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Digital Asset Management

DAM Software

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In Life a Digital Image, the digital photography workflow is described in eight major steps. The optional step 6 is to catalog photographs in order to make it easy to find specific images. Digital Asset Management (DAM) software exist to perform this exact task. Some are capable of cataloging other types of digital files like video, audio and documents. Some also perform other operations such as editing and image manipulations.

Just as with cameras, there are levels of such software, ranging from free and basic to expensive and powerful. This feature article covers DAM software aimed at advanced amateurs and independent professionals. This first part covers the goals and features found in this class of digital asset management software. Follow up parts to this article cover specific application.

The contenders are Photoshop Lightroom, Bibble Pro, IDimager, IMatch and Picajet FX. The first two of these are full-fledged image possessing applications and are meant to cover a wider part of the digital photography workflow. The last three have minimal image processing features. Certainly, this is not an exhaustive comparison of all digital asset management software but this set of contenders represent the most powerful ones.

For users with lesser requirements a number of free software exist. Profesionals working in teams require more demanding setups which are usually client-server applications in order to search and coordonate between the work of many contributors. This type of software is not only more expensive but also requires more management and maintenance.

DAM Tasks

Digital asset management is basically the creation of a big catalog referencing assets with information, aka metadata, in order to search for assets that match a query based on metadata. All digital files have some metadata built in, like the file name and last modified date. Image files have more information known as EXIF, IPTC and XMP. This information contains information specific to the photograph such as the make and model of the camera used, the shutter-speed, the aperture, the ISO and much more.

All DAM software ingest the built-in metadata when images are imported or cataloged. Often, built in data is not enough to search for images using a desired criteria. The user must therefore add more metadata into this system. This is known as keywording or categorizing.

Keywording is simple the assignment of keywords to files. Keywords can be anything such as the names of locations, people, objects or concepts. Once the names of people, for example, are added to pictures, digital asset management software must be capable to find all images associated with a particular person.

Categorizing is like keywording except that categories can be related by a hierarchy. This means that one category belongs to another category, which may in turn belong to yet another. A classic example is to use a category for family and have it own a category per person. That way one can find all family photographs without having to select each person. Locations work the same way as a cities belong to countries and those belong to continents.

Categories save work over keywords but each one can be set to emulate the other. A category which nor belongs to nor owns another is exactly like a keyword. Several keywords can be used to emulate categories. Instead of adding the Paris category which belongs to France which belongs to Europe, one would add all three as keywords.

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Adding metadata is only half of the DAM task. The other half is searching. DAM software is able to retrieve images based on chosen keywords, categories or metadata. Usually data can be searched by groups, to find either images that match all or any among a set of criterion. It is sometimes possible to refine results by filtering those that match more metadata. The way metadata is index and how much of it makes it into the catalog largely depends on the particular software.

An important aspect of searching is that one must be able to search for images which are not present while the search is being performed. Due to storage limitations, images can be offloaded onto optical media such as DVDs or even external hard disk drives. For this to work, DAM software store locally metadata and thumbnails of off-line images. This allows one to see which images match a search without having access to the actual file.

Selection of Keepers

Most DAM software have great tools to compare images. This include side-by-side comparison with synchronous zooming and light-table views.

When using the digital asset management software to download images it could make sense to also use the same software of selecting keepers.

The catch-22 is that file organization is determined by the set of keepers and DAM software are dependent on file organization. There are two ways around this:

  • Reorganize: Import into a triage folder, select the keepers from there and then use the software's folder reorganization features.
  • Reimport: Import into an incubation catalog in which you select the keepers by tagging them with a special flag or metadata. Reimport the keepers into the final catalog when done. This may require an intermediate export step with some software.

Generally reorganization within DAM software is much slower than through the operating system because DAM software has to modify its associated data to keep track of location changes and properly find images later.

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File Organization

It is one thing to catalog images and another to organize them. Some DAM software can do both and take care of downloading files from a digital camera or card-reader.

It is important to carefully consider how files are going to be stored even if software does the work for you. Moving files offline into optical disks or external drives is much easier with a good file organization.

To allow backups and offloading to optical disks, make sure top-level folders do not exceed the maximum size for your choice of optical media. For a single-layer DVD this is 4.4GB. Moving to Blu-Ray, you get 25GB instead.

Benchmarking

Most DAM software have great tools to compare images. This include side-by-side comparison with synchronous zooming and light-table views.

When using the digital asset management software to download images it could make sense to also use the same software of selecting keepers.

The catch-22 is that file organization is determined by the set of keepers and DAM software are dependent on file organization. There are two ways around this:

  • Reorganize: Import into a triage folder, select the keepers from there and then use the software's folder reorganization features.
  • Reimport: Import into an incubation catalog in which you select the keepers by tagging them with a special flag or metadata. Reimport the keepers into the final catalog when done. This may require an intermediate export step with some software.

Generally reorganization within DAM software is much slower than through the operating system because DAM software has to modify its associated data to keep track of location changes and properly find images later.

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