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Cataloging Photos and Storing Them on the Computer

Anyone who has ever heard me speak French will be surprised that there is something I do even worse: file papers. If the appropriate destination is obvious, I will usually put them away eventually, but I seem to be saddled with an unclear mind, for rarely do I find the destination obvious. For example, in front of me is an article on colour organs – 19th-century organs that projected colours while playing music. Do I file this under music, musical instruments, organs, colour, vision, or synaesthesia (the mixing of senses)?

My solution to such conundrums used to be to leave papers wherever I finished reading them until my wife got fed up with the mess and threw everything in a box. To find a paper – well, if it was still lying about and I had been noshing while I read it, I might try asking the dog to sniff out crumbs, but usually all I could do was hope to locate one paper by accident while searching for another. Only in the last few years have I come up with a sensible approach. Now I save them all on my computer in a folder called “papers” and search for the contents using CTM Development’s FoxTrot (Tiger) or Spotlight (Leopard).

Pictures are different, though. There is no way to index images. To find pictures by their content requires (1) describing the content in words and (2) attaching descriptions to images. Both requisites sound simpler than I have found either of them to be.

Describing Picture Content — Keywords are supposed to make it easy to find a photo. Computers can handle lots of keywords, so applying enough of them ought to let me find anything. Unfortunately, I can think up an impractical number of descriptors for every picture and I can never decide which of them not to include. For example, here are the keywords I came up with for this photograph:

workman, tradesman, builder, carpenter, sawyer, frame, framer, framing, saw, wood_saw, bowsaw, bucksaw, workplace, safety, workplace_safety, building, home_building, house, construction, house_construction, industrial_photography, portrait, industrial_portrait, travel_photography, travel_photograph, monsoon, clouds, monsoon_clouds, cloudy, barefoot, rural, China, Yunan, rural_China, rural_Yunan

In the hope of finding a sensible way to select keywords I consulted a professional photo cataloguer, Marcia Tiede, then at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography. Tiede told me that if I wanted to identify a photo of a workman, one cataloguing convention would have me enter “workmen” instead. Ditto for 16 other words on my list – tradesmen, builders, carpenters, sawyers, etc. Beyond that, however, she could not make the job any more straightforward. She also suggested five more keywords: men, labourers, occupations, equipment, and tools.

Tiede explained that there is no standard set of descriptors. The U.S. Library of Congress publishes a two-part Thesaurus of Graphic Materials that some U.S. libraries use as a de facto standard but it is continually changing, so that the descriptor of a subject used yesterday or tomorrow may not be the same as its equivalent today. Also, the thesaurus is unwieldy, 830 pages and growing. On the other hand, despite its size, Tiede still finds it to be missing appropriate descriptors. If I were using it, this would be the list of keywords for that picture:

carpenters, saw, crosscut_saws, sawing_wood, safety, hazard, construction, houses, wooden_buildings, construction_industry, portrait_photographs, travel, equipment, tools, men, labourers, occupations, equipment, tools.

I took a long time to extract that list from the thesaurus. Tiede has been cataloguing photos daily for decades, so she is much more efficient. Still, she told me that it typically takes her about five minutes per picture, “often less but sometimes more.” Describing pictures is so time-consuming that a bunch of museum administrators are trying to develop a catalogue formed by the public like a wiki, and – apparently Tom Sawyer is alive and resides in California – Google Image Labeler is trying to induce the public to identify pictures in Google’s index by turning keywording into a game.

While talking with Tiede, it struck me that an index of keywords could be useful for particular, delimited circumstances but in most cases, their selection must be so limited and haphazard that searching might be no less efficient if keywords were not used at all, if a richly descriptive caption were used instead, a stream of text that would flow more easily from the mind. Tiede agreed. She told me that this is being tried in library circles, often with the addition of syntactical markers that form an extension of the World Wide Web called the Semantic Web.

Linking Photos and Descriptions — Attaching this information to photos presents more problems. No organization maintains a standard for the EXIF information supplied by the camera – it is an ad hoc convention of camera manufacturers – and the IPTC (International Press Telecommunications Council) standard for storing textual metadata within image files has been evolving over the years. Indeed, the latest version is extensible, to allow for further change. The standards and practices are sufficiently chaotic that not all applications recognize the same fields and the same field may appear with different labels in different applications. Some applications permit you to enhance this confusion by defining fields
of your own, which may or may not be in a format that another application will recognize. Finally, to read and edit the metadata of an image, an application needs to read and save the entire image file – perhaps 100 megabytes to change 1 kilobyte.

