#1011. Thanks for the memories (digital asset management)

By AlanMacKenzie | How-To

Jun 03

I hold to my belief that photography is primarily a documentary activity insofar as, unlike painting, photography records reality or some small slice thereof. This characteristic links all the great photographers from Adams to Cartier-Bresson, from Arbus to Karsh, Weegee to Mapplethorpe and Capa to Edgerton. These people were masters of the craft and elevated photography to art, but they all captured detailed, information-rich representations of the real world.

It follows that the identity of the people, objects or scenes depicted is of some interest and that was a lesson learned when scanning 140 years of family photos. Many were of mere personal significance but others preserved a time & place with broader historical appeal. It became clear that if there was no context for the photo – no date, no name, no place – the photo had little value. At best a pretty thing but usually not even that. However, add in a story and even a plain photograph can be endlessly fascinating.

The experience brought to mind a radio documentary that argued the printing press was a secondary invention and that the real genius was librarianship. If you can’t find things and don’t know what they are, they effectively don’t exist. Indexing was the truly revolutionary, world changing information technology.

I spent a lot of time figuring out the details of scanned old photos – it’s remarkably difficult to remember names, dates and places from even 20 years ago — and was eager to record it in the digital files so that all my research would be preserved. That assumes the files themselves will be preserved but ongoing backup and inheritance are other issues. Optimism prevailed and, about 15 years ago I started the process.

My great grandmother sitting on the porch of the family homestead in Froude, Saskatchewan, c.1895. This is what the settlement of Canada’s northwest looked like.

The first Digital Asset Management program (DAM) I used was called Media Pro. It was buggy and annoying but it did the trick and I managed to get most of my collection tagged with names, places and dates. At some point Microsoft bought it, neglected it and sold it to Phase One which eventually abandoned it. No matter, the industry-standard IPTC metadata I slaved to input was appended to the tiffs and jpegs so all I needed was to get another package and rebuild the catalog.

My requirements were clear. It had to be standalone, standards-based, inexpensive and it had to run on Windows. My search led to one good candidate, a package called Daminion and its free, fully functional standalone version that can create catalogs of up to 15,000 files. Licenses for larger catalogs are cheap, maxing out at $100 or so. If you want, there’s a server/browser-based multi-user version that costs big-time but is functionally much the same and follows the same upgrade path.

So, with hope in my heart, I downloaded Daminion v3 or thereabouts and pointed it to my files. The ingestion process took a while as I stubbornly clung to the idea that all files should be stored on my NAS so file were being read and written over ethernet. It ground away for more than a day so you can imagine my relief and elation when all the metadata I’d added in Media Pro showed up in my shiny new Daminion catalog.

There were a few wrinkles and hiccups and I was impressed that emailed help requests were quickly answered by Murat, a senior Daminion developer and director of the firm. He always seemed to be available and never failed to resolve my concern. Fortunately, the program has matured (it’s up to v6.4) and I’ve learned to keep my now 48,000+ files on a local drive so problems are rare and everything is much faster. It’s a very solid system.

Prepaying my DearSusan bicycle shot dues. Ai Wei Wei sculpture at Toronto City Hall, 2013.

After a catalog is created by selecting a folder to import, you can add new folders by dragging & dropping them into the main window. To refresh folders (i.e. add new files or incorporate changes) right-click the folder(s) and choose ‘Rescan Folder.’ Daminion handles most image formats including RAW, videos, PDFs, vector images and other documents. Pretty much anything.

As with any DAM, the location of underlying files doesn’t matter. The program creates a scalable thumbnail of each file and adds all its associated metadata, including location, to a local, one-file database. If the original files are available, images can be previewed full-screen. Metadata is supplemented and modified by selecting the thumbnails, right-clicking the desired tag and clicking “Assign to selected items.” Tags are immediately written to the database and then written into the original image file. No XMP sidecar files are needed unless the media format (e.g. videos) requires them. I like this because, once the tags are added the information can’t get lost and if you create a new catalog the information will always be there. Any metadata you specify – e.g. copyright – can travel with the file when you convert or export it.

Applying People tag ‘Argue, Brent’ to eight selected items.

