Currently using Apple Aperture. Need a replacement.

I've been thinking a lot about photo management.

I now avoid the word 'DAM' as it increasingly refers to industrial sized software costing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. So let's look at what I mean by a photo manager:

  • Browser -- look at a bunch of pictures
  • Tagger -- add metadata either singly or in batches.
  • Searcher -- use complex searches to narrow down what I look at.
  • Version tracker -- ability to keep track of derived images.

That's the TL;DR version.

Next level of detail:

Browser Pix initially come in in bunches, and as such they go somewhere in some folder structure on your computer. Many people will use some combination of Year/Month/ and string to describe event. Often remembering that the shot took place on your trip to Italy, or that it was the Smith & Brown wedding is sufficient. Some programs hide the location to reduce the chance of conflict with the OS built-in file manipulation. Some give you a choice. But somehow your pics are stored on your computer and you have some way to reference subsets of your collection, whether by year month day, or a named event. Whatever.

Tagger But what do you do when you are looking for the closeup of a butterfly. It was an incidental pic on some holiday, but which one. Now metadata comes into play. If all your holiday shots are tagged 'Holiday' and your program can search existing metadata, your problem is solved. Search for holiday and focal distance less than 5 feet. You still may have a bunch to wade through. If, in addition to some general keywords for the batch you add a few per image you have a big win. E.g. "Butterfly"

Tagging is hard. You want to tag it with multiple things. E.g:

  • Describe the scene.
  • Identify the location. GPS is fine, but "Lock Ness, Scotland" or Kensington market, Toronto, Ontario, Canada is easier to visualize.
  • ID the people in the scene. Great if you can do like facebook, and draw a box around them, and supply a name. Also: classify them more generally. (Woman with child; Young boy...) This becomes more important for stock photos.
  • Describe the technical aspects -- close up, high/low key, lighting
  • One or more classes of description about the scene -- weather, mood.
  • Usage: Have you sold exclusive rights for this image? Exclusive for 18 months for a calendar?

These are facets. I prefer to go through a set of images several times, concentrating on one of these at a time. Sometimes a facet is irrelevant. E.g: Weather makes no sense for an interior shot. If you do facets, you need a way to search for images that don't have an entry for facet X. You also need a way to mark a facet as irrelevant.

Crudely you can implement these with constructs like WEA:Cloudy but then you still have to be able to search for images that don't have WEA:* as a keyword. And you have to decide on what to do where it's not relevant. WEA:N/A

Having some kind of support for actual facets would be a big win. Photo Supreme does this with 'categories' I think.

Hierarchical keywords are important, and it's partner, controlled vocabulary. You really want to be able to avoid having entries for Smith, John and be unable to distinguish between the one from Hoboken, NY and the one from East Horsebiscuit, SD. You also want to avoid Rachmaninov, Sergie and Rachmaninoff, Sergie. So controlled vocabulary is your friend. At the very least it should require you to take an extra step to add a new word.

Controlled vocabulary often has a side benefit of synonyms. Color = Colour; grey = gray; White Spruce = Picea glauca; It also gives you container keywords. When you enter white spruce it gives you Spruce, Conifer. And Spruce can give you evergreen, Applying one keyword can either give you a hatful of other ones or, depending on your search engine, this association happens under the hood, much like google searches for related terms.

The database needs to be bulk editable. E.g. When you started out you had a category, "People" and everyone was under people. Well, after a while that was getting cumbersome. So many friends. So you want to introduce some subcategories People -> High School Friends; people -> Family You want to be able to move someone from one category to another, and have those changes propagate to the images involved.

Searcher No point in tagging if you can't search the data. Two programs I trialled, Mylio and Photoshop Supreme, had no provision to search exif data -- where the stuff like time of day, and focal length, and camera model is kept. One program allows you to search for only one tag at a time. I can search for Holiday. Or I can search for butterfly. But I can't search for shots that have both "Holiday" and "butterfly" Ideally you want full boolean search support with 'and,' 'or', & 'not', parentheses for grouping, and wild cards for partial matches.

