Digital asset management (DAM) doesn’t have to be expensive. While it is possible to do much of the work directly in your file system, over time it is hard to stick to a method that keeps things safe and logical. DAM software helps keep everything running smoothly in your collections without hassle.
Paid DAM tools like Adobe Lightroom are feature-filled and used by clients of all sizes, but they aren’t the only choices when it comes to taming an image library. In some cases, they are also more complex a tool than you really need for the job.
In this article you’ll learn about some of the best choices for managing your image collection at no cost.
What to Look For
A no-cost DAM solution doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice! When choosing your DAM tool, start by considering your needs as a photographer. There are a few crucial functions your potential DAM solution should cover:
- Import: a way to copy your image files from the camera or card onto a safe place on your hard drive in an organized way and with some basic metadata. Sometimes called “ingestion.”
- Organize: access to EXIF and IPTC metadata fields, tags, ratings, and sorting. Collections, albums, and saved searches are also helpful.
- Correct and Adjust: especially for RAW image files, the ability to interpret and adjust your files, either native to the application or with a managed back-and-forth with another application.
- Export: a way to change and save files in new formats, sizes, and resolutions, or send files to another program that can.
I covered these considerations in more detail in How to Choose Asset Management Software for Your Digital Picture Archive. My preference is for tools that have an integrated way of working all in one place. A smooth way to process RAW images, especially, makes the most sense for my workflow and helps me stay organized.
A Quick Note on Methodology
The tools outlined below might have paid features, paid tiers, or be part of a non-free operating system, but they’re functionally free choices. To be included in this list the software must be available to download and install and perform all major functions at no added cost.
OS X: Apple Photos
If you’re a Mac and iOS user, Apple Photos is a great choice. This app recently became my go-to for storing all the images I capture with my iPhone.
Apple Photos can store images locally on your Mac or connect to the cloud and store images via Apple’s iCloud. It’s great for getting organized with features like Favorites, keyword tagging, and even facial recognition. Tools like this are essential for taking your mobile images and making them meaningful via metadata.
Even though I’m using the app for my mobile image collection, Photos is plenty powerful for a full DSLR workflow. The Edit portion of the app let’s you do fine exposure and color corrections. It can process RAW images, apply correction, and even do spot adjustments and basic retouching.
Apple Photos is included with OS X Yosemite and newer. If you choose to store your images with iCloud, which is optional, you may quickly need more space. Apple offers paid tiers for iCloud storage, starting at 99 cents USD per month for 20 gigabytes of storage.
I had the pleasure of recording a new short course for Tuts+: Apple Photos for Photographers. Make sure and check it out to learn all about Apple’s digital asset manager. Best of all, the course is free as well!
Windows: Google Picasa
Picasa is a long time free favorite of mine. Picasa has the advantage of being available for both Windows and Mac. An older version is available for Linux, or you can run the latest Windows version via Wine.
Picasa’s strength is definitely as a photo browser and metadata mastery tool. With the addition of keywords and star ratings, it’s one of the easiest tools going for DAM beginners. Picasa’s image correction and RAW processing features are less advanced than Apple Photos, however. I recommend using a separate RAW processor, like RawTherapee (cross-plaform, free) for advanced work with your RAWs.
What About Google Photos?
Google Photos is a new product that is rapidly gaining traction after its release in May. It’s a browser and mobile-app based solution that’s free on all platforms. Google Photos even offers unlimited cloud storage for “high quality” images (at approximately 16 megapixels). Paid storage is only necessary if you wish to preserve RAW images in the cloud.
Google Photos is targeted at consolidating images from many devices. You can upload photos quickly and easily, whether they’re already stored on your computer, or automate uploads as they’re captured on iOS or Android. Later on, you can download your images if you wish to leave Google Photos.
Integration between Picasa and Google Photos is limited, for the moment. Google Photos lacks the organizing power and control of Picasa, for now, so even though Picasa hasn’t received a major update in several years it’s still the preferred choice.
Linux: Rapid Photo Downloader, digiKam, and RawTherapee
The Linux philosophy is about the right tool for the job. This means that a complete imaging workflow requires a few separate steps on Linux. The benefit is that this option is completely free, in both the dollars and the freedom senses of the word.
Rapid Photo Downloader
Rapid Photo Downloader has one job: to move your pictures from card and camera onto your hard drives. It can rename, create backups, and sort photos into folders as you download. It is very fast and easy to use.
digiKam is the most mature free photo organizer for Linux. It can do all the complex organization work you can throw at it. gThumb and Shotwell are also capable options, and more polished to look at, but they lack the nuanced DAM options found in digiKam.
Of particular importance, digiKam has the option to write information to XMP sidecar files. These little text files allow your files to move back and forth between organization in digiKam and RAW processing programs while retaining your important metadata.
While digiKam does have a built-in RAW converter, it’s not the most user-friendly.
RawTherapee is a strong choice for processing RAW images. It works on Windows, Mac, and Linux.
RawTherapee has precise controls for exposure and color correction. However, there are also features to tidy up your metadata and tag images with markings such as star ratings and color labels. After you apply those, you can always filter your images based on those tags and find just the images you’re looking for.
Another choice is darktable, which is both an image manager and RAW processor. An open source project, darktable is available for both Mac and Linux. Windows support is planned in the future.
The lighttable portion of the application is all about organizing, tagging, and reviewing your images. After the lighttable portion of the application is a full-featured RAW processor, the darkroom. This part of the app includes crop and rotation features as well as powerful tools for corrections to exposure and color.
Finally, darktable includes tethering support. When you want to import images during the capture process and not pay a dime for it, darktable is a solid choice.
XnViewMP is cross-platform photo manger. It’s free for home use and an inexpensive option for commercial users.
Like darktable, XnViewMP’s interface is a bit overwhelming. It is a full-featured organizer and powerful, once you get your head around it. XnViewMP doesn’t have a built-in RAW processor. The aforementioned cross-platform RawTherapee is a good choice here, too.
Also, although the older XnView program is still available for download, the newer MP version is the one to go for.
Hopefully this article has helped you realize that effectively managing your digital assets doesn’t have to be expensive or complex. The keys are:
- Correct and Adjust
The five free choices outlined in this article are all great ways to get started with taming a large digital library and bringing organization to a collection of any size.
What are your shoestring DAM tools of choice? Let me know how you manage your images without breaking the bank.
- Check out my Apple Photos for Photographers course here on Tuts+.
- How to Choose Asset Management Software for Your Digital Picture Archive
- How to Add Keyword Tags to Your Photos with Picasa
- Dive deep with Digital Asset Management for Everyone series.