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A Picture-Perfect System

Mastering the fine art of digital asset management. Most digital photography articles you’ll read deal with capturing and manipulating images. For the professional photographer, however, simply maintaining, locating, and distributing thousands of digital images is a workflow and storage challenge just as serious as producing a great product, demanding a well organized, easy-to-use and scalable image-management system.

Even if you only shoot personal photos, if you’re like me, when you first switched from film to digital you simply exchanged the photo shoebox for a digital version–disorganized, in other words. Meanwhile, without the constraint of film and processing costs, your image collection likely has grown far faster than it did in your film days. If you recognize yourself here, you too can benefit from a good system.

Also, while the physical photo shoebox can be prey to many perils, the digital revolution adds a whole new dimension to the risk. For instance, hard-drive crashes and viruses have wiped out years of family memories (as well as too many businesses).

The Whole DAM Thing

In researching digital image management I drew heavily on “The DAM Book,” by Peter Krogh (O’Reilly, $35); I can highly recommend this book to anyone with a lot of digital images to manage. Krogh covers the topic in great detail, including subjects such as file renaming strategies, applying metadata, RAW workflow, and physical organization and hardware and software for maintaining your working, archive and backup files.

While geared toward the professional photographer (like himself) with a large and growing archive of stock images for sale, virtually any serious digital photographer can benefit from applying at least some of the concepts he describes. For an outline of “The DAM Book,” a forum for photographers wrestling with image management issues, tools (many free) for working with your images, and lots of other information, check out Krogh’s Web site.

While both Windows and Mac operating systems have grown increasingly adept at working with digital image files, they pale in comparison to the specialized software that has been developed for this purpose. Each of these applications falls into one of two broad categories: browsers and cataloging programs.

A browser is a flat-file image database, analogous to an Excel spreadsheet. In a browser there’s a one-to-one relationship between an image and its representation in the directory (typically consisting of a thumbnail version of the source image), and the directory is forever tied to its source images.

Virtually every image-manipulation program (and operating system) includes at least a browser of some sort. A couple of popular standalone browsers are Photo Mechanic ($150) and ACDSee, $50-$130, Windows only). For Photoshop users, Elements comes with a good browser, and Photoshop CS2 ships with Adobe Bridge, which is part of Adobe’s Creative Suite 2 (and bundled with each CS2 application if bought separately). Bridge serves as the control center (the “bridge” of the CS2 ship, if you will) for the several Creative Suite applications.

A cataloging program, or digital asset manager (DAM), is a relational database, analogous to Access or FileMaker. A DAM is more flexible and efficient than a browser for managing images (and as the name implies, other digital media such as video clips, audio files, and documents of all sorts, but we’ll just discuss images here).

In a DAM, a single actual image file can have aliases in multiple catalogs–again, usually represented by screen-resolution thumbnails, which can range from literally thumbnail-sized up to full-screen images. For instance, say you traveled the world, taking pictures in 50 zoos. You could create catalogs containing all your zoo shots, the images from a single zoo, just the elephants from all the zoos, just the best of your shots, or whatever grouping you choose–all pointing at a single set of source images that live in whatever folder structure you choose.

Unlike a browser’s thumbnails, these catalogs not only can be cut any way you wish, they can exist independently of the source images. For instance, you could give a catalog of images to a client without turning over your valuable hi-res source images (or separately converting them to lower-res versions)–the modern equivalent of a proof set.

Popular DAMs include iView MediaPro ($199)–my current DAM of choice, as well as Krogh’s; Canto Cumulus ($100); and Extensis Portfolio ($200). Adobe also has an imminent competitor in this space called Lightroom, which at this writing is in its third Mac-only beta version (free). A Windows version likely will be out by the time this is published, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lightroom incorporated into Adobe Creative Suite 3 sometime next year.

Another interesting and increasingly capable application is iPhoto, part of Apple’s Mac OS X iLife suite and now in its sixth version ($79). iPhoto offers some of a DAM’s multiple catalog capabilities and a bunch of other nifty features, but is geared toward personal rather than professional use (among other things, it insists on keeping your actual image files deeply buried in its own structure, and its catalogs can’t live on their own).

Everything in its Place

Like other databases, all DAMs have a variety of tools for organizing, searching and sorting your images. (Hereafter I’ll just refer to DAMs, but realize that browsers such as those mentioned can perform most of the functions described below.)

