So over the years I’ve picked up a small arsenal of apps and services I’ve come to rely on to crack down on computer time and make it all a bit more pleasurable: there’s a certain joy in using something that does exactly what you want, and well. And more than just photo editing software, this list covers both the editing and admin ends of my usual workflow.
By the way it’s not an exclusive Best Of list, these are just the apps I know the best and can personally recommend. For example, I would definitely suggest Photomatix for HDRs but these days I don’t use it as much and don’t know the competition, so I left it out for now.
Got a suggestion?
I’m always open to new ideas and learning how other photographers do things, especially if it makes life easier! If you’ve got your own recommendations let me know by email or in the comments and I’ll revisit the list over time.
So first up:
Image delivery & sales: Shootproof (online)
Shootproof provides the gallery service I use for my client galleries, where my clients can get their first look, share images on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest, order their prints, pick out their favourites for my smartphone apps, albums and premium HD slideshows, and download their archival digitals.
To help take the pain out of admin there’s automatic email templates, invoicing functions, plus when the gallery expires (goes offline) it gets Archived in Shootproof’s own servers at a great rate. Then if a client needs the gallery back online quickly, I simply click a button and it’s moved over to the live servers instantly – I don’t even have to reupload the files! The Archive feature also acts as another off-site backup of your client files (skip to the end of the post for more on backups).
There are a bunch of similar services out there – ZenFolio, Photoshelter and PixieSet for example. I was with Photoshelter for years but as my work became more event- and family-focussed it was less of a good fit. I love Shootproof, not least because from the moment I switched to them my event print sales leapt from ‘almost nothing’ to ‘lots’ – must be something about their gallery designs!
Pricing is based on how many photos are in live galleries, and obviously is better value the more you use, but you can also change your package up and down monthly to only pay what you need. Plus the level of support is fantastic: there’s a good online help service but if you need to email they’re quick to reply and keen to improve the service – I’ve seen a couple of my own suggestions get implemented within a few weeks! It’s really great to use a service that’s supported so well.
By the way, if you’re interested in ShootProof be sure to click this link or enter my username (owenbillcliffephotography) in the “how did you hear about us” field on the first page and after your first paid billing cycle, we’ll both get 1GB of Archiving space for free.
Invoicing: Totals (Mac only)
Totals is definitely the best standalone invoicing app I’ve found. I use it to produce attractive, professional invoices that look exactly the way I want them while keeping on top of invoice tracking at a glance, and I highly recommend it.
It’s a standalone Mac-only app with no subscription model, something that seems increasingly hard to find in the invoicing app market. For that reason, though, the price tag is only for those serious about invoicing – occasional users may prefer the limited free options of the subscription-based apps.
Totals accommodates time-based and stock-unit-based invoicing so I have some standard rates set up as ‘stock’ items that I can drag onto an invoice, but if I need to adjust a price I can do that on the invoice itself no problem.
There’s templates for quotes, invoices, reminders and statements so all you have to do is tap in the details, hit ‘Finalise’ and have the document both saved on your computer and emailed to the client with one click. Creating your own templates is a bit technical but there’s a whole bunch included that you can tweak to your satisfaction and if you ask nicely I might even post a version of my own custom template!
Clients can be added manually or from your Contacts app and Totals helpfully allows you to apply custom settings per client (such as a standing discount, multiple points of contact for companies, or custom payment terms). You’re alerted if an invoice becomes overdue whereupon you can send out a standard reminder with just a couple of clicks, and when it’s time to do your accounts you can generate a variety of customisable financial reports.
It’s a premium price, but the app is absolutely perfect for me and I’ve no problem paying for quality.
Budgeting: You Need A Budget (Mac & PC)
I absolutely love YNAB. It’s mainly marketed as a home budgeting app but it’s always been usable by small businesses and in the 18 months during which we’ve used it to manage our household budget and my freelance budget we’ve seen a dramatic increase in our financial stability and awareness. We’d easily saved the $60 price tag after a couple of months of using it, it’s just fantastic.
It’s based on the age-old principle of envelope budgeting: every payday you divvy up the money between envelopes, or categories, named for the different sorts of things you need to spend or save for between now and the next payday, until there’s nothing left in the Available To Budget pool. Whenever you want to spend anything you check the appropriate category to see how much money you’ve got left there. The first time I needed to get major repairs on a lens and there was money already set aside to pay for it was very satisfying!
