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Finding a Few Good Pictures

Tools to Distill Your Digital Collections

By Dennis Dimick

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

It’s one thing to use graphics database programs to track your burgeoning digital picture collection. It’s quite another to distill hundreds or thousands of images to the few you really like, the ones you want to print or save as key visual memories.

Software programs that offer large size views of each frame and let you quickly mark and sort your “keepers” aren’t as common as those that just show thumbnails, or programs that let you present a slide show. But in fact these “distillation” programs can improve your slide shows by helping you quickly identify the best frames and eliminate similar, but lesser quality pictures.

I’ve lately used several native Mac OSX programs to “distill” picture collections to the few good ones. These include Apple’s free iPhoto 2, two new offerings from a small British firm— iView Media 1.2 and the full-featured iView MediaPro 2.0, CameraBits’ fast-operating Photo Mechanic, and the file browser window in Adobe Photoshop CS, the renamed successor to Photoshop 7. (CS stands for Creative Suite. It’s really Photoshop 8. What will they name Photoshop 9? Photoshop CS II?)

I’ll briefly discuss each program’s virtues in this image selection arena, as each approaches this task a bit differently, and I’ll also deal with some related features. This is not a comprehensive review of each program.

From Film to Digital Collections

Mac database programs that track image files have been around for about a decade; my first experience was via a program from Aldus called Fetch. (History: Aldus published PageMaker, the first Mac page layout program. Aldus, Pagemaker, and Fetch were all bought by Adobe Systems. Fetch later was sold to Extensis and renamed Portfolio. I’m not discussing Portfolio as it does not, in my view, offer selection tools with the flexibility of other programs to quickly or easily isolate images from large collections.)

Fetch created thumbnail directories of your digital image collections and let you easily find the originals, whether on a hard drive, floppy, Zip, or CD. In a time when most people shot pictures on film, digital scans of slides or negatives were more the exception than the norm. Digital image collections were small, as scanning typically was done after the slides or negatives had been distilled to the few best using a light table, or by examining small proof prints from negatives.

This has all changed as digital cameras have muscled into the marketplace. Now the premium is on tools that allow quick review, selection, and sorting of a few “keeper” frames. Whether you are a hobbyist or photojournalist shooting digital images, these new sorting programs go far towards letting you control your image collections.

Free and Easy: Apple’s iPhoto 2

What’s not to love about a free program from Apple that comes installed on every new Mac sold, lets you create albums of your digital camera images, lets you sort pictures into any number of albums, allows you to select your prime images, lets you make QuickTime movies or slide shows (with music) from them, and even contains page design tools for a picture book that Apple will inexpensively print for you?

If you have a digital camera that produces small files (in the 2-to-3 megapixel size range,) all your images are in JPEG file format, and you typically use your digital camera for special occasions, trips, celebrations and the like, iPhoto may be all you need. It offers basic image enhancement tools, and for the most part is very stable.

iPhoto 2

iPhoto Selection: After you import a photo collection into iPhoto 2, stay in the “Organize” mode and slide the thumbnail size slider all the way to the right. Then you can page through images in your library and drag “selects” to a new album on the left side, in this case “ballet selects.”

That said, you get what you pay for. I spent a week in October using iPhoto2 on an 800mhz G4 iMac with 256MB RAM to review, organize, sort, select, and present digital images from half a dozen photographers during a workshop. The JPEG files were quite small, about 300kb on disk per image. (These images had been downsampled from larger 3 MB size original JPEG files from professional cameras.)

By week’s end iPhoto’s library contained about 3,000 images. Most noticeable was iPhoto’s glacial response rate. It often took a couple of seconds to drag an image from a window into an album library. Several times I had to force quit the program to clear system memory, as iPhoto would occasionally just quit responding.

If you have a speedier Mac with more installed RAM, and your image collections are modest, you may never see this accumulating sloth as image collections grow. But another option, or more specifically, a lack of option has always kept me away from iPhoto as a day-to-day tool.

When iPhoto creates image libraries it always makes copies of your original files, writing them into the “Photos” folder of your OS X startup drive user folder. This even if you already have the images stored on another drive or drive partition.

