What's the best software for editing photos?

Sometimes software isn't the best approach for narrowing a body of work and sequencing. In this case, making proofs Michael Forster Rothbart's pictures of Chernobyl helped the sequencing of images for two separate gallery shows. © Mike Davis 2011

Editing photographs is hard enough without getting slowed by your software choice. Choosing software that does the best job for the varying processes involved in choosing which pictures work best is important.

The choices are a pull down menu approach or one stop shopping or a combination of the two. In other words, there are software packages that can do it all and there is software the does some things better than others. And sometimes, software doesn’t cut it.

I use the pull down menu approach.

For narrowing a body of work to a working set of pictures, nothing works better than Photo Mechanic™. My process with Photo Mechanic, when editing other’s work is to first use the tagging feature to elevate what I think are successful images. Then I go back through and determine if that set is focused enough to be a working group, from which a final edit emerges. If not, I use the color tags to further elevate a layer of the pictures to produce the working group.

(Photo Mechanic can do a lot more than create and sort a hierarchy but I'll not get into the rest here. Dennis Walker's company, Camera Bits, produces the software out of the Portland, Oregon, area.)

Once the working group is clear, I’ll use the split screen view to produce a sequence. By placing what cries out to be the first image of a group on the left side of the window and scrolling through the remainder of images on the right side of the screen, you can quickly see when magical pairings happen. These pairings are usually not ones you’d think of without the two photos sitting side by side.

What creates that feeling of magic between two photos is often called the third effect. Talking about that is worthy of another post. Stay tuned.

But sometimes the group is too large or complex to accomplish an edit on screen. When that’s the case, I switch to making small prints of the images and finding the magic on a table top. I'll often group like images together in rows and bring the strongest images forward in each row. This can help see relationships between images and themes in the work in ways you wouldn't otherwise.

A critical element regardless of the approach is to move forward with a more refined set of selections and avoid going back to previous steps unless you see a hole in what you've selected. So many people get mired by not being able to leave pictures behind that don't work. Be decisive and follow your instincts.

When working with my own pictures, I still start with ingesting images in Photo Mechanic with captions and names. Then I go through the whole take and tag what I think are pictures worth keeping - usually only about half the take. 

Then I pull the keepers into an Aperture album as referenced files. I prefer Aperture over Lightroom after working with both of them because of its aesthetic as much as anything. The latest version is substantially better. Within Aperture, I can rate images several ways, refine captions, do minor toning and output as needed. And it has the added advantage of creating a searchable archive.

When I am doing a refined edit of my own work, I usually revert to Photo Mechanic’s split screen or proofs for the sequencing layer.

When processing raw files, I almost never use Photoshop. For web usage or quick output, I use Aperture and for high quality output such as magazine usage or making prints, I use DxO Optics Pro for raw file conversion. DxO is another powerful tool designed specifically to handle raw files.

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