Is Photo Mechanic Plus a Lightroom Killer? An In-Depth Fstoppers Review Part 1: Importing Photos

Is Photo Mechanic Plus a Lightroom Killer? An In-Depth Fstoppers Review Part 1: Importing Photos

Lightroom totally dominates the realm of digital asset management (DAM) — a solution to everything, it fits the mold of most photographic workflows. However, the bitter pill to swallow can be the treacle-like performance and that monthly subscription (something I've touched upon before). Photo Mechanic, renowned for its blisteringly fast performance, offers a new solution. Is it a Lightroom killer?

Digital asset management is something we all do as photographers — whether it's as simple as copying image JPEGs straight off an SD card and dumping them into a "Pictures" folder or fully integrating Lightroom into a workflow so that the raw files end up pre-tagged in date-named folders that are cloud-synced for anywhere access. The care you take will depend upon what you want to achieve and who you are delivering the images to. What is undeniable is that we are shooting more images than ever, using higher-resolution sensors that create larger files. This wealth of the visual is creating a data headache that affects all aspects of the photographic workflow, foremost among these is the size of the data archive. Back in film days, there was an upfront cost associated with creating an image: you paid for the film, the development, and the printing. There was a charge at every stage before you carefully indexed and filed your negatives. Digital was heralded as an almost "no-cost" solution; you already had a computer and just dumped those tiny JPEGs into a spare directory. With cameras such as Fuji's GFX 100 creating 100 MB+ size files, you need large media cards, an ultra-fast connection to your PC, storage, and a large backup solution. If, for example, you are a wedding photographer, shooting 2,000 images for a single event creates a significant data processing headache, all of which costs a considerable amount to set up and maintain.

Rapid Asset Management

As a result of a lot more larger image files, we are now seeing pressure on the software that manages those photographic assets; when files were small, there wasn't any imperative to seek high-performance processing, but this has become an obvious bottleneck. This is even more important for time-critical photography such as sports and news, where you can be required to upload your imagery literally seconds after having captured it. There is an acute requirement for Rapid Asset Management in these domains, but all areas of photography are seeing a need to be able to rapidly cull and catalog their imagery. Once you've culled, tagged, and keyworded your imagery, the import process then kicks in, which highlights a universal truth: copying your images is only as fast as the hardware you are using.

Once the images are actually on your computer, there are two broad approaches to processing them: simple batch-driven edits and more refined manual processing. The former benefits significantly from being integrated into the culling process, while the latter can more readily be driven externally (for example, in Photoshop). At one extreme, a sports photographer might shoot a ton of images, then rapidly cull them before automating batch edits and then uploading the results. A landscape photographer might only shoot 10 photos and manually copy and edit each one in Lightroom or Photoshop. Obviously, you can have anything in-between as well. If I'm shooting a wedding, then I might well want to both rapidly cull and upload initial imagery for the couple before returning later on for some more curated edits.

Rapid Asset Management (RAM) is relatively new, as most products have tended to offer image processing (e.g. Photoshop, Affinity Photo) on their own or with integrated cataloging (e.g. Lightroom, Skylum Luminar). Camera Bits sees a gap in this market, and Photo Mechanic Plus is its answer. So, what does it offer?

Photo Mechanic

The first thing to note is that Photo Mechanic is not a new product. In fact, Camera Bits founder Dennis Walker started the business in 1996, having become heavily involved in digital image processing early on. Realizing that culling, captioning, ingesting, and exporting were key workflows for photojournalists, he released Photo Mechanic in 1998 to help meet an industry need. The secret sauce — in addition to being sleek and fast — was to target as much of the process to the pre-import stage. As I noted above, the import itself is largely dependent upon your hardware, and as such, you can't speed that up. However, through both culling and automation, you can dramatically reduce both the total time taken to get to the photos you want, as well as importing and processing them. It's perhaps surprising that Lightroom hasn't better targeted optimizing the ingestion workflow in a similar manner; however, it remains that Photo Mechanic is both fast to process photos as well as blisteringly fast in its implementation, key traits for anyone that shoots a lot of photos. Let's take a look at a few of these aspects in more detail (note that Photo Mechanic is available for Windows and macOS, although the former requires the installation of gStreamer to view video files).

