ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2021 Review: Among the Best All-in-One Photo Editors

With the recent ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2021 release comes a myriad of new features, all with one goal in mind—to combine the capabilities of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Adobe Bridge, several features of Adobe Photoshop and a few from Capture One, into a single, lower cost program. The good news is, it does that and much more, which is what makes it, in my opinion, one of the best all-in-one photo editors on the market right now.

While ACDSee offers another version of its software for Mac, Photo Studio Ultimate is available only for 64-bit Windows computers but at a variety of pricing options. Upgrade pricing from the previous boxed version costs $79.95 while the MSRP for new users is $149.95. There are also subscription plans for Ultimate 2021 beginning at $69 per year and other ACDSee programs as well as cloud storage offerings.

[Read: Exploring the Possibilities of Post-Production With Compositions that Draw People In]

ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2021 Review: The Overview

ACDSee continues to surprise with the range of new and useful features it incorporates into each update. Some, such as tone and color wheels, are available before they find their way into Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom or Bridge.

Other new features in Ultimate 2021 include text in a frame or with an adjustable path, a new Develop mode user interface, the ability to refine selections in the Edit mode, GoPro raw file and new camera support, the introduction of Presets and History panes in the Develop mode, and the ability to import face date from Lightroom and Picasa. There are what seems like endless options for batch renaming, expanded capabilities for batch resizing, improved searching and watermarking, and the ability to quickly and accurately crop multiple photos. And let’s not forget the speed and performance boosts…

Speed, User Friendliness and Navigability

Users of previous versions of Photo Studio Ultimate will be excited to know that this new version loads up 100 percent faster, allowing you to get to editing with zero lag time. Raw images are decoded quickly (50 percent faster than previous iterations of the software), so when you click on a thumbnail to start editing, it’s up on the screen and ready to adjust right away.

Users upgrading from Ultimate 2020 will find a familiar user interface with the only major change in the Develop mode. In 2021, the Develop Presets and Snapshots panes are now on the right of the interface, and the Develop Tools pane occupies the entire left pane. New users will likely find the user-crowded interface unfamiliar, but ACDSee greatly eases the transition to Ultimate 2021 with an extremely helpful Quick Start Guide on the opening splash screen, the online help along with many informative instructional videos on its website. Even these will likely not provide enough instruction to fully understand the program in all of its detail, however, such as the subtleties between the Basic, Standard and Advanced tabs of Light EQ.

Shows ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2021 Develop mode with new panes.
The revised Develop mode interface with new panes help enhance your editing process.

Once new users understand that the Develop mode is generally used for global changes to an image and the Edit mode is designed for pixel-level adjustments, you are well on your way to getting the most out of the program. However, new users and photographers moving from other programs will still have a learning curve to adjust to the positions of the tools, their variety and a somewhat different set of keyboard shortcuts. They will also need to figure out the proper times to use adjustments such as Color EQ vs. the Color Wheel vs. the Tone Wheels, as their functions overlap for some adjustments. The look of many tools is different in Ultimate 2021.

Photo Studio Ultimate 2021’s Most Exciting New Features

With so many improved features in this release, I concentrated my attention on two that were brand-spanking new and that I felt were most exciting: the Color Wheel and Tone Wheels. These will look very familiar to users of Capture One and function similarly. New users and even previous users will need to play around with them for a while to see their usefulness in targeting color values for adjustment.

Shows the Color Wheel in ACDSee's Photo Studio Ultimate 2021 release.
Before: The eyedropper in the Color Wheel is used to target the color you wish to adjust.
Illustrates the Hue slider in the Color Wheel tool of ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2021.
After: Extending the color range on the wheel and adjusting the hue and other sliders results in a perfect color adjustment.

The Hue slider in the Color Wheel tool provides an easy way to dramatically change the hue of any color in the scene. A mask preview, along with the adjustments available in the wheel itself, allows you to see exactly what parts of the scene you will change. Similarly, Tone Wheels for adjusting highlights, mid tones and shadows are far more visual tools than sliders found in many other programs. This makes it easier to precisely target the tones you wish to adjust

Before and after portraits of a woman that show the function of the Tone Wheels in ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2021.
Before (left) and after using the Tone Wheels to enhance a portrait.

It took me a while to discover that the new Refine Selection tool worked as I had hoped but not exactly. While it can refine selections as outlined in the ACDSee video that demonstrated its use, I didn’t have as much luck using it to refine a mask as the Refine Mask tool in Photoshop.

I found the new and improved batch tools worked well. With the batch-rename tool, you can create a numerical or alphabetical sequence and save your template for future use, or replace specific characters or phrases, change cases, and insert or remove text or spaces in your existing file names. Batch resize provides all the options you would need to identically resize any number of selected files.

Features That are Lacking in Photo Studio Ultimate 2021

I couldn’t get Refine Selection to work for me when I tried to mask a model’s hair from a white background and replace the background with a solid color. Actually, it did mask the hair very well, but it left a halo of white around her head. You may have better luck in your work.

Shows example of a background replacement in an ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2021 review.
While the Refine tool did a great job preserving the model’s hair when I replaced the white background with blue, it unfortunately left a white halo.

The Tone Wheels take some work to get them to target tones precisely, so you must be careful to not make too drastic a change where tones roll from midtones to highlights or shadows. Also, the Hue adjustment is limited to the range of values present, not every hue possible.

While ACDSee has corrected other things that have bothered me in the past, such as improving masking, a few remain: It has been able to export in PSD format but the ACDSee layers must be flattened first. Similarly, imported PSD files are flattened before opening. And if you decide to discard changes you have tried in the Edit mode, you are switched to the View mode rather than staying in Edit to perhaps try other adjustments.

How Photo Studio Ultimate 2021 Compares to the Competition

There are now a number of programs that provide digital asset management, non-destructive raw file processing and a layered adjustment workflow, but there are few that offer all of these in a single non-subscription package as ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2021 does. For professional photographers, the Ultimate 2021 boxed version offers nearly the same functionality as the subscription-only Adobe photography package for the first year and at lower costs for updates as time goes on.

With a subscription plan, Ultimate 2021 is less expensive and provides continual updates and refinements. Other top image-editing programs for professionals such as Capture One, DxO PhotoLab and Exposure X6 offer some of the same features as ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2021 but not the full range of features, and generally at a higher cost. Overall, ACDSee Photo Studio Element 2021 is a worthy contender as an image-processing program for professionals.

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