I'm a web developer (diploma) and computer scientist (degree), so I know a thing or two about computers and software. I just got into photography in Nov '10, but have been using Photoshop and GIMP since 2002-03ish.

I was hired by a friend of a friend, who is a retiree/photographer, commissioned to set up a backup system for his laptop and desktop to an in-house backup server.

During this time I got to watch him use Lightroom 2.7 and we discussed the benefits of having a catalogue over individual photos in a folder and using Photoshop/GIMP.

Lightroom Upgrade Disaster

I also, unfortunately, got to watch him upgrade to Lightroom 3.0 and then to 3.2. I've never seen an upgrade go so badly. He had files scattered all over his computer (from the Desktop to C:/ to H:/) and Lightroom had linked to them from all these locations (but did not copy them to a single directory). Somehow, during the upgrades, a new library was created in D:/My Pictures and he ended up losing 500 of his best 4000 photos (the originals, but not the linked edits in the catalogue).

Current Workflow

The benefits of Lightroom and Aperture are obvious, but as a computer scientist, I fear proprietary software because I don't know what it's doing. Right now I have hundreds of folders that hold all my photoshoots organized by "YYYYMMDD Description" with a sub-folder called 'edits' where I save my edits in .xcf (GIMP's equivalent to .psd), .png and .jpg. The problem is this is very time consuming and takes up a lot of space on my hard drive. So I'm looking to switch to one of these programs.

Benefits of Lightroom/Aperture

One of the biggest benefits of using Lightroom or Aperture is they save your edits as metadata in a database, so you go back and finely adjust edits that are years old at anytime. Even .psd or .xcf files don't save that data non-destructively.


My fear is a reliance on these programs and the fact that if the Lightroom catalogue were ever to become corrupt (via an upgrade, malicious program, accident, etc.), I could loose all my edits. Even if I back it up, I could have a catalogue that is a month old and all my most recent edits (possibly hundreds of photo edits), could be lost.

If I take my external hard drive to another computer that doesn't have Lightroom, I can't view my photos. Saving all my images in .jpg and .png allows me to view them on any computer via any medium. Now Lightroom has a 'Library' that allows you to export all your edits to .jpg (with your watermark and whatever else you want), correct? So that may appease my concern there.

When I make edits in GIMP, I touch two things: curves and levels (and brushes like healing, cloning, perspective, dodge/burn, etc.) When I downloaded a trial version of Lightroom, I noticed that I couldn't edit either as effectively as I could in GIMP. I felt lost without those two tools. What can I do to appease this?

What Can I Do?

I just want to know what others are doing or have done that fear using monolithic programs such as these and have a very real and avid fear of losing their data, including losing functionality that will be lost from switching from GIMP or Photoshop.

Lastly, it hurts that I'm an Ubuntu Linux user, but I need a real photography workflow program, so I'm willing to dual-boot into Windows or purchasing a Mac just for editing my photos.

  • There are real photography workflow programs in Linux, although they aren't as polished yet. See photo.stackexchange.com/questions/471/… and photo.stackexchange.com/questions/5329
    – mattdm
    Apr 13, 2011 at 17:47
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    Welcome to the site, Brett. I'm having a bit of trouble extracting the actual question from this. If you look at the FAQ (photo.stackexchange.com/faq), note that "This is what I do; what are you guys doing?" questions are specifically discouraged. Can you rephrase in a more directly-answerable way? Thanks.
    – mattdm
    Apr 13, 2011 at 17:49
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    Can you expand on how the images were lost in the upgrade disaster? I don't connect the dots between a new d:/My Pictures/ folder and loss of 500 out of 4000 images.
    – cabbey
    Apr 13, 2011 at 17:55
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    Too many things rolled up in one question, it will make it hard to vote on since different answer may address different parts of your question. I would close this one and open 3-5 questions (actually some may already have answers - use the search feature) each focusing on an important issue.
    – Itai
    Apr 19, 2011 at 14:22
  • Agree with @cabbey, I don't see how the photo loss could have been anything except user error.
    – Hank
    Apr 19, 2011 at 16:42

8 Answers 8


As both a computer scientist and a photographer, I can tell you that the benefits of a program like Lightroom, to me, far outweigh the risks. I've been using Lightroom since the 1.0 days because photoshop/imagej/gimp/etc were just not cutting it for me when I had 500+ images to edit in two hours or so.

I should preface by saying that I don't fear monolithic or proprietary systems, though.

It all depends on how you use the system, to me. First, I store all my photos on a Drobo, so the chances of data loss from drive death are lessened (though, of course, not eliminated). It also centralizes all the image information into one place, rather than having everything scattered all over the place. Next, for the edits, all of my final images I save out as separate, full-quality jpgs that then get uploaded to a remote server. That way, the 'best' images that I like I already have saved somewhere offsite and I don't have to worry about retaining the Lightroom editing stream.

