Image Management: A Thumbnail View

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Managing multiple images

As a print and Web-based designer there are many graphics programs that I use regularly, but there's only one that I use everyday - and it's the one that gets the least credit: my image management software. The reason is simple: trying to deal with image files based purely on their filenames is next to impossible, you have to be able to handle them visually.

This was a point I made over three years ago (RW39) in a look at the new world of image management software. Back then I ended up recommending a combination of Ulead's PhotoImpact Explorer for on-the-fly browsing and PhotoImpact Album for more advanced capabilities such as creating slide shows and cataloguing. I was already looking to the future though and the imminent arrival of Windows 98 when visual image management would be built into the OS.

Well that was a little optimistic. True if you look at a directory with Windows 98's Web-view turned on, a small preview is generated of the currently selected file. Rather more advanced - and bizarrely hidden away - is the ability to turn on a Thumbnail view for the current directory in its Properties dialog enabling multiple previews to be displayed simultaneously. However the whole process is awkward (each directory must be set up individually) and the generation of thumbnails is slow and limited to those formats that Internet Explorer supports namely JPEG, GIF, BMP, PNG and TIFF.

On my current Windows 2000 system the situation has improved somewhat with an in-built ability to display the Thumbnail view for any directory and to use previews in Large Icon view as well. There's also thumbnail support for Photoshop PSD and Illustrator AI images which, judging by the presence of new Photoshop / Illustrator Image tabs in the generic file Properties dialog, looks like an OS feature that third-party developers can tie into. However, as Adobe is the only one currently doing so, the system remains too patchy to be useful and, in any case, the generation of images is still too slow to provide an acceptable solution.

Windows 200 offers an in-built thumbnail view - but it's slow and limited.

The need for a utility program to visually manage images is as strong as ever then - in fact even more so with the demands of PC Photography and the Web meaning that even mainstream users are handling thousands of images. So what's the best current solution? For users of PhotoImpact and Paint Shop Pro this might not seem like an issue as the image browsers built into their apps offer visual file management. However there's no question that dedicated utilities can offer a lot more.

And there's certainly no shortage of choice with hundreds of image management utilities available. However many of these options fall into the freeware/hobbyist category and don't even try to offer a complete solution while others can be ruled out after a visit to the developers' Web site. Eventually I picked out four major contenders: ACDSee 3.1 ($50 from acdsystems.com), CompuPic Pro 5.3 ($100 from photodex.com), Image Expert 2000 3.1 ($50 from sierraimaging.com) and ThumbsPlus 4.1 ($80 from cerious.com). Each of these offers a complete image management solution from thumbnail generation through to Web site creation and also provides a free trial version so that you can test whether the program meets your needs before committing yourself (where allowed these have been included on the cover disk).

The first thing that strikes about the four rivals is their apparent similarity. In each case the program interface is built on a Windows' Explorer-style view with a drive and directory tree down the left hand-side of the screen and a main pane to the right where you view all the thumbnails of images in the currently selected directory. With the exception of Image Expert, the programs also offer a Viewer pane under the directory tree to show a larger version of the currently selected image. First impressions are often misleading however, and in practice each application has its own strengths and weaknesses that make it unique.

ACDSee offers a typical directory tree and thumbnails interface.

Image Expert, for example, enables a split view where more than one directory can be viewed simultaneously - ideal when collecting images together - and also offers an alternative view where the image thumbnails are listed down the left hand pane and the currently selected image in the right. ACDSee's big strengths are its useful Favourites panel and especially its ability to treat compressed Zip files as sub-directories. ThumbsPlus also offers this ability for registered users along with other enhancements such as the ability to create logical "galleries" which can contain images from multiple sub-directories. For me though the most powerful feature of all is CompuPic Pro's ability to select more than one directory at a time - ideal for pooling all your holiday photos or for comparing enhanced images against the originals.

Of course to be able to generate thumbnail previews of your image files, the application has to support their file formats. ACDSee boasts support for 43 image types, CompuPic Pro for 45 and ThumbsPlus leads the pack with 55. Image Expert seems rather more coy about numbers which is slightly suspicious. However it's important not to get too carried away. It's totally irrelevant if the program can read formats you'll never use, such as AIFF Mac sound files or "SFW Seattle Filmworks mangle JPEG files", and I'm not sure what benefit CompuPic Pro's indecipherable thumbnails of TXT files is meant to offer (especially as this is how it presents Illustrator's AI files).