(If your pictures are smaller – if they are closer to 1 MB – then your pictures are compressed as JPEGs. This compression loses information, so serious photographers usually save pictures in an uncompressed format and convert them to JPEG only to put them on the Web or to send them by email. Uncompressed photos run in the tens of megabytes. When working in Photoshop, it is normal to duplicate the photo into a different layer and work on it, then to repeat this process several times. In this way a final image can easily become hundreds of megabytes.)

To show you a selection of photographs, any application needs to display small versions of the original and make available any metadata attached to them. There are only a few ways to do this and each has limitations:

  1. Read all the information from disk every time it’s needed, and generate a small preview image whenever one is required. With uncompressed pictures this takes so much time that it is sensible only when cataloguing folders that change often, like the contents of memory cards.
  2. Generate a preview image the first time it is required, and keep the small image and the metadata in a cache. This works with more pictures than the previous method but becomes awkward with large numbers.
  3. Generate a preview image and put that preview plus the metadata into a permanent, efficient database. This approach can handle any number of pictures, but the database and the original files must be synchronized after any change to either. This kind of synchronization is easily mucked up, leading to confusion and lost work.
  4. Generate a preview then put the preview and metadata into a permanent, efficient database, and move the original image there too. This prevents damage from improper synchronization but presents a long-term liability. All of the technology involving digital pictures is evolving rapidly, including the databases for storing them. A few years from now you may prefer to store your photographs differently and want to export them. However, it is one thing to export text from a database and it is another thing to export 100 MB images, especially if you have a lot of them. Finding the time and drive space to do this might be difficult.

Simple Tools — My personal approach to organizing pictures is almost as haphazard as my approach to organizing papers. I lack the self-discipline to label them, but if I care about them I put them into folders labelled by the journey I shot them on or the subject’s name. To find them, I negotiate those folders then root rapidly through thumbnail images and small previews. The Finder is almost sufficient for this task, but every time it needs a preview image, it draws a fresh one. On our computers, Finder’s preview of a 100 MB image typically takes 6 or 7 seconds to appear. (This is on both a 2 GHz dual-processor Power Mac G5 with 8 GB of RAM and a dual-core Intel-based iMac with 2 GB of RAM.) This
takes so long as to make rooting through folders of large images impractical.

The next step up from this is Adobe Bridge, part of Creative Suite 3 and Photoshop Elements 6. Bridge builds previews and caches them. It offers a rough equivalent of the preview mode in older versions of Elements or the browser in GraphicConverter. Since I own Adobe Bridge, I tried it for awhile, but I found that, although an improvement over the Finder, it is still sluggish. Also, it will not let me edit one string of text that I often need to, the date and time that the photograph was taken. I rarely remember to change these in my camera
while crossing time zones, and a couple of times I have set a camera to the wrong day or year, so I often find myself needing to correct the date or time in the image file.

Aperture and iPhoto — At this point I decided to try Apple’s Aperture. This is the big brother of iPhoto that is aimed at advanced amateurs and pros. Aperture offers many more tools than iPhoto for identifying, selecting, and manipulating pictures but iPhoto ’08 has been changed to work much like Aperture under the hood, so my comments on Aperture apply to iPhoto as well, except as noted.

Aperture generates its own database, importing original photos into a proprietary data structure, and generating copies of each for quick previewing. This provides the advantages and disadvantages I mentioned above: speed and safety for the nonce with a long-term liability if – or, more probably, when – the time comes to store your photographs differently. However, when I tried importing files that contained descriptive metadata, I saw some of my information but not my captions or keywords. Aperture keeps all the metadata separate from the photos and will embed the metadata only if you export a picture.

Besides storing photos, Aperture can edit them. Aperture’s editing tools are far more numerous and sophisticated than iPhoto’s but they are still meagre. I would find it essential to augment them with some third-party plug-ins Apple just announced but even with those there are still some huge lacunae: no way to control perspective, correct distortion, or reduce optical blurring (as in Photoshop’s smart sharpening controls). (See “Aperture 2.1 Adds Plug-in Capability to Edit Photos,” 2007-09-07.) Also, there is no way in Aperture to select only part of an image and have either Aperture or a plug-in modify only that part.