I also rarely return to images that are more than a few months old. Once the jpgs are done and stored remotely, I just don't go back. I have all the images in raw, just in case, but it's been several years now, and I find that I just don't have the need. When I do, I find that it's better to process the image from scratch, because I now know more than I did then, and can do a better job reprocessing the image.

  • mmr's answer is the very similar to the one I would give. Brett, it sounds like your friend has a larger problem than what software he using, reading Scott Kelby's LR book and following the simple workflow described within would totally change his life. I too fear proprietary solutions, so I do not depend on the LR database at all. I have been using LR since the beta and have never updated a database from a prior version, I haven't seen the need. The key to finding your images is to use good keywords in the EXIF/IPTC data and keeping them organized by date in the file system. Apr 13, 2011 at 19:39

A couple of your fears aren't really true, let me try to put your mind to ease on them. (I'm a photographer (Arts degree) and a computer scientist (CS degree) that spent over a decade on linux before moving to the mac, and I use LR for all my photo workflow... so I might be biased, but I also identify with the position you're in pretty well.)

  • Lost edits from catalog corruption. Lightroom (and I'm pretty sure Aperture) have an option to automatically store all edits in sidecar files, you should turn that option on. (either xmp or rolled into the dng, depending on what you're using.) While it's true that you will loose your edit HISTORY if the catalog gets destroyed, the non-destructive edits will still be stored in those side cars and will be recoverable. I've actually taken a DNG from one machine to another and loaded it up into LR in a totally different catalog and had all my edits sitting there, just no history of how I got to that point.

  • Access to files without Lightroom. When you import photos into Ligthroom there are a couple options on what to do with the files. Storing them on a central location such as your external harddrive is usually a good choice, which it sounds like your friend wasn't doing. That hard drive still has all your images on it, and you can view them without Lightroom. (you can even edit them, though I wouldn't suggest doing so.) If you choose to import to DNG and have a decent image viewer, it can even view them with your edits applied. Alternately if you write all your changes to the xmp side cars, and use a program that's XMP aware (like PhotoShop) then again you can even view them with (at least rough approximations to) your edits applied. Aperture to the best of my knowledge does NOT work this way.

  • you have to switch from Linux to get a real photo workflow. Several months ago I did a presentation for my local LUG on LR equivalents on linux. Darktable, bluemarine, digiKam and fspot are all attempts at capturing photo workflow and management in an opensource package. Some of them are blatant clones of LR / Aperture... so you get something that makes sense to a darkroom type, some of them are built by computer geeks trying to figure out how to manage photos, so you get something that looks and feels more like the Gimp.

  • Is that presentation on Linux LR-equivs in the form of a slideshow or other presentation, or even video? I'd love to see a copy (and maybe as an answer for photo.stackexchange.com/questions/471 or photo.stackexchange.com/questions/321, or some new more-specific question). Y'know, if it's not too much trouble. :)
    – mattdm
    Apr 13, 2011 at 18:27
  • @mattdm no, it wasn't recorded and there weren't any slides... it was a live talk/demo. Very heavily two way interaction with the 20 or so folks in the audience, not a static presentation.
    – cabbey
    Apr 13, 2011 at 19:03
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    It's also worth noting that XMP is a standard that relies on the software reading the exported file having correctly implemented XMP on the receiving end in order to successfully render edits made in Lightroom. I've seen behaviors in 3rd-party apps on import of images with XMP sidecar that range from partial render, to out-and-out deletion of XMP data that the app doesn't understand. It's not a 'dealbreaker' per-se (except that the OP seems to have a lot of 'fear'), but it does potentially limit what apps a user can switch to should they decide to ditch Lightroom, short of exporting to TIFF. Apr 14, 2011 at 0:40
  • Very good point Jay.
    – cabbey
    Apr 14, 2011 at 2:26

I also like to know where my files are and currently mainly use Bibble for RAW processing (available natively on Linux). However there are a few things in your question that I don't think are correct which may be why you're having trouble getting to an answer (or you may already know all this, if so then feel free to ignore me):

  • To most people the biggest benefit of Aperture/Lightroom is that they convert RAW photos to JPGs. That is their main purpose in life, closely followed by workflow for a lot of people. If you aren't going to switch to shooting RAW then check carefully as I believe only one of Aperture and Lightroom actually support JPG editing (I can't remember which one unfortunately).

  • It sounds like you are currently shooting JPG and doing edits in GIMP. It's true that the edits you do in a RAW converter are stored separately from the original RAW file and are usually small. However, the RAW file itself still needs to live on your drive and will be much larger than the equivalent JPG.

