Image Organization and Archiving
Once you start using a digital camera you realize that the amount
of images grows even faster than with film (isn't a digital image
free?). You won't just have your original camera images (RAW or
also derived edited version (mainly in TIFF, PSD - avoid lossy
JPEGS as much as you can). Soon organizing and searching for images
won't be manageable just using normal folders on you disks. Consider
that you need to store some images on other media (disks,
CDs, DVDs) because you need space for new images and also for backup
We are talking mainly form the perspective of fine art photographers
who may not have a huge number of keepers but nevertheless thousands
of portfolio candidates. For commercial photographers good image
management is part of their project management and they have hardly
a choice to live without some sort of software solution. This article
will by no means try cover this complex topic but we give
what to consider.
Programs that help organizing your images fall into two categories:
- Image Browsers
- Image Organizers (Image databases)
The boundaries between browsers and organizers are of course somehow
Ad-hoc Image Browsers
Image browsers are tools to browse your images on your disks.
There is no action (like "import") required to make your
images for the browser accessible. Just point your browser to a
certain folder and it will show all the images in that folder as
thumbnails. Some browsers use a database to allow the storage of
metadata and automatically store the image EXIF information. Other
browsers use only the IPTC feature of images to store extra info.
The second approach has the advantage that these metadata don't
get lost if you move to a different machine.
Top criteria for image browsers are:
- Preview quality and size
- Search capabilities
- Metadata support
- Cross platform
- Quality of the RAW support
Image browsers have to face the problem that permanently images
get added, changed or deleted. This is especially a problem if
meta data get stored only in the internal database of the browser.
Here are some popular image browsers:
- Adobe Bridge (part of Photoshop, Mac & PC)
- Photo Mechanic (Mac & PC)
- ACDSee (PC)
- Thumbsplus (PC)
- BreezeBrowser (PC)
- IrfanView (PC)
- Browsers as part of RAW converters (often RAW only)
- many, many more
Image Organizers (Image databases)
They come in two variations:
- Consumer album software
- Apple iPhoto
- Photoshop Album
- many more
- Professional Organizers
(read our detailed reviews)
Organizers unlike browser require that you import your images
into the organizer. There are two major ways to import
images into the organizers:
- The physical image gets imported into the database. These images
are full under the control of the database
- The images are imported "by reference". This means the
images stay in their original location (can be controlled by
and the organizer only stores metadata and a link to the original
images in it's database.
Both approaches have strong advantages and disadvantage.
Real Image Import (e.g. Apple Aperture)
- All images are under the control of the organizer
- Images and database don't get out of sync (means that there
are no images added without control of the organizer and also
the moving and delete of images can only be done via a function
in the organizer).
- Organizer handles also backup
- Can be easier adopted for multiple user scenarios
- Organizer has to handle working with multiple disks
- Interfacing with external applications get tedious and sometimes
- If you don't want to give up your original files you need more
disk space because the organizer stores copies (your
own flood of images maybe already big enough). Comment:
We don't really take that many pictures but there maybe about
30-40K RAW images we took since 2000 and some winners maybe still
burried here. Read this article "Lost
- More administration overhead (Import and export of images)
- Closed shop feeling
To be clear, for organizations that want rigidly manage their
images this is the only way to go. But for photographers like us
too much overhead in time and disk space to be really useful. We
need to work with many external tools and cannot waste lots of
disk space just to deal with multiple copies needed for import/export.
Import by Reference (e.g. iPhoto, Lightroom,
iView Media Pro and Portfolio)
Note: Most tools like Lightroom
also support the import of the full images. I am not sure whether
a good idea to mix and match both approaches. We would either use
full import or import by reference because we may get soon confused
where our images are.
- Easy interfacing with other applications without data duplication
- Less data overhead
- Data in the outside world and the organizer can get out of
sync. The organizer has to deal with new images and especially
if images get moved/deleted in the outside world (broken links,
sometimes called zombies). You should not underestimate this
- Harder to get the system adopted for multiple users
- Needs more user discipline to minimizes the out of sync situation
Observed or Managed Folders
A common compromise implemented in some organizers is to allow
managed/observed folders (only useful if it allows folder hierarchies).
The organizer checks for new, moved and deleted files in certain
- Real time (tricky and can slow down your system)
- Time intervals (minutes, hours, days)
- User request (needs to be implemented in any case)
- The hard part is to track down moved files and not to lose
the stored metadata for a moved image. Some systems can use so
called file fingerprints (e.g. MD5 hash) to identify an image.
- Delete automatically the metadata for a deleted file or allow
a later reconnect. Here the organizer could provide a list of
deleted files and allow the user to reconnect the file if needed.
Best the user would only delete files via the organizer anyway.
Browser and Organizer Requirements
As always we want it all but
there are many tradeoffs to master. If you select a browser or
organizer check that it supports the key features well and not
so much for the number of features.
Conclusion (as of September 2006)
are still waiting to find a single organizer that saves us time
and does all the operations we need. We would like
the organizer to implement managed folders very well and
also present the user with a visual experience.
We have the following vision: An organizer framework
that has well defined interfaces to add other RAW converters or
editors and still would provide a visual experience like Aperture
or Lightroom. Bundling the organizer with some sort of RAW converter
is not what we are looking for (the RAW converters should be applications
that you can easily interface with). We are not overly optimistic
that our dream may come true. This is of course our very personal
view and your demands may vary. Understand first your needs and
then look for the browser or organizer of your choice. It is quite
common that we have 2-3 different browsers open at any time (each
one with it's own pros and cons).
Here are the browsers that we have open most of
- OS X Finder (Spotlight saves us a lot of time)
- Adobe Bridge
- Photo Mechanic
- Browsers inside some raw converters
Right now we have on our main machine (Mac PowerPC Quad) about
25,000 RAW files in direct access. We also store on the main machine
PSD and JPEG files (with variation and some duplicates). With Mac
OS X Spotlight we normally need about 5-10 seconds to find a matching
JPEG files because of our naming standards (covered in our books).
We have quite a few 250-500GB external backup disks and store also
RAWs on DVDs.