There is an infinite range of metadata you can add – you can create your own types — though I mostly stick with People & Place. The ‘Creation/DateTime’ – i.e. the time the photo was taken, not the time the file was created or modified – can be adjusted if necessary but is normally pre-populated. Tags can be nested with multiple levels and I create and apply keywords as the spirit moves me. Images can be colour-tagged, star-rated, flagged or put in a virtual tray. There are lots of ways to sort and display them and it’s all customizable.

Standard default tag categories

Select a file and its properties appear on the right. If you wish, you can add a title or description or modify tags straight from the Properties panel. For example, the first thing I do with a new set of files is add copyright & author info. I choose all the new files (sometimes hundreds) enter my name & copyright notice in Properties and click Save. The tagging process proceeds in the background. My next task is to assign Places – e.g. Eiffel Tower, Paris, France – and People. The more detailed your tagging, the more work it is. Labelling a new folder of 1000 images with copyright, author, and city is a quick task. Writing descriptions of each image is time consuming and I rarely bother. Adding Creation-Date/Times to old scans requires research and can be laborious but worth it. Batch tagging greatly speeds things along.

File properties for the selected image. All Properties fields are editable.
Train at Churchill, formerly a grain terminal & military base on the shores of Hudson Bay. A very cold day in 1960.

Right-clicking a file brings up a context menu that allows you to open the file in whatever editing program you prefer. There’s a powerful export function (‘copy to folder’) and my normal process is to flag desired files, tweak them in PS if needed and do a tiff or jpeg batch export using whatever parameters are appropriate (e.g., for web use: 1600×1600, medium quality jpeg, 100 dpi, copyright only). Daminion has no editing function but it’s an exceptionally good organizer. That’s what it does and it does it well.

Opening files from Daminion in various editors. Whatever you have can be used.
Using Daminion to convert & export files for various purposes

Retrieving files is where DAMs really shine and where you reap the benefit of your effort. It takes a bit of work to tag files (a lot of work for old scanned images!) but, now that the information is there, finding and retrieving them across folders is extremely efficient. Let’s say I want to find all my photos containing Anthony Quinn OR my dog Scamp. Control clicking on both tags creates a Boolean search and immediately displays the specified thumbnails. Similarly, if I want to see all photos with my wife AND son AND brother, it takes a few clicks to assemble the set regardless of where the files are located. It’s simple and you can search on any combination of tags, e.g. pictures with Scamp OR Anthony Quinn or maybe John Smith AND Paris AND the keyword ‘dog’. From there it’s easy to open them for editing or export them.

A simple search that returns all images containing Scamp or Anthony Quinn
Anthony Quinn playing baseball with local children during the filming of “Savage Innocents”. Churchill, MB, 1960.

There is a cost to this and that’s the work/time/effort needed to apply the tags in the first place. For me, the effort is worthwhile if it means the photos will have some meaning should the files survive me. Proper identification might just provide a small added incentive for future owners. Of course, I wouldn’t want to get my hopes up so prints and books are also important as is a good backup plan and a bit of education for potential heirs. But I get ahead of myself!

Note that Daminion is a Windows-only product so you Mac users will have to invest in Parallels or some such if you don’t already have it. You will also need to have your files stored in some standard file folder, not hidden in some proprietary black hole. Cloud storage should suffice but you may want a local copy or a very fast connection.

In terms of workflow, Daminion acts as the quiver for all my post-processing arrows. It’s the hub. It displays the large tiffs developed by Silkypix, my RAW editor and then helps me find, evaluate and rank images. It lets me directly open files in PS or Topaz for a bit of tweaking and export the images as appropriately sized jpegs. And it’s just plain fun to quickly scroll through years of images without any concern for folder structures or image formats.

And before Adobe loyalists jump on me, I confess to knowing little about Lightroom except that it’s a subscription service and seems to wear many hats. It seems to have a cloud storage thing and the thought of that gives me nightmares. Anyhow, everyone has a way of working that suits them. And I don’t want to be accused of teaching my grandmother how to suck eggs. I’m open to education!

If you want to download Daminion, please let me know. The free standalone version can be hard to find and I can help you out. Also, the latest version, v6.4, seems to have slowed down its thumbnail rendering so I recommend staying with v6.3 until that’s sorted. There isn’t any functional difference of which I’m aware.

