BitDepth 623 - April 15

Software for browsing images is steadily improving.
Pro photo tools

PhotoMechanic’s speed, metadata tagging prowess and intelligent importing from media cards have kept it relevant in a dynamic market for image browsers.

As sensors capture more pixels and photographers shoot more images, the biggest problem facing most professionals (and a growing number of hobbyists) is managing and working with huge folders full of digital image files.
Adobe bundles a copy of Bridge, a graphic file browser with every version of its image editor, Photoshop, but the need for photographer specific software encouraged the company to introduce Photoshop Lightroom (Win/Mac, US$299), which is purpose built for managing digital photos.

Lightroom has just been revved to version two and released as a public beta. Alert readers and photo enthusiasts will remember that the company initially introduced Lightroom on a similar trial basis for almost a year, accepting feedback from users and making substantial changes to the way the product worked.
Apple’s rival product, Aperture (Mac, US$199), has also been updated with a second major revision, adding some new tweaks to the interface and new features.
Both products improve on their vignetting feature, which darkens or lightens the edges of photos and have upgraded their tagging and sorting features.

Lightroom 2 adds some of the selective tone adjustment tools that made Lightzone, a Java based entrant in today’s image handling sweepstakes.
Both products can work with JPEG files, but are really designed to manage RAW files, the data rich, direct from the camera sensor images that many photographers prefer. RAW files are as close as digital photography gets to the idea of a film negative, but the files tend to be large, as much as four times the size of an equivalent JPEG file.

Working in the RAW
The appeal of RAW lies in the fact that the files are unprocessed, but that moves the finishing work for every image from the camera to the photographer and can make working with images a chore.
Both Lightroom and Aperture are designed from the ground up to make working with large datasets of images are easy and convenient as possible.
There is, however, a player in the image management dance that’s as old as the proverbial hills. Apple and Adobe introduced their products over the last two years, but PhotoMechanic, from CameraBits has been available since 1998.

PhotoMechanic has been steadily improved over the years and is an interesting choice for photographers faced with large folders of images requiring quick review, sorting and metadata tagging.
This is exactly what PhotoMechanic is designed to do, and it sticks to its virtual knitting with admirable singlemindedness. The product is used extensively by photojournalists and picture editors working with massive collections of images, often coming from different sources and its tools reflect that focus. 

PhotoMechanic is the only image management software that I know of that can read the camera serial number embedded in an image and tag it with photographer information automatically.

The mechanics explained
There are no editing tools in the software beyond a crop tool, but it displays even massive RAW files with breathtaking speed. Unlike Lightroom and Aperture, PhotoMechanic doesn’t read every pixel of a RAW image before it displays it onscreen.
Instead, it reads the embedded JPEG proxy and uses that for display. This method allowed me to review and edit selects from a folder of 400 images before Lightroom had even begun to display its previews of the same files.

It’s worth noting that both Aperture 2 and Lightroom 2 offer a new option to limit previews to the same proxy image that PhotoMechanic uses, but they both lag behind the CameraBits product in preview display generation by a significant margin.
There are cons to using Photomechanic. It doesn’t read adjustments to RAW images until you create a new JPEG proxy by encoding them as DNG files and it’s expensive at US$150.
Pros? It’s fast, and that benefit multiplies exponentially when clients are waiting to see what you’ve shot or you’re faced with quickly working through a massive folder of images. It also reads and writes to Adobe’s sidecar XMP format, which makes it possible to transfer metadata work done in PhotoMechanic to Lightroom without hassles.

With Adobe and Apple in fevered development and the work being done by ambitious players looking to break into the field, it’s safe to say that both Lightroom and Aperture will continue to improve.
But any photographer who needs to move through hundreds of captures to a dozen or so selects and apply metadata tags to their images quickly will want to see what CameraBits has engineered with this software.

Lightroom 2 Beta
Aperture 2
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