Unified workflow and image editing applications such as Lightroom and Aperture have changed the way digital photographers work, much for the better. As you create your workflow, these tools can help streamline everything you do with your images.
In the last few years, the software landscape for imaging tools has been revolutionized by the emergence of cataloging programs that include a way to do nondestructive image editing — cataloging PIEware. Adobe Lightroom and Apple’s Aperture are two examples of programs that can manage an archive as well as make the pictures look the way you want them to.
This approach will eventually provide the best possible way to manage an archive since it unifies nearly everything you need to do to your images into one place. Image selection and image grouping, for instance, will often drive decisions about image adjustment. Keeping the controls in one place just makes things easier. And since these tasks can all rely on metadata to control and save the work, it makes sense that a metadata-aware catalog can help streamline the workflow.
Catalog software can give you access to many thousands of images from a single environment.
Limitations of cataloging PIEware
Current versions of the software, however may not provide everything you need yet. While the image editors in these cataloging all-in-one applications are as good as any PIEware out there, the catalog capabilities are not as robust as the dedicated catalog software (at least as of this writing). Building a good catalog program is surprisingly difficult, and it’s made doubly hard when the developers are incorporating a parametric image editor into the mix. It’s clear in both Lightroom and Aperture that some very significant catalog capabilities are simply not built yet. These omissions include working with the video files that come out of many digital cameras, flexible organizational tools, and multicomputer capabilities. They also don’t currently have the ability to open multiple catalogs at the same time, nor to search for missing files on a collection-wide basis.
If you can do everything you need to with an all-in-one application, your life can be considerably simpler than creating a multi-application workflow. A person with one “photography” computer whose images can fit into a single catalog can probably do everything inside of Lightroom or Aperture and would be well-advised to do so (depending on what other needs he might have). Once you start adding more computers to the mix, or more than one user, or more than one drive for storage, or more than one catalog of images, these programs start to break from a workflow perspective. We suggest it may be better to use a dedicated cataloging program to organize and manage the collection as a whole, even if you still use your cataloging PIEware to manage large groups of images as they are works in progress.
It's important to understand that the current limitations are likely to be solved in the relatively near term. As you evaluate which software best suits your needs, keep an eye out for new developments in this arena.