Unlike iTunes, which allows you to choose where your Music library will reside, iPhoto requires that copies of all images be written to your startup drive or partition. This may not be an issue for you, especially if you have only one big hard drive in your Mac. But I see this as a deal-breaker. I don’t want my data files on my startup drive. I want them stored away from my system files, and always on more than one hard drive. Perhaps the next version of iPhoto will offers a preference option to allow keeping iPhoto libraries in alternate locations.

Basic Sorting Tools: Photo Mechanic

At $150, CameraBits’ Photo Mechanic accomplishes its tasks quickly and competently. That said, I’ve found it may be one of the least visually attractive Mac programs I’ve met, and for a program designed to handle pictures this seems incongruous. Photo Mechanic’s thumbnail windows don’t work the way other Mac programs work (they are fixed width, five images wide) and you can’t resize them to fill your screen. You can’t use the keyboard arrow keys to advance through selected image previews, instead you must hit on-screen “next” and “previous” buttons with your mouse pointer after selecting all thumbnails on a contact sheet.

Photo Mechanic just assumes you have Adobe Photoshop on your Mac, and if you need to color-correct or cleanup an image in an editing program, a “double-click” on a picture automatically sends the file to Photoshop. But what if, for whatever reason, you have both an older and a newer version of Photoshop on your Mac? There’s no way of setting a preference so Photo Mechanic knows which editing program to use for images.

Photo Mechanic

Mechanic at Work: CameraBits Photo Mechanic offers a thumbnail view (background) akin to the look of transparencies on a light table. By selecting the little “iris” on a thumbnail, you get this large resizable preview window to review and page through your collections. Despite its unusual interface, Photo Mechanic allows quick work.

That said, once you get past the interface quirks—this program looks like some mutant descendant of early Windows parentage—it’s quite fast and powerful. Photo Mechanic creates thumbnail libraries almost instantly, faster than any program I’ve seen. You can rename photos quickly, and can create a library of “meta-data” stationery pads to quickly insert caption information into single images or selected groups of image files. Once you figure out how the program operates, you can page through images quickly and tag them using “Cmd-T” from the keyboard. You also can create slide shows of selected images.

Designed originally for news photographers needing to select digital images in the field and transmit or email them (with caption information inserted into the file,) Photo Mechanic does what it’s designed to do. It supports review and selection of both JPEG and RAW files, and if you need an industrial-grade program that works fast, regardless of interface, this may be your option. Photo Mechanic offers no image enhancement tools, these must come from an external program such as Photoshop. Despite its utility, Photo Mechanic could use an interface overhaul.

Reviewing iView’s New Views

I’ve been using iView MediaPro for about two years now, starting with version 1.4. This year iView released a $30 Mac and Windows “consumer” version called iView Media, and upgraded iView MediaPro to version 2 at $160 (upgrades $72).

Pro offers a number of new features, including tools for enhancing images, batch processing tools for file renaming, inserting “metadata,” and new easy-to-use file and folder organization tools. You can produce web galleries, contact sheets, or QuickTime movies (with transitions and voice annotations) from catalogs created by iView MediaPro. Besides batch processing tools for still images, iView MediaPro also offers tools to batch convert sound files and QuickTime movies to other formats.

Unlike other programs discussed here, iView MediaPro allows viewing images full-screen (akin to a slide show) as you preview and sort them into select groups. You can create up to nine subsets of your catalog by using a “sort by labels” tool activated by hitting 1-9 on the keyboard.

iView Media Pro

iView by Color: iView MediaPro lets you create up to nine “color-labeled” sets from a folder of images, and you can also custom resize thumbnails. iView also offers full-screen review of images (with the Media button at top center) as you label your selects, an attribute not offered by any other program discussed here.

Several colleagues use iView MediaPro for digital photography assignments—it’s become a key tool for digital image review, selection, and presentation. Though not as fast at creating image catalogs as Photo Mechanic, iView MediaPro presents an elegant interface, easy-to-use tools for customizing how images are viewed, and multiple methods for tagging or selecting images that you want to keep.

The consumer version iView Media 1.2 offers basic image cataloging, file selection, and renaming tools for formats supported by QuickTime, while MediaPro supports a wider variety of formats.

