There are many digital photography software programs today that help you organize your digital pictures. Some are called image viewers while others are called digital asset management programs. They can be free of charge or can cost hundreds of dollars to buy. How can one make sense of all these options? It is actually pretty simple because there are essentially three categories of image management programs. Read on to find out what they are.
Introduction or what is digital photo software?
Let me start by saying that digital photography software in its broadest sense can be broken down in two large categories. The first category of digital photo software is image creation and editing software. This category contains software programs like: Gimp, Adobe Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro.
The main purpose of digital creation software is to create images or greatly alter existing images. They have sophisticated and efficient pixel altering algorithms.
On the other hand, you have digital photo management software that helps you manage and edit your existing photo collection.
While digital photo management software can have great image editing capabilities, the focus of these tools is on managing your photo collection.
It is digital photo management software that I want to explore more in this article.
First category of digital photo management software: Image browsers are simple and fast.
These are the simplest digital photo management programs, sometimes called image viewers or image browsers.
They provide a direct view of the image folders you have on your hard drive. Image viewers allow you to quickly view and manipulate your digital photo folders and files. Some more sophisticated image viewers give you basic image editing tools such as: brightness and contrast, saturation, color levels and other simple tools. However, these editing tools will apply changes to your entire image and use only simple algorithms.
In addition, these image viewers assist you with transferring pictures from your digital camera to your computer. This feature is extremely useful if you want to rename your image files during the transfer and create specific folders based on values in the EXIF metadata portion of your image files. For example, you can quickly rename your image files based on the date when the picture was taken and you can also create a sub folder for each date when you took the pictures on your camera. All these transformations can be done while transferring the pictures.
The main advantages of image browsers are speed and simplicity. They are fast to load and navigate through your digital photo folders.
The main disadvantage is the lack of image metadata management capability. They can provide EXIF information but that’s about it. They don’t usually provide any access to IPTC and XMP metadata elements.
The best example of this class is FastStone Image Viewer which is still free for personal use. This is my favorite image viewer and I use it quite extensively for transferring my pictures and doing quick edits and manipulation of images. Nothing fancy here, just fast and easy to use.
Second category: Metadata enabled image viewers
While the image viewers in the first category provide only EXIF image metadata information, this new category of image viewers provide more access to image metadata.
The access to metadata is not only to view it but also to create new image metadata and edit existing metadata. I am referring of course to IPTC image metadata and XMP image metadata. This is particularly helpful when adding keywords (tags) to your pictures as well as other authoring information like: author, caption and location.
I would like to point out that image metadata access for this class of programs is provided only when needed. If I don’t request to see image metadata or edit it, then the program doesn’t do anything. This way the software is supposed to be very responsive to navigation through image folders.
One advantage that comes with having access to image metadata, is vastly improved search capabilities. This class of image viewers allow the user to not only edit image metadata, but also search pictures based on image metadata elements like keywords and geographic location. This is one great feature.
The main advantage of metadata enabled image viewers is speed coupled with image metadata management capability. They’re also supposed to load fast and provide a direct view of the image folders on your computer.
The main disadvantage is slow image metadata bulk editing and searching. They may only have problems with speed when editing image metadata in bulk.
For example if I want to add a set of keywords to 100 pictures, the software has to open each file, write the image metadata and close each file. This is slow because it involves lots of file operations that can be costly to your computer performance. However, for most home users this should not pose any problem.
Performance problems start appearing as well when searching using image metadata elements. Searching large collections using image metadata becomes slow when using metadata enabled image viewers. This happens for the same reason discussed above.
Namely, when searching through a large collection of pictures, the software has to open each file, analyze the contents of the metadata present in each file, close the file and then provide search results. The larger the collection, the slower the search results.
The best example of this class of image management software is XnView which is again free for personal use. This is my favorite image viewer with image metadata capabilities. It also boasts a large array of image editing tools and algorithms. This is one powerful program especially if you care about image metadata. Another commercial example of this class is Photo Mechanic which seems to be the default software professional photographers use for importing their pictures on their computer. Very powerful tool with a decent price tag. A less pricey option, but very powerful, seems to be iMatch (which I found to be user un-friendly).
Third category: Database driven photo managers
The most complex image management software programs are those that are database enabled. Programs like Picasa, ACDSee and Adobe Lightoom are the well known programs from this category. What is special about this category? Well, it’s the database that comes with each of these programs. You as the user, will have no idea that there is a database underneath…unless you look more carefully.
What is this database used for? Primarily, the database for this class of image management programs is used for storing all (literally all) image metadata. This includes all EXIF, IPTC and XMP (in some cases) metadata found in all the images imported into the tool (Read The road frequently traveled by image metadata).
In addition, the physical location of the images is also imported into the database as well, so that if you move images outside of the program, you will have to sync your program with the actual image folders. This means that this class of programs do not provide a direct view of the image folders on your computer. What you see as folders in these programs, are actually just pointers to the actual physical location of the images.
The main difference between this class of digital photo management programs and the other two classes is the fact that any editing of the images can be done virtually, meaning that all the transformations of the images do not affect the original image unless they are applied to the image.
In other words, these programs work on virtual copies of the original images and it implies that all the changes made to an image can be reversed if needed. This can be a great advantage for more advanced photographers who spend a great deal of time on modifying their pictures. For most home users, this feature can be cumbersome.
The main advantages of database driven photo managers are: excellent image metadata management capability (for the most part), great speed when searching large image collections based on image metadata fields and powerful image editing that can be undone.
The main disadvantage of this class is complexity. It takes a while to get used with these programs and be able to use them efficiently. In order to used these programs efficiently you need to understand where the database resides on your computer (it can be called a catalog, or repository or something similar). You need to find out and learn how to back it up. Also, you must learn how to synchronize the image collection on your computer, with the image collection your program “sees”. Unless synchronized, your program only “sees” what you have synchronized.
The best examples of this class of image management programs are: Picasa (which is free, but has limited image metadata support), Adobe Lightroom (arguably the best image management tool but with a high price tag) and ACDSee Pro version (great product and not as pricey as Lightroom).
To download any of the free programs mentioned here please visit my recommended photography products page.