15 pictures of a particular view of a musician performing, in low light, at an inadequate shutter speed, hoping for one where the face is sharp enough to use.
And, these days, those images may well be 15MB raw image files (or worse).
For that kind of photography, a majority of your computer time may be spent looking through similar images to weed out the bad ones and identify the best of each group, and label them with your decisions (you don’t always want to immediately delete everything but the very best).
The speed with which an image can be put up on the screen is one of the most obvious factors in how efficiently you can do this job. It’s also important to be able to attach a rating to the photo, or move it to a different place, or delete it, based on your evaluation of its quality. You’ll need to do side-by-side comparisons of some of the photos, when the differences are small, to decide which one you think is best; this can be done by alternating them fairly quickly on your screen, or by bringing multiple photos up at once.
In addition to this, you may need to attach keywords to the images (maybe identifying the people or other subjects), and you may need to fill in other “IPTC” fields, like the event and location maybe. You might want to put your copyright notice and contact information in there while you’re at it, too.
It turns out there are huge performance differences between some of the programs I’ve looked at.
I’ve been using Thumbs Plus from Cerious Software as my main indexing program for many years now, and I’m still happy with it. It’s good at making thumbnail pages, and it keeps the thumbnails and other information about the photos (including what it pulls out of the IPTC fields) in a database, where I can search it easily, and where I can search info on photos that aren’t even online at the moment (it knows about removable media). It has a good IPTC editor, that can put saved data into lots of fields of a large collection of photos at once, or let me edit field by field by hand, as needed.
I’ve also been using it for my sorting. This doesn’t work nearly so well. I’ve adopted a clever methodology that takes advantage of several features of Thumbs Plus that has worked adequately until fairly recently. But I’ve been pushed past the limit by the performance when dealing with Nikon D200 raw files (NEF).
The basic problem is, opening a D200 NEF in Thumbs Plus takes 31 seconds on my system.
I can do some of the sorting based on a lower-res preview image stored in the NEF, which Thumbs Plus uses when I do a slideshow on the NEF files, but that’s something like an 800×600 image; I can’t enlarge it enough to check for critical focus, for example.
So I’ve been looking, again, at other software.
ACDSee is MUCH faster opening a D200 NEF—it takes about 3 seconds to bring a NEF up in the viewer. 3 seconds. 10 times faster than Thumbs Plus. TEN. Imagine how much difference that makes if you’re coming back from a shoot with 1000 images. Furthermore, ACDSee looks ahead one image, so if you spend 3 seconds looking a the first image you load, when you then go to the next image it comes up instantly. It also remembers the previous image, so you can bounce back and forth among three very quickly (except there seem to be glitches in the code, where it sometimes pauses when doing that, for no reason I can see). It’s also a decent IPTC editor, and a decent image database program. It’s also cheap. It’s reported to be rather glitchy, through the usual online rumor mill.
Photo Mechanic from Camera Bits isn’t a direct competitor to either of the others; it’s specialized very tightly on the sorting/rating issue, and on editing IPTC data in the files. It’s specifically for professionals doing high volumes (event photographers for example), and people who shoot many near-identical photos (sports, wildlife, and such), where most of your computer time is spent finding the best version of each photo. It doesn’t keep a database of image information (or thumbnails) at all, and hence doesn’t do queries against such a database. It also costs $150, plus they want a $90 “yearly update” fee.
It’s faster than ACDSee at opening a D200 NEF (around 2 seconds; my timing methodology, a stopwatch used one-handed while trying to run the computer with the other hand, is becoming iffy on these shorter numbers, but it’s clearly faster). It also looks ahead more than one image, and keeps more than the last image looked at ready to jump back to efficiently. When you start flipping through a sequence of 6 photos, going back and forth, they just swap instantly on your screen when you push the key; there’s no waiting, no uncertainty about which one is currently up on the screen. The new one snaps into place without delay. And that means you don’t have to resort to putting multiple images on screen to compare nearly as often, either; often you can make your editing decision after a couple of flips back and forth. (You can also do the flipping back and forth at whatever zoom level you’ve selected.)
Imagine the difference it would make in the course of editing 800 photos down 50 first-rate photos, though.
I’m waiting for the beta of Thumbs Plus version 8 to come out; maybe they’ll have improved the sorting functions enough to save me the $150. I’m not currently betting on it, though.