Best 4 Non-Destructive Photo Managers

It was seriously a life changing day when I discovered the magic of a “non-destructive” photo managing program.

Computer software makes it so easy to enhance our photos that you want to be able to feel free to experiment with your edits and not feel burdened with the job of maintaining your collection all by yourself. It should all be fun.

See, up until this point, if you wanted to do a simple edit to a photograph, it was up to you to manage all of the versions for each photo.

For example, if you wanted to change the brightness or crop one of your photographs, you had to take the photo into a photo editing program, do the changes, and then do a “Save As…” command from the “File” drop-down menu so that you could then create a whole new and separate version of the file.

And worse, you had to be extremely careful because if your forget to give the new version a unique filename, it would overwrite your original master. Yikes!

Non-Destructive Image Editing

With “non-destructive” editing, all of the edits (enhancements) you make to your photographs are managed by the program itself. In the background and invisible to you, the application is either duplicating the master image to create a new version, or in the case of most image managers, it is saving all of your enhancements in a database that are then applied in real-time “on top of” your master file.

Either way, your original photo remains completely untouched.

And if you ever want to remove your changes, it's as simple as clicking an “undo” or “reset” button and your photo will be returned to the original state.

It's like having a guardian angel that protects your master images at all costs. It's brilliant and is 100% absolutely indispensable to me now.

Choosing the Best Non-Destructive Photo Manager For You

So if this sounds like you above, challenged and held back from trying to manage all of your files on your hard drive by yourself, I would like to introduce you to four “non-destructive” photo managers.

These are the only 4 programs I would recommend you use based on their longstanding track records for being solid performers and with great support. I would highly recommend you consider trying out a couple of them and then start using your favorite one. I think you will love how much easier it makes your life.

Two of the programs are for those of you with basic to intermediate goals for your collection. They are the easiest to use, have a more limited set of editing tools, but are certainly adequate – especially for the price. And the best part is both can be had for free!

And then for those of you with more advanced goals will welcome the control you will get with the remaining two photo managers. They come at a premium, but are well worth the initial investment considering how much they will do for you. You might be surprised how quickly you outgrow your photo manager and discover how advanced your goals have become!

UPDATE ~ May 16, 2017

Since the time this article was written, three of the four applications I originally recommended below have been discontinued. Until now, I've left this post as written, because most people I spoke with were not interested in the current batch of alternative applications available. Especially since these discontinued applications still continue work fine in almost all cases; they just aren't being updated with new features.

But, I think enough time has now passed and there's been some more maturity in the alternative applications I've been testing. So, I'm now in the process of re-writing this article to update it with current recommendations I have for photo managers that are being supported now and hopefully into the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, I've listed all of my new recommendations for photo managers on my resources page that you can check out, while you're waiting for this page to be updated, which will eventually also have all the detailed reasons I chose each application.

So, bookmark this article, and check back soon to this my update! wink

Google's Picasa

Discontinued — replacement recommendation coming soon!

Google Picasa software icon

Best for: People with basic to intermediate goals for their collection
Platform: Windows XP/ Vista/ 7 or Mac OS X 10.4.9+ (Requires Intel CPU)
Price: Free Download
My scanned photo collection in Google's Picasa (v3.8 for Mac)

My scanned photo collection in Google's Picasa (v3.8 for Mac)

It's easy to have low expectations when it comes to free software. They usually cost you nothing out-of-pocket, but instead make you pay with frustration.

They often use in-application advertising banners, nagging pop-ups to get you to buy the premium version of the program, or offer so few features there is little reason to devote your time to them.

Picasa is free and I must admit, really has none of these strikes against it. Additionally the interface is so clean and fun to use, it's like they are just begging us to latch onto it and trust it with our entire photo collection.

I was using this program when it was just called Picasa for several years before it was bought up in 2004 with Google's war chest of money. This was back when I was a die-hard PC guy and built my own Windows-based computers. It was a fantastic program then, and has only gotten better.

Google Picasa Folder Manager

“Folder Manager” in Google's Picasa (v3.8 for Mac)

Picasa manages your photos in a sort of semi-automatic way. Using a drop-down menu item called the “Folder Manager,” you set which folders of photos on your hard drive you would like Picasa to manage. You have the option to have a folder not scanned at all, scanned once, or always scanned (so that any photos added later to the folder will automatically be included in Picasa as well).