Version tracker A photograph for a professional may have a long history. You often have a shot, then export it in some altered form (cropped, resized, sharpened, colour adjusted, watermarked) Nice to be able to find the original 5 years from now. One recommended practice I ran into had the following:

  • Master image was Raw.
  • Archive version was digital negative.
  • Processing version was 16 bit tiff or PSD
  • Delivered version was tiff or jpeg.

This requires a minimum of 4 versions. Add to that:

  • Watermarked versions.
  • Reduced resolution versions for web pages.
  • Colour matched versions for specific printing environments.
  • Cropped versions for mobile web pages.
  • Various special artistic renderings

And yes, this comes up in real life. I had one set that I produced 18 different resolutions from 64x96 thumbnails to 2048 x 3072 full size.

So that's the base case. Implementations differ, and they refine this somewhat.

Online resources.

The following links helped greatly in refining this wishlist.

Impulse Adventure (site: https://www.impulseadventure.com/photo/) Unfortunately out of date. But still several good articles.

Controlled Vocabulary (site: https://www.controlledvocabulary.com/ )

Also has a good forum/mailing list.


The four functions above describe what it should do. Here are some more details about how it should do it.

Server requirements

I can see implementing this in one of two ways: Either as a stand alone program or as a local web server. The latter has the advantage that it would scale for family or small photo business.

Cloud services are slow when you are talking about 10-12 Mbyte files. My network connect takes several seconds per MByte. Cloud services for metadata have to be well optimized -- you really don't want to issue 3000 keyword change requests individually when you change the spelling of a keyword. Cloud services also leave you at the mercy of the provider. Anyone remember Picasa? Google Photos?And the current issues with Flickr. So:

  • Not cloud based.
  • Runs on Mac or on local apache web server.

(A possibility would be to distribute it as a linux LAMP server in a virtual machine.)

Keyword handling

  • Fast keywording. Aperture allows drag and drop from a list, multiple sets of hotkeys for words used frequently, copy paste of keywords from one photo to another, and keywords organized in folders. It also allows search for a keyword, and a list matching what you typed so far appears. Other programs that have good keywording include IMatch and Photomechanic. One of the key aspects of this is to have multiple ways to do things. I like aperture's multiple preset buttons -- combine with facets.

    A history of keywords might help: A pane with the last N keywords in it. Chances are that the next word I use will be one of the last 20 I use about 80% of the time.

  • Full access to standard metadata: EXIF, ITPC, subject to limits of the file format.

  • Controlled vocabulary. I want an extra step to add a new keyword to my list of keywords. This helps with the the Sommer Vacashun problem.
  • Hierarchical vocabulary. E.g. Separate entries for Birds -> raptors -> falcon and Planes -> fighters -> falcon. Parents are stored with keywords. Moving a keyword in the master list, or changing spelling, corrects all usage in photos. This can be done as a background task.
  • Parent items are automatically entered as keywords. (With the correct database linkage, this comes free as a side effect of the point above.
  • Synonyms -- I can define "Picea glauca" as a synonym for "White Spruce" entering one, enters the other.
  • Facets: For a set of pictures I want to be able to define a set of facets or categories for collections or folders. Facets would be things like: Weather; Who; Where; Ecosystem; Season; Lighting Not all collections would have all facets, but a collection having a facet would nag me to put it in. A facet would have a negation for not applicable (Weather isn't applicable inside a house; Who isn't applicable in a landscape shot.) Facets allow me to go through a collection in multiple passes and get the missing keywords.


  • Complex searches: Find all shots between 2012 and 2015 shot in December or January, shot with my Nikon D70, with keyword "snow" rating of 3 or better shot after 3pm in the day. (Yes, I do use searches like that)
  • Saved Searches. These are the equivalent of smart albums in Aperture. As new pix meet the standards they would be shown.

