ACD Systems' venerable pro photo-workflow app has come in from ever more serious competition from the big guns Adobe and Apple, with extensive improvements in Lightroom 4 and Apple Aperture 3.3. But the latest ACDSee Pro 6 offers a lot for pro and serious amateur digital photographers, including integrated maps that work with geo-tagging, local adjustment brushes, and support for 64-bit CPUs for faster performance.
And it is undoubtedly a responsive, enjoyable, and powerful pro photo tool that's less expensive than its nearest competitor, Lightroom. Despite all this, ACDSee Pro simply can't keep up with the advanced features that media software giant Adobe includes in its digital photo workflow application.
You can download a free, fully functional 30-day trial of ACDSee Pro 6 to see whether it's your cup of photo editing tea. It's Windows-only (sorry, Mac users), working from XP SP3 to Windows 8. The initial download is a small installer which handles the actual large download.
The program’s size showed as 177MB in Control Panel, compared with Lightroom's 835MB, so it will put less of a dent in your disk space. When you first run the app, a quick start guide appears over the interface, offering to take you through a tour of its modes and features. This is a great help, considering the extensive number of modes and tools in the program.
Like Lightroom, under its surface ACDSee builds a database or catalogue to save all your image file preferences and edits. This means the originals, or negatives, are left untouched, so you can always revert to the photo's original state should you wish – and you can save files containing your edits with the Export command.
Both editors also offer plug-ins, but there's a wider range of offerings for Lightroom – in fact, Adobe maintains an online plug-in-sharing section on its site for this. One important set of plug-ins that you can use in Lightroom, Photoshop, and Aperture, along with Corel PaintShop Pro are those from Nik Software, which facilitate things like precise sharpening and colour effects, and they’re a standard among pro photo editors.
ACDSee's interface always feels fast and fluid. Everything just works the way you expect it to, making switching between different activities intuitive. I had no trouble getting back and forth between organising, viewing, and editing; even large camera raw files displayed quickly.
Like Lightroom, ACDSee uses a modular approach. All this means is that there are big buttons that set up the app for the different types of tasks involved in the photo workflow process – importing and organising, adjusting, enhancing, and outputting. Since I last saw ACDSee Pro, the module selection has changed, with Manage, View, Develop, Edit, and Online the current choices. Previously Develop and Edit were combined within the Process mode.
I mostly like ACDSee's mode options, especially splitting the Manage and View modes, though I think a more generic output mode that included Print, rather than just Online, would be preferable. And Lightroom outdoes ACDSee in the modes department by letting the user choose which modes should be available; that way if you, for example, never print photos, you can remove the Print mode.
Aside from these locked modes, the application's interface is very flexible. You can undock any panel so that it floats freely on your desktop, customise toolbars, and view in full screen. It also makes extensive use of keyboard shortcuts for quick operation. You can change the photo background shade from the default dark grey, but not the overall interface from that same shade. Reset icons are everywhere, so if you goof, it's a cinch to revert everything.
Import and organise
The Manage and View modes are where all your importing and organising happen. Manage's left panel simply shows folders on your computer, with My Pictures selected by default. You can switch this left panel to the Events view by clicking the Calendar button on the bottom. A couple of organisation helpers are missing, so for example there's no entry for Last Import. You can, however, choose the Group dropdown above the grid to show all photos from a particular camera, or with a particular rating, keyword, or date.
In the import dialog, you can view thumbnails to select which image you want included in the import, add metadata (even presets), tags, captions, IPTC, and tell the program to apply auto rotate. But you can't apply corrections and adjustment presets during import, as you can with Lightroom and Aperture.
The Catalogue panel along the right side offers more organisational tools, such as Albums, People, Places, and "Various." You can create your own subcategories or even top level ones here. You can select a bunch of thumbnails and drag them to your album or do so from a nested menu under Edit, but there's no right click choice on the thumbnails for doing this.
Lower down on the right panel are your ratings, colour labels, auto categories, saved searches, and "special items" such as image well, embed pending, uncategorised, and tagged. Similar to other programs' "smart collections" ACDSee's Auto Categories creates groups of photos that match criteria like rating, date, filenames, and even particular EXIF data such as lens used or focal length.
In the centre of the window, a grid of thumbnails of your folders appears. This main centre view area can be switched to filmstrip, icons, list, or details, but I think the default thumbnail view makes the most sense.
Hovering the mouse pointer over a thumbnail in Manage mode enlarges the underlying photo to snapshot size, and double clicking opens it in View mode.
A helpful tool is the Image Basket, which lets you quickly gather images you want to work on further. Also, you can throw up a multiple image view with the Compare images button. The hierarchical keywording tool is a help, letting you apply multiple tags at once. For example, I have a lot of photos of birds, and with ACDSee's keyword tool I can just drag a group of sandpipers to the Sandpipers sub-keyword, and they'll also be tagged Bird and Shorebird in one fell swoop. The program also includes five colour labels, for those who organise that way.
