Keywording and DAM Programs

I was recently asked again about my digital photography workflow and sent the photographer over to my Kevin Oke Photography web site to view this article I wrote a few years ago. Something I noticed while reading through this article again is that I haven’t changed my workflow in the past 2 years. This is both good and bad. The digital workflow that I presently use is a little awkward as you will see but at the same time works very well. What’s frustrating is that there still doesn’t appear to be a really good single application that does it all.

There are some new versions of programs available such as DigtalPro 6 which David Cardinal and Moose Peterson have just released and might be worth a review. Extensis Portfolio 8.5 development seems to have been put aside in favour of the server edition which is a shame for the small fish like most of us. Photo Mechanic continues to be a very versatile program for keywording and browsing through images but they have not released the heavily anticipated DAM application. It might be time to download new demo software from a few companies and revisit my workflow again.

Here’s the original article:

Keywording and DAM or is it DAM Keywording

I have used a number of different DAM and keywording programs over the years, none of which I really felt made the job easy and more importantly enjoyable. I’ll highlight the progression I’ve gone through to get to my present system that while not perfect is pretty darn good. There is potential for it getting better too.

Initially I was keywording through the DAM programs that I was using to catalog my images. These started with Image AXS Pro which while it was a fantastic program at the time was unfortunately never developed and I believe has since disappeared into oblivion (Update: Image AXS Pro appears to be available for free, follow the link!) like so many other good things. I recall that keywording was very laborious with this program as you had to apply one keyword at a time. Ughh! The program was very impressive in that you could find your images easily by either browsing or keyword searching at it had a very good looking interface for the time, something that many programs were lacking at the time. The date would have been somewhere around 1997 when I was still shooting film but had just purchased an outrageously expensive film scanner that produced mediocre results by today’s standards. Printing contact sheets looked really great, something of value when I was still sending duplicate slides by FedEx around North America.

As I began to shoot more (read digital) I switched over to a DAM specifically designed for photographers by a photographer. This was DigitalPro and at least the keywording got a little easier as you could apply a hierarchy of words to an image in one click for example the keywords Canada, British Columbia, Vancouver Island, Chemainus could be applied all at once to a selection of images shot in Chemainus. Additional keywords could then be applied to this initial selection. DigitalPro while it had a few issues (sorting images for one) was not a bad program and continues to be developed to this day. That said, I don’t presently use DigitalPro for a few reasons. (More on this later)

From DigitalPro I moved onto Extensis Portfolio which I still use to this day for my DAM. Interestingly, my main reason for starting to use Portfolio was two monitor support which while quite common now was not heavily supported 6 years ago. Portfolio is not a perfect program, in fact far from it. One of the issues is the pitiful keywording function, the same old system of applying one keyword at a time. I spent about three years applying keywords this way and for my personal keywording this generally worked just fine. I would apply keywords from a list of approximately 400 words primarily to help me find images, not help the rest of the world find my images. Portfolio is reasonable efficient for applying titles and descriptions to images as well.

I continued to look at other possibilities for keywording however as I began to sell through stock agencies and develop my own web site with keyword searching available. I started looking at dedicated keywording programs about 8 months ago and after spending countless hours looking at software purchased a program called Keyword Sidekick. This program produces keywords in a hierarchy which is great, was easy to modify for my own purposes but…. unfortunately wasn’t very compatible with Portfolio. Not good.

Photo Mechanic

At about this same time I ran into a very interesting problem with Portfolio. Firstly, I was already getting frustrated in the lack of support for embedding information in RAW files. While this doesn’t appear to be a huge issue it becomes a royal pain in the arse when you open a RAW file, modify the image and save the file as a TIFF, JPEG or whatever. Because the information isn’t embedded you have to reapply all the information in Portfolio again. Not too bad when you are only dealing with one or two images but very annoying when processing 2,000 images as I did after my trip to France last year. Secondly, while you can embed the keywords, title etc. into JPEG and TIFF images I ran into a software issue where the TIFF images get corrupted by Portfolio when you do this and are basically unreadable by most programs. I had this happen to about 500 images before I caught onto the issue and while this appears to be a software issue as I have duplicated the results on three different computers, Extensis support has provided me with no information, in fact they won’t even respond to my emails anymore. Not good but I guess I’m a little guy for these corporate giants. The bottom line is this is scary stuff for those who think that they are properly backed up! Incidentally, I had a similar issue with DigitalPro and have never felt comfortable using the program again although I don’t believe in this case that it was a DigitalPro issue but rather an operating system issue.