Version Tracking

  • Version tracking If a lower resolution, cropped, photoshopped, composited or a black and white image is produced from a master, the system should show that it's a derived image, and allow access to the master. A master should be able to list derived images. Derived images are not linear but form a multi-branched tree.
  • If my camera produces JPEG and Raw versions, I want the JPEG to be shown as being derived from the Raw version.
  • Metadata applied to a master should propagate down to derived images.
  • Some form of exception handling for this: e.g. -keyword to prevent a people identifier being applied to an image where that person was cropped out.
  • Ability to track through external editing programs. E.g. If I edit an image in photoshop, it will mark the PSD file as being derived, restore as much of the metadata as the PSD format allows. If Photoshop is used to create a jpeg image, that too is tracked.

Data robustness

  • All metadata is indexed.
  • Metadata is also written to sidecar files.
  • Where possible metadata is written to the image file itself. (optional -- can stress automated backup systems)
  • Through file system watching, name changes and directory reorganization are caught. Relevant sidecars are also renamed, and the database updated with new file location/name. Sidecar contents include the name of their master file.
  • Should be possible to rebuild entire database from images + sidecars. Should be able to restore all file metadata from database. This requires a lot of under-the-hood time stamps to determine which has priority.
  • All database actions should be logged and journaled, so they are reversible.
  • Reasonable speed with catalogs of more than 1,000,000 images.
  • Support for previews of all common image formats and most raw formats.
  • Previews and thumbnails are treated as versions of the master. They inherit metadata.

Nice to have:

  • Simple non-destructive editing -- crop, brightness, contrast.
  • Rating system
  • Smart albums
  • Drag and drop functionality with other apps.

Metadata Storage

There are three places metadata can be stored:

  • In the image.
  • In a database.
  • In a separate file for each image (sidecar file) Typically these files have the same name as the primary file, but a different suffix.

If at least some cataloging information is written to the image, then you can reconnect a file to your database. In principle this can be a single unique ID.

This saves you from:

  • You moved or renamed an image file.

If you can write more info into the file -- keywords, captions -- then you are saved from:

  • Your database is corrupted.
  • You upgraded your computer and your database program doesn't work there.
  • You emailed the file, but not the metadata to a client.

Sidecar files allow you to recover all your metadata if your database crashes.

Downsides of storing data in the image

Writing to the original files can corrupt the file. Most RAW formats are well understood enough now to at least identify and replace strings of metadata with the same length string. If you tell your camera to put the copyright string

Copyright 2018 J. Random Shutterbug Image XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXX  

Then as long as the DAM keeps that string the same length you are golden.

Keeping all metadata (or as much as you can) in the original images makes for very slow access. Your program has to read at least the first few blocks of every image. Depending on the image file's internal structure, adding too much data may require rewriting the entire file. Any program that moves the boundaries of data sub blocks better be well tested.

Writing data back is time consuming.

Some file formats don't have any metadata capability.

Some editing programs (Adobe, I'm looking at you) are noted for mangling metadata.

A glitch during the write process can corrupt the image file. The alternative, writing a new file, then replacing the old file requires that the entire file be both read and written, rather than just a chunk of it. This has serious performance issues.

Downsides of Databases

Databases are fast, but they are blobby, and you are writing into the middle of blobs of data. If the implementation of the database is solid, there isn't much to worry about. But hard disks have errors, and a single error can make a database partially or fully unusable. Good database design has redundancy built in so that you can repair/rebuild.

Databases are frequently proprietary. Data may be compressed for speed. Getting your data out may be tricky. (Problem for people using Apple Aperture)

Databases frequently are optimized in different ways. In general robustness is gained at the cost of performance and complexity. One compromise is to write all changes first to a transaction file (fast...) and then a background process does the database update in the background. This slows down access some: Have to check both the main database and the transaction file, but unless the transaction file gets to be bigger than memory, this shouldn't be noticeable. Go for coffee and let the updater catch up with you.