New since my last look at ACDSee Pro is its map support. The program lets you either drag selected photo thumbnails onto an embedded map, and will show the position of photos with embedded GPS data, such as most smartphone photos. As for People, it's just another category you can assign images to – there's no face detection or recognition like that provided by Adobe Photoshop Elements and Apple Aperture. Just as with keywords, you can manually create subcategories for specific folks.
Developing digital photos
ACDSee has all the control over lighting and colour that you could possibly want. The Develop mode's General section of controls includes Exposure (which nicely shows eV equivalent), an effective Highlight Enhancement slider, Fill Light, Contrast, Saturation, Vibrance, and Clarify. White balance offers Auto, As Shot, and custom settings. The Auto did a nice job on my test photos, but I'd like to see values in degrees K.
Let's get a couple of disappointments out of the way: There's no overall Auto button that takes the program's best guess for all adjustments, from which you can proceed to fine-tune. There are Auto options under White balance as mentioned, and Lighting, however. Another disappointment was the lack of a side-by-side before and after view as is offered by most photo workflow apps, letting you see the effects of your adjustments more clearly. Compensating for this, however, is a Show Original button, and each adjustment group can be enabled and disabled with a click.
The Lighting section of controls not only offers the standard Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights adjustment, but adds a very cool Light EQ mode (pictured above), which looks like an audio equaliser and gives you finer control over tone levels without the frustration curves tools can introduce (ACDSee does offer a standard curves tool, too, that let me add over 20 control points). Strangely, the Auto button in the Basic, LightEQ and Advanced (a totally adjustable histogram) all picked different settings.
I could do a decent job of removing chromatic aberration with ACDSee Pro, using another left panel tab in Develop mode. Its controls were better than most I've tried, though DxO Optic and Lightroom offer automatic corrections specific to camera and lens models, which is hard to beat. Image noise reduction in ACDSee was quite satisfactory, too.
In the Develop mode's Geometry tab, you'll find cropping and straightening (including rotating, which is also available from a Manage mode toolbar), lens corrections for barrel and pincushion distortion, and some nifty perspective adjusters.
The latter allow you to simulate a tilt-shift lens, changing perspective – for example, you can make a building you shot from below look like you photographed it straight on. Photoshop has a tool like this that actually lets you draw lines on the photo to get the perspective just right, but ACDSee's tool can be used to good effect.
The only adjustment in Develop mode's Repair tab was for red-eye correction, and this worked reasonably, but wasn't as automatic as it is in Adobe and Apple applications.
Edits and embellishments
Red-eye correction also makes an appearance in the next mode, Edit – as does geometry, exposure, colour, and detail. I'm not really sure why an additional mode is needed, given all this duplication. This mode is basically a list of the tools down a left panel, though it does add some of its own options like repair of blemishes, text, watermarks, borders (just plain mattes, no fancy Louis the 14th frames), effects, and basic drawing tools.
The effects include artistic filters, things like Lomo and Orton – there are enough to make Instagram jealous – and each is nicely customisable. A couple of popular effects are missing though – "tilt shift" (actually a miniaturising selective blur) and an overt HDR tool, though you can create extended dynamic range photos with the program's lighting tools.
Output and sharing
From either Manage or View mode, you can summon the Print dialog, which offers standard layout options, though no custom ones. Printer colour management is supported, as is soft proofing based on your printer's colour capabilities, complete with gamut warnings for colours it's not capable of.
The Online mode emphasises ACD System's own online photo hosting. This gets you 10GB of free online storage space and direct, synced uploading from the program. Nowhere in the Online module are Facebook or Flickr, where many people are likely to want to upload their photos, but you can do this directly from ACDSee Pro from the File/Send/Upload to… menu option. But Facebook isn't included, only Flickr, SmugMug, and Zenfolio.
As with most photo software, you simply sign into your account, authorise access to the program, and then choose upload settings like resizing, naming, and privacy. I could even add tags for Flickr, but unfortunately those hierarchical keywords I'd applied were mashed into a single unusable long keyword. I was, however, pleased to see that my geo-tagging was preserved after uploading.
There's a lot to like about ACDSee Pro 6. Its speed and fluid interface makes navigating through your image collection and getting to the stuff you need a smooth process. And the application’s organisation and image adjustment tools are sufficient even for pro photographers. However, the program isn’t quite up there with Lightroom – although it is admittedly £40 cheaper.
Still, on balance we’d plump for the equally intuitive Adobe product’s added power and flexibility for that extra outlay – but as a budget choice, ACDSee is certainly a good option. Oh and do note that if you buy right now, as we're writing this, you can get ACDSee Pro 6 for a bargain £44 instead of the normal £62 price tag, but that offer ends tomorrow (November 27).