3 Adobe Bridge Alternatives for Better Image Processing

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Adobe Bridge is a useful tool for browsing images, but it can be sluggish if you’re looking at folders with large numbers of photos. That’s because it generates thumbnails and previews on the fly when you view the images for the first time. These thumbnails and previews are stored in a cache to speed up subsequent views of the folders, but the cache must be periodically purged or compacted to maintain decent performance.

Adobe addressed this to some extent with a 2015 release that added automatic cache optimization and other performance boosters. But it still lags when browsing new folders. Bridge CC 2017, introduced in November, added the ability to search Adobe Stock, but didn’t address the larger performance issues.

Many photographers use Adobe Lightroom instead of Bridge to manage their images, but importing photos into that program can be painfully slow.

This set me on a journey to find alternative image browsers, and I discovered three. None are full replacements for Bridge, nor are they billed as such. Instead, they’re aimed primarily at the first stage of the image-processing workflow, when you’re importing images from an SD card or another source. All three make it fast and easy to import, browse and rate images, along with other useful features. At that point, you can discard the images you don’t want and then bring the rest into Bridge, Lightroom or another photo management program.

Photo Mechanic

Available for Mac and PC, Photo Mechanic is one of those programs you don’t fully appreciate until you’ve used it for a while. Priced at $150, it’s the costliest of the bunch, but if you spend a lot of time managing photos, you may find it’s worth the expense. This is especially true if you frequently apply metadata—information about the photo that’s stored within the image. Numerous programs let you apply metadata to images, but I haven’t seen any that let you do it so productively.

[Related: 5 Tips & Tricks for Adobe Photoshop & Illustrator | Adobe Tips & Tricks: Building an Optimal Workspace in Illustrator & Photoshop]

The first step for many users is to “Ingest” a batch of images from an external source. You can ingest from multiple sources simultaneously, and as you do so, you can apply metadata and/or rename the images. It’s much faster than using Lightroom’s Import module. But Photo Mechanic also offers many advantages if you’re working with images you’ve already imported.

Whereas Bridge uses the computer’s existing folder structure to browse images, Photo Mechanic is based on the idea of a Contact Sheet. A Contact Sheet can contain a single folder (including subfolders) or a combination of folders. You can open multiple contact sheets, which appear as tabs in the main window.PhotoMech_contact

When you open a folder in a Contact Sheet, the program displays thumbnails almost instantaneously, even at relatively large sizes. Hit the space bar, and you can browse images in a full-screen preview that’s also blazingly fast. If you have a dual-display setup, you can view the Contact Sheet on one monitor and the preview on the other. In either view, you can apply star ratings or up to eight “color classes” by hitting numeric keys. You can then filter the images based on ratings or color class.

You can also crop or rotate the images, or open them in an external image-editor. Crops are non-destructive, and because they’re stored in the image’s metadata, Bridge and Lightroom will recognize the crops.

Photo Mechanic offers all kinds of productivity benefits that go beyond software performance. For example, in in the preferences for the Preview window, you can set Photo Mechanic to automatically advance to the next image when you change the tag, color class or rating. This will save lots of keystrokes as you browse large numbers of images. Many operations, such as specific Find-and-Replace values, can be saved as “Snapshots” and reused.

Another powerful feature is Photo Mechanic’s variables, which are easy to use and don’t require programming skills. They enable numerous options for customizing the program, renaming images, applying metadata and doing all sorts of other neat things.

Pretty much any information about an image can be a variable: Folder name, filename, filename base (filename minus extension), file size, height, width and much more, including IPTC metadata fields, such as location, image creator and headline. These elements can be used in many ways. For example, if you don’t like the default labels for thumbnails, you can customize them by adding, for example, the file dimensions and file size. You can also use variables when renaming files.

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Another powerful feature is the IPTC Stationery Pad, which makes it fast and easy to apply IPTC metadata to large batches of images. For example, you can select all the images in a contact sheet and apply keywords, persons shown, creator/photographer, copyright info, location and lots more.

It’s especially powerful in combination with variables. Here’s just one example of how this can work: Suppose you have images stored in folders corresponding to the cities in which the pictures were shot, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc. Open the Stationery Pad, and enter {folder} in the “City” field. The Stationery Pad will automatically populate the city field with the name pulled from the folder. For each metadata field, you can set up menus of commonly used values, such as the names of photographers you work with. The menu then automatically appears in the Stationery Pad’s Creator/Photographer field.

