Digital photography brings the power to create overwhelming numbers of images. Digital Asset Managers (DAM) are there to help tidy and sort your virtual piles of photos. Find out how I chose my new DAM software, after leaving behind Adobe Lightroom. Even if you have completely different needs, the thought process could help.
What is a DAM?
Digital Asset Managers (DAM) do what their name suggests. But it takes a little decoding. A digital asset is a general term to describe any digital object – a song, a scanned document, a photographed artwork, a logo, etc; you get the idea. So, a DAM is a way of managing those assets with tools like tagging, rating and key-wording. Some also offer AI to assist in the organising. Here, I’m looking a DAMs that specialise in photographic assets (RAW files, TIFFs, or JPEGs mainly).
Camera phones default to either Apple or Google Photos apps. Some camera users also use these apps with some creative thinking to work around their limitations. The apps work well for what many people will need but don’t make it easy to tidy and sort photos – they can feel like a stream of consciousness. I suspect their design encourages the purchase of more and more cloud space! For anyone with a newer camera phone, who decides to shoot RAW images, the cloud space will soon fill. Google and Apple photos both also allow for editing of photos at a basic level. So they are DAM-editors. There are many computer-based DAMs (rather than primarily cloud-based like Google and Apple photos), which is what I look at here.
Large volumes of photos need a large digital space (memory) and ways to tidy and sort photos to stop them ending up in a dark space of digital obscurity. Without a computer and its larger screen, this is cumbersome. Though please let me know if you’re managing purely on a mobile device!
My DAM back-story
For many years I used Adobe Lightroom (DAM and non-layer based photo editor) and Photoshop (layer based photo editor). It’s purely subscription software but in fairness it’s incredibly well supported, continually developed and includes a multitude of add-ons (eg Portfolio website builder). It is not bad value for money if you don’t mind paying something for ever, and you are interested in all the functionality it offers. What prompted me to change is that I needed a publisher software for books; a dislike of the push-button AI editing increasingly built into Adobe products; and a curiosity to know whether an alternative might work better for me. Also, the publisher software was prohibitively expensive through Adobe for an occasional user. So, I made the leap to Affinity photo, publisher and designer.
I don’t generally talk about kit, but in this context it is necessary because not all technologies speak the same language. What works for me, may not work so well for others. I use a Mac computer with Apple Silicon – some DAM software has both Apple and Windows versions. However, the same software doesn’t always perform equally on each platform. I suspect down to the quality of the coding. Less significantly, I use Fujifilm cameras, which a have a different sensor configuration to most. To allow for this any DAM that also serves as a RAW file converter must allow for the different configuration of the pixels on the Fuji x-trans sensor.
The DAM workflow
The right DAM is the one that’s right for your workflow. There is no one correct solution. The workflow being the approach to processing images from the camera to get them into the world. There are different approaches. For me, I mostly shoot RAW files. Shooting with JPEG bakes in some of the image processing using the camera, with the raw image data compressed. The JPEG workflow does not require RAW conversion and file management. Towards the other end of the flow is whether the photographer wants to use layer-based editing software like Photoshop or Affinity Photo for more complex tuning of images. Also photographers who shoot large volumes of images (weddings or events for example) might require a DAM-editor that allows batch processing of similar images to render a similar look. The workflow potentially becomes simpler if there are no RAW files or lay-based editing.
My own workflow
I like to have a basic conversion and edit of my RAW files that I can revisit over time and consider different interpretations. There is no direct editing of a RAW file. Therefore, I need a DAM to record adjustments and reveal them when I revisit the RAW. This requires a database linking adjustments to the original image file. This rules out any DAM that doesn’t include a good file editor. But they do work in many other workflows.
Often, but not always I like to further process my images in layer-based editors. This requires the DAM to be capable of passing high quality 16bit images to the editor. Otherwise, the original RAW information is partially lost to further processing. In practice, our eyes cannot distinguish between 8 and 16 bit colour but when 8 bits are manipulated in processing, lost image data can become visible. 8 bits are fine for final image storage and printing.
I have some images stored on a computer hard drive when working on them. I store others on a network attached server and a fast USB hard drive. So, I need a DAM that can view files across different disks and move them between disks.