The starting point is to open a contact sheet by pointing it at a memory card that's plugged into your PC (Photo Mechanic can ingest from multiple card readers at the same time). Instantly (literally instantly), all the thumbnails will display on-screen with associated metadata. You have a choice at this point to either ingest (PMP's terminology for importing) all the photos to your hard drive or undertake the tagging on the card. Working with the card has some speed benefits, but you are obviously working with the original imagery (not a copy).

Double-click on an image to load a full-size preview, then let the keyboard shortcuts take control: z to zoom, then v to compare photos (o to return to single shot), and e to edit in your default software editor. The key to this process is tagging. The number keys can be used to star (Alt-<number>) or color code images (Shift-<number>). For speed, you can use the number keys directly to set star or color rating (and can change the default in Preferences->Accessibility). PMP is not an editor, but you can make three edits: rotation, resizing, and cropping. These are only marked as such and won't actually happen until you export the images.

In terms of output, Photo Mechanic allows you to save as a JPEG/TIFF/PSD, export to a range of templated formats (such as KMZ, XML, and HTML galleries), upload to a number of online services (such as FTP, Dropbox, Flickr, and Amazon S3), email, and burn to disc, among others. The dialogs all take a similar form (see below) specifying a connection, destination, along with image-processing and file-handling options.

Depending upon how rigorous you are, you may caption and keyword your images or rely on the automated face and location tagging. Camera Bits knows that these are essential processes for photojournalists and fully supports the IPTC metadata standard. Streamlining this task can make for a huge time-saver, and the key to the process is Photo Mechanic's variables; these are macros that allow you to automate the process of adding information to the IPTC data fields. For example {focallength} will automatically pull this in from the EXIF data. In a similar vein, code replacements allow you to rapidly insert standardized text as keywords and captions using a pre-defined file. These could be common terms, locations, or names.

Pulling these elements back together, Camera Bits gives a real-world example of a sports photographer who shoots a high volume of athletes at a meet; Photo Mechanic enables them to save each athlete to a different folder, and using code replacements at ingest, they are all tagged with each individual name and contact information along with the files automatically renamed.

This maps out the essential workflow for ingesting photos using Photo Mechanic, although there is considerably more depth to each element. For example, you can adjust capture dates and times — including relative adjustments — something that can be critical for multi-camera setups where individual camera timestamps have drifted. Every single dialog also has a snapshot button (lightning bolt) which allows you to save a copy of the dialog contents for future use. The level of attention to detail is clearly apparent and shows that every single element has been designed from the ground up based upon feedback from heavy lifting professionals — it's all about speed.

What I Liked

I've already said it, but it is worth repeating: Photo Mechanic is fast. Very fast. If you are used to the way Lightroom can stall at times, then it can take your breath away. By way of example, I pointed Photo Mechanic at my main image directory on my live editing PC which contains 400 GB across 37,000 files in 16,000 folders. After a short time to initially index all the photos across every directory, I was then able to seamlessly scroll through them all — no mean feat.

While performance is fast, the intention is to make your workflow fast by focusing upon: review, tag, cull, edit, keyword, ingest, and export. If your jobs use one or several standardized workflows — and particularly if you shoot large volumes of photos — then you will likely benefit from the refinement that Photo Mechanic can offer.

What Could Be Improved

In terms of a paradigm for the GUI (at least on Windows), Photo Mechanic feels a little dated. That doesn't impact its ability to get the job done, but it doesn't feel as "modern" as recent offerings from other vendors. Maybe it's because of this point, but Photo Mechanic also feels complicated. There's no doubt that there is a lot of flexibility and adaptability under the skin, but the import process is straightforward and easy to accomplish. Perhaps then it's just that the interface is a little busy, but don't let that detract from its laser focus upon speed.

In Summary

It's a philosophical detail, but Photo Mechanic uses a tabbed interface from which you can load one or multiple contact sheets. It reminded me how clunky Lightroom is with its requirement to restart in order to load a new catalog. Contact sheets aren't catalogs (although they have some similarity), but the ability to flick between different sheets is invaluable and again makes you wonder why Lightroom has stuck so ponderously to a single catalog interface rather than multiple tabs.