Aperture’s editing tools also generate a long-term liability. When you edit a photo either with an external editor or with a plug-in, Aperture duplicates it first and sends out the duplicate for alteration, but Aperture’s built-in editing tools work differently. Those do not change the original image; they are mathematical instructions that are effected only when writing to the screen, printing, or exporting a file. The instructions fill little disk space and they can be changed or reordered at any time. However, if Apple ever changes an algorithm in a future release of Aperture, then at a stroke, all of the photographs that you painstakingly modified will be changed. Of course Apple is aware of this, and in a telephone briefing, a
product manager assured Adam and me that Apple would always leave the original code in place so that users’ photographs would remain unchanged, but “always” is a very long time for a company to maintain outdated code. To know that your editing is saved permanently, you need to create a copy of the file by opening it with a plug-in or an external editor, or you need to export the image.

Aperture displays a JPEG of the last state of every image, and attaches your keywords to that JPEG. Thus, if you ever cannot access your pictures through Aperture, you will still find a set of labelled, edited photos buried in Aperture’s data package. (A package is a folder that looks like a file but can be opened in the Finder like any other folder by selecting it, Control-clicking, then choosing Show Package Contents in the contextual menu that appears.) They will only be JPEGs, not TIFFs or raw images, but at least you will have a complete set of pictures and metadata in some format. (iPhoto maintains comparable JPEGs in its iPhoto Library package but does not attach any metadata to them, so if you ever lose access to your iPhoto
database, your keywords will be gone. However, unlike earlier versions, iPhoto ’08 does attach your keywords to photos if you export the images.)

Aperture’s user interface is much improved in the current version, and most of its icons and controls are labelled clearly in English, but it still uses close to two dozen hieroglyphical characters. They may be called icons but they are hardly iconic. I find them difficult to interpret and even difficult to make out with my monitor at the back of my desk. On top of that, their explanatory tooltips are not Apple’s standard black on yellow but white on black, which makes them difficult to read. It is no accident that books are printed in black ink on white paper, or that black on white won out over reverse video in word processors. For optical and other reasons, black text on a white background is more legible than white on black. Apple’s
use of white text on black is a fatuous triumph of fashion over function.

Apple permits a choice of background behind your photographs, a choice running from black to white with a middling grey as the default. Grey is easiest on the eyes and black makes pictures look the best, but white gives the closest indication of how the pictures will look when printed. Since the primary purpose of Aperture is to sort pictures for printing, I want to use a white background – but I cannot. Aperture makes this impractical because to indicate a selection, it surrounds pictures with a white frame, not with a contrasting tone or a colour.

Apple’s user interface guidelines eschew gibberish in menus, but Aperture sports Show Inspector HUD, Show Keywords HUD, and Show Lift & Stamp HUD. “HUD” stands for “heads-up display,” which is Apple’s new jargon for a floating window. Each of these floating windows uses small type in white on black, which makes them hard to read and annoying to use.

Despite these problems with the user interface, Aperture 2 is much improved over previous versions. In other respects it is now a competent application. However, it is not an application that I want to use, irrespective of the interface. I want my metadata stored with my original photographs, and I have seen too much change in the computer world to want to tie my pictures to a vector-based editor, even if that editor could do all that I would want it to.

Expression Media and Extensis Portfolio — At this point I looked at other photo organizers. I tried all I could find, including, among others, Extensis Portfolio, Microsoft Expression Media (formerly iView MediaPro), Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, MediaDex (the single-user version of Canto Cumulus), and QPict. I found the first two of them to be worth a close look, Portfolio and Expression Media. Both of them
use the third structure on my list: they maintain structured databases of text information and previews but will synchronize their databases with the original files. Both of them work quickly, are reasonably reliable at synchronizing, and are reasonably robust. Expression Media can also edit pictures but its editing tools are rudimentary.

Of these two packages, Expression Media ought to be preferable – just about ideal, in fact. It has virtually every feature I might ever want and the next version, currently in beta, has the missing one: hierarchical keywords. If I ever define keywords, some of them will fit into categories, so a hierarchical display will make them easier to find:

format: vertical horizontal square

portraits: friends relatives personal commercial

Aperture also offers hierarchical keywords, and iPhoto does through Keyword Manager, but Portfolio does not, and Portfolio has fewer bells and whistles as well.

