Over the past couple of years, I’ve reviewed several subscription-free rivals to Adobe Lightroom, including DxO PhotoLab 4, Exposure Software’s Exposure X6 and Phase One’s Capture One 20. After publishing every one of those reviews, I heard from readers praising ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate, a Windows-only Lightroom alternative that allows you to forego a subscription.
Introduction |What’s new |Interface |Tests |Conclusion
It’s been many years since we last took a look at ACDSee, but clearly, it’s time we rectified that. A fully-featured image management and editing tool aimed specifically at photographers, Photo Studio Ultimate 2021 provides most of the same core features as its Adobe rival. It also includes some that Lightroom lacks, the most notable of which is support for layer-based editing.
Photo Studio Ultimate is a comprehensive digital darkroom tool. In the interest of readability, I’m not going to try to cover every feature of Photo Studio Ultimate in this review. Instead, I’ll hit the highlights for those of you who’re new to ACDSee while summarizing the improvements perpetually licensed users of the previous release can enjoy with an upgrade. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get right down to it!
ACDSee’s default rendering compared with that of its main rival, Adobe Lightroom Classic. Click through to the gallery to see full resolution images.
Editor’s note: Just days before publishing this review, ACDSee announced Photo Studio Ultimate 2022, to be released at the end of September. According to ACDSee, the updated version includes a new Media mode for efficiently viewing and managing folders and media, a new People mode that uses an improved AI engine to recognize faces, and some new selection tools. Users who purchase the 2021 edition will be eligible for a free upgrade.
- Windows only (sorry, Mac users)
- Affordable perpetual license with one year of updates or a choice of two subscription plans
- Comprehensive image management and editing
- Lots of controls, plenty of presets and decent image quality, but weak noise reduction
- Layers support, automatic lens correction and (somewhat error-prone) face recognition
- Broad support for cameras/backs, but lacks Lightroom’s mobile/drone support.
- Extremely fast, even with large image collections
- A bit buggy and the learning curve can be steep
ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2021 is available for $149.95 for a lifetime license with one year of updates and technical support, which will include a free upgrade to the 2022 release once it launches.
Two subscription plans are also available, which include licenses for ACDSee for Mac 7, Luxea Video Editor, and Video Converter Pro 5. These differ only in their limits on cloud storage and the number of concurrent installs allowed. The Personal plan is priced at $6.90 per month, or $69 per year, and can be run on two machines with 10GB cloud storage included. The Home plan is priced at either $8.90 per month, or $89 per year, and includes 50GB of cloud storage with support for up to five installs.
Let’s review what’s new for those already familiar with ACDSee. Probably the most noticeable difference – and the biggest reason to upgrade if you’re using an older, perpetually licensed version of ACDSee – will be the performance gains. The company says that its 2021 release can start up to 100% faster, switch modes 50% faster, categorize and keyword 100% faster, decode raw files 20% more quickly, and has 40% better database performance.
There are also some notable tweaks to the user interface and tools on offer. These include an updated UI for Develop mode, which adds a new right-hand pane that’s home to a histogram, develop presets, history/snapshots, an info palette, plus new color and tone wheels in the left pane.
|The updated Develop mode user interface now has a second pane at screen right. The left, right, and bottom panes can be hidden via keyboard shortcuts or buttons in the top right corner.|
A new refine selection tool helps you outline subjects for editing more accurately, while new text-in-frame and text-on-path tools let you define areas for text overlays and have text follow a curve or shape. And you can now create presets for batch resizing and renaming, and assign these to keyboard shortcuts.
|Fine-tuning the extents of a selection with the newly-added Refine Selection tool.|
Both cropping and watermarking tools now support relative positioning when used in ACDSee Actions. Meanwhile, the quick search tool has gained a new button to search only within the previous search results rather than the entire database. This makes it easier to quickly winnow out unwanted results based on subject matter to find the images you’re after.
And smaller improvements abound, such as support for GoPro raw files and import of face recognition data from Lightroom and Picasa, easier pairing with ACDSee’s Mobile Sync app via QR code, and comprehensive, context-sensitive online help.
ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2021 has a modal interface with five main sections that can be selected at the top-right corner of the screen: Manage, Photos, View, Customize and Edit. Further right, you’ll find several icons through which you can sign up for an optional ACDSee 365 subscription, including cloud storage and access to several other apps, view statistics about your photos and the overall database, and view any messages from ACDSee.
ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2021 has a modal interface with five main sections
Manage mode allows you to browse folders and view their contents on local and network drives without first importing them into the database. There’s a choice of several view types, including thumbnails or a film strip beneath a larger preview. You can also view or edit metadata, add tags, ratings or labels, and images or videos can be categorized or added to collections.