All of the main DAMs I reviewed have good (and fairly standardised) approaches to tagging, labelling, and rating images to allow their tidying and sorting. And for searching through once organised. Some DAMs up the functionality by using AI to assist in the cataloguing – for example facial recognition, which can be very helpful.
Finding the right DAM
Relying purely on Google searches to discover DAMs for review wasn’t a good strategy as Google searches have become all about who pays and many ‘reviews’ about affiliate links. However, I’m grateful for everyone’s suggestions in the excellent Affinity Photos – Tutorial Facebook Group – they took a great deal of leg work out of the searching. The other important thing to recognise is that technology changes quickly – I write at the end of 2023 and within months there could be updates or new kids on the block.
I did try to come to a view on whether a DAW is likely to continue to exist and be adequately supported into the future. In the end, this made me nervous of the free open source options but they do warrant serious consideration for the novice finding their way or casual photographer. With the caveat that they are often not as intuitive commercially supported apps.
For me, the user interface and aesthetics are important. Similarly to a camera, I look for a carefully crafted object that is not only functional but a pleasure to use. For others, this may not be so important.
There is a list of DAMs considered at the foot of this article. I have not listed the pros and cons of each and think the best approach is to look and see if they are useful for your own needs. Download a trial – anything that didn’t offer a trial, I avoided.
My choice of DAM
I tested many of the DAMs listed below by reviewing their functionality, how well they were structured, and how understandable I found them. I ran through a workflow starting with RAW files on an SD card, basic processing of the RAW, export of the adjusted RAW for onward processing in layer-based editor (Affinity Photo).
My end choice was ON1 but I probably would have gone for ACDsee if it wasn’t for one critical flaw in the Mac version. Specific things that work for me with ON1:
- Super-quick on Mac at building thumbnails of raws and images across my hard drive, USB drive and NAS. And easy to move files between locations within the app itself. Tagging, keywording, rating all clear and quick to use.
- Tools for basic editing of RAW files are clearly laid out and functional. The RAW decoder has been specifically programmed to work with Fuji X-Trans images.
- Maintains library of adjustments to RAW files, so the image can be reworked later, without starting from scratch. The lack of this possibility in Affinity quickly put me off it as a RAW editor.
- Allows for onward processing of images in layer-based apps by sharing from within the app. Importantly it uses 16 bit TIFF to avoid any compression/loss of data before processing is completed. It also allows the file to be passed on with or without edits made in ON1. Many other apps would have required a TIFF to be exported and then reimported for the edits to be included.
- It includes some AI tools, which are not important to my workflow but can be useful time savers.
- There is the possibility of buying outright, including a year of updates. This is what I’ve done – it is no matter to me that I miss all the latest AI updates. It seems there is more automatic / premade preset editing in the subscription versions – something I don’t use. If that’s important to your own work, I’d suggest doing a serious comparison to Adobe photography membership (and all the add-ons it comes with) before deciding.
Any downsides to ON1? Surprisingly, it doesn’t see Affinity .afphoto files on drives. When I started looking at DAMs that would have been a show-stopper. However, I since decided that they’ll only be used for intermediate processing and finished images will be saved out as 8 bit TIFF. I’m making a commitment to my interpretation at a point in time and removing the temptation to continually tinker. In the past my drives were littered with PSD (photoshop) files. If I have a different processing idea later, I’ll just go back to the edited RAW.
Why not ACDsee? The app only exports 8 bit TIFF, which is fine for archiving and printing but a serious oversight when it comes to onward processing. Otherwise, I preferred the ACDee interface and, anecdotally, it seemed even faster on my Mac. It also sees .afphoto files in its finder. I think it was originally conceived as a Mac application, so perhaps the coding is superior. I raised a ticket about the TIFF with ACDsee, who replied they’d pass it to their developers for future consideration. Though I’m surprised what is clearly a talented team hadn’t considered this.
List of DAMs / DAM-editors considered
https://www.adobe.com/uk/products/bridge.html (DAM only for non-subscription copy)
https://www.apollooneapp.com (DAM only – no editor)
https://home.camerabits.com (PhotoMechanic – now subscription only)