For managing growing collections of images, the best (but not the only) solution is a dedicated cataloguing program, sometimes called Digital-Asset-Management software. These programs create a database of images that are on your computer or even on CDs or external hard-drives, allowing you to search and retrieve sets of images very quickly, no matter where they are stored. In this way, you could have all of your photographs organized by city, or even neighborhood, but you could also have additional groupings for, say, a particular building type, or building technology, or even a particular lecture that you give repeatedly. It is a marvelous way to keep track of large sets of images. Most of them also have the ability to export to slideshows, or to the web, but have limited, if any, photo-editing capabilities.
There are also programs that are less sophisticated as cataloguers but allow various degrees of photo editing. These include the various editions of Adobe Photoshop, of course, which allow image editing and image browsing, but are less capable at cataloguing as the dedicated DAM software. Of course what they provide may be all you need.
Embed Your Metadata!
Whatever you decide to purchase, it is critical that you use one that has the ability to embed caption information directly into the photograph itself. This is done using IPTC’s metadata fields, which include Description, City, State, Country, Photographer, etc. At CWF, we use all of these, as well as the Copyright field, and the Location field for the building name or street address. There are many reasons to embed captions within the image itself but the main one is that you don’t want to have to rely on a single piece of software to keep track of your photographs. If you ever change cataloguing software, or give a photo to someone else, or donate your entire collection, say, to a library, your images will be next to useless if their captions are not contained in the files themselves. Imagine if you had a collection of 10,000 slides with all the captions written on a few sheets of paper, and nothing on the slides. If you ever lost the paper, you’d be sunk.
One of the great things about doing all this digitally is that IPTC metadata can be searched instantly by any major photo cataloguing software, and, better still, desktop searching programs like Apple’s Spotlight or Google Desktop (for Windows users). When you are looking for a single particular image, using desktop search can be much faster than looking for it in a catalog.
Finally, and maybe most important, new collaborative imaging resources, like Flickr, also pull from IPTC fields, mapping Description to Flickr’s Caption, Title (or filename if Title is blank) to Title, and most everything else to tags. Here is a Flickr page that shows how IPTC metadata, embedded in an image, is viewed in three environments: Adobe Lightroom, Flickr, and the new Adobe Photoshop Express, which is a very new web-based image processor and catalog. When the SAH AVRN starts gathering resources it will draw on a customized, extended set of IPTC fields, developed by ArtStor, that are geared specifically to architecture.
Here is an annotated list, with prices, of some of the software you might consider to help manage your images using embedded metadata.
Extensis Portfolio ($199)
Microsoft Expression Media ($199)
These are the two major desktop image catalog programs. Portfolio and Microsoft Expression Media (formerly iView Media) are both flexible, powerful cataloging systems and will certainly suit your purposes very well, if you take the time to learn them. Both are used by professional photographers to manage collections of images in the thousands and will be quite capable for your purposes, I am sure. I do not believe that they have any image-editing functions, however, so if you want to make any changes to your photographs (including cropping, color correction, etc.), you will need to purchase something else.
Adobe Elements ($99)
Adobe Elements has all the image editing functions that most non-professional photographers will ever need. The most recent version includes a fine image browser that has a basic search function and a very easy way to enter IPTC metadata for multiple images at a time. If you don’t feel that you need very sophisticated cataloguing software but do want to be able to do basic editing, Elements is almost certainly your best bet, and a clear bargain at under $100 (still less if you get an educational discount). The professional version, Photoshop CS3, adds more sophisticated editing tools (many of which even pro photographers don’t use), and has a similar image browser (Adobe Bridge), but carries a high price tag. You can always start with Elements and if you feel a need to do more, upgrade to CS3 later.
Adobe Lightroom ($300)
Adobe Lightroom is a new product from the makers of Photoshop. It has all of the image-editing functions of Elements, plus a few from Photoshop including a very powerful and flexible raw file processor, and, most important, adds a sophisticated image cataloguing database like Portfolio and iView. Best of all, it retains any image changes that you make in its catalog database, allowing you to undo your changes and revert to the original at any time. If you want to make your changes permanent, you may do so. If you want the cataloguing abilities of Portfolio and iView with very good image editing in a single package, Lightroom is a good value. The only caveat here (and this is an important one) is that Lightroom has tended to have trouble with catalogs of more than about 5,000 images. In time, I presume this will improve. Because of its combination of excellent photo-editing and cataloguing tools, it is currently my first choice to process images when I come back from the field. When I need to really work something over, of course, Photoshop CS3 remains indispensable.
Automator action: IPTC to Jpeg (free: Mac only)
In rooting around on the web, I also found this little program. It looks like a very simple program that does only one thing: write IPTC caption information into jpeg image files. If you want the bargain-basement solution, and are willing to manage your files using folders and search using Spotlight or Google Desktop, this might be the way to go.
Finally, I should point out that a very popular image browser with some very basic cataloguing functions is Google’s Picasa. This is a nice program, and free, but there isn’t a Mac version and it can only write one field, Description, into the IPTC Metadata. It does have basic image-editing functions, however, and, again, it’s free, so worth looking into for Windows users.
For more, see the very useful roundup of image-management solutions assembled by Connecticut College’s Instructional Technology Team.