Additionally, you can view geotagged images on a map or add locations to those that aren’t geotagged. ACDSee Actions – essentially short scripts combining multiple processing steps into a single click -–can be applied, or multiple images loaded into stacks or processed to create an HDR or focus-stacked image. You can also select images to open in Develop or Edit modes or to be handed off to an external application.
|Photo Studio Ultimate’s Manage mode is geolocation-aware and can show your geotagged images on a map or let you add locations to untagged images manually.|
Rather than giving you access to everything on your drives, Photos mode gives you access by date only to the images and videos you’ve imported into ACDSee’s database, which are shown only as thumbnails. You have a choice of daily, monthly, or yearly views and can also select folders you’d like to scan for content.
There’s not much you can do in this mode other than rotating images or selecting an individual image to open in one of the other modes. You can only access relatively small thumbnail views of your content.
|Photos mode allows only small thumbnail views and gives a choice of daily, monthly, or yearly indices. The highlighted image appears if you hover your mouse pointer over a thumbnail.|
This mode is similar to the filmstrip view in Manage mode, except most visual clutter is removed or disabled. It’s also the only mode to allow you to actually play videos, rather than seeing them as static thumbnails. (To differentiate videos from stills, the other modes show them as groups of four smaller thumbnails taken from various points in the video clip.)
There’s also an Actions Browser pane for still images that allows you to visually preview the expected results of each action on your selected image before you apply it. A row of icons above the film strip allows you to access tasks like zoom/mouse control, image rotation, face selection and tools for automatic image corrections.
|View mode gives you a less cluttered look at your images. By default, it lacks sidebars, but I’ve enabled the right bar so you can see the Organize tab of the Properties pane.|
|View mode also gives you access to the Actions browser, through which you can preview the results of individual ACDSee Actions scripts as thumbnails and a larger single-image preview.|
Develop mode is where you’ll be doing the bulk of your editing. By default – the interface being very customizable – the sliders with which you’ll make your adjustments are grouped in a pane at the left of the screen. Develop mode’s adjustments are non-destructive and saved to XMP sidecar files as well as the ACDSee database.
Depending upon the size of each panel within the pane, you can mostly have only two open at once, although for a couple of bigger or smaller panes, that number increases or decreases. If you open too many, another panel will simultaneously close to make room for it, preventing you from having to scroll up and down the pane.
|The Develop mode is where you’ll do most of your editing work. Here, I’ve applied the Punch preset from the Portrait group and then dialed the contrast back slightly, as you can see in the History panel near the bottom right corner.|
Most of the basic options are similar to those you’d find in Lightroom, although there are some differences in how they’re named or located. For example, instead of the Shadows slider found in Lightroom, ACDSee features a Fill Light slider, and white balance controls have their own panel. The most notable omissions are equivalents to Lightroom’s Whites and Blacks sliders.
You’ll find a history panel and a categorized selection of developing presets at screen right, but there’s no way to preview their results before application. Nor can you access the View mode’s Actions Browser in this mode, and if you apply an action before switching to Develop mode, its component steps aren’t shown in the history panel.
Finally, we come to Edit mode, which differs from Develop mode in two key ways. In Edit mode, adjustments must be rendered to a static format – a JPEG, TIFF, or a variety of other formats – once you finish editing. Multiple edits can be made to a single image, but if you want to switch to a different image or program mode, you have to render your results at that point.
|Edit mode gives access to a wide range of easy-to-apply filters and effects. Here, I’ve applied the Lomo filter from the Special Effect tool, then added a DPReview watermark on a new layer.|
The other key difference is that there’s much more hand-holding in this mode, which will help less experienced photographers get the results they’re after. In Develop mode, a few controls do offer automatic modes. Still, there are more auto controls on offer in Edit mode, and some tools also have multiple versions offering different levels of complexity (and, of course, varying levels of control as well.)
Compared to Adobe Lightroom
There’s not a huge difference in image quality at lower ISO values between ACDSee and Lightroom Classic. Adobe’s images tend to look just a little more processed, with higher levels of sharpening by default and stronger tweaks to local contrast for a slightly punchier result. Differences in sharpening aside, neither app shows any advantage in detail, however.
Color is quite similar for the most part, although ACDSee tends to neutralize a golden hour glow more, whereas Lightroom tends to retain a bit more warmth. ACDSee’s foliage tends to look a little more realistic, though, and it sometimes holds onto a bit more highlight detail by default.
|The 100% crops below come from the raw version of this image, shown here as an out-of-camera JPEG. It was shot at an intentionally high ISO 102,400 to present a real challenge for noise reduction. (Captured with the 24-megapixel, APS-C Pentax K-70.)|
ACDSee’s noise reduction falls short
At higher ISO, there’s a much greater difference between the two applications. Adobe Lightroom performs quite a bit of color noise reduction by default, and also removes hot pixels. In the process, though, it sometimes bleaches the natural colors out of your creations.
