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Interviews

February 2009

Can you find the image that you want in less than five minutes? If the answer is ‘no’ then you may need to explore what are the best options for cataloguing your photographic work. The advent of digital image capture has caused a profound change in the photographic industry. Not only in the way that images are captured, but also in the number of images that photographers work with and how they are catalogued.

Rapidly filling archives are a great incentive to create a robust solution for backup and cataloguing images, but while backup is a regular subject between photographers, discussion of cataloguing and image databases almost seems to be taboo.

Databasing for images - otherwise know as Digital Asset Management or ‘DAM’ - is now a big business and the range of software products available to catalogue them has increased substantially, but finding a solution to fit individual needs is not always easy.

What type of software do you need?

Many think that applications like Adobe Bridge are image-cataloguing software and that by having their files arranged in a folder structure, with an overview provided by Bridge, they have an image database. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Adobe Bridge is an excellent file browser but file browsers can only display readily accessible photos. Using Bridge to view photos (or other media assets), your computer hard drive must contain the original files, or must be connected to storage media that contains the files.

© David Noton

An image like this could be keyworded under ‘South Africa’, ‘lions’, ‘wildlife’, ‘waterhole’, ‘bush’ and ‘Kruger National Park’ amongst other potential categories.

The key functionalities that differentiate catalogue software for cataloguing an image database from simple file browsers are as follows:

  • Offline working - for adding metadata, searching and editing remote catalogues.
  • The ability to create multiple subsets of images within the main catalogue.
  • Detailed image searches.

Traditionally, the range of image cataloguing software for photographers has been limited with the key players including Microsoft Expression Media (formerly iView Media Pro), Extensis Portfolio, Fotostation Pro and ACDSee.

The relatively recent arrival of the Apple Aperture and Adobe Lightroom software packages have extended that list, as both of these have all of the necessary ingredients to be considered as cataloguing applications, with the added benefit of containing sophisticated image processing ‘front ends’.

The only way to see which of these applications works for you is to download the trial and experiment with adding metadata, and searching. The process is not a quick one, but neither is creating the final catalogue - a process that may require hundreds of hours to complete.

While the above applications meet the needs of individual photographers with relatively small archives, newspapers, magazines and agencies require a more robust, server-based system. While the basic operation is similar, these systems are geared up for multi-user access, robust security and multi-layered backup solutions. In many cases these are bespoke or customised versions of ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions.

Components of an image catalogue

© David Noton

An overview of the image, together with its specifications and the catalogue it has come from, in Extensis Portfolio.

Key ingredients to ensuring a successful image catalogue of any size include:

  • A robust storage solution, with adequate backup.
  • Excellent image previews.
  • An intelligent file naming system.
  • A consistent and carefully thought out keywording system.
  • Subsets or grouping of images within the larger catalogue.

The ability to find the required images rapidly is the most important requirement of any image catalogue and keywording, along with file naming, is key to this.

Keywording is a complex subject and it is important to consider the subject carefully. If you have an image of your vehicle, you may well describe it to a European as a ‘car’, to an American as an ‘automobile’ and to another person as your ‘wheels’ - the keywords for the image have to include all of these, as well as perhaps ‘Ford,’ ‘hatchback’ and many more.

Keywording has to be broad enough to be inclusive, but tight enough to narrow down a search rapidly to the required images. David Riecks, author of the website www.controlledvocabulary.com, has spent a great deal of time on this subject and he now retails list of controlled vocabulary, specifically to allow more accurate keywording of photographic images.

© David Noton

Keywording has to be broad enough to include the correct images but tight enough to isolate them. Here is a detailed view of thumbnails and keywords from travel photographer David Noton’s images of a Chilean wine region.

The 100,000 image watershed

In many cases 100,000 images is a watershed. For an individual photographer, it is a very large number and may represent many years of work, assuming that images are edited along the way.

For a large photographic agency like ThomsonReuters, this may represent a much shorter length of time, including as it does, the output of many or in some cases, hundreds of photographers.