Downsides of Sidecars

You have to read a zillion files at startup.

If you do a batch change (Add the keyword "Italy" to all 3000 of your summer holiday trip shots) the catalog program has open, modify and write back 3000 files.

If you rename a file, and don't rename the sidecar file too, your meta data is no longer connected to your image.

Best practice

Opinion only here: Sorry.

  • You want a unique asset tag that resides in the image. This can be an actual tag like the copyright one mentioned above, or it can be a derived tag from information in the image. This could be the EXIF time stamp (Not unique -- multiple shots per second, multiple cameras.) If your program reads makernotes, a good one is Camera model + Camera serial number + timestamp + hundredths of a second.

  • You want a database for speed. It, of course has the unique ID

  • You want sidecars for rebuilding your database, and for data portability. They have the unique ID.

If the database crashes, it can be rebuilt from the sidecars.

If a sidecar is corrupted, it can be rebuilt from the database.

If an image is renamed the ID can be used to reconnect it to the sidecar, and to fix the database.

To make this work, you have to use a lot of timestamps. If the sidecar is more recent than the latest time stamp in the database record, then the sidecar is the authoritative record.

You also have to have internal checks on data integrity. The record for an image (sidecar or database) needs a checksum to verify that that data isn't corrupt.

Given the relatively fragile nature of raw files, best practice is a system that only writes zero or once to the Raw file. This is why the exif time stamp + hundredths, copyright work well. You can include the camera model and serial number in the copyright so that now the copyright message is unique to the camera. You could also use shuttercount, but this raises issues when a shutter is replaced in a camera. If you use shuttercount, add a -1 (dash one) to your camera's serial number when you replace the shutter.

At this point you have the ability to create, and recreate a unique ID for each image. If the DAM has the ability to modify the file, you can create this ID once. This saves some time if you ever have to rebuild the database. On the other hand, as soon as you modify the file, both copies are potentially in your backup system. May not be what you want if your backups are slow.

Having as much of the metadata in the file as possible means that it travels with the file. This is a win, but comes with the risk of potential corruption. Possibly the best strategy is to leave the original intact, and for clients who need raw data, either add metadata to a copy, or to a derived full data equivalent (e.g. DNG)

Sidecars don't need to be updated in real time. The slick way to do this would be that whenever the database makes a change to a record:

  • Make a new record that duplicates the old record in the database.

  • Make the change in the new record.

  • New record is flagged, "not written to sidecar"
  • Old record is marked "obsolete"
  • Another process or thread writes the sidecar files out, writing out the new one, then deleting the old one (or renaming the new one to the old one's name).
  • Periodically you run a cleanup on the database removing obsolete records older than X days. This gives you some ability to rollback changes.

Note that this can raise hell with your backup system. If you are using something like Apple Time Machine with it's short increments, you can rapidly fill up your backup space with slightly different versions of files.

This is not complete: It doesn't address the issue of non-destructive edits. Many programs now allow the creation of multiple virtual images from the same master file, and do not create a new bitmap, but rather a file with a series of instructions for how to make the image from the master. AFAIK all such methods are proprietary. This results in a quandary as the apps that do a good job of tracking metadata may not be able to deal with the non-destructive edits. This can be critical if you crop a person out of an image, crop to emphasis a different aspect, and receive a different caption, etc.

The workaround is that you always write out a new bitmap image from a serious edit. Ideally you have a script that looks for new NDEs and writes out an image based on this, copying the metadata from the master and at some point bringing it up for review for mods to the metadata.

Robustness against external programs.

I like having an underlying file structure organization. I like the idea that if I produce a bunch of cropped, watermarked, lower resolution, etcetera versions of an image that my catalog will track that too.

But if the underlying file structure is exposed to Explorer or Finder, then you have the risk of a file being renamed or moved, and the database is no longer in sync with your file system.

To budnip answers of the form "This is impossible" here's how to "Finder-proof" your image database.