Trumpeter swan with its 250 cm wingspan flying over Leslie St. Spit in Toronto, 2019.

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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Yes indeed – à chacun son goût.

    Adobe commonly promotes Lightroom for cataloguing. I’m shooting arrows in the air on this one, I’ve never used ANY of these systems to catalogue my photos, I do my own cataloguing. So I find it vaguely amusing & confusing to imagine someone attempting to do post processing in a computerised indexation & cataloguing system. It strikes me as being completely nuts, and if LR is any use at all for processing, why on earth doesn’t Adobe shove ALL its post processing stuff into one single post processing program?

    Why create a half finished post processing system and compromise it by grafting a cataloguing system into it? – so that it ends up as “neither fish nor fowl”? My mindset doesn’t deal happily with bastardised, compromised systems. “Horses for courses”! I’d never enter a Clydesdale in a steeplechase, and I’d never employ a camel to pull a plough!

    A friend of mine who’s been taking photos for as long as I have, and inherited several other collections of photos, now has a collection of around 300,000 photos. His are all meticulously catalogued in a card index system – manually. The “cards” include envelopes containing individual negatives, and prints that fit the system. I haven’t seen how he handles digital, but it’s so long since analogue dominated that he must, by now, have an adaptation of his system to handle digi as well. His collection is a historical archive, which gives him scope for a different approach to most other photographers.

    Daminion sounds like a good, practical system. And what really impresses me, is the fact that you get a response from the staff when you have a question – I’ve tried that on odd occasions with Adobe, but it was a complete waste of time – their expectation is that any problems you have, you need to sort them yourself, or trawl through scribblings in [uncatalogued!] user groups to see if you can find a solution there.

    In stark contrast to the experiences I have had with various post processing software firms! Some behave like Adobe, but others seem to delight in actually receiving input from customers, and are only too happy to help.

    Which – considering how much time we all put into post processing & cataloguing – is a considerable boost, and very much appreciated.

    As to “clouds” – once again, “à chacun son goût” – OK for some, but not for me – clouds are things floating around in the sky, looking for somewhere to drop some rain – water and electricals is a poor mixture – and too many of these “cloud” based systems have vanished, taking all their customers’ work with them in some cases and in at least one, giving precious little time to move their files elsewhere. Besides, on a cost basis, it’s MILES cheaper to buy several large storage disc or SSD systems, store some in the office/home and store some off the premises, to guard against the risk of damage eg by fire. Adobe’s cloud storage system when I last looked, just after they switched to the subscription system for all their software, was FAR more expensive than a DIY solution.

    PS – “Alan MacKenzie” reminds me that scots seemed to dominate in Canada! Are you still in Saskatchewan, or now in Toronto? – one of my cousins married a Toronto girl and they are now retired & living in Hamilton.

    PPS – loved the selection of photos you used to illustrate the article, Alan!

    • Alan says:

      Thanks, Pete. I was concerned that my opinions might step on toes and am relieved! And exactly so, “too many of these ‘cloud’ based systems have vanished.” Not paying your bills or having a password or account problem would be devastating. Not to mention being very slow for large numbers of large files. It seems like an expensive big risk with no reward.
      Backup is something else that Daminion does not do. Their ‘backup’ menu entry takes you to the company blog and a search for backup takes you to this article: https://daminion.net/articles/tips/why-its-better-not-to-use-the-built-in-backup-feature-on-dam-systems/. Horses for courses, as you say. For me, it’s a simple matter of occasionally copying all image files to a usb drive and from there to a NAS. The catalog can always be rebuilt. Whenever my brother visits I give him a copy on a usb drive so that’s my off-premises copy. I’d get 95% of things back if there was a disaster and would be happy for it.
      Yeah, Scots were a dominant force in Canadian history though that was then and, other than as a source of pride, didn’t have much to do with the peasant farmers in my background. I’m always amused when Quebeckers complain about the “Anglos” as if it’s still a thing. In any event, it was always Scots who dominated politically and economically, not the English. Anyhow that’s all irrelevant to me as my scots-ness is pretty heavily diluted with English, Irish and Germans. I grew up in Manitoba and we’ve been in Toronto for 35 years. Our daughter is in Hamilton and we’re heading there today with a food delivery.
      And glad you like the photos. The Churchill photos were taken by my father, Carl, and I should have given him credit.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        The french and the scots are usually unified – they have a fine tradition of smacking the english – it’s been a national pastime in all three countries for something like a thousand years! Outsiders take it seriously – but really, it’s just something to keep everyone warm on cold nights. 🙂
        And I’m not exactly startled by your comments on lineage. I’ve thought most my life that we pretty well all have very mixed ancestry – just that most of us don’t know what it is – that’s a bit sad, because where my father’s family comes from, there’s a motto – “raca raceja” – which means simply that we cannot escape our ancestry – it’s what makes us who we are.