However despite Expression Media’s capabilities, I cannot stand the product, because of its user interface. I don’t want to mouse through menus for every command and I can remember few keyboard shortcuts, so I want to use toolbars most of the time, but I find Expression Media’s toolbar to be virtually useless. Instead of meaningful icons, it is filled with indecipherable hieroglyphs, hieroglyphs that are not labelled in English and contain no colour to help tell them apart. Moreover, half of the hieroglyphs are for commands that I never use, so that they add nothing but confusion, and the toolbar cannot be modified to remove them. Only the pop-up tooltips make the hieroglyphs interpretable, so for all intents and purposes, the toolbar
functions as a menu that displays its items one at a time after a one-second delay. I tried changing some of the keyboard shortcuts to a set that I might remember, but some of the menu items would not change and adding a shortcut to one command did not remove it from another.

Expression Media’s predecessor, iView MediaPro, was identical to the current version of Expression Media, except that its toolbar was better. The hieroglyphics in iView’s toolbar were in colour and contained some interpretable icons scattered among them. This made iView’s toolbar useable, and a useable toolbar made iView a useable product. I used it happily and would use it still, if Microsoft were still maintaining it. However, the toolbar in Expression Media drove me to Extensis Portfolio. Although Portfolio does not offer quite all of the features I would like, it has enough features to do the job and it has a nice Cocoa interface that I can configure to be comfortable and convenient. I prefer fewer features that I can find easily to
more features that I need to search for.

With Portfolio, I have found satisfactory if not excellent ways to have it do everything I want, with two exceptions: it cannot change the date and time a photograph was taken, and it cannot create hierarchical lists of keywords. However, I found a free application that will let me change dates, Jim Merkel’s PhotoInfo, and I suspect that before I learn to be assiduous about applying keywords, Portfolio’s developers will have been prodded by their competition to add hierarchism.

Both Expression Media and Portfolio maintain a separate database for metadata but, unlike Aperture, they will also write metadata to the original files. This strikes me as a valuable feature. Nothing in the computer world lasts forever. Eventually you are going to need to or want to move your photographs out of Aperture. When that happens, to extract your metadata, you will need to export all of your photographs. That will require as much additional drive space as your photographs are occupying. An active photographer’s files can easily grow into the terabytes, so duplicating them is not finding a space to park your car, it’s finding the space to park an 18-wheeler. With Expression Media and Portfolio you can leave your pictures parked
exactly where they are and merely change the program that catalogues them. All you need to do is make sure your metadata are saved to the image files.

Making the Choice — My own assessment of Aperture is that its long-term liabilities leave it suitable less for professionals than for serious amateurs who just want an enhanced iPhoto with better editing capabilities. They are more likely to be filling it with JPEGs, not raw files and TIFFs, so the eventual exporting problem will be reduced by orders of magnitude. They are also more likely to find Aperture’s editing tools sufficient.

Moreover, both Portfolio and Expression Media are better suited to the business world. Unlike Aperture, both of these products are available for Windows as well as Macs, and both Extensis and Microsoft supply free readers for both platforms, to allow professionals to send out databases on CDs. In addition, Portfolio is available in a multi-user version that will permit colleagues to share images over a network.

The choice between Expression Media and Portfolio is the choice between two sets of chefs’ knives in a kitchen: a dozen stored in a knife block with the blades buried or six hanging openly on a rack. The first set has an ideal knife for every purpose but you need to pull out several to find the one you want. With the second set you may not find the perfect knife for a job, but you can find a knife that’s good enough and find it instantly. I have found the difference between the applications to be most pronounced when choosing subtle variations on a theme – slightly different smiles in a portrait, for example. Each program will enlarge its small preview images to fill the screen, and will switch among full-sized previews instantly, but
when images are very similar I want to compare them side-by-side, not sequentially. Expression Media will let me do this but Portfolio will not. With Portfolio I need to open the images I want to compare in Photoshop. This requires but a click on the toolbar, but the originals are much larger than the previews, so they take longer to open.

All in all, the difference between Expression Media and Portfolio is less a matter of function than of taste. I prefer Portfolio but that is a personal preference, not a recommendation. What I recommend is that you try them both side by side. Both are available as full-featured demos with 30 days of unrestricted use.

[If you found Charles Maurer’s thoughts about photo cataloguing helpful, he asks that you make a donation to Save the Children. See the bottom of the page for links to the organization in different countries.]

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