As a business owner or freelancer it forces you to think about your monthly and annual running costs, irregular expenses you need to save for like new equipment and repairs, and how much you can afford to pay yourself in a salary, all of which you should do anyway to maintain a sustainable business, but YNAB keeps your eye on the ball.
There’s no difference between the version available directly from their site and the one on the Mac App Store and Steam Store, but YNAB gives out referral discount links to existing users that only work on their own store – use my referral link to get $6 off and YNAB send me $6 cash, win-win! :)
Image processing & management: Lightroom (Mac & PC)
Opinions are divided on Adobe’s treatment of my current favourite cameras, the Fuji X-Series (it’s not the best, done better elsewhere), but for almost all my use cases Lightroom is where I spend 99% of my photo editing time these days, as almost everything I need to do is now possible. I import, keyword, edit, process and export almost entirely from Lightroom, with Photoshop always ready to handle the occasional file that needs something special.
I have Import Profiles set up to get the raw files looking pretty close to how they looked on the camera LCD as they’re imported (and apply appropriate shoot-wide keywords), so combined with the fantastic electronic viewfinders on the Fujifilm X100S and X-T1 this means I usually have even less work to do because all the raw files are pretty much exactly where I want them before I get started.
I’m a Standalone user because I don’t have enough call for the mobile and cloud syncing features of Creative Cloud, and also I just prefer paying upfront for a product if I can.
Image management: Photo Mechanic (Mac & PC)
This is a sneaky one because I actually rarely need to use this app any more, but it’s worth including because I always keep it handy just in case. It’s an import-and-catalogue tool that handles importing, keywording, reviewing and rating with ease, and I absolutely relied on it for years when I was using Nikon’s Capture NX software to edit my raw files (before I re-discovered Lightroom).
Best feature? The speed. Although it’s very customisable by default it pulls the JPGs to use as a preview, allowing you to whizz through whole shoots colour-coding or star-rating your keepers, which copy over to Lightroom. If your Lightroom library is getting bogged down and slowing down your rating sessions maybe Photo Mechanic is for you.
Album & blog layouts: Fundy Suite (Mac & PC)
There’s some great options out there for album and blog layouts, including BlogStomp and Pixellu’s SmartAlbums (which is launching a PC version on February 16th 2016 – sign up here!), but the Fundy Suite lets me incorporate the whole process in one app with a consistent interface that really does let me fly through what has been a real chore in the past.
After exporting the final images in Lightroom I set up a single Fundy project for the shoot, add all the picks, and start new items within the project for whatever I need, usually a set of collages and a branded ‘Featured Image’ for my blog, and an album layout for the client. I also have a ‘Marketing’ project where I keep my best images and make collages for flyers and my gorgeous Moo Luxe business cards.
There’s really just one little problem I have: you’re forced to use row-based layouts for Blog Collages, making it apparently impossible to produce a ‘masonry’ style blog collage where a single larger image spans two or more rows of smaller images; it’s possible in album designs by manually digging into the ‘smart zone’ layouts, but Blog Collages don’t seem to allow it which is a shame.
But nobody’s perfect, and for me the ease of use, single-app/multi-function workflow benefits, and power of the album design tools tip the scales in Fundy’s favour.
Top tip: Fundy have sales of around 15% to 20% off every so often, so if price is an issue and you don’t need it right this second, maybe sign up to their newsletter and hang on a couple of months.
Website: WordPress, running X theme
WordPress is just fantastic and now runs so many of the world’s websites. I’ve used the free self-hosted software here for years, at first using custom tweaked themes from Graph Paper Press, but now freshly rebuilt and relaunched using my own twist on the utterly fantastic X theme by Theme.co. It’s an amazing theme that’s more like four different themes, and crucially it comes with access to an incredible support forum. Check out their reviews on the Themeforest store page, you’ll get the idea!
There are definitely more photo-focussed portfolio themes out there that do some impressive minimalist full-screen stuff, and I’d love an excuse to have a site like that too. But I wanted a site like this one, where my typical clients could be dazzled and easily educate themselves about my work on my speciality pages, FAQs and blog, and X does that and loads more too, you really should check it out.
Time Management: TicToc (Mac only)
This is a menu-bar stopwatch app called TicToc for Macs that I use to keep track of how much time I spend on various tasks. For example when I sit down to start editing a shoot I create a new project and start the timer until I finished on this particular session – and if I’m away for 10 minutes or more and forgot to stop the timer, when I get back it’ll ask if I want to roll back the clock till before I walked away, which is pretty cool.
