It’s possible I may never get over the loss of Aperture, Apple’s abandoned image cataloguing and editing software. It eventually lost out to Lightroom’s more advanced editing tools, but Lightroom has never come close (nor any other program) to Aperture’s speed or its organisational genius. Aperture’s handling of stacks and picks and albums and projects was just perfect. Sigh.
But there is a program that has shades of Aperture, and for one odd reason in particular: the option to create managed catalogs.
Managed versus referenced images
Cataloguing programs use a database to store information about your photos, including thumbnails, previews, metadata and the image file’s location on our computer. Almost universally, cataloguing programs ‘reference’ your photos in their existing location.
Only a very few offer to import your photos into the image catalog itself, notably Apple Photos, Aperture… and Capture One.
Actually, let’s not forget Lightroom CC, which pulls your images into a cloud-based database. That’s a special case, however, which I’ll come to shortly.
So why would you even do that? Why duplicate your whole photo collection all over again and then lock it into a bespoke image database that only one program has access to?
The unexpected joys of managed catalogs
If you work with regular ‘referenced’ catalogs for any length of time you will become aware of some drawbacks and annoyances.
1) If you move any images or folders outside of your cataloguing application, you will need to re-synchronise your catalog with your folders to find them again (Lightroom, Capture One). Exposure X can cleverly work out what you’ve done and fix it within its catalog (on my Mac, at any rate). I don’t know how it does that.
2) If your software stores your non-destructive editing adjustments in sidecar files or folders, there’s also the danger that moving images outside the catalog or in other software will separate the images from their adjustments. Non-destructive adjustments can take as long to do as the regular sort, and while the ability to go back and change them is extremely useful – but these adjustments are impermanent and stored alongside your images and not within them. They depend on image-metadata connections that can be lost.
3) It’s likely your catalog will contain processed TIFFs and JPEGs, RAW files and perhaps multiple virtual copies of images that you want to try out different ‘looks’ on. RAW files and virtual copies (including those of TIFFs and JPEGs) will only look the way they do in that particular software – in fact, your virtual copies will only actually EXIST in that software.
So surely all this applies to managed catalogs too? Not quite.
First, a managed catalog draws all your images into a single database which is inaccessible to other programs. The possibility of moving files and folders externally, or inadvertently disconnecting images from their processing metadata, no longer exists.
Second, because the only way to get an image out of a managed catalog for use elsewhere is to export it, there’s no longer any practical difference between JPEGs, TIFFs, RAW files and virtual copies. They all have equal merit and ‘realness’ within the catalog and once they are exported they are equally permanent image files.
There’s a third feature of managed catalogs that I particularly like, which some might call a vice but I prefer to see as a virtue.
Yes, you do effectively duplicate your images when you import them into a managed catalog, but what other people call duplicates, I call a backup. What’s more, because you know your original images are safely stored somewhere else, you can start to cull your photos properly.
Culling is a necessary process for all of us if we actually want to find and see and enjoy our best work, but doing it on your first-line image archive is an extremely anxiety-inducing process. Personally, I find it very difficult to permanently delete ANY image, just in case.
But what could be better than having free rein with your images, deleting all the duds, the duplicates and the downright dull images at a stroke, knowing that you still have all the originals somewhere else – and can re-import them at will if you need to?
Incidentally, I would not recommend treating a managed catalog as a backup. In my world you would have an image archive and a backup of that archive, and a managed catalog and a back up of that too.
So why Capture One and not Lightroom CC?
Both of these programs let you create managed catalogs, and I like that about both of them, but Capture One offers it as a choice, while Lightroom CC (we are talking about the web-based Lightroom here, not Lightroom Classic) insists upon it.
I don’t even mind that about Lightroom CC. What I do mind is firstly that you are locked into Adobe’s expensive cloud-based storage, secondly that the editing tools are stripped back and that you can’t create virtual copies (which I depend on), and thirdly that it won’t work with any external editor except Photoshop. You are locked into a whole lot more than just a managed catalog.
Capture One is a different proposition, and much closer to Aperture. Its organising tools are not as flexible, but its RAW processing and editing tools are in a different league. It runs at a decent speed and the world of Capture One Styles (presets) has more upmarket, classier (and yes, expensive) products than some of the Lightroom preset packs I see. Best of all, Capture One works with just about any external editor.
Capture One is not the same as Aperture, but it’s close enough that I don’t feel the loss of Aperture quite so keenly. It’s also a reminder of just how much simpler life becomes with managed catalogs.
Read more: Best image cataloguing software