Photo Mechanic’s variables also allow for substring extraction. Suppose you have a series of photos shot in various cities with sequential numbering: New York_001, New York_002, Philadelphia_003, Chicago_010, etc. Enter {filenamebase:0,-4} in the Location field (or any other field), and Photo Mechanic populates that field with the filename minus the extension and the last four digits. You can then save that Stationery Pad for use with other shots, or create a menu that includes multiple substring extraction values: {filenamebase:0,-4}, {filenamebase:0,-5}, etc.

Here’s another neat trick. With Photo Mechanic’s Copy/Move Photos command, you can use metadata to organize images into subfolders. Suppose you have a huge folder of images shot by different photographers, and each photographer is identified in the Creator/Photographer field. Enter the {photog} variable into the Destination subfolder field, and Photo Mechanic will create a subfolder for each photographer and then move their shots into those folders.

Because the program uses standard metadata formats, the values are retained when you use the images in other programs, including Bridge and Lightroom. One note of caution, however. Most digital-asset management programs can read Exif data supplied by digital cameras as well IPTC Core data, which includes basic information such as the image creator, headline, description, caption and keywords. Photo Mechanic (like Bridge) also supports the IPTC Extension, which has additional fields such as model name, model releases, property releases and the copyright owner. Not all digital-asset management programs fully support the IPTC Extension, which means they won’t be able to read the data stored in those fields.

You can navigate among folder hierarchies, but unlike Bridge, Photo Mechanic doesn’t attempt to replace the Windows File Explorer or Mac Finder. And though it has a powerful file-renaming function, I prefer Bridge’s Batch Rename. But as I noted above, it’s not a full replacement for Bridge—just a useful alternative for many functions performed by the Adobe program.

Photo Mechanic doesn’t have the most elegant user interface, and you should be prepared for a learning curve. But it’s supported by copious online documentation, and works well once you’ve grown accustomed to its approach.

The program is available from Camera Bits. You can download a fully functional 30-day trial version from the website.

BreezeBrowser Pro

BreezeBrowser Pro is a Windows-only program that’s similar to Photo Mechanic in many ways. You can quickly ingest images from external sources such as SD cards, and then browse them in various views, including a Thumbnail View and full-screen Main View. You can tag images or apply star ratings and color labels using menu commands or keyboard shortcuts. And you can apply metadata to images individually or in groups. It doesn’t support the IPTC Extension, and lacks Photo Mechanic’s powerful automation features. On the other hand, it sells for $50—one-third Photo Mechanic’s price tag—and offers a few unique features.

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One area where BreezeBrowser stands out is its RAW conversion tool. You can select a group of RAW images and modify white balance, color temperature, sharpness and other settings, and then convert them to JPEG, TIFF or PSD formats. With some images, you can apply a Smart Noise Reduction filter that’s optimized for the make and model of the camera that captured the image. The downside is that it doesn’t support all cameras—it worked with CR2 images captured with my Canon camera, but not ARW formats captured with a Sony model.

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The program is available from Breeze Systems. You can download a fully-functional trial version, but it’s good for only 15 days. And since it’s a Windows-only program, Mac users are out of luck.

Full Frame

If you’re a Mac user and don’t need all the automation features in Photo Mechanic, Inland Sea’s Full Frame is worth a look. It sticks to the basics—you can import and browse images, and it includes a metadata editor that lets you view and apply metadata. As you import images, you can use tokens such as day or time to rename them in various ways. You can also create metadata presets that insert specified values in any metadata fields, including IPTC Extension fields. For each field, you can specify whether a certain value overrides an existing one, or inserts it only when a value is present.

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It lacks Photo Mechanic’s powerful automation features, but you can’t beat the price tag. You can download the program for free from the Mac App Store and import up to 100 images. After that, you pay $29.99 to unlock the full program, or you can pay $4.99 for an additional 100 imports.

Lightroom Alternatives

For the purposes of this article, I’ve looked at programs aimed primarily at importing and browsing images. But I should also mention a category of software that competes more directly with Lightroom by adding extensive image-editing features. Consider these if you’re looking for a tool that takes you to the end of photo-editing workflow. They include DxO OpticsPro, ACDSee Pro, Corel AfterShot Pro, and even Alien Skin’s ExposureX2. The latter began life as a Photoshop plug-in, and it still functions as one. However, you can also use it as a standalone program to browse, organize and enhance images.


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