Photographers love to chat about (and bemoan) their digital workflow--the process that begins with downloading photos from a camera or memory card, and continues with managing, organizing, sorting, editing, and eventually publishing, printing, or sharing the best shots. Adobe introduced Lightroom back in 2007 to help users perform that daunting series of tasks, and Lightroom quickly became the gold standard for digital workflow software. Now, Lightroom has some capable company: The latest version, Adobe Lightroom 4.1, is joined by Corel AfterShot Pro and CyberLink PhotoDirector 3.
Both AfterShot Pro and PhotoDirector 3 deliver essentially the same workflow experience as Lightroom, including lossless editing, essential photo editing tools, a rich organizer, and convenient ways to print, share, and publish your photos. We found that each one of the three programs has its own strengths and target audience.
Corel is playing an excellent game of catch-up with Adobe, matching many of Lightroom's core editing tools and adding some superb new options for making adjustment masks for localized editing, including the ability to invert layers. With AfterShot Pro, unlike with Lightroom and PhotoDirector, you don't have to import photos just to browse or edit them. And in Corel's simplified interface, instead of having to switch among multiple modules, you can reach almost everything in just a click or two.
Meanwhile, PhotoDirector bundles unusual photo effects that let you avoid having to export photos elsewhere for advanced editing. It also provides a wealth of downloadable presets that offer inexperienced users guidance they can't get in Lightroom. That makes it the right choice for casual photographers who want the convenience--but not the complexity--of workflow software. Unfortunately, the simplicity comes at a price: PhotoDirector is a completely closed workflow tool, which means that exporting a photo for additional tweaks is off the table.
Lightroom remains king, thanks in part to features that aren't even on the radar of rival programs--basic video-clip editing, geolocation, and the ability to print photo books, for example. Adobe also managed to sneak in a few of its rivals' coolest features, such as AfterShot's regional white balance adjustment and PhotoDirector's awesome gradient mask.
Of course, having a camera doesn't automatically mean that you need software to help manage your digital workflow. Many casual photographers never worry about organizing their photo collection or rapidly finding an archived photo. But for those who do--or who notice that their collection is outpacing their ability to keep up by using their current method of organizing shots--one of these apps may be just what you need.
One advantage of digital workflow software is that the apps address the specific needs of modern digital photographers, offering fast, easy, efficient tools for adjusting exposure, color, and other image parameters. Think of it as providing the essential Photoshop tools without the clutter of extras that are better suited to a graphic designer than to a photographer who wants to clean up a photo. These essential photo-editing controls get the job done most of the time, but when you need to remove a person or an object with a clone brush, "punch out" a background, or assemble multiple photos into a composite image, you should turn to a full-featured photo editor. Workflow programs simply can't match them in handling those sorts of advanced tricks, which is why Lightroom lets you export photos to another program for high-level work, and then automatically return the edited photo into its organizer when you're done.
Because workflow programs focus on the needs of serious photographers, they are lossless editors: No matter what changes you make to your photo, the edits are encoded in metadata, and the original pixels remain unharmed. (The exception here is PhotoDirector, which does have a few tools that are lossy and require you to save your content as you go along.) Workflow programs are essentially big databases. At their best, they free you from having to worry about folders and filenames, allowing you instead to tag your photos with meaningful keywords or to search for images by their exposure settings. And the days of juggling a slew of duplicate, or near duplicate photos, are gone. You can perform editing experiments on an unlimited number of virtual copies of a photo--each one cropped differently and given unique exposure and color adjustments--while only the original takes up space on your hard drive.