Where do we go from here? Well, here’s my spring 2009 workflow with a note that this could change although I think that I may have finally come up with a really viable system.

I dump images from my camera into a “To File” folder on one of my large hard drives. At this point I rename the images, either using Portfolio or Photo Mechanic. I really don’t have a preference here although the images need to be cataloged by Portfolio before renaming which can be fairly time consuming so recently I have been using PhotoMechanic which is a browser only, not a cataloging program.

After renaming I immediately use PhotoMechanic to apply basic keywords and often a basic Title and Description. Photo Mechanic applies my copyright information and other tidbits automatically as well. This program is very slick and many of the tasks can be automated, I’ll write about strategies later. The images are transferred to the desired folder on the hard drive at this point. Additional keywording is carried out once the images are in the desired folder.

Photo Mechanic can automatically embed all this information in RAW image files so I set the program up to do this. I know there is some debate about this with one camp claiming that the original files should never be touched but PM can undo this info if needed. I have been a little nervous after my TIFF issues with ProShooter and Portfolio but so far have had no problems and from the PM support forums no issues have appeared on this subject.

I still use Portfolio as my DAM so at this point I open Portfolio and have it catalog the images, ingesting all the keywords, titles, ratings etc. as it works. Being a true DAM, Portfolio still excels at helping me locate my images with searches and sorting by most fields. 120,000 images can be searched in a fraction of a second, very impressive. PM is not intended for this type of use although an integrated DAM appears to be in the works and would be a real asset.

Are two programs really required to do this? From what’s available at this point and for a high volume shooter I would say yes. I have looked at programs like IView, Lightroom etc, some not being true DAM’s and others true DAM’s, they tend to be a little cumbersome with large number of images. Probably the biggest problem is the lack of good keywording options. Photo Mechanic really shines in this area.

I would be interested in hearing what sort of system you are using for these purposes as there are many options available. My process works for me but may not work for you. Please leave a comment.

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  1. Edward Smith says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for posting (and re-posting) this informative article on your digital photography workflow. We really appreciate Portfolio users who voice their constructive criticism because it helps us better understand the needs of the people we serve.

    As an employee of Extensis, I wanted to provide an update on some things we’ve been working on.

    We’ve just released a Portfolio 8.5.5 update, which is free for all Portfolio 8.5 users (download is on our support site: In addition to adding support for more camera raw formats, this release enhances support for Adobe DNG files. For DNG workflows, there are some exciting new features in this release including metadata embedding to DNG files, previewing of DNG color adjustments made in Adobe applications, and batch conversion/emailing of DNG files.

    I tried a demo of the Keyword Sidekick program you mentioned, and found a way for Portfolio to recognize the keywords it generates:
    1. In Keyword Sidekick, choose Edit > Preferences. In the Separate Keywords section, choose “custom”, and enter a blank space into the box. (You may need to change this back to semicolon or comas when working with other programs like Photoshop).
    2. In your Portfolio catalog, choose Catalog > Administration, and enable “When Adding Keywords, Separate Phrases into Distinct Keywords”. This option splits a single keyword phrase into multiple keywords, i.e. adding “Vancouver Island” also adds “Vancouver” and “Island” as keywords.
    3. Make your keyword selections in Keyword Sidekick, copy the keywords to the clipboard, choose the desired item(s) in Portfolio, and select Edit > Paste (or CTRL+V). The keywords are then applied to the selected item(s).

    For the TIFF embedding issue, I tried to reproduce this behavior on my machine but didn’t get the same results. I’m going to have one of our Support Technicians follow-up with you directly to investigate.

    Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or additional feedback.

    Edward Smith
    Systems Engineer, Extensis

  2. Kevin says:

    Thanks for the Portfolio update Edward.

    I’ll definitely revisit Portfolio for keywording as in many ways it’s still me preferred program for sorting through my huge image collections. It’s great that Keyword Sidekick might work with Portfolio, I’ll give it a try.

    I look forward to revisiting the TIFF image issue and can provide the corrupted image files.

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