  • When an image is edited, a file system watcher notes that the file was opened. The file goes onto the 'watch' list. (the program fswatcher does this on mac, linux, *bsd. I use it to update my web page when my local copy has been edited. I'm sure there is an equivalent for Windows.)

  • When a new file appears in a monitored directory tree, it's noted.

  • When a file is closed, this is also noted. If there has been a new file created it is checked for metadata. If the new file's metadata has a match for an existing file, then existing file metadata is used to repopulate missing data in the file. (Photoshop is notorious for not respecting all metadata.)

  • Database is updated with the new file being marked as derivative of the original file.

  • optionally a suffix may be added to the new file's image number, showing whether it derives directly from the original or from another derivative.

To make this work, the two components are a unique id that can be calculated from the master, and a file system monitor program that catches create, move, change, and rename events.

Notes on current state of the art:

  • Nothing I've found supports version tracking, especially through an external program. Lightroom and Aperture both support a type of versions -- different edits on same master, but at least Aperture doesn't copy metadata to a new version. Aperture supports Stacks -- a group of related pictures.
  • Lightroom: Doesn't support PNG, very clunky interface, slow on large catalogs;
  • Mylio home version doesn't support hierarchical keywords; doesn't index exif information, does not allow or syntax for searches,
  • Photomechanic is fast for keywording and culling, but has very limited search capability. Added: PM is supposed to have a photo Dam released April 22 2019.
  • IMatch. Possible contender, Requires MS windows box.
  • Photo Supreme: Erratic quirks. Crashes. One man shop. Can't search Exif in useful way.
  • Fotostation: AFAIK no underlying database. Has to read metadata from images/sidecar files on startup. Slow after 10K images. (They have server based software too that is big bucks.)
  • Luminar: A DAM has been promised Real Soon Now, but no demos, storyboards or feature lists have been published. There is a claim that it is in beta, but no one on their fairly active forum will admit to being part of the beta group.
  • Affinity: Similar to Luminar.

Commandline tools

Much of the special features for version tracking could be implemented with scripts using calls to these programs.

  • ImageMagick -- good for whole-image conversions, also can read/write internal metadata and sidecars.
  • Exiftool -- read/write exif data reads most makernotes.
  • fswatch -- not really an image processor, but hooks into the operating system and can alert when files have changed -- modified, renamed, moved.
Enterprise level

There are a raft of these with vaguely defined abilities and very high price tags. Most are SaaS and cost hundreds to thousands of dollars per month. Once I saw a large price tag, I stopped considering it.

  • WebDAM No real information about capabilities on web site.
  • Extensis. Expensive.
  • Bynder. Joke program. Cloud based set of shoeboxes.
  • WIDEN. Cloud only.
  • Asset Bank. Starts at $500/month for up to 50 users.
  • I have voted to close my own question as it apparently does not fit the rules asking for recommendations. – Sherwood Botsford Jan 25 '18 at 17:58
  • 2
    And I have voted to keep it open, an dupvoted it, because it is an interesting question :-) If you think that it breaks some rules, then why not edit it to be within the rules? We would really like to help you. I especially want to help anyone whose signature says Compared to most of the people on this site, I'm woefully ignorant. But at least I try to be polite :-) – Mawg says reinstate Monica Jan 26 '18 at 7:46
  • 1
    Sounds like it's time to role your own. (I'd opt for a command line version using a script to enforce file structure, and just "locate" on the sidecars, tensorflow could auto populate) linux.die.net/man/1/locate – user1133275 Jul 27 '18 at 18:59
  • It's a great question; really it is... and incredibly detailed. No real answers, but two thoughts: 1. I seriously doubt that there is anything out there that meets all of your comments, and 2. Perhaps an aspiring publisher like Phase One/Capture One would be interested in your "specifications". In my experience, LightRoom is the best available, but it's not great for a variety of reasons - 'tho I think your disqualification of it on the basis of not handling PNG filetypes is something that could be overcome. – Seamus Jul 28 '18 at 18:21
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    I keep adding to this, and then link to it both on general and corporate forums. Upvotes here show that there is a demand or at least interest. – Sherwood Botsford Jul 28 '18 at 19:15

It sounds like a lot of your desired features are covered by darktable although some are described differently:

  • Cost: Free, Gratis
  • Target Platform: Windows, Mac & Linux
  • Offline: Yes - you can publish to online destinations but your images are stored locally.
  • Open Source: So if you can think of features that are missing you may be able to get them added (a lot more chance than with the commercial stuff).