What's crucial of course is that the program supports the formats that you use everyday. Generally you'll be safe with the bitmap file standards TIFF, GIF, JPEG, PNG and BMP and even multimedia staples such as MPEG and MOV. Not surprisingly support for vector formats is much less reliable. You also can't expect support for proprietary formats such as PhotoImpact's UFO, or Paint Shop Pro's PSP that can change with each release. That still leaves a large middle ground of less common image standards which you need to check yourself if they are important to you. I was disappointed, for example, that Image Expert wouldn't pick out the image preview embedded in EPS files and that it had trouble with some Photoshop PSDs.

It's also important to realize that all thumbnails aren't equal. These days colour depth isn't an issue but the size of the thumbnail certainly is. By default CompuPic produces the largest thumbnails at 120x100 pixels, followed by ThumbsPlus at 100x100, Image Expert at 80x64 and ACDSee at a measly 68x50. On high-resolution screens these last two sizes are just too small for comfortable working. However, if you dig a little, you'll find that all the packages allow you to set larger customize sizes apart from Image Expert - a major black mark against it. CompuPic Pro and ThumbsPlus generally offer the most control including the ability to scale your thumbnails without regenerating them which can be very useful when trying to isolate a particular image.

As well as range, size and flexibility another factor to consider in the thumbnail generation process is speed. I tested each application on a sample 200MB directory containing a mix of PSD, PNG, GIF and JPEG files. Image Expert, ThumbsPlus and CompuPic Pro each took around 20 seconds with ACDSee taking 25. Testing a typical digital camera directory of around 60 JPEGs totaling 15MB produced a very different result with Image Expert and CompuPic Pro taking 5 seconds, ACDSee 7 and ThumbsPlus now bringing up the rear with 9 seconds.

In each case the dedicated utilities are far faster than Windows Explorer, which took 25 seconds, but it's still a broad range. In particular with ThumbsPlus taking almost twice as long as CompuPic Pro and Image Expert for JPEGs you might be tempted to rule it out. In fact this generation speed is less important than it might be as ThumbsPlus automatically stores thumbnail information in a central database so that next time you select the directory its thumbnails appear instantly. The same is true of CompuPic Pro and ACDSee but not Image Expert.

At least Image Expert provides an option to Catalogue removable media so you can still view thumbnails when the media is offline - the other three promise the same capability though I had difficulty getting ACDSee to co-operate. However Image Expert still feels the slowest and ugliest application in practice. ACDSee follows next with a slightly amateurish shareware-style feel compared to the streamlined, customisable and professional ThumbsPlus and CompuPic Pro. Thanks to its speed edge CompuPic Pro comes out top for the core visual thumbnailing task.

Handling and selecting images visually is undoubtedly the most important form of management, but it's not the only one. To begin with, all the packages let you sort your images based on filename, size, date and so on. In addition CompuPic Pro and ThumbsPlus let you sort on image size and orientation while the latter also lets you sort and find images by similarity based on a colour matrix. Of course what you really want to be able to do is find images based on their content and to enable this all the packages let you add textual information that you can then search for.

Here CompuPic Pro offers the most basic implementation with its unhelpful Keywords and Find dialogs where each keyword must be entered from scratch. ACDSee is slightly more advanced with its Database Info tab allowing description, author, date, notes and keywords to be added. Much better thought through is Image Expert which provides separate Info, Keywords and Search tabs which can be viewed instead of the directory tree. The Keywords handling is particularly impressive as once added, these are permanently available for quickly applying to new images. The same is true in ThumbsPlus which takes things onto an entirely new level with support for multiple ODBC-compliant databases complete with user-definable fields. It's not quite up there with dedicated media asset management applications like Extensis Portfolio, but it's not far off.

ThumbsPlus offers the most advanced text-based cataloguing.

Adding textual information to identify photographs is undoubtedly useful but I still have concerns. My father, for example, has spent years scanning and annotating old family photographs in PhotoImpact Album despite repeated warnings that the proprietary Album AB3 format might not be as popular in the 22nd century as it was at the end of the 20th. Rather than storing information centrally I'm holding off until all content can be stored in the files themselves and then collated as needed for searching purposes. What's needed is for a single, universal system to be built into the image files themselves - an area given a boost by Macromedia's announcement of support for ITPC header information in its latest FreeHand 10. In the meantime though I'll stick with a simple system like Image Expert's that produces good results with little work.

OK. So once you've selected you images, what can you do with them? Perhaps the most obvious use is to load them into your photo-editing application and here features such as drag-and-drop support and CompuPic Pro's ability to set up multiple links to different applications are very useful. Increasingly though the file management utilities are offering their own editing capabilities.

