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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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