        • Alan MacKenzie says:

          Ah yes, the Auld alliance. Little known history. They worked together well in the Canadian fur trade also. The Hudson Bay Company was chartered by the Crown in 1670 though they employed a lot of Orkney men. Very establishment, and the defacto government (not to mention owner) of a vast territory. The Northwest Company was an upstart challenger, full of scots and french, based in Montreal and founded by Alexander MacKenzie the explorer. Oops, sorry DearSusan, I forgot this is a photography site!

  • JohnW says:

    Interesting post Alan, but don’t think I’ll be changing my DAM anytime soon; too much invested in the current setup. But I do love the homestead image and the steam loco. The CPR and CNR had all gone diesel by 1960 so it’s interesting to see that smaller railroads like the Polar Bear line were still using them in the 60s.

    • Alan says:

      The Hudson Bay line was part of the CNR. These were some of the last steam trains in the country and I think 1960 may have been the last year for them. At the time there was no awareness of polar bears as a tourist draw and no polar bear tourists. No tourism at all, actually. Same with belugas. Their only purpose was food and there was a small whaling station for the purpose. My father never mentioned the bears, he was more concerned about the chained-up sled dogs.

  • Murat says:

    Thanks for the article, Alan! BTW Daminion Server version can be installed on a Windows PC but then accessed from Macs via web-browser. I access our Daminion Servers from my MacBook. One of them is installed on our corporate web-server, and another one is installed on our local PC server.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Hi Alan,
    I can see we are a minority here, but for me too DAM is vital!
    I am on Macs, refusing to install WIndows simulators aka Parallels etc; often traveling months far away, hence no offline solutions. On Mac, my only and best solution was Lightroom; his keywords system is so simple, and creating collections so easy.
    But I refuse their rip-off subscription model, hence I stay since prehistory with LR6 on pre-Catalina OS. Now clever people move to the subscription model then unsubscribe… the cataloguing functions remain intact… and this is the only function I use in LR!
    I always used Dxo for RAW ingestion, Nikon and Vuescan for my high-res scanning, and different programs for printing on my Epson 7900 (bad luck, the really best ones really cost a lot…).
    Why so few of us don’t feel the need for DAM is beyond me, I confess: I used folders in the good old days… yeah, hundreds of, trying to remember if “Summer 1995 with my nieces was under 1995 or under Family :D… and on and on.
    For a Pascal J looking for self-destructing files as in James Bond films to some with a few projects (both approach I respect totally too, in fact… and can be performed with keywords too, I imagine “Remember_to_erase_soon” :D), there are many of us wishing to retrieve long forgotten memories, without spending days on it.
    I keep around 50.000 to 100.000 images, and use a few hundred keywords; adding them “on the spot” is the secret… you do it in one batch, it takes me a whopping one minute to tag 1000 images :).
    An old friend on the other side of the Earth calls, “do you still have those pics you took of my daughter when you visited us 10 years ago in the Indian ocean?”… yessir; a few clicks on keywords, “Export colleciton” (pre-defined too, like “4 Mpx max for long-distance emails” or “full-res Tiffs for Dropbox pre-processed for Portraits” etc)… here we go; a happy friend, and 3 minutes of my time.

    For most here on DS, we must have a strange life 🙂

    I long dreamed of an affordable, stand-alone solution for the Mac; even Luminar promised a “DAM importer from Lightroom” for years, I purchased and paid each version, but these b***ards never did it.. still waiting, and sticking to LR just because you are right, it is entering those keywords, color flags, etc that is so long, and all the so-called solutions are still “patches” for me.

