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Image Browsers and Organizers


by Juergen Gulbins and Uwe Steinmueller


Manage the Digital Workflow


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 JPEG) but 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 purposes.

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 some overview 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 blurred.

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:

  • Speed
  • 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:

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 the user) 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 complicated
  • 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 RAW Treasures")
  • 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 it is 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 it would be 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 problem.
  • 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 intervals:

  • 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

  • View images
    • High quality
    • Color correct
    • Full screen (we work on 24" or larger monitors)
    • Fast (we have seen too many slow browsers and organizers)
  • Present images (for some people more important than maybe for us)
    • Slide show
    • Web galleries
  • Compare images (two ore more side by side)
    • Compare 2 images with zoom and location matched (at also 100 or more percent magnification)
  • View RAW, JPG, TIFF and PSD files (of course there are also other image formats but not as crucial as these file types)
    • View RAW is tricky as RAW files get quite a different rendering by all the RAW converters on the market
  • Support for metadata standards
    • EXIF (mandatory)
    • IPTC (mandatory)
    • XMP (important)
  • Image ranking (quite common now, would nice to have only one schema in all organizer for exchange)
  • Add and edit metadata
    • Keywords (hierarchical)
    • Categories
  • Organize images logically
    • By categories
    • Keywords
    • Other metadata
  • Find images by many different criteria
    • Metadata
    • keywords
    • EXIF info
    • Ranking
    • Time range
    • Arbitrary combine search criteria
    • Fast (here a database is key)
  • Simple image operations
    • Rotation (in 90 degree steps)
  • Virtual folders/galleries as a result of stored search criteria
  • Organize images physically
    • Delete
    • Move
    • Copy
  • Drag/Drop to other applications
  • Handle offline storage
  • Support image backup (not very common and not always helpful)
    • Don't assume one media will last forever
  • Note: You should have your images at least on 2-3 different physical media

  • Support storage on multiple physical disks
  • Ease of use
  • Multiple browser windows open at the same time
  • Support for multiple screens
  • Easy interface to other 3rd party RAW converters or editors
  • Cross platform or single OS only
  • Exchange with other machines, users and software (keeping all metadata)
    • Export
    • Import
  • Support for multiple users (same and multiple machines)
  • Import of image data from external memory cards
  • Support for contact sheets
  • Did we mention fast?

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)

We 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 the time:

  • 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 300GB of derived TIFF, 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 RAW file for any of our TIFF, PSD and 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.





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