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Visual image management

Tom Arah investigates today's image management software and looks for the best way to get your graphics under control.

PhotoImpact Album

Writing this article within Word immediately puts a lot of file management power at my disposal. If I want to find a software review that I wrote for issue 32 or a letter to the bank manager that I wrote last Autumn, for example, I can immediately do so through the File Open dialog. This is possible because a lot of searchable information such as title, author, template and number of pages is automatically stored within the file together with any custom keywords and properties that the user chooses to add. If necessary it's also possible to search the file's text directly. Essentially if I can remember anything at all about a document I'll be able to track it down.

Photoshop's control

The situation within a market-leading graphics program like Photoshop is very different. Of course I'm not expecting to be able to directly search the pixel information to only show those images that contain a face or balloon, for example. This inability is always going to be the problem that graphic file management has compared to text file management. But that's why it's even more important for graphical programs to give as much other help as possible. Instead Photoshop only offers the basic information of filename, size and date with no search facilities at all.

What makes this worse is that there's absolutely no excuse for it. Most users probably won't have realised it but Photoshop does allow extra information to be stored in its files - well at least in its native PSD and the most popular TIF and JPG formats. If you select the File Info command you can store comprehensive caption, keyword, category and credit details. At the moment this capability is mainly employed by news photographers sending images over the wire, but it could be used far more widely in the same way that Office document properties are. It isn't for a very simple reason. The textual information contained cannot be searched - it is only available when the file has already been opened!

Managing graphic files is bad enough from within a program like Photoshop, but the situation becomes far worse outside. Since version 3.0, Photoshop has at least had the decency to show a small preview of a selected file in its Open dialog box - well so long as you explicitly chose to include one when you saved it and it isn't one of those rarely-used formats like GIF or PNG! As soon as you leave the program, however, and are thrown onto the mercies of Explorer you immediately lose even this assistance. Now you really are working blind, entirely dependent on the filename, size and date.

For the occasional use of single images this might be just about manageable, but for professional work with multiple images it's a non-starter. How for example do you isolate a particular file such as the cropped and colour corrected version of an image before you applied the mosaic filter? If the only way of doing this is to first load it into a massive application like Photoshop, you are soon going to be driven mad. It's self-evident but worth stating that to be able to work effectively with graphics you need to be able to see them.

Image Commander

The immediate solution is a fast-loading, dedicated image viewer. JASC ImageCommander is an example of a cut-down program like this that takes advantage of the ability to associate itself with given file types. Once the program is installed, double-clicking on a supported file quickly opens it for viewing. The obvious problem is that your files are no longer associated with your real image editor so that the program causes as much trouble as it solves. A slightly more sophisticated approach is taken by a program like Quick View that adds an extra view option to Explorer's right-click menu.

Simple viewer programs like this certainly have their advantages. Opening a sample 3Mb compressed TIF into PhotoImpact Viewer, for example, takes around seven seconds while opening it into Photoshop takes sixteen - over twice as long. However the need to open a separate program is inconvenient and means that you are still working half-blind. The alternative is to completely replace Explorer with a dedicated file management program with visual management built-in.

Xtree for Windows

This is the approach taken by Xtree for Windows. Xtree offers far greater control than Explorer with features like easy file filtering and tagging, combined directories and in-built zip management. On top of this it offers in-built image viewing of a large number of standard graphic formats. Select a TIF, BMP, WMF, JPG or GIF and a preview of the file will automatically open in its own window. The combination of file management and viewing is very attractive. If I want to find and copy all the TIF and JPGs from one drive to another or to view the screenshots contained in a zip file, the program I immediately turn to is Xtree.

TurboBrowser

Having said this, the program is definitely showing its age. The version I use was produced in 1993 long before Windows 95, long file names, OLE drag-and-drop and modern graphic formats like PNG had even been thought of. A more up-to-date alternative is TurboBrowser 97. TurboBrowser's file management isn't quite as strong as Xtree's, but this is made up for by its image handling. The automatic preview is very fast indeed with the 3Mb test TIFF appearing in only four seconds. What's more, once the image has appeared, it can be copied to the clipboard, printed directly or through its associated application or even converted to another bitmap format.

