How to Choose Asset Management Software for Your Digital Picture Archive

Yesterday, in Do You Need a Picture Archive?, Dawn presented six questions to ask before starting a picture archive. We learned about digital asset management, or “DAM,” as a set of best-practices used to guide the way we store our pictures. DAM techniques are really the only sane way to handle digital photographs of any quantity. With no limits to our storage space, however, the need to manage our digital assets have never been greater.
There are many DAM software solutions available. In this article you’ll learn what to look for and how to choose the right application to fit your needs. We’ll also present a few popular options.
Choosing the right DAM solution begins with evaluating your needs. Do You Need a Picture Archive? proposed the following questions:
  1. Do you have more photographs or videos than you can keep track of in your head?
  2. Can you quickly find a specific photo or video clip?
  3. Could someone else use your collection without you?
  4. Is your collection or something in your collection valuable, unique, or irreplaceable?
  5. Do you need to liberate original storage space?
  6. Do you want to share your collection with others?
Keeping these questions in mind, whether you’re a professional or casual shooter everyone needs digital asset management to do three basic things:
  • organize your pictures
  • let you correct and enhance pictures in a systematic way
  • store image files safely
Whether you make images to share with friends and family or for clients (or both) you’ll need a software aid to manage your files. Luckily, there are solutions for every type of photo-organizing need.
If we aren’t careful, our stacks of digital images will quickly turn into a digital disaster. What good is an image collection if we can’t find the captured moments that we’re looking for?
The DAM solution you choose needs to feature the tools to organize your image collection. This could be as simple as giving us a way to explore images by the date of capture, or as complex as a heirarchical keyword system.

Must-have feature: albums.

When choosing a DAM system, the ability to organize your images is priority number one. To get organized, we need some way to make albums or collections: a feature that allows us to group images together in any way that we wish. Not all applications offer the ability to create albums or group photos.

Lightroom ratings
Must-have feature: image ratings.

Tagging our best images with a rating or score can help us keep our best images at short reach. In Adobe Lightroom, the Star rating system is the way this is done; with a rating between 1 and 5 stars, we can score images according to our taste. Most systems include ratings to rank or score the images you hold in high regard.

Must-have feature: keywords. Adding keywords to images is one of the most important pillars of image organization.

Digital cameras automatically add a lot fo useful information to image files, but they can’t describe what an image depicts. That function is still up to you!
Keywords, captions, and descriptions are words and text that describe and image. Getting into the habit of adding contextual metadata in a systematic way is anextremely useful thing to do for the health of your picture archive. Even free DAM solutions like Google’s Picasa include keyword tagging options.

Adobe Camera RAW
Adobe Photoshop interfaces with Adobe Camera RAW, which allows images to be opened directly after capture. Corrections can be applied in Camera RAW and handed off to Photoshop for further editing.

Most DAM software also includes a way to move from organizing files to working on images. We all want our images to reach their potential; the digital workflow can help us get them there.
As a part of the digital workflow, the DAM tool you select needs be able to take your images from collections managment to image processing or editing in Photoshop (or a similar program) and back again in a smooth way. For most people, that means their chosen DAM application must be able to read RAW files.
Some DAM programs are photo-managers only, handing off RAW processing and image editing to dedicated programs. Others programs offer a suite of integrated tools all in one place. Both strategies have merit, and which you choose will depend on what software you already use and are comfortable with.
No matter what DAM solution you choose, consider the safety of your images. No system is completely free from worry, but you do need a few things. The 3-2-1 principle is a good starting place when designing your archive. You want to have:
  • three copies of your data
  • in two different formats
  • at least one copy in a different location
Some DAM platforms lock your images into a proprietary database that only works with that application. This means that as you apply any organization, and in some cases image processing, the changes will only be available within the application. This makes it bit harder to back up and secure your collection. For some, the features gained make the trade off worth it. For others, the lack of portability and reliance on a database is too much of a constriction. Data security is all about being forward thinking: consider how deeply you’ll be locked into the DAM platform you’re evaluating. Ideally, choose a DAM platform in that will give you long term flexibility.
For example, Apple Photos builds a completely all-encompasing library that stores the images inside of it. Photomechanic will edit the metadata of image files but does not build a central repository of any kind to organize them. Some programs, like Daminion, Bridge, Shotwell, and others use a lightweight database to add an extra level of features but still write most basic data back to the image files. Out of the box, Lightroom stores all of it’s data in the database, which it calls a catalogue, but it can be configured to write key data to the image files, which is recommended.
The three factors we’ve covered for choosing a DAM platform—organization, correction, data security—are present, to varying degrees, in most DAM applications. However, commiting to use an application requires some further thought. Here are some key considerations when comparing and deciding between pieces of DAM software.
Each photographer has a different destination in mind for his or her images. Some photographers thrive on printing images and assembling them in albums. Other photographers live strictly in the digital world and exporting for the web is more important.

Exporting images from the DAM
Some DAM solutions are better suited for printing than others. Photoshop, for example, is a great tool for printing because of its soft proofing features and advanced crop options. Choosing a DAM solution requires consideration of your image destination.

The DAM solution you select may be tailored to a specific type of output. If you’re a print-driven photographer, your DAM solution should include careful consideration for managing color profiles and print settings. If your priority is getting images online, you’ll want to seek a solution that features integrated export tools for sharpening, resizing, and upload.
Capture method varies from one photographer to the next. In the last few years, there’s been a huge shift from capturing images with a point and shoot to smartphones instead. Many photographers, however, still capture images with DSLRs and memory cards that need to be connected for synchronization.

Apple Photos cloud sync
If you capture a lot of images with a mobile device it makes sense to use a tool that connects to the cloud. Apple Photos both pulls images directly from iOS devices and tags them on a map. If you do most of your shooting with a mobile device, you’ll want to consider that when choosing a DAM solution.