Reviewing Photo Mechanic's workflow is a reminder that Lightroom has got it mostly right by using the contact sheet paradigm and allowing some processing to take place at ingest. However, it just doesn't go far enough when working with large numbers of heavy files, opting for a one size fits all approach. Camera Bits has clearly realized this and the speed and flexibility of its ingest make it significantly faster at getting the right images to the right place as quickly as possible. Of course, part one of this review has only touched upon ingest, and Lightroom has a lot more to offer, not least its Digital Asset Management and global edits. More on this in part two.

Note: CameraBits provided a license of Photo Mechanic Plus for review. However, all of the views and opinions expressed in this article are my own.

Log in or register to post comments

26 Comments

Ryan Cooper's picture

Personally, I just can't motivate myself to use an app that is so ugly to look at. Our vocation is aesthetics. I need my editing environment to be somewhat pleasant. Photo Mechanic has always and still looks like an app developed with no thought to design or ux whatsoever. Lightroom isn't perfect by any means, but it is several levels higher than Photo Mechanic in terms of how pleasant the UI is.

Marc Perino's picture

I agree. But what I find also distracting is that when you open a folder or even an image another windows pops up. I also tried ACDSee for Mac which does not do that. And it looks a little better.

kotlos kotlos's picture

Visual aesthetics, applies not only to the picture that you edit but everything around it as well.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Who cares if it saves couple of hours on culling after each event? Something that took me 2-3 hours in slow as snail Lightroom (Library module), takes 15 minutes at most in PhotoMechanic.

But if you are never in run and gun situations and don't ever need to pre-select photos from a half day shoot while your client drinks coffee - then... why don't you use Capture One? :)

Ryan Cooper's picture

Well, personally, I don't shoot events and never would shoot events so not really an issue for me.

I've used Capture One off and on through the years but I've never completely loved it and given that I pay for LR already because I need Photoshop I am content to just us LR. Especially given that Capture One would be another subscription fee that is more expensive than PS+LR is to begin with. C1 Pro is def superior to LR in most ways, but not by a big enough margin to justify $312/year. I also find it has a frustrating UI as well. Not as ugly as PM, but it certainly lacks polish.

Now if C1 or PM REALLY wanted to make me rethink this position, they would introduce some sort of AI/ML tool that scans all my images and auto rejects any with an out of focus eye. THAT would save me time. The biggest time sync I have when culling images is zooming into every eye to make sure it is perfectly in focus.

Michael Dougherty's picture

Been using PM since 2002 since it was by far the best way to view a couple thousand images after a football game very quickly. I really really like the old appearance because is isn't cluttered with lots of stuff that's almost useless. I'm using the latest CC 2021, which, while modern, is an artsy disaster with all the stuff you have to look at. I still greatly prefer CS2 since it only has the options you really need. Unfortunately, it doesn't have some of the powerful adjustments and filters that CC 2021 has. Making apps simple is hard and it seems that most app writers today take the easy route.

Rick Maiman's picture

No program anywhere allows for the intricacy, and accuracy of importing a caption from beginning to upload better than Photo Mechanic. 50 + years on the bricks covering stories and assignments from sports, to harrowing drug wars, mafiosi, and presidents, PM has been in whatever computer was in my hands. Editors will never archive a news shot unless it is captioned with all the relevant fields. Decades stringing for Wires, Papers, and the Mags, inculcated that a not so great photo will
get used before a better photo if the caption isn’t there of complete. Getty would’ve never accepted my ten’s of thousands now historical photos unless they’d been captioned. Photo Mechanic may be a bit lower in pizzaz but it delivers where it counts. Of course this is just ‘my’ opinion insofar as the work I do.

Frederick Woods's picture

This question is meant literally -- i.e. I have no political axe to grind. So, here it is: how is this better than the (free) Adobe Bridge?

Nick Rains's picture

Bridge isn't really free is it? But to answer your question - speed, power, versatility and the Plus version offers a proper database catalog, it's not just a browser like Bridge. Chalk and cheese really.