Looking at 100% crops with default settings, ACDSee’s result does better than Adobe Lightroom, which has bleached out all of the color and left the image looking washed out.
By comparison, ACDSee leaves the color noise very visible along with hot pixels, but it also holds onto what color your camera was able to discern far better than its Adobe rival. And of course, either application provides the tools with which to tame noise manually.
Unfortunately, while those in Lightroom can do a pretty decent job – certainly not in the same league as DxO’s DeepPrime, but good enough – ACDSee’s noise reduction algorithms are decidedly weak.
Lightroom’s washed-out color can be fixed with a little tweaking of NR sliders, and adjusting saturation/vibrance sliders would help even more. There’s not much that can be done with ACDSee’s controls to improve the luminance noise, though. I found the best results at around level 40 on the noise reduction slider.
ACDSee’s color noise reduction works reasonably well, although you have to nearly max out the slider to achieve what a light touch on Adobe’s slider does. But the luminance slider has relatively little effect below the 50% mark and rapidly becomes impressionist or pointillistic as you stray much higher, as seen in the image below.
ACDSee’s noise reduction slider isn’t very useful. Any setting in the bottom half of its range has little effect, and anything in the top half just adds unsightly artifacts. By level 60, the image is rendered as impressionistic patterns, which then become blurred by level 70.
Nor do the noise reduction presets in Develop mode or the noise tool in Edit mode perform any better, as they clearly rely on the same underlying algorithms. Unfortunately, if taming high ISO noise is a frequent concern for you, this alone is probably the biggest reason to give ACDSee a pass for the time being.
ACDSee’s UI is mind-blowingly fast, even with large collections
As mentioned previously, performance has clearly been a primary goal for the team behind Photo Studio Ultimate 2021. I found myself immediately impressed by its performance and decided to really stress it to see how it held up under a difficult load.
To do so, I set ACDSee’s flagship app the task of cataloging the bulk of my photo collection, which I first copied onto a blank WD My Book external hard drive. It contains around 2.5 terabytes of data in all, including more than 150,000 images from nearly 200 cameras, of which around 50,000 are in a wide range of different raw formats. And as well as all the stills, there’s also a small number of videos, which I also had it catalog.
It took a day or so for Photo Studio Ultimate to finish the job of cataloging all the photos; once it was done adding them to its database and creating a whopping eight gigabytes of thumbnails, performance was excellent.
I should note that this time doesn’t include face recognition, something which would likely have added another several days or more. (I let ACDSee search for faces for about 12 hours, and in that time, it managed something like 15% of my database.)
The program still launches in around four or five seconds, and while it takes a rather sluggish 25 seconds to open Photos mode or 40-45 seconds to first switch to the root folder of the photo library in Manage mode, that’s the only time it feels slow. Once it’s done, browsing is instant or very close to it.
There’s no delay at all as you browse from folder to folder and scroll through thumbnails in Manage mode. Even in Photos mode, which presents every photo in the database as a single, scrollable list of thumbnails grouped by capture date, the thumbnails all appear within a second or less as you scroll through your library.
Searching for photos tagged by face recognition as containing a specific individual in that library took just 17 seconds to return almost 700 results. And adjusting most sliders in develop mode delivered previews that were real-time or very close to it.
Performance has clearly been a primary goal for the team behind Photo Studio Ultimate 2021
Note, though, that pixel peeping raws isn’t possible with Photo Studio Ultimate at its default settings. To achieve its performance, it relies solely on the embedded previews of raw files, even when they’re far too low-res for 1:1 viewing. Enabling raw decoding in settings doesn’t slow performance that much, and I think ACDSee should really ignore this setting and just always decode raws when viewing 1:1.
Final processing of a set of 400 raw files from the 24-megapixel Pentax K-70 to full-resolution JPEGs at default settings took 12 minutes and 30 seconds, or about 1.9 seconds per image. By way of comparison, Adobe Lightroom Classic with similar compression levels and default settings took 9 minutes, 30 seconds, or about 1.4 seconds per image.
That makes ACDSee about 32% slower at final processing, but that’s not a huge difference, relatively speaking, and comes at the point that you can typically leave the room to grab a coffee anyway. Responsiveness of the UI is rather more important, and here ACDSee turns in a truly impressive performance.
Face recognition is a big timesaver but very error-prone
ACDSee’s face recognition algorithms can detect and identify faces not only when unobscured and looking towards the camera but also in profile view or when partially hidden behind another object. Faces aren’t detected when the photo is first imported into the database. Instead, the algorithms run when manually triggered or, by default, in the background when your computer is left idle in Manage mode.
|Faces found by the face recognition algorithms can be seen in View mode, either on the image itself, in a separate pane, or both, and confirming suggested faces takes just one mouse-click.|
I found the feature to be a big time-saver, but some work is definitely still required to curate detected faces because the algorithms are quite prone to misidentification. For example, at the default ‘moderate’ face detection settings, I manually trained the algorithms with 200 pictures of myself, then browsed ACDSee’s suggested names list to discover that it thought a cat, a Ferrari logo, my 12-year old son and Formula One race driver Kimi Raikkonen were also me.