ACDSee offers an in-built version of its Photo Enhancer utility with separate commands to manipulate the colour balance and tonal range of the image. The other three packages combine these into a single dialog with CompuPic Pro offering the easiest access to everything from RGB gamma to sharpness. CompuPic Pro and Image Expert also offer local red eye correction and text overlay and Image Expert even offers basic image stitching to produce panoramas. Generally though such advanced work is still better left to a dedicated package. However there's one editing feature that is perfectly suited to image management software - Image Expert's Quick Fix command applies a range of enhancement effects to bring an image to life with a single click.

Even better the command can be applied to multiple images simultaneously from the Browse window. This ability to apply batch commands can save hours of repetitive work and is another strength of image management apps. ACDSee is disappointing here and ImageExpert only slightly better, but ThumbsPlus and CompuPic Pro both excel with the ability to set up advanced actions involving resizing, colour depth changes, bordering, format conversion and so on. There's one command though that is more important than any other - the ability to rotate your images. All four offer the capability but only ACDSee and CompuPic Pro offer the ability to rotate JPEGs losslessly - crucial for digital camera users.

After editing your images, the next important task is to enable yourself and others to see them. For each application double-clicking on a thumbnail loads the image into a viewer application. ACDSee and CompuPic score here as their viewers are full-screen and uncluttered and you can quickly move through your directory by pressing the PgUp and PgDn keys. ACDSee also adds a simple View command to Windows Explorer's right-click context menu.

For greater control over presentation you need to set up a slideshow. In each case this boils down to selecting the thumbnails and then selecting the Slideshow command. To customize the slideshow an options dialog lets you set parameters such as time onscreen and scaling options. All the applications handle slideshows capably with Image Expert scoring by offering slide transitions though these can be clunky. CompuPic Pro is out on its own though with its attractive Maxi-Show feature which divides the screen to show multiple images in sequence - this means that each slide is onscreen for longer but there's also more visual interest so both presenter and victim should be happy.

Rw81maxi.png: CompuPic Pro's maxishow is a nice variation on the typical slideshow.

Of course your potential audience won't always be huddled around the computer so it's also important to be able to output traditional prints. Single images can be output directly, but this is wasteful of expensive photo-quality paper. To print multiple images each application offers the ability to produce a Contact Sheet or Photo Index where you specify the number of columns and rows of image thumbnails. However this isn't the same as being able to specify exact sizes, such as typical 5" x 7" prints. In fact the only application that offers complete control of image size and position and enables advanced features such as the ability to print multiple copies of the same image and automatically rotate images to fit is Image Expert. Best of all, its Print Layout window is live so you know exactly what you're getting.

Image Expert excels at print and Web output.

These days of course print is slightly old hat and all the packages have embraced the Internet with varying degrees of vengeance. At its simplest this involves emailing your images - preferably with the ability to resize and convert to JPEG. Image Expert again scores here with the ability to send self-playing slideshows. The most efficient way of letting everyone see your images though is the Web and all four packages let you select images to output and will then produce the HTML code necessary to display them as linked Web pages complete with a thumbnailed index.

For ThumbsPlus this takes the form of a step-by-step wizard while ACDSee offers a tabbed dialog in which you set parameters such as size and file information. CompuPic Pro and Image Expert take things further with their use of templates to give your pages some style. Image Expert's implementation of this is again the best with another live window, but its selection of templates is slightly tacky. If you're happy losing layout control in return for free hosting then CompuPic Pro and Image Expert are there to help with CompuPic Pro winning out with its support for no less than 6 providers - Fotki, Ofoto, PhotoIsland, PhotoLoft, PhotoPoint, and Printroom.

The range of power on offer here from initial thumbnail generation through to HTML output is truly impressive and no-one that works with graphics should be without one of these packages - but which one? ACDSee covers most bases including Zip file support but never really shines. Image Expert loses out on initial thumbnailing but comes through strongly with its simple cataloguing, image editing and print and Web output - and it's the only package that offers a CE-based version for image management and viewing on your handheld. ThumbsPlus looks great and offers the most advanced cataloguing but is less impressive for output. Ultimately it depends on your needs and budget but the one package that scores in all areas apart from text-based cataloguing is CompuPic Pro. When you throw in various unique features of its own, such as the ability to archive your images to CD and a Web site scanner, it's a worthy winner.

With its clean interface and across-the-board power, CompuPic Pro stands out.

For the moment then CompuPic Pro is my recommendation but this is a fast moving area with new versions and new contenders appearing regularly. And in the longer term? Here I still believe that the only permanent solution is for the core image management tasks to be handled at a far deeper level. A universally agreed header format containing preview and text information is essential. Only this way will you be able to visually handle images not just from the bitmap standards but from any version of any application - bitmap, multimedia, vector or whatever. And only this way will you be able to search for and manage images not just across your hard disk but across the entire Web.

Tom Arah

May 2001

 


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