If you have a varied media collection beyond JPEG files that may include native Photoshop and RAW format images, Adobe InDesign documents, Acrobat PDF and Illustrator files, typeface collections, Quicktime movies, animations, varied sound files and text files, iView MediaPro offers tools to catalog, sort, and select the best from your collections.

File Browsing in Photoshop “CS”

Adobe Photoshop has become the prime tool for image enhancement, manipulation, and printing. Only in version 7 did it offer tools to view and sort pictures in folders of images. Photoshop 7 introduced a screen-size browser window that presents thumbnails, “meta-data,” or information about the pictures, and a way to sort, label, and edit images. Though spare of features compared to say, iView MediaPro, the Photoshop 7 browser was a sea change over earlier versions.

Adobe Photoshop’s latest iteration, known as CS, though really Photoshop 8, takes the file browser window to new levels. Photoshop CS also integrates and improves on the $99 Camera RAW 1.0 plug-in released in early 2003. Depending on your requirements, you may not need anything besides Photoshop CS if you deal mostly in digital pictures, and your means are up to the $650 price tag or $170 upgrade price. As one who has not shot a roll of film in a couple of years, yet has accumulated 65 GB of digital image files from half a dozen cameras since summer 2002, this upgrade is a bargain.

Photoshop CS browser

Heavyweight Photoshop CS: The updated file browser window in Photoshop CS allows resizing any pane. In this case the preview window has been enlarged for easy image preview, and sorting occurs using a “flagging” option. This updated file browser offers a “Show Flagged Files” pop-up option (top right) to show your sorted selects.

The new Camera Raw plug-in in Photoshop CS is a big deal if you seek maximum quality from digital cameras. RAW now shows up as a file format option on “prosumer” and professional models. For example, Photoshop CS opens the RAW files from the popular Canon EOS D10 digital camera, where the earlier Camera RAW plug-in for Photoshop 7 did not. It also supports the revised NEF format in the new Nikon D2H camera. Suffice to say, if all you shoot are JPEG files in a consumer camera, sibling program Adobe Photoshop Elements may be all you need.

Photoshop Elements 2, the $99 consumer version of Photoshop, also introduced a file browser window like that found in Photoshop 7. Adobe has not said it will release Photoshop Elements 3, but at a New York photo show in late October a book publisher was touting an April 2004 title on Photoshop Elements with the cover notice “Covers versions 1,2, and 3.”

The Photoshop CS file browser window now lets you resize image previews so they dominate the screen, and you can “flag” images with a “cmd-comma” keystroke as you quickly navigate through thumbnail images with keyboard arrow keys.

The new “show-flagged” menu popup in the file browser lets you see thumbnails of only the images you’ve selected, this without opening any images in Photoshop. It’s also possible to batch modify the image “metadata,” or keywords, for all images in a folder, or to batch color correct images in the file browser window. You also can create PDF presentations of your selected images, this all within the file browser.

An Increasing Range of Options

All these programs provide tools for reviewing, selecting, and presenting images. Your needs and pocketbook will dictate your choice.

iPhoto certainly holds its own against the others as long as collections aren’t huge. You may find that the inexpensive iViewMedia meets your needs. If you need straightforward tools for quick review and selection of images, PhotoMechanic may well meet your challenge.

For those familiar with iView MediaPro, version 2 offers a host of excellent features, elegantly implemented. And of course, if you like to live wholly in a Photoshop world, the file browser and Camera Raw plug-in in Photoshop CS provide ample tools to review and quickly select images from most consumer and professional cameras sold today.

iPhoto requires only a download from Apple.com if you don’t already have it. All the other programs have full feature time-limited demo versions available from the company websites so you can see how well each tool meets your needs. (A tryout for Photoshop CS has not been posted yet, as the program shipped less than a week before this early November writing).

Websites for programs mentioned:

iPhoto2 (free)

CameraBits Photo Mechanic ($150)

iView Media ($30) and iView MediaPro ($160)

Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0 ($99)
Adobe Photoshop CS ($650)

Pi member Dennis Dimick has been using Macintosh computers as a digital darkroom since Kodak introduced the PhotoCD in 1992. Professionally he works as a photo editor for National Geographic Magazine in Washington, DC. He can be reached via email: ddimick@aol.com.