The time I spend processing family and event shoots isn’t really something the client needs to know but I need to account for it when I set my rates. With TicToc always handy in the menu bar I can easily review how long I’m spending processing shoots, emailing clients, editing slideshows or designing albums, which helps me keep my rates fair and sustainable.
Productivity: Coffitivity (online & iOS & Android)
Whether I’m processing a shoot or writing a blog post I don’t often enjoy working in total silence, but sometimes music is a bit too much distraction. That’s when I turn on Coffitivity, which plays one of a choice of three ‘coffee shop’ ambience tracks on a loop to recreate that ‘sitting in a crowded Costa’ feeling, and it’s just right to get me focused on the task at hand. I’ve even read of people saying they’re only able to work when listening to Coffitivity – even when they’re actually in a coffee shop!
If you’re on a Mac or PC you can play the sounds directly from the website. They used to have a menu bar app for Macs but I don’t currently see that on their webiste, just the iOS and Android apps.
Productivity: TextExpander (Mac only)
Textexpander is like an enhanced version of OS X keyboard shortcuts, and one of those really useful utilities that’s only limited by your imagination! Set up whatever shortcuts you like, to expand to whatever text you like. A few seconds here and there may not sound like much, but the reduction in ‘chore typing’ is worth it!
I use it for regularly used snippets such as my email address or website URLs, HTML and CSS codes, and for longer passages of text such as listing standard package features when replying to an enquiry. You can even create ‘form replies’ that ask you to fill in the pertinent details and then paste the entire completed email for you. What’s more, if you’re an iOS user you can tie it in with an app like Drafts and have synced access to all your shortcuts, fantastic for replying to client enquiries on the go. Great little time-saver.
Local backup: SuperDuper! (Mac only)
You need to have a back up. Even if you’re ‘just’ an amateur, you need to back up! Local backups are essential and SuperDuper! automates them for you.
The biggest danger with local backups is forgetting to do it. You need to have it all happen automatically, or one day you will start forgetting and that’s when your computer will die! For this reason, Apple’s Time Machine is very handy to keep turned on, but the problem I have with it is that if your computer dies you can’t simply boot off the Time Machine. TM is only useful if your computer is actually working.
If my iMac goes down I want to be able to boot my backup on the MacBook Pro and get going straight away, so for automated bootable backups of my computer I use SuperDuper! (the ! is part of the name). You tell it the volume you want backed up, and the volume you want it backed up to, and when, and that’s it! I’ve relied on SD! for well over a decade; it’s sturdy and easy to use, and on the very rare occasion I’ve had a hiccup the developer has always been really helpful over email.
Off-site backup: Backblaze (online; Mac & PC)
Off-site backups give you the peace of mind knowing that if your place gets flooded/burgled/stomped by Godzilla you have another set of backups somewhere else.
One way is to do this is to backup to removable drives once a week or so and then keep the drives off-site such as at work or in a deposit box. The other way is to use a cloud service. You may have security and/or privacy concerns with cloud services and that’s fine, but I trust Backblaze.
For a flat $50 a year per computer I get unlimited storage for the computer and all regularly connected drives and when a drive fails or you accidentally delete something, you can download small sets of files from their site for free, and if you need the whole lot in a hurry you can pay them to FedEx you a new hard drive fully loaded.
The downside, of course, is that you’re limited to your ISP’s upload speed. For most people with a modern big-capacity drive packed to the gunnels with ‘stuff’ the first backup takes an eternity – often weeks unless you have super speedy business-class uploads. However, once that’s done you’re just uploading bits and pieces as they’re added or changed on your machine, all automatically and in the background, and it’s very slick. I often forget it’s running, and then panic that it stopped and I hadn’t noticed – but nope, it’s always there, beavering away.
However, as a photographer I’m often importing many GB of data at a time, and over a busy few weeks when each import hits the queue there can be quite a backlog. So if this describes your situation then unless you’ve got really fast uploads it’s important to not absolutely rely on cloud backups, and to have at least one but preferably two other more immediate backups in place.
Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning if you click through and end up paying for a product or service I get a small bonus such as a few percent commission, subscription time, or storage space. But I will never link to something I’m recommending unless I really do recommend it. I use everything above, and personally recommend it all.