The individual photographer

David Noton is a travel and landscape photographer with a library of pictures that stretches back over 25 years for stock, publishing, advertising, and his programme of exhibitions, writing and talks.

David administers his collection with the help of his wife, Wendy Noton, and office manager, Sharyn Meeks. He also calls upon a specialist third party keyworder to bring maximum value to his images.

© David Noton

David Noton used the image location as the basis of his file naming system. Here is a list view of his UK images from Dorset.

David Noton’s workflow stages are interesting:

  • All images are captured in RAW.
  • Initial edit and selection by David Noton.
  • Processing to 16-bit TIFF by David Noton.
  • Basic captioning by Wendy Noton.
  • Low-res copies sent off to a specialist keyworder.
  • Minor dust busting and clean up. Images added to database by Sharyn Meeks and Wendy Noton.

David moved over to digital from film completely around four years ago. He has used Extensis Portfolio for some time and, although the bulk of his archive is digital, film-based images have also been scanned and added to the system.

His digital archive consists of around 15,000 carefully edited and captioned/keyworded images. The portfolio catalogue is fast and images can be found in a few seconds. To speed things up David has two parallel archives - full resolution files at camera native size and a smaller ‘low-res’ archive for searching and client previews, with each file typically around 1Mb.

The Agency - Reuters

In stark contrast, the agency Reuters aims to deliver around 1,700 images a day to its clients, primarily in the news and magazine industries. Although it's on a far large scale, the workflow is not too dissimilar to that of the individual photographer.

© Reuters

The Reuters packages page clearly shows the diversity of content the agency produces. These are very important for clients who want to browse through particular subject areas more granularly, not just the standard News, Sport, Archive and Entertainment topics.

Images are filed by photographers to the Reuters Global Picture desk in Singapore by internet, mobile and satellite phone. Typically images will be filed as high quality JPEGs with the photographer encouraged to hold on to the RAW or unedited camera JPEG for possible reuse in different markets. Photographers are responsible for adding accurate title and caption information to images before filing; encompassing location, event, subject names and details.

Images are handled by Reuters’ Singapore editing desks, where they are cleaned when necessary, edited and assigned supplementary catalogue codes before being uploaded to the Mediaplex distribution system. The supplementary codes (‘Supp codes’) have been agreed between all the major agencies and ensure that images are automatically distributed to the correct image feeds requested by clients. Reuters has taken this one step further by ensuring that the ‘Supp codes’ for pictures synchronise with those used for text, ensuring that a picture search on Reuters' Media Express system or the client’s own databases will also bring up the matching story.

For instance, these codes include ‘ENT’ for Entertainment and ‘SOC’ for Soccer. Others include health, politics, education, society and many more.

A sub-selection of the best ‘feed images’ is selected by the Singapore desk for detailed keywording to allow the images to be added to the Reuters Pictures archive, a smaller and more specialist archive of images.

Once the images have been keyworded they are added to a powerful and sophisticated Cortex database created by Orange Logic digital asset management software.

© Reuters

A small Reuters keyword tree for the word ‘School’, showing what comes underneath this branch and above it.

Reuters has the challenge of continuing to supply its existing markets with timely news pictures for which the agency is best known, whilst at the same time seeking to supply new markets with a broader range of imagery as befits a picture agency. Careful keywording is a key constituent of this and the system is reliant on human input, utilising a ‘keyword tree.’ A keyword tree is effectively an automated form of controlled vocabulary that can rapidly be drilled down, so for instance, the term ‘Trafalgar Square’ will automatically add-in ‘London’, ‘England’, ‘Europe’, ‘Capital’, and ‘City’ as other valid search terms.

Isolating images within the larger database is the purpose of a well-constructed image catalogue. Kevin Coombs, editor, News Pictures Production, at Reuters says that: “Effective search and retrieval is the most important tool in our industry today.”

The challenge for individual photographers and agencies alike is to successfully upscale this to deal with ever-greater numbers of images and increased throughput. However, effective and targetted image cataloguing can result in extra business for both the individual photographer and the larger picture agencies around the world.