  • The latest versions of Photoshop allow a lot of edits to be applied non-destructively as layers (disclaimer I don't use Photoshop!) so if non-destructive editing is your main reason for switching, Photoshop may already be able to do what you want.

  • If you don't back up frequently enough to ensure that you don't lose too much data, does it really matter what you are backing up? i.e. If you're drive failed now, wouldn't you lose just as many pictures and edits as you would if you were using Lightroom/Aperture?

  • If you aren't planning to output your images from Aperture/Lightroom as JPGs what are you going to do with them?

  • The GIMP (and Photoshop obviously) is currently better at a lot of editing than Aperture/Lightroom. Most people use both if they like to do serious post processing. It may help to think of the post processing tools in Aperture/Lightroom as useful extras rather than their main reason to exist. It wasn't too long ago that RAW converters just allowed some colour balancing and converted RAW to JPG/TIFF. Recent tools like Aperture/Lightroom have added a load of useful tools to the point that a lot of photographers won't ever need GIMP or Photoshop, but they are not supposed to replace those tools completely (yet).

It might help to explain what I think a "normal" workflow for most people would be and how Aperture/Lightroom would fit into it:

  • Import RAW files from camera/card (manually or using Aperture/Lightroom)
  • Do sorting, colour balance, & simpler edits in Aperture/Lightroom
  • Export photos to JPG/TIFF for upload to web or printing
  • For a few photos that need heavy editing open the JPG/TIFF in GIMP/Photoshop and carry on editing.

Personally I use Bibble which is quite similar to Aperture/Lightroom in a lot of ways. I use it to convert and process my pictures and most of the time is does enough that I don't need anything else. However, I still use GIMP when I need to. Bibble allows you to work on photos directly from folders if you want to, however it can also import pictures into catalogues (either moving or leaving the files where they are). One nice thing is that it allows you to work in both modes - i.e. you can have a catalogue but also work on any picture in any folder without having to import it. Personally I'm just about to try moving from editing directly in folders to importing into catalogues. As far as I know I can always go back again by getting Bibble to write it's edits out to sidecar files (as it does when working in folder mode).


In my experience, anytime you're using a media management software like Lightroom, Aperture or even iTunes, it's safest to just go all-in and let the software manage the files. I've seen so many corrupted iTunes and iPhoto libraries from people or are really possessive about managing the EXACT LOCATION OF EVERY FILE, and then something innocent happens and screws the whole thing up:

  • one of the external hard drives becomes unplugged
  • someone accidentally renames a root folder
  • there's a bug in the software upgrade that doesn't account for an unusual scattering of files
  • You get a new computer and the folder locations don't exactly match up

Plus, if you let Lightroom or Aperture manage the media for you, it's not going to stuff every image into a fragile, proprietary database. It's just going to shuffle them out of site and keep an eye on them.

EDIT: Just took a look at how Aperture is keeping track of my photos, and it's sorting them into folders like this:

Masters/<YYYY>/<MM>/<DD>/<album id>/filename.PEF
Previews/<YYYY>/<MM>/<DD>/<album id>/filename.jpg

...plus a bunch of behind-the-scenes database stuff. This isn't exactly the scheme I would come up with if I were self-managing, but it's perfectly clear. So in the unlikely event that Aperture freaks out and self-destructs, all the images are still there. Sure I might loose some metadata and album sorting, but we're talking worst-case situation.

I don't think letting Aperture handle the sorting is any riskier than doing it myself -- a rogue malicious program or small child could still make a huge mess -- but at least I'm not fighting with the software for control. Plus, why spend your time bookkeeping when you can let the software do it?

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    Complete disagree. Managing location of files let you have a sane organization should there be a problem with the software, which happens way too often between software upgrades, OS upgrades, H/W upgrades, software updates, etc.
    – Itai
    Apr 19, 2011 at 14:18
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    Obviously it's a personal preference thing. But in the event of software failure, it's not like you should ever loose files -- one way or another, they're on the disk somewhere. And in my experience, a failure in a software's database is more likely to happen if you insist on being involved in the process.
    – Hank
    Apr 19, 2011 at 15:43
  • @Itai You're assuming that "sane organization" is not possible within the software's tools. Lightroom provides various methods of organizing files on disk. It's pretty common and reasonable advice to do your file organization in the DAM instead of moving files around on your own (in Windows Explorer or equivalent).
    – coneslayer
    Apr 19, 2011 at 15:44

There are a few linux solutions you could use. I'm primarily a linux user too, so I can't comment on lightroom because I haven't used it, but I agree 100% that if you can't export the data later you're locked into that solution which I don't like either.