Joshua Bessex's picture

Speed is the major factor. I shoot professional sports for a living and have to cull, caption, and edit thousands of images in minutes. Combining this program with adobe camera raw and I can take 3000 images from the first half of a NFL game and file 9-10 images (while having 40 or so marked to be edited right after the game) for publication during halftime. I don't use plus because I've already spent a lot of time building out my own filing system with images, but the speed alone makes PM super worth it for me.

Ian Browne's picture

Even though I would love to have a more modern app, just the thought of learning 'another' app is my bigger turn off .
Old Lr5 is not prefect and mine has few annoying bugs of it's own; but I do own it and know the bits I need well enough. In several old catalogs/hard drives there would 100K of files most of which I ever need to see again. And boxes of negatives!
To be honest; I'm tiring of the "a lightroom killer'' type of comments. On1 jumps to mind. For someone starting out; most programs will seem good enough but after using Lr since Vs2 it's hard to forget the really good bits
Affinity is now my "photoshop".

''mine has few annoying bugs of it's own'' . The biggest being the library mode going from ''File name'' sorting to ''Added time'' or "Capture Time" when a file is sent to another App. But it doesn't happen every time!!
I would love to know a fix if you have any ideas . Adobe just suggested get the subscription version :) . So why would I still be used Vs5 Adobe? :(

However; I'm still interested in any positives thoughts about Photo Mechanic Plus :)
Convince me :lol:

bill bane's picture

Mike,

I have great hopes for Photo Mechanic, but...... Could you please test the following as it is critical for all existing Lightroom users?

Allmost all Lightroom users, and all that are serious Lightroom users, have a Catalog of keywords. Could you test and report on how well Photo Mechanic picks up Lightroom keywords??

My tests so far have not been favorable. I, and everyone else, realizes that one must first make sure that one saves the xmp, etc to the files first. (In LR, I have found one must do this over and over for some reason). Even after this, I found that Photo Mechanic, upon importing, missed a very large number of keywords. All of the missing keywords showed up in Bridge and XNviewMP, so this seems to be only a Photo Mechanic defect.

I hope Photo Mechanic fixes this as Lightroom's catalog keyword performance (AKA, the essence of a DAM) is a dog of the worst kind.

I use LR on a computer with 128GB of ram and a new 24 core AMD processor, and I cannot run any other programs when trying to use LR's catalog functions. Even then, after an hour or so of keyword maintenance, it will freeze (only showing LRCAT-wal process running). Adobe knows this and either does not care or their software is too spaghetti-like to fix. Lightroom CC is a joke (and vampire to classic).

Ryan Cooper's picture

A main issue with LRC and to a lesser degree PS is that it doesn't make good use of multi-core workflows. LR performs like a pig pretty much anywhere but generally speaking performance is better on fewer faster cores than high core count CPUs. When LR is crapping out and I look at my activity monitor it usually has one of my cores at 100% and the rest idle. Unfortunately, that means a rig like yours running a threadripper is not going to perform very well no matter how much ram you have.

Ultimately LRC needs to be re-written which is why the new LR was created in a sense. It does perform much better relatively speaking. (Though still not great) The main issue with the new LR is that it is super light on features still and also is trying to force you into a cloud-managed photo storage workflow which for me is a showstopper. Perhaps in the future, it will be more viable though.

bill bane's picture

Agree with all you say, esp about LR CC and cloud storage. If LR CC bursts out, faster and better, as the new classic, I would be happy.

However, perhaps unlike you, I tried Photo Mechanic Plus and it looked very good and performed great. Except I am not going to trust it until its Keyword reading works. It really has potential.

BTW, how long has Adobe known that computers were going to have more and more cores? This just shows the shortsightedness of the Adobe executives, and perhaps the competence of the developers.

