Beyond Lightroom: How one Mac power user found the Holy Grail of media asset management

David Gewirtz nearly gave up trying to find a comprehensive, powerful, fast and flexible media tool to manage his hundreds of thousands of images. And then, eureka!
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

I am not the sort of man who gives up, especially when it comes to optimizing my productivity flow. I do not like wasting time, especially when I know there are tools that can shave hours, minutes, or even seconds off of my work process.

Even so, back in 2013, I gave up for a time on finding a good media asset management tool. If you'd like to see what happens when a grown man rants about file formats, read my infuriatingly unsuccessful quest for a good media asset management tool.

I do a lot (a way LOT) of very high-end PowerPoint presentations. I spend weeks at a time living in Windows PowerPoint 2013 (on a Mac, surprisingly enough). To push my presentation production values to the level necessary, I need to use a tremendous number of images. I've licensed hundreds of thousands of images, and I'm always still looking for more. That's why I need a media asset management tool.

To speed up today's read, let me grab the problem statement from that article and reproduce it here:

  • I wanted to have a database-based organizer, so that searches would be fast and all the files wouldn't have to be scanned for each search.
  • I wanted that database to hold all my media asset files (both vector and bitmap).
  • And I wanted that system to allow relatively easy drag-and-drop from the desktop to the application so I could get content in and out of the system while composing presentations, without losing track of the flow of the actual lesson I was preparing.
  • Oh, and it would be nice to have this on a network, so I could easily do my work either at my desk or on my laptop.

Back then, I ran into a number of barriers. The biggest is that photo organizers (which comprise everything from Adobe Lightroom on down) don't handle vector graphics like .eps and .ai images. Vector graphics aren't made up of bits, they're made up of math describing lines and fills, and they're used in creating illustrations, logos, diagrams, and the like.

Actually, I ran into a metric ton of barriers, idiocy, firm insistence, and lack of usefulness. I can't tell you how many helpful press representatives and marketing droids from image management product companies contacted me, insisted their products would work, only to be shot down because they couldn't handle illustrations.

There's another gotcha, and that's that one of the main file formats for the Web, .png, isn't supported in Lightroom. Other photo organizers do support .png, but screw up its signature feature -- transparency -- in order to store the data. I had the enjoyable experience of testing out even more products, only to find they failed completely on .png. It's not like .png is a new format; it's 18 years old. But still.

Then there is that class of enterprise products called Digital Asset Management (or DAM) products. These are meant for very large agencies and clients to do things like share their resources. Think of Coca Cola sharing TV commercial production assets with its thousand different ad agencies and you get the idea.

Me? I just wanted a way to hold half a million images and get at them quickly.

There was another odd discovery about the image management software world: apparently it's kind of hard to compete in a world where there is Adobe. I spoke to a bunch of desperate wanna-be-covereds who had very, very old software, software that hadn't been updated since the Windows 2000 days (seriously).

These folks were hanging in selling maintenance and bug fixes to a handful of customers who bought in on their services years ago, but they couldn't sell enough to do things like update their Web sites, change their UI to something from this decade, or add features. It was a strange little underbelly of the industry I didn't expect to find, but which makes perfect sense once you stumble into their ghetto.

Before I finally found a workable answer, I took the project in another direction. Rather than image management tools, what about file management tools? After all, images are files stored on disk, so super Finders and souped-up Windows Explorer replacement might have the answer.

I did find some exceptional Finder and Explorer replacements. PathFinder for the Mac and Directory Opus for Windows are two standout examples. But they just weren't able to give me the smooth, designer-oriented search-and-insert capability I needed.

Along the way, I did find a bunch of promising tools that supported all the formats I wanted. The only gotcha for these programs is they were good at handling 2,500 images, even 25,000 images. Feed half a million images into them and they melted into a pool of goo.

I spoke to one developer who asked me why I'd even want to manage so many images and another who had never seen anyone with a library that large, so he couldn't test it to figure out how to make it reliable. It's just that sort of product category.

Finally, though, I found a working solution: a CD cataloging program.

No, seriously, this is where the story gets good.

There is a class of PC and Mac software that is amazing. These are products developers started working on decades ago, and have kept updating, tuning, and sculpting for years.

The above-mentioned Directory Opus is one. Development on it started in 1990 for the Amiga, and the developers have continued working on it ever since. BBEdit (which stands for Bare Bones Edit and is one of the most complete editors anywhere) is another. It was started in 1991 and continues to be updated to this day. SnagIt, the image capture program is yet another example. It's a screen capture program that has had continual updates since 1990.

These are products that are cared for, curated, loved. In my search for a media asset management tool, there is another.

Norbert M. Doerner from Langenhahn, Germany released a Mac product called CDFinder in 1995. As you might imagine from its name, CDFinder was a CD cataloging program. It scanned online and offline media, looking for CD information (music, mostly) and stored it in a central catalog.

20 years later, Norbert is still working on his code, although now it's called NeoFinder (it still uses the cdfinder.de domain name) and handles all sorts of media. When I say "all sorts of media," I mean it. I can't go into all the formats this thing handles, but it goes way beyond my needs to a wide variety of music formats, video formats, movie formats, document formats, and more.

Expecting very little given my prior experience, I set about importing my files into NeoFinder. Some time later (without crashing) it had them all imported into its databases. A search (NeoFinder is also integrated with the Mac's Spotlight) takes seconds.

Files drag-and-drop between applications (in fact, here's a demonstration where I drag images out of NeoFinder on OS X into PowerPoint on Windows).

NeoFinder also supports network sharing, has an iOS version, and there's even a Windows clone that will import his catalog files (and clearly the two developers talk, because the Windows version is promoted on the NeoFinder site).

Oh, as for file limits: 4,000,000,000 catalogs. That's not files. That's the number of catalogs of files NeoFinder can handle. I think we're good for a while, don't you?

There's probably one more thing you want to know, don't you? How much is this thing? Forty bucks. Yep. Forty bucks. I've been using NeoFinder since I bought it late last year and it's had a few substantial updates since then, has never crashed, has reasonable support direct from Norbert, and it cost all of forty bucks.

The Web site looks like something from 2008, but the product beats every other media manager I've looked at when it comes to the basics: storing, previewing, thumbnailing, and retrieving files of all the needed formats. No, it doesn't have facial recognition and a library of Instagram-like effects. That's not what I needed. I needed something that actually worked, and NeoFinder knocks it out of the park for under fifty bucks.

Disclosure: BBEdit and NeoFinder were purchased by the author. Review copies of Directory Opus and