From the features list with some comments and my bold markings

  • Non-destructive editing throughout the complete workflow, your original images are never modified. This corresponds well to your version tracking
  • Take advantage of the real power of raw: All darktable core functions operate on 4x32-bit floating point pixel buffers, enabling SSE instructions for speedups.
  • GPU accelerated image processing: many image opertions are lightning fast thanks to OpenCL support (runtime detection and enabling).
  • Professional color management: darktable is fully color managed, supporting automatic display profile detection on most systems, including built-in ICC profile support for sRGB, Adobe RGB, XYZ and linear RGB color spaces.
  • Cross platform: darktable runs on Linux, Mac OS X / macports, BSD, Windows and Solaris 11 / GNOME.
  • Filtering and sorting: search your image collections by tags, image rating (stars), color labels and many more, use flexible database queries on all metadata of your images.
  • Image formats: darktable can import a variety of standard, raw and high dynamic range image formats (e.g. JPEG, CR2, NEF, HDR, PFM, RAF … ).
  • Zero-latency, zoomable user interface: through multi-level software caches darktable provides a fluid experience.
  • Tethered shooting: support for instrumentation of your camera with live view for some camera brands.
  • Speaks your language: darktable currently comes with 21 translations: Albanian, Catalan, Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portugese (Brazilian and Portugese), Russian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish, Ukrainian.
  • Powerful export system supports G+ and Facebook webalbums, flickr upload, disk storage, 1:1 copy, email attachments and can generate a simple html-based web gallery. darktable allows you to export to low dynamic range (JPEG, PNG, TIFF), 16-bit (PPM, TIFF), or linear high dynamic range (PFM, EXR) images.
  • Never lose your image development settings darktable uses both XMP sidecar files as well as its fast database for saving metadata and processing settings. All Exif data is read and written using libexiv2. Sounds like the best of both worlds for you
  • Automate repetitive tasks: Many aspects of darktable can be scripted in Lua.
  • I'll take a look. From your answer, I would have to roll my own tracking system for derivative files, and tracking destructive edits (size changes) I'll have to check the robust concerns too. – Sherwood Botsford Jan 4 at 17:10
  • @SherwoodBotsford It is my understanding that, as long as your workflow is from within the tool, there are no destructive edits. I believe that there is at least an element of derivative tracking. I believe that the robustness issues that used exist on windows have been largely addressed and that they were addressed long ago on Linux/Mac. – Steve Barnes Jan 5 at 5:58
  • That's just it. I don't want to confine my workflow to DT. Sometimes Photoshop is the right tool. Sometimes a perlscript calling 42 invocations of the netpbm suite on a thousand files is the right tool. In many cases I do want to make a destructive edit: E.g. crop, resize, and sharpen for the web. AND I want to be able to track this as a derivative file in my photo management package. – Sherwood Botsford Jan 7 at 23:37
  • @SherwoodBotsford in that case you choices are roll your own with some sort of script or launcher or add some metadata that survives your edits and can be used to associate or the best bet interact with the DT developer community to see if an arbitrary external launch command cant be added that copies the original to a reserved area and associates anything in that area with the original image. I think that you should be able to make a good case for adding this. – Steve Barnes Jan 8 at 6:23
  • That's a good idea. I've joined the DT email user list. I've downloaded DT and will strt to play with it this week. – Sherwood Botsford Jan 9 at 15:51

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