TurboBrowser certainly isn't the answer to every prayer. The progam has some rough edges and some functionality is missing - still no PNG support, for example, and you have to unzip a zipped file before you can look at its contents. On the other hand the program isn't expensive and you can download it to try it out before deciding whether to buy it (http://www.ttp.co.uk). I would definitely recommend taking a look at it, if only to appreciate just how much better Explorer could be.

Both Xtree and TurboBrowser allow more than one preview window to be opened simultaneously, but when it comes to working with multiple files the shortcomings soon become apparent - the process is too slow and there simply isn't enough screen space. Anyone who's tried searching through a clipart CD previewing every possible image knows that this just isn't on. Rather than handling images individually by creating previews on demand, the solution is to deal with them en masse by generating small thumbnail previews automatically for them all.

PhotoImpact Explorer

This is the approach taken by PhotoImpact Explorer one of the utility programs that comes with Ulead's PhotoImpact 3. When a directory is selected from the Explorer-style left-hand panel, the program scans all supported image files - including PNGs ! - and creates scaled down 80 x 80 pixel thumbnail previews in the right-hand panel. This allows up to 40 images to be viewed simultaneously on a 1024 x 768 screen. Once selected, the images can be renamed, copied, moved, deleted or opened for editing. Thanks to drag-and-drop support this is the method I like to use when opening multiple files into Photoshop or PageMaker 6.5.

Considering how long it would take to preview each image in Xtree or TurboBrowser or - perish the thought - to open them into Photoshop, the process of viewing a directory is amazingly fast. Creating the previews for a directory containing over a hundred mixed JPEGs and TIFs totalling over 75Mb, for example, took under a minute. Revisiting a directory is even quicker because PhotoImpact Explorer compares the file information against its own reference files and only generates thumbnails for those images that are new or have been edited.

PhotoImpact Explorer is ideal for managing multiple images on your own system, but again there are limitations. In particular the thumbnail size is reasonable for distinguishing between images you recognise, but is simply too small to give much information about unknown images. As such the program is great for handling images from an ongoing project or for controlling the holiday snaps taken with a digital camera. However, you wouldn't want to use it to choose the perfect photo from an image source CD. PhotoImpact Explorer is a big step forward to fully visual image management, but without enough detail it is still like working with your eyes half shut.

PhotoImpact Album

Ulead recognises this and offers an alternative in its PhotoImpact Album program. This builds on the technology behind PhotoImpact Explorer, but with two main differences. The first is that the generated thumbnails are considerably larger at 112 x 112 pixels and so offer twice as much detail. The improved picture quality really does make working with thumbnails viable and - with 24 images visible on a 1024x768 screen - offers a good balance between onscreen quality and quantity. The second major difference is that the thumbnail and file reference files are not created locally in each visited directory, but instead are stored centrally.

This central storage offers two huge advantages that take PhotoImpact Album into the field of image cataloguing. The first is that once thumbnails from a CD have been generated and stored they can then be viewed and searched even when the CD is no longer present. When you try to edit or open an image, the program automatically prompts you to insert the required CD. The second advantage is that it makes it possible to expand the information stored from basic thumbnails and file information to include any other details that the user desires.

Extensis Portfolio

Although the capabilities are there for quite advanced searching and management, PhotoImpact Album is primarily intended for personal use, most obviously for adding information about when and where you took your digital photos. Extensis Portfolio on the other hand is aimed squarely at the professional user. Like PhotoImpact Album it works by automatically generating a central catalog file of image thumbnails, but this is only the beginning of the task. Portfolio also offers the necessary tools for adding general descriptions, setting up custom fields and applying keywords from an onscreen palette. When complete you have a searchable visual database.