  • Alan MacKenzie says:

    Thanks, Pascal R. I don’t get it either. Install Daminion, point to your images folder(s), go to bed, wake up to catalog. It’s so very simple and I’m not sure what the resistance is. There’s no requirement to tag anything and it’s still very helpful out-of-the-box.
    Now Macs are a complicating factor and my solution to that is simple. Switch to a more open system like Windows and move on although emulators work well. Murat’s server version is very nice but probably a bit pricey for simple folk like us.
    A few LR questions: does LR only support keywords or other categories such as Copyright, Author, People and Place? Does it support nested keywords with multiple levels? Are keywords copied into the underlying image file? Can you view an LR catalog (incl scalable thumbnails) with the image files unavailable? My research into LR didn’t tell me much!

    • Alan says:

      Home-use server edition is not as expensive as I thought, $150 with a year of upgrades. https://daminion.net/order/buy-daminion-2

      • I decided to try the two user, ‘home use’ Daminion Server version and can report that it works very well. All my image files are stored on a Win10 desktop (the ‘server’) and I can access the shared catalog and image files locally on that machine or thru the Daminion client installed on my Surface tablet. There is also an included web client which is ok but not nearly as powerful as the real thing.
        If the desktop ‘server’ is in sleep mode, it wakes up in response to a ‘magic packet’ sent by the client when you remotely access the shared catalog. A real server would never be in sleep mode so this wouldn’t be an issue in a commercial setting.
        Server setup is considerably more complicated than Standalone and I suggest you take advantage of Daminion’s free remote installation. The standalone version definitely wins the ease-of-setup award.
        Overall, I’m very happy with the server version and plan to keep using it. It uses the same client (i.e. same interface) as the standalone version and is somewhat faster. It’s nice to maintain only a single catalog and not need a USB drive to access image files on my tablet.
        It’s possible to access shared catalogs over the internet but I can’t justify the effort to set that up. If I can ever travel again, I’ll probably use a remote access utility to view the catalog on the desktop.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Microsoft damned itself forever, as far as I’m concerned, when they dudded me and destroyed everything on my PC. I will never spend a cent on any of their product ever again.

      There were only a couple of things I missed after reverting back to 100% Apple MAC systems, some of them have been filled in as more software producers make their products available for MAC as well as PC, and MAC has advantages you can’t get in Windows anyway.

      I certainly don’t find MACs complicated, in any sense OTHER than the fact some third party software isn’t available on a MAC. And there’s only one of those programs that I was using, that I actually miss.

      So, Pascal, as I said at the start – à chacun son goût – that way everyone is happy. 🙂

      • Alan MacKenzie says:

        I guess we always find things complicated when we’re not familiar with them. The old learning curve! Unfortunately, Macs do very much complicate adoption of Daminion as it’s a niche application and simply not developed for Mac OS. As Murat points out, you can use a Mac browser to point at Windows server but that doesn’t replace the full client. Not even close.
        For me, there is no particular advantage to Apple — historically, maybe there might have been or maybe not, but those times are long past — and the thought of re-learning and buying everything new is a non-starter. As it happens (and at the risk of putting a hex on myself) I can say that I’ve never lost anything or even had to recover from backup in my 25 years of heavy Windows use. No doubt there are horror stories to be had from any and all platforms but so far so good.
        Anyhow, I’ve been inspired to try the Daminion network version and will let you know how it works out.
        I come in peace. To each their own…

    • Ben says:

      Hi Alan
      I have both installed on my computer LR and Daminion – LR does everything you mentioned and more – much more. My older standalone version LR is very robust. It’s as intuitive as Daminion after a learning curve. I’ve never gone back to Daminion since.
      Lets not forget LR is NOT just a virtual database organiser but a very powerful image editor all in one without the complexities (and capabilities of Adobe PS – LR is more than enough for a great majority of shooters) – Its a no brainer – even back at LR version 3 it supported a million over images on a 32-bit platform in one file collection and its fast.
      LR can be as simple as you want it to be or as powerful and versatile as you want to stretch yourself
      The limitation is not the LR version itself but the windows platform it supports.
      I’m still on LR v.3 on WinXP (if ain’t broken why fix it) even though I own win10 machines

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