This method enables you to keep your originals stored in any folder structure you wish on your hard drive, but still have an easy way to group photos into virtual albums and edit them from within Picasa. This means even the messiest of “hard drive” folder organization can appear to be tidy!

It may not have all of the manual control over your photos the pricier (advanced) professional programs offer, but it still manages to keep up with a strong set of basic tools that every photo collection needs to have.

Apple's iPhoto

Discontinued — replacement recommendation coming soon!

Apple iPhoto software icon

Best for: People with basic to intermediate goals for their collection
Platform: Mac OS X (Requires Intel CPU)
Price: Free (with new Mac) / $14.99App Store / $49.00 (retail) — iLife Collection (boxed) [Amazon]
Apple iPhoto Photos in Event View

My scanned photo collection in Apple's iPhoto '11 (v9.1)

If you own a Mac and haven't heard of iPhoto, you are probably just walking out of the Apple store with your first one.

iPhoto is part of the iLife suite that comes “free” with the purchase price of every Mac. Major updates however aren't free like they are with Picasa. But now thanks to Apple's new Mac App Store, the price to upgrade to the newest version is extremely affordable.

Those wishing Picasa had a more “hands off” fully-automatic way of storing their master images will love the default import option inside of iPhoto.

Keeping “Copy items to the iPhoto Library” checked will allow iPhoto to do all of the storing and moving around of your master files for you. It puts them all in a single “bundled” file (folder) called “iPhoto Library” usually stored within the “Pictures” folder in your home user folder.

It's like having a near-impenetrable haven for your photos. The only way you can access it manually is by control-clicking on the library file and choosing “Show Package Contents.” This is done at your own risk. I do not recommend the average user set mouse in there.

Apple's iPhoto Advanced Preferences Tab

Advanced Preferences Tab in Apple's iPhoto '11 (v9.1)

What this means is that instead of telling iPhoto where you have stored your photos, you instead import copies of them into iPhoto and allow it to move and place them into the best storage folder arrangement. This is all done “behind the curtain” – out of your sight. So you can sit back and relax knowing that it's being done for you.

For those more adventurous, de-selecting this import feature leaves the work up to you and your own folder structure making creativity.

Like Picasa, iPhoto has a very similar editing toolset such as rotate, auto “enhance”, red-eye, straighten, crop and blemish retouching. They both offer filter “effects” to make your photo look antique, black and white or vignetted for example. And they both give you a really nice basic level of control of exposure and color correction for those wanting to go beyond an “automatic fix.”

For Mac users trying to decide between the Mac version of Picasa and iPhoto — and if you were forcing me to pick for you, I would nudge you towards iPhoto; if for no other reason than how Apple integrates all of their software to easily communicate with one another.

For example, if you are using another piece of Apple software and you want to use one of your photos stored in iPhoto, there is always a media tab or pulldown that gives you easy access to all of your iPhoto Events and photos. (This feature works with Apple's Aperture as well)

Seemingly little things like this, as well as familiar Mac-aesthetics, will make you appreciate going with iPhoto.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom software icon

Best for: People with intermediate to advanced goals for their collection
Platform: Windows Vista / 7 or Mac OS X 10.5+ (Requires Intel CPU)
Price: $149 (retail) Full (Boxed) [Amazon] / $99.00 (retail) —  Upgrade (Boxed) [Amazon]
Adobe Lightroom Library View

My scanned photo collection in Adobe's Lightroom (v3.0)

For Windows users who feel held back by the simplicity of Picasa, Adobe's Photoshop Lightroom is currently the best choice out there.

Sure there is Adobe's lighter-weight Photoshop Elements, but it lacks the necessary feature of “non-destructive” editing that I suggest.

Additionally, this will be great to use if you are loyal to their flagship standalone professional photo editor Photoshop. Both programs work extremely well together.

Try not to be intimated by the sales literature suggesting this is only meant for professional photographers. Yes, many of the features are intended to aid the needs of professional photographers and their hectic post-process. But this doesn't mean you can't take advantage of its feature set to organize and edit your entire collection of scanned photos “destruction-free.”

