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Gadget Bag: Digital Image Management
Organizing digital photos isn’t why most of us enjoy photography. Managing images rates right up there with chores we’d rather put off, like taking out the trash. In spite of that, it’s something we all need to do as the number of images in our collection grows rapidly.
There are a number of different levels of software available to help with this task, from basic cataloging with keywords up through end-to-end solutions for organizing, editing and outputting your images. Depending on your needs and working style, one of the products covered here is likely to be a fit for you and make the computer side of your photography time more productive.
Organizing Vs. Cataloging
There are a few major differences in the way some of these programs track your image files. Some, like Apple Aperture, keep your images in a central location or what appears to be a single file. Others are simply browsers that let you view your images where they lay. These programs have the advantage of being quick to get up and running. Additionally, Apple Aperture will automatically import your images and do simple organization based on the folder structure you currently use.
There are also cataloging programs like iView MediaPro and Extensis Portfolio that keep thumbnail versions of your images in their databases but let you store images wherever you want. This method gives you the most flexibility—you can search for your images whether they’re on your hard disk or archived on a CD, DVD or other removable media. Integral to all of the applications is the ability to quickly find images based on keywords or other metadata, such as ratings, date taken or file type. Also common to these applications is the ability to rename files, generate contact sheets, create web galleries and open your photo in your favorite image editor.
The Full-Meal Deal
Like most other software these days, image-management programs are throwing in additional features in an effort to make their program the only one you’ll ever need. It’s common now for image-editing features that cover all of the basic needs, such as cropping, color adjustment, red-eye removal and black-and-white conversions, to be included within the application.
With many photographers shooting in the RAW format now, conversion from RAW to other image formats is also becoming a regular feature. The days of needing to use either Photoshop or your camera manufacturer’s software for RAW files are over.
Although some of the programs work on both Macintosh and Windows systems, your choices are somewhat defined by your platform.
iView MediaPro (Mac and Windows) was recently acquired by Microsoft. It uses the catalog approach, archiving thumbnails of your images to give you access to everything—whether online or in storage. iView can be configured to automatically watch and update folders, which is useful once you’ve set up and begun tracking your photos. Although you can keep everything in one large catalog, you can also create a series of catalogs with different image attributes. This is handy when, for example, you want to keep landscape images separate from wildlife photography. Multiple catalogs can be opened, and images can be dragged and dropped between them. iView has one of the most flexible organizing methods available with excellent web gallery options and image-editing features. It retails for $199.
Extensis Portfolio (Mac and Windows) is the other cataloging application in our roundup. As with iView, you can catalog images whether they’re on your hard drive or archived to other media. Portfolio is the only application here that has a server version, which allows multiple computers to share one image catalog. The latest version of Portfolio includes support for most RAW formats. Along with iView MediaPro, there’s extensive support for a variety of file formats and powerful organization tools. You can define hot folders that will automatically add images to your catalogs and then sort or view images in any grouping that you need. A free runtime viewer lets you send your catalogs to clients for review while the extensive web gallery options generate professional quality websites. Portfolio is available in several different configurations, starting at $199.
ACDSee Pro (Windows only) is a powerful image browser with cataloging features similar to iView MediaPro and Extensis Portfolio. Although you can view and edit images directly from within ACDSee Pro, it will also store thumbnails and location information for archived photos. The Pro version adds support for RAW image conversions and a number of special-effects filters. Printing and web gallery creation are excellent with ACDSee Pro, which retails for $129.
Apple Aperture (Mac only) is the newest member of Apple’s Professional series of products. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Aperture works only on the Mac platform, and its system requirements will have you wishing you had the most up-to-date hardware available. That said, it’s a robust and powerful application. Aperture is unique in its support for versions—regardless of the file type, the original file is never touched. All editing and adjusting is done on versions that are virtual copies of your master file. These version files don’t take much space because they only contain the instructions on how to modify the master. RAW shooters have had this ability from the beginning, but Aperture brings it to JPEG and TIFF files as well. At $299, Aperture is the most expensive product here, but also the most full-featured. While it won’t replace Photoshop for all image-editing tasks, Aperture handles most typical photo needs with strong organization tools and excellent output options, including book publishing.
Apple iPhoto (Mac only) is included with every new Macintosh and is a surprisingly full-featured image organizer and editor. The latest version includes full support for RAW images and, with organization tools such as keywords and ratings, iPhoto includes most of the editing tools you’ll need. iPhoto also includes “photo casting” capability, which notifies clients or friends that new images have been posted for review. It also integrates with the other iLife applications for outputting to the Web or creating slideshows. iPhoto ’06 adds the ability to store your images in a central database or leave them in the existing folder structure. If you have an older Mac that didn’t ship with iLife ’06 preinstalled, it retails for $79.
BreezeBrowser Pro (Windows) has been around for quite some time. While it started out as a simple image browser, BreezeBrowser has grown into a full-featured image manager with excellent RAW file conversion for most popular cameras and advanced features like noise reduction and lens-distortion correction, along with extensive Web gallery and contact sheet options. At $69, BreezeBrowser Pro is one of the great bargains in digital photography.
Bibble Pro (Mac and Windows) is full of tools for the RAW photographer. Along with excellent RAW image conversion, Bibble Pro includes an image browser with flexible batch renaming and tagging functions. The latest release of Bibble Pro also includes the popular Noise Ninja for noise reduction, lens-distortion correction and panoramic stitching. Bibble Pro lists for $129 and is one of the few products that also supports Linux.
Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006 (Windows) includes a full-featured image manager along with its image-editing program. Also functioning as a browser, Digital Image Library has excellent sorting and keyword functionality along with a simple interface that will get you up to speed in no time at all. Support for RAW files is limited, but if you shoot JPEG and run Windows, this is an excellent option. The complete package, including image editing and cataloging, is $99.
Adobe Lightroom (Mac and Windows) is still in beta form, meaning that it’s not finished and ready for retail release. It’s not hard to tell what the goal is with Lightroom, though. Adobe is aiming straight for the end-to-end professional imaging solution. Lightroom combines many of the features from Adobe Bridge and Camera Raw into a very intuitive interface. There’s full support for image browsing, sorting, rating and keywording, as well as RAW image conversion, printing and Web gallery creation, along with slideshows. The price hasn’t been set yet, but this one deserves a close look. You can download a free beta version from the Adobe Website, www.adobe.com.