There are a number of linux tools that are free, which I'm sure you've found. Personally, I use kphotoalbum because it doesn't touch the source files and provides a very extensive tagging/labeling/cataloging facility. But, it doesn't target itself toward the editing you're looking for. There are filters and plugins that modify the file, but for the same reasons you mentioned I don't use it: I want the original untouched. For this, I invoke gimp from within kphotoalbum (right-clicking) and edit the file. Then I use kphotoalbum's auto-stacking methods so that the new file gets auto-"stacked" above the original so I only see the new copy. Functionally, that leaves me with an original and the preferred "better" version. But the best thing about kphotoalbum is that the database is stored as a XML file, which I've read in and even manipulated with external tools. The data is always available for you to tinker with and extract from if you need to, and thus there is no lock-in.

There is also one professional utility that works on linux, and that's Bibble. I looked at it briefly and it seems to offer much of what you're looking for. Personally, I want to go try the demo and play with it as it's something I'm considering using as well but I'd want to check out the lock-in aspects of it before switching as well.


I shared your concerns before I started using management software as well. I have tried several of them, but ultimately I find the functionality in Aperture to be the best match for me.

When you initially start Aperture, it will default to storing all your originals inside Apterture library. While the Library looks like a monolithic data structure, it is actually just a folder with an extension containing various subfolders for its database, previews and originals. This means that even if the database becomes corrupt, your originals can be retrieved.

There are several things you can do to improve security.

If you have a Mac, it is easy to set up a Time Machine (OS X backup utility). I connect my Time Machine once every couple of weeks (OS X will remind you). This means I have fairly recent copies of my file.

You can also set up one more more vaults, for an additional level of backup.

My favorite is storing originals in Dropbox. By right-clicking my library (in Aperture) and selecting "relocate originals for library", you can move your originals out of the Aperture data structure, and place them anywhere you like. Storing them in the Dropbox is perfect, as the originals will never change. As I have my Dropbox synced to my work laptop, which also has a backup solution in place, I have quite a bit of redundancy.

There is functionality I would definitively like to see in Aperture, but I have confidence that Apple will add it in time. The upgrade experience through the upgrades I have seen has been problem-free. It keeps your photos as they are, and offers the ability to reprocess your originals to take advantage of new features.


I don't use Lightroom in production, so I cannot comment completely, but I've been playing with the 30-day trial and I'm thinking of switching to it from IMatch + Bibble on Windows. A few points:

  • LR can be configured to write your metadata changes and development settings to XMP "sidecar" files that live with your images. This mitigates the risk of losing the entire catalog.
  • LR can be configured to import your images by copying them to a specific place, instead of referencing them wherever they are. It can automatically organize in subdirectories by date, much like you're doing now. So set that up to your liking, and you shouldn't in your friend's situation of having files scattered randomly.
  • You may currently use curves and levels, but those aren't necessarily intended as LR's primary controls, and you may be better off learning new habits than fighting LR. Think like a darkroom junkie instead of a computer scientist, because that's who it's made for. :-) Play with exposure, blacks, fill light, etc., and see how they work.

BTW, I'm running the 30-day evaluation in VirtualBox (Windows host and guest) and it runs pretty well on my Core i7-930 with 6 GB (with 3 GB allocated to the VM). So that's another option besides dual booting or buying new hardware.

  • 3
    To clarify: XMP sidecars do not store edit history, so if you lose your catalog you would essentially have access to a file with all the edits you'd made to it (or with no edits at all), but no record of what edits you made, nor any way to step back through the stack of edits that Lightroom was keeping track of... Apr 13, 2011 at 17:24
  • Thanks, Jay, that's an important point that was beyond my experience so far.
    – coneslayer
    Apr 13, 2011 at 17:30
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    Another point to add, LR can be configured to specific backup reminder times. Which can make sure you are actively backing up your latest work. After losing my catalog a couple of times, due to hardware issues, I've set mine up to backup every time I'm done Apr 13, 2011 at 18:00

The key difference between Aperture 3 and Lightroom 4 is that Aperture insists on managing your photos, you don't really know where on your disk they are kept. LR will store them in a directory structure you specify, and you can back them up with external tools such as rsync. (of course Aperture is OS-X only).

Both strongly encourage you to think keywords rather than organizing by date. So you can easily find "portraits" from all your shoots. Since I too have a CS background and decades of experience, I like keeping my photos (raw and jpg) by shoot date, but I do find that the database search tools are very handy.

I bought both Aperture and LR a couple of years ago. Used Aperture for the first years, but have switched to LR. Aperture was much easier for me to understand, its a classic Apple program that hides tons of details for you. But I switched to LR six months ago and have not looked back.

IMHO, for you, a CS grad and computer expert, looking at either of these may seem off, you'd rather do it yourself. But most photographers are not like us, and they see a computer simply as a tool. I think that both Aperture and LR use an approach that is well suited for the vast majority of photographers.

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