Leaving aside the DAM functionality of LR Classic, the "develop" module has gotten better and better, still beating C1, Topaz, On1, Dxo, Luminar, etc, but by less and less every 6 months. If Photo Mechanic can come through, I see a future where the Corrupt Adobe Executive stock options tank when Adobe LR is abandoned in droves. Would be sad, but where things seem headed.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Yeah, I agree that it is a pretty big failing on Adobe's part. Though, I could see why it is a tough sell in product meetings when pitching rebuilding a monolith. That is a very expensive project. It is a problem they need to tackle though. It is insane to me that I still am struggling with performance issues editing photos on a machine that can play AAA games at ultra 4k or edit 4k video in DaVinci without breaking a sweat. My editing experience as it is right now is more sluggish today than it was half a decade ago which is utterly insane considering I was using a higher resolution camera back then.

I'd also add that this issue isn't exclusive to Adobe. For example, Affinity has the same problem and Affinity was created AFTER multicore was standard. I've seen similar issues in ACDSee and AlienSkin. Photo software always feels like such an afterthought. When I compare it to the tools and performance that exists in video editing and compare it to Photo tools, it feels like we are so old and primitive. This is why Adobe probably doesn't feel any urgency is fixing their problem. There is no competitor offering next-gen performance.

I haven't tried PM recently, but I have in the past. Its ugly interface though didn't survive more than 15min on my computer. ;)

Ian Browne's picture

Very good point and one of On1 failed tasks IMO
Most other ''Lightroom killer'' app I have tried did no better.
Hard to give up the Lr toys that work

Dave Oliver's picture

I'm in the different boat of not using the keywords search part at all as every shoot is a new catalogue. I'll add keywords before exporting for the clients to use.

Part I like is the speed I can smash through selections after shooting at an event.

Timothy Linn's picture

My understanding is that Photo Mechanic is fast because it works with the JPG preview file rather than actually opening the full file. This is just fine for rotating images and adding metadata, however it can be very problematic for culling depending on the criteria upon which you are culling. When I cull, I always check for critical focus. Often, this is the only difference between a keeper and a reject. You can't do that based on a JPG preview that isn't full-sized (and most are not).

Ryan Mense's picture

Some cameras you kind of have to shoot raw+jpeg for this reason. When you cull photos in Photo Mechanic it will then show you the jpeg in place of the raw file (or the jpeg embedded inside the raw file as you point out). So for my Sony cameras since they don't have full-size previews inside the raw, I shoot small sized jpegs+raw in the camera.

Ryan Mense's picture

PM is the best. I lost interest in the Plus version when they didn't have smart filters in beta, and from what I read on the forums they didn't plan on adding them. It's like the only reason to have a catalog in my eyes. Haven't looked into for a long time to see if that's changed.

August Miller's picture

Long time user of Photo Mechanic. There is nothing else that works as fast or as reliably at PM and I've used them all. When you need to cull images down, find out if they are sharp (which is easy to do in PM), ingest with caption and meta data and use the built in FTP and upload interface to get images to clients on deadline, PM just works. And their customer service and responding to clients is amazing. Experience teaches that a reliable and fast car wins a lot more races.

Warwick Cairns's picture

I'm thinking of moving to Capture One - I hate paying Adobe a monthly subscription

Ryan Cooper's picture

You prefer to pay Phase a more expensive subscription? ;)

Brian Carlson's picture

I was a beta tester and dumped using it because it didn't allow you to work with offline files. Hopefully this has changed.

Michael Wendt's picture

Yes, the UI is not the best. Anytime it's a fast digital picture software not an digital asset management software. But it cannot handle HEIC, this is not understandable and so not usable. Also as a general database for pictures or graphics it does not work. As far as I remember from my last trial of the + version it cannot handle pdf format. So at the moment its non acceptable. Also the communications, if I asked for the missing parts created no usable answer. Are you feeling safe with that? I do not.

regan albertson's picture

Mike Smith, Was it you that put that inane title on this article? Was it the editors? The only thing that will kill Lightroom is Adobe and their stupid marketing models. Is the title of this article an FStopppers killer? To me it is, for the next week. Time-out for another stupid or misleading title. And Photo Merchanic is a professional tool that is for the rapid event shooter, such as a sideline photographer, or a wedding shooter that needs to efficiently cull and tag 1000's of pictures quickly, that are more often than not captured correctly.