For instance, one of the best organizational steps you can perform is to rename your files to something more meaningful than the limited prefix/four-digit filenames your camera assigns. (Krogh suggests using a consistently applied name that incorporates the image capture date in YYMMDD format along with a serial number for that date, to provide a natural chronological sort.) A DAM’s batch renaming utility can quickly rename thousands of images in the format you specify.

One thing you should not do is to try to incorporate the image subject(s) into the filename–it just gets too unwieldy. This might be tempting when e-mailing a picture of the grandbabies to Grandma, but even this can raise issues such as having different names for the same image in your archive and the one you sent Grandma (or a client), for instance.

The DAM solution is to apply one or several descriptive keywords to each file. Like renaming, common keywords (such as one identifying a whole shoot) can be applied to batches of files at once, and DAMs also let you create a list of commonly used keywords that can be selected with a key press or two to quickly catalog individual files.

Keywords are one form of metadata, or “data about data”–information about each image file that’s embedded in or appended to the file itself. Most digital cameras supply EXIF (Exchangeable Image File Format) data, such as the capture date and time, aperture, shutter speed and other shooting parameters–even things like the focal length used.

Keywords compose one of many elements of IPTC and other XMP data-several dozen fields of data (such as originator, contact information, copyright, and caption) codified by the International Press Telecommunications Council using Adobe’s Extensible Metadata Platform.

How Good is it?

If you take a lot of digital photos, another essential is an image rating system–a way to sort and select images by quality (e.g., the best of your shots, merely good ones, also-rans, and tossers).

A standard DAM feature is a set of numeric and/or color codes that you can apply to each image by pointing and clicking or making single numeric key presses. (Krogh has an very useful section in his book on how he applies both numeric and color ratings.) While rating generally must be done on an image-by-image basis, it is well worth the time investment, and will render your collection much more valuable and easier to use. The ability to search and sort on EXIF, keyword and rating fields is what gives a DAM much of its power.

DAMs are increasingly able to deal with RAW files, not just JPEGs. These are the proprietary formats most camera manufacturers offer as their “digital negatives”–the best a given camera can produce, without the in-camera processing and lossy compression of JPEGs.

The main downside of RAW (besides large file size and the uncertain future of any proprietary format) has been the fact that it’s a workflow-killer, necessitating the use of often-clunky manufacturers’ RAW converters before any further processing can be done. However, this situation is improving rapidly, thanks to third-party RAW converters such as Adobe Camera Raw (formerly a standalone application, but now part of Photoshop CS2), Phase One’s Capture One ($499) and Apple’s Aperture (, $299). Further, Adobe has addressed the proprietary-format problem, introducing the DNG (for digital negative), an open format similar to RAW that is well on the way to becoming universal in much the same fashion as their PDF format has done for document distribution.

Following Through

The post-shoot workflow developed and described by Krogh (who shoots mostly RAW) starts with Adobe Bridge for several tasks, including renaming, keyword assignment, and rating-actions that could be applied in a DAM instead. He does this in part because Bridge provides a seamless front end to Adobe Camera Raw, his tool of choice for preliminary editing of RAW images and conversion of them to DNGs–the format he uses for his archive.

Krogh uses iView MediaPro for his cataloging, archiving, and distribution back end because of its extensive feature set, ease of use, and ability to incorporate all of the preliminary work he does in Bridge. If you don’t shoot much RAW, you may find (as I do, in my largely JPEG world) that a DAM can serve most of your workflow needs by itself.

Speaking of feature sets, DAMs are adding capabilities with every new version, growing into “Swiss Army Knife” applications and blurring the line between them and other software species. For instance, iView MediaPro not only performs most of the actions mentioned above in an intuitive, efficient manner, it lets you select contiguous or non-contiguous groups of images and simply drag/drop them into another window to create a new catalog, copy or move the actual source files, or use them in another application (such as Photoshop or a CD/DVD burner).

It can also perform lossless JPEG rotation and/or conversion of images (e.g., to down-res them for e-mail or Web use), individually or in batches. It has tools for comparing several images at a time (the Lightbox), creating nice-looking slide shows (which can be saved as QuickTime movies), printing contact sheets and producing Web galleries, each with a wealth of options.

Bottom line, if you found the Filmstrip in Windows XP or Apple’s iPhoto to be a boon but chafed at their limitations, you may be a candidate for a DAM. Most are available as fully functional (but time-limited) free downloads. Try out one (or more), and I’ll bet you’ll be hooked in no time.

Ken Henningsen is a digital event photographer, woodworker, DIYer, grandfather, and general gadget freak. His photography and gadget musings are at www.kenhenningsen.com.

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