Adobe Lightroom Develop Editing Panel

Part of the editing panel in the Develop Module for Adobe's Lightroom (v3.0)

But I won't lie, this is quite a learning step-up from Picasa. It's dark gray default palette is very slick-looking, but with all of its information jammed into every square inch of application real estate, it does a great job of making a “newbie” feel like you have no idea what you should be doing next.

On the bright side, if you are familiar with how to use Photoshop Elements, you will find the learning curve will not be as steep. Otherwise, you will definitely want to spend some time getting to know the application before you commit to any kind of workflow importing your photos and beginning to edit them.

Photos are managed by Lightroom from ordinary folders on your hard drive. You select which folders you want included and Lightroom goes to work to importing the file information for its database. This gives you the freedom to organize your masters the way you see fit.

But of course, like other programs working in the same manner, this will also put more pressure on you to make sure you don't accidentally delete or modify your master images while working with other software on your computer.

For this added level of file protection, you should look into using either iPhoto or Aperture (both only available for the Mac).

Lightroom's strength isn't so much its ease at organizing your photo masters. Aperture seems to have that duty won hands down in my opinion. But instead, it's a workhorse image editor with so many sliders, hidden panes and buttons that you will probably hear yourself say you may never have a need for the likes of Photoshop Elements or Photoshop CS again!

Apple's Aperture

Discontinued — replacement recommendation coming soon!

Apple Aperture software icon

Best for: People with intermediate to advanced goals for their collection
Platform: Mac OS X 10.5.8 or 10.6.2+ (Requires Intel CPU)
Price: $79.99App Store / $199.00 (retail) — Full (Boxed) [Amazon] / $99 (retail) —  Upgrade (Boxed) [Amazon]
Apple's Apereture Browser View

My scanned photo collection in Apple's Aperture (v3.1)

What's so great about Aperture is how easy it is to use for such a professional application.

It's like they took what's great about iPhoto — how simple it is to do everything — and they used that formula to make a program that is much more powerful and feature driven.

If you can operate iPhoto, there is an excellent chance you will be able to operate Aperture after just a few short tutorials or playing around in it a bit. Aperture can do complicated things in non-complicated ways.

The first “advanced feature” I fell in love with was Aperture's main strength — the ability to let me more thoroughly organize my collection by creating multiple Libraries, Projects and Folders. Its little brother iPhoto chose to make organization easier by keeping it simple.

They made single “Events” to contain your master image files and that's it. So an Event labeled “2005 Joey's Birthday” will be in the same list of Events as one labeled “1945 July 4th Fireworks.” There is no way for example to separate them out by say – decades.

Apple Aperture Folder Structure Example

Example of Folder, Project and Album usage to organize your master images in Apple's Aperture (v3.1)

But with Aperture, you can have a folder called “2005 Photos” with a Project (Event) inside of it called “Joey's Birthday” with an album inside of that called “Best shots.” (An album is a virtual collection [group] of your favorite selects from that day of shooting)

If this sounds as exciting to you as it was for me, the minimal premium price tag isn't going to keep you from making the investment that will pay off very quickly.

Another huge advanced feature set that sets Aperture apart from a more basic program like iPhoto is its ability to manage all of the metadata of your photographs. In fact, there is a whole tab dedicated to it on the left hand side of the program.

Much of this metadata (stored inside of a photo) is camera information created by your camera when the picture was taken and lists the settings used to expose the image. But, we can use this same metadata repository to hold all kinds of information for a photo we scan — such as a caption (description of the photo), date the actual photo was taken, what scanner you used, who owns the photo, who should be contacted in the future about the photo if someone is inquiring (name and contact info). There are enough fields where you could store pretty much anything you wanted.

And for those who think they will miss the fun social features of iPhoto, you will be happy to know Apple seems to be trying hard now to keep the feature set of iPhoto available to their Aperture users as well. Aperture now contains “Faces” and “Places” and social networking integration to make using just Aperture a reality instead of having to load up both.

Polaroid icon

Please tell me what you think. Which photo managing program do you use and why?

And if you aren't using one already, what about this article might be making you think you ought to start using one?

Let me know in the comments below.


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