Update, January 2013: I have moved on to using Lightroom since writing this article. More details in my article: Managing A Large Photo Library With Lightroom, Dropbox, and Crashplan

I spent the evening hours of many days in October looking for a photo management and sharing solution. I tried a lot of software, workflows, web applications, mobile apps, etc. It was tedious and a little frustrating. I was surprised at how incomplete most of the options were. I had hoped for a one-app-does-it-all solution, but after a great deal of exploring, I’m quite happy with the Aperture + Picasa combination to meet my photo storing and sharing needs.

My Needs

Before I get into why I picked Aperture and Picasa, let me explain my specific needs:

  • I Need to Manage Professional Grade Photos - By no measure am I a pro photographer, but I have a nice camera (Canon T2i w/ 18-55mm and 55-250mm lenses). I bought it in January and I’ve really enjoyed taking high quality photos. I’m currently shopping around for nicer lenses and possibly a camera upgrade. The bottom line is I have good equipment and it’s getting better. I take between 100-1000 photos a month with each photo over 10 MB. I’m a bit of a hoarder when it comes to my photos. Aside from the obvious terrible pictures, I tend to keep them all. I need a management application capable of handling thousands of large photos.
  • I Want to Share Some Photos with Lots of People - I’d like to have a workflow where I put the photos on my computer, review them, pick the ones I want to share, and share them. The faster this process the better. Also, after I post them, I’d like to be able to make tweaks/edits, add meta data, etc., locally (i.e., without needing an Internet connection) and then at some point have them sync up with little/no effort. I don’t want the sync to override what others have done online, e.g., tagging, comments, etc., i.e., it should be a true sync rather than a re-upload.
  • I Have an Existing Backup Solution - I use Crashplan to backup my computer. It’s awesome and I highly recommend it. As such, I don’t need either my management or sharing applications to worry too much about backup. What I do care about is the ability to quickly make local copies, e.g., copy everything to a separate drive. I don’t consider this backup as it wouldn’t do me any good if my house burned down, but it’s good if a library gets corrupted, deleted, etc., simply because it’s faster. Ultimately, I don’t need to have 100% of my photos backed up at full quality using the same service with which I share photos (but if it does that, then great!).

The Reasons

There are many attributes of the software and web applications listed below. Each has a strength. I am trying to highlight what I think is the best solution for my needs (above). Yours may vary. By no means am I saying this is the only solution.

Aperture is Cheaper and Better than the Competition

Apple's Aperture is powerful, easy to use, and cheap!

Let me make one point crystal clear: I don’t do a lot of post-processing on my images. As stated above, I’m not a pro. I don’t care if there was a speck in photo 317 of 485. I’m not worried if the color isn’t worthy of the cover of the National Geographic magazine. The raw output of my camera is awesome and generally meets my needs as is. As long as I can crop, adjust the brightness, and do some other very minor edits, I don’t need much power in this area.

What I do a lot though, is organize. I’m an organizing fiend. The two applications I considered in great detail to aid with organization were Adobe’s Lightroom ($299) and Apple’s Aperture ($79). Aperture was notably better for my needs for a few key reasons:

  1. It’s $220 cheaper. I’d rather invest that cash in a camera or lens.
  2. Projects, folders, albums, and smart albums in Aperture. These 4 items give you a great deal of organizing power. For my workflow, I do this:
  3. Put a group of photos in a project
  4. Go through the photos adding meta data. Of note, I mark photos “green” that I’m willing to share with the world. (Along with other colors/flags for other meanings.)
  5. I create a subordinate smart album called “Public” and have it only show green photos.
  6. I export that album for use with Picasa (see below).
  7. Using Aperture is a pleasant xperience. When trying to flip through thousands of photos in Lightroom you’re forced to use a fairly inflexible view. Photos have giant margins, don’t resize well, and in general it’s hard to view things. Aperture on the other hand is dead simple. Looking at your whole library or individual projects is easy and the interface is minimal. This translates to more looking at photos and less looking at Aperture. Perfect! Lightroom in general felt clunky.
  8. Lightroom doesn’t do geotagging.
  9. Lightroom doesn’t do faces.

There was one point the both were terrible at: syncing with a web service. In my dream world, these apps would allow their organizational features to act as analogs to the organizational features offered by web services. Maybe a project is a “collection” in Flickr and a “web album” in Picasa. I would be able to tell Aperture, “always sync my changes” and the web service would just get updated as I edited. Unfortunately, this doesn’t exist. What does exist are a handful of clunky and frustrating publishing plugins that seemed really good at not meeting my needs. Aperture’s built-in Flickr plugin did sync, but in a weird way, e.g., if you decide to stop syncing, you’re forced to delete objects at Flickr. No good. To be fair, they can only be good as the API of the web service they interface with, but regardless, they don’t do what I need.