After manually tagging another 150 photos of my son’s mum, I found that some of her suggestions included the same cat, several more Ferrari logos, a smiley face, a bearded man, a DPReview business card, a menu/OK button on a digital camera, an oyster on the half shell and more.
And even changing the face detection algorithms to run at their conservative settings didn’t solve this issue. After completely clearing all recognition data and starting from scratch, subsequent suggestions still included many non-human (and not even remotely face-like) objects, including multiple wheel rims, random camera parts, a flower petal, a cupcake, a Korean seafood rice bowl and those ever-present Ferrari logos.
While the algorithms correctly detected a large number of human faces and suggested the correct names for them at least most of the time, I really think ACDSee could use tightening up their suggestions further or offering an even more conservative recognition setting.
A few other bugs could use squashing, too…
I also stumbled on several bugs during this review, although in fairness, a couple of these probably only came to light because of how hard I pushed the program while testing its impressive performance.
When cataloging my roughly two-terabyte photo library, everything went fine for around the first 40,000 photos imported into ACDSee’s database. From that point on, I would get a crash and forced close of the app approximately once every 10,000 images. (Curiously, ACDSee also imported the final 40,000 images without a crash.)
I also discovered that after launching the program with my removable media disconnected, then closing, reconnecting the drive, and relaunching, ACDSee incorrectly flagged most of my photos as orphaned. Yet if I double-clicked on the thumbnail of a supposedly orphaned image, it would instantly open without issue, and then its thumbnail would update to show it as unorphaned once more.
There was no rhyme or reason as to which images were incorrectly flagged, either. Instead, the orphans were randomly scattered between those that still showed as accessible in the same folder. ACDSee’s database optimization tool couldn’t fix the issue, nor did re-running the Catalog tool, although it did throw up several ‘save failed, can’t output file’ errors.
But as I noted, these issues likely relate in part to the size of my photo library, and I didn’t see similar behavior with smaller libraries or when using a non-removable drive. That wasn’t true of another face-detection bug I discovered, however. If you rotate an image that already has faces detected in it, the frames for any detected faces are then shown in the wrong area of the image.
Rotating an image after faces have been located in it causes the face-detection frames to lose their positions. Initially, for this shot, the frame jumped outside the boundaries of the image. After switching to a different image and returning, the frame is stretched and placed on the tablecloth.
You can’t change the frame positions or shape to fix this, as after switching away from the image and then returning, the frames revert to their previous, incorrect locations. You can delete them, but if you then attempt to manually outline a face instead, the thumbnail shown for that face shows the wrong area of the original, unrotated image rather than the area of the rotated image that you’d selected.
None of these issues are showstoppers, but together they do conspire to make ACDSee feel rather less polished than its Adobe rival.
There’s a lot to like about ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2021, but there are a couple of concerns that make it a bit harder to recommend. It has great support for a vast range of cameras with decent image quality, and while phones and drones aren’t directly supported, their files can be accepted if converted to DNG-format first.
It offers image management features aplenty, and at the lower end of the ISO range, at least, decent image quality. And it does so while providing great performance overall, even with very large photo libraries.
While we have concerns about its less-than-stellar noise reduction and some occasional bugs, there’s still a lot to love about ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2021
But we have concerns about its rather weak noise reduction capabilities, which we’d definitely like to see ACDSee address in a future release. And we also found rather more bugs than we’d like to see, including one that could quite regularly cause a hard crash while cataloging images and videos.
To be clear, we never lost any data. All of our photos and ACDSee’s database survived every crash perfectly intact, and the latter can easily be backed up and restored later if you have any concerns. But crashes still make us nervous, especially in software that has already been on the market for close to a year.
If you can live without the more capable noise reduction of some of its rivals and take the time to learn its features, though, ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2021 has a huge amount to offer, and its interface is unusually swift and responsive. Coupled with its affordable pricing and optional perpetual licensing, we can still recommend it as an all-in-one tool, albeit with some reservations.
What we like:
- A choice between a perpetual license and a subscription
- Impressive performance for browsing and editing, even with huge photo libraries
- Comprehensive image management features
- Loads of editing controls and plenty of presets
- Decent image quality in most respects
What we don’t:
- Interface is jam-packed and takes a while to get to learn
- Photos mode interface and functionality is very limited
- High ISO noise reduction is a big weak spot
- Face detection and recognition isn’t reliable enough
- No native support for phones or drones
- More bugs than we’d like to see