This emphasis of Portfolio on the database side of image management is very important. So far in all the programs we've looked at I've stressed the importance of visual control. This is undeniably crucial and, with its high quality thumbnails, Portfolio certainly takes the issue on board. However, when the number of thumbnails you are dealing with rises above a couple of hundred, you soon begin to feel that you are no longer completely in control. This is where Portfolio shines. To find that black and white picture of 1930's family life you can simply click on a few keywords and only the previews that match the criteria will be shown.

Working in this way you really do feel that you are absolutely in charge of your images, but there are two major problems. The first is the sheer labour involved. To produce a truly useful visual database each image should be categorised absolutely consistently not just on its contents and source but on its period, style, tone, dominant colour and so on. This just isn't feasible for the average user. The second problem is the standalone nature of the process where each user is expected to catalogue their own library of images. When I buy a CD of images I don't want to spend a week cataloguing it before I'm able to find the best image for my requirements.

Both problems are caused because it is left to the consumer to add the searchable content to the images. The obvious solution is to leave it to the supplier. After all it is in the supplier's interests to make their image as accessible as possible and to add as much value to it as possible. The question is how should this be done? Any proprietary format for storing information immediately loses the crucial element of universal access. What's needed is a universally accepted standard. The irony of course is that it's there already.

The Future

As we saw at the beginning of the article, the most important image exchange formats - TIF and JPG - and the most important application - Photoshop - already support the inclusion of custom text-based information. It's just that the existing system isn't being used intelligently. The high-end cataloguing programs should be linking in to this existing system, extracting and storing text-based information where it's really needed - in the files themselves. If the main image suppliers did get their act together on this it wouldn't be long before the likes of Photoshop cottoned on and started offering intelligent property-based file management for graphics in the same way as Word does for documents.

It's been a long journey starting from the failings of the Photoshop File Open dialog and ending up there as well, but hopefully the process has shed some light. Regarding the present, the picture it reveals is frankly a bit of a mess. If asked to recommend the ideal program for image file management currently available, the answer would have to be Xtree for Windows, TurboBrowser, PhotoImpact Explorer, PhotoImpact Album or Extensis Portfolio depending on the task in hand. About the only thing I would be able to say for certain is that it isn't Windows Explorer.

At least looking at the range of current solutions has clarified the issues involved. If asked to specify what would make the ideal program for image file management for the future it would have to be a fusion of all five. The application would need to have the file management strengths of Xtree, the previewing capabilities of TurboBrowser, the thumbnail handling of PhotoImpact Explorer, the offline access offered by PhotoImpact Album and the property-based control of Portfolio.

Paradoxically, if asked which program was most likely to offer this combination, I would have to say the much-loathed Windows Explorer. There have already been welcome signs that the program is changing. The version of Explorer built in to Office 97's Outlook, for example, offers numerous improved file management features such as instantly accessible stored directories and a timeline view. It also offers the ability to access and search on Office documents' internal properties.

More fundamental is the shift from the current basic file manager to the integrated browser that is promised for Explorer in Windows 98. The ability to preview files directly is crucial to this new role and no image format will be able to go for long without direct browsing support. I would also expect improved thumbnail handling to be in the pipeline. Explorer already allows image files to be represented with preview icons, but currently these are too small to be useful. A small tweak would immediately revolutionize image handling right at the operating system level.

Perhaps most important of all is the shift to remote access that Explorer will offer. This will allow any resource on the Net to be searched as if it was directly connected to your system. With image libraries an obvious target this is set to open up amazing power. In the not-too-distant future I should be able to call up the Open dialog of whatever application I'm working in - even Photoshop's - and search the entire world's image resources. After specifying a few properties I should be able to sit back as the entire Net is trawled for that perfect image of the Houses of Parliament from above or of a cowboy set against a sunset.

It's an exciting prospect but it has one major drawback - at the moment it is just adding to my frustration.

Tom Arah

February 1998


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