If you capture images primarily on mobile devices, choose a DAM solution stack that complements this; you’ll want to reduce the friction from capture to processing. If you’re a professional shooter, a DAM solution with tethering capabilities is ideal. In any case, capture method is an essential aspect to evaluate in your DAM choice.
Choosing a DAM tool is also about how you access your images. If you regularly need images on demand this has to be considered in the selection of a DAM solution.

Lightroom Mobile
Lightroom allows for photo collections to be uploaded to the cloud. This screenshot shows a collection synced to my iPad; the images are accessible but don’t need to be stored locally.

Although all DAM solutions will help us find images more easily, some solutions are more connected than others. If you frequently need to deliver an image to a client at a moment’s notice a cloud connected DAM solution is essential.
If you’re engaged in capturing images, the need to manage your digital assets is absolutely essential. In this tutorial I’ve outlined some of the key considerations you can use to choose the best DAM for your photographs and situation. Below, we’ll take a look at some of the most popular software choices.

Adobe Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom is one of the most popular DAM tools. Fundamentally, Lightroom is several applications rolled into one: an image importer, organization and archive tool, RAW processor based on Adobe Camera RAW, basic design suite, and batch printer.
To note, however: unlike Camera RAW, Lightroom’s RAW processing is stored in the database. Image corrections are only applied on export. In fact, this is true of all the work you do in Lightroom. To use any of the work you’ve done outside of the program you must export a new image.
Lightroom’s integrated, database-based approach is also it’s weakness as a photo-organizer: files must be imported into the catalogue before they can be managed. It cannot work directly with the files in your operating system’s file system. For some, this lack of file system access eliminates Lightroom from the list of viable choices.
Lightroom CC is available as part of Creative Cloud. Prices vary depending on subscription package but start at $9.99 per month. Lightroom 6, the last non-subscription version of Lightroom software, is available for purchase for $149.

Capture One

Capture One’s RAW processing tools are highly respected for their precise control of color and tone. Capture One also offers asset management that is roughly equivalent to Lightroom for organizing images. Capture one costs $299 for two “seats,” or installations.
Phase one also makes Media One, a standalone media manager without an image-processing engine, for large photo libraries. Media Pro is $199 for two seats.


Daminion Server is a DAM tool for teams that need to access the same image files on network storage. Daminion is uncommon in this regard: there aren’t many DAM programs that can navigate multiple people working on a network, at least not for small teams. Daminion is a good choice if you plan on regualarly working on your images with someone else, like an assistant or retoucher. Licences range from $99 to $999 depending on your needs and the size of the team.
As an organizer Daminion is as good or better than Lightroom or Capture One. It’s media management features are well implemented and fast, and include things like the abilty to check out an image (and lock it for everyone else) and version control. It also offers a smooth round-trip process for opening images in a RAW processor or your image editing software.
Despite being oriented towards teams, Daminion also offers a very capable stand-alone version. The stand-alone software is free up to 15,000 images with tiered licences up to an unlimited version for $99.

Adobe Bridge

Bridge is an Adobe product that’s targeted at navigating your entire media collection, not just images. Like Media Pro or Daminion it’s not used for the actual correction process but does work well with Adobe Camera RAW and Photoshop or other RAW processors and photo editors.
Bridge CC is available to anyone with a Adobe Creative Cloud subscription.

Apple Photos

Apple Photos is the spiritual successor to two former Apple DAM tools: Aperture and iPhoto. While Aperture was the professional level offering and iPhoto was targeted at beginners, Apple’s new Photos app is somewhere in the middle in terms of features and editing power. Photos thrives at connecting to the the cloud (via Apple’s iCloud) and syncing images and edits between iOS and Mac devices.
Photos is a Mac-only offering, included with OS X Yosemite and newer.


Google’s Picasa is a testament to the power of free DAM solutions. It doesn’t offer all of the professional-level features you might need, but it’s close. It’s a great application for getting started with taming your digital images, organizing them with albums, tagging them with keywords, and more.

Photo Mechanic

Photo Mechanic is a special purpose DAM tool that excels at speed. It’s focus is a specific set of workflow tasks: importing, viewing, selecting, captioning, and exporting images. It is lightning quick at loading previews of images and is excellent for commanding the import process. Despite a dated user interface and some idiosyncrasies, Photomechanic is a perenial hit with photojournalists because it’s the fastest way to go from ingest to export and file on time.
Photomechanic is $150 per license.


There are several good photo organization programs available for Linux. Corel Aftershot ProdigiKam, and Darktable each have their merits. Shotwell, however, is the only one that is stable, mature, free, open-source, and easy to use. Like Bridge and Daminion, it’s a photo-manager-only type program but has all the features you need to keep your library organized, including an image database to create collections and powerful search.
If you have to deal with a large number of files to serve a complex set of users you’ll mostly likely need an enterprise-level DAM solution like Extensis PortfolioCanto Cumulus, or ResourceSpace. Whichever solution you choose, all enterprise DAM requires an extra level of planning to take into account not just your needs but the needs of your stakeholders (all who need varying levels of access) and your organization, too.
When you’re planning your DAM setup, look for software that can:
  • make import easy
  • create collections
  • add ratings
  • add captions and descriptions
  • add keywords
  • bonus: add heirarchical keywords, import and export keywords
  • manage a smooth round-trip to RAW processing or editing
  • bonus: integrated RAW processing engine
  • do version control
  • write data to stand-alone image files or XMP sidecar files
  • export the database and be read by other programs
  • speed up your workflow
  • use cloud storage
  • publish pictures online
Happy DAM hunting! The list of software above is by no means exhaustive. If you have a DAM option you think is a great choice we’d love to hear about your experience.


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