Despite the lack of sync, I now have a highly organized, easy to view and navigate photo management solution with Aperture. Now I just need to get these great photos on the web!

For Sharing, Picasa’s Desktop Interface Offers the Most Control

If you haven’t looked at all the web solutions out there, let me simplify it for you. The major features are:

  • storage - $ per GB
  • transport - how to get photos to the service
  • interface - how users see your photos
  • manipulation - what you can do to the photos online
  • social - how you share
  • privacy/ownership - who sees and your copyrights
  • community - how many people are using the service

Storage winner: Flickr. For $24/yr, it’s unlimited storage. So, if you are a pro and are pushing out thousands of pictures a month, it’d be tough to beat. For $20/yr Google’s Photo service offers 80 GB. So it’s close if you’re not pushing everything.

Transport winner: Google. With their Picasa app, you just tell the app where to look for photos and how you want them to be treated once on Google. Then you just say sync. Changed your mind? Didn’t tag someone? Want to add a geo location? Just do it in Picasa and it immediately shows up online. You can stop syncing at any time too. It’s awesome. The only drawback is that you’ll probably want to export your photos from Aperture to a separate location for Picasa. I just export at a much smaller size (largest dimension 1024px) and don’t worry about the redundant storage. If you’re dead set on a single file structure, then Lightroom might be your tool. It will let you manage the file system, which means you can have Picasa and Lightroom accessing the same folders.

Interface winner: They’re all pretty good, though Flickr is oddly clunky for being such a highly used site.

Manipulation winner: Google. Edit photos in Picasa or on-line. The available editing feature are well beyond my needs.

Social winner: Google. Like manipulation above, how you share photos is super easy: picasa, the web, your phone, etc. The key difference though is Picasa. It makes the sharing process super easy.

Privacy/Ownership winner: Google. You have a great deal of access control. With Flickr you can share with two groups: friends or family (yet another bizarre lack of control from such a big site). Flickr has more copyright choices, but unless you’re a pro, I don’t think this really matters too much.

Community winner: They have different niches. Friends: Google, Facebook, Snapjoy. Pros: Flickr, 500px.

Google’s Picasa offers a nice way to interact with a web service straight from your desktop. And it’s free!

When I initially started my process for finding an on-line service, I just assumed Flickr would be the best. I had an account that I hadn’t used much and I decided to bump it up to a pro account. It was disappointing. Aside from the massive storage and established community, there’s really no good reason to use Flickr from a tool/service standpoint. From what I read Yahoo! doesn’t see it as all that important to their core business either, so it’s hard to say if they’ll ever catch up.

Google was the last service I considered. Once I used Picasa, I was sold. If you’ve not tried it, check it out. (For reference, I also considered Facebook, Smugmug, Photobucket, Snapjoy, and 500px.)

As a side note, 500px is a pretty awesome place to browse. It didn’t meet my needs, but is certainly notable. Check them out.

Google Offers the Best Integrated Services

The center of my online universe.

At some point not too long ago, I started signing up for services on the web. Gmail, Flickr, Wordpress, Twitter, Facebook … ugh. I find lately I just can’t deal with it. As much as possible, I want everything in one place. There is simply no company doing this better than Google, which is becoming the center of my online universe:

  • my photos: Google Photos + Picasa
  • my email: Gmail
  • my docs: Google Docs
  • my status: Google+ / Twitter
  • my contacts: Google contacts
  • my calendar: Google calendar

The list goes on with Analytics, Adsense, web admin tools, etc.

It’s funny that I tried Google last for photos. For some reason I had it in my head that Picasa was a toy. I was wrong. I was delighted when I liked both their tool and service as it meant I could pile one more thing into my Google account. If one of your criteria is consolidation then Google is by far the leader.

Final Thoughts

Aperture + Picasa is a solid solution. As noted earlier though, it meets my needs. I don’t want to imply that tools like Lightroom aren’t good. They most certainly are for different tasks. To use my own integration argument, if you’re a heavy Adobe Creative Suite user, you’ll probably love Lightroom. The same goes for the other services mentioned.

I’m particularly interested in optimal workflows, i.e., the fastest path for getting from the camera to the web while also collecting/organizing things nicely on my system, applying meta data, etc. I’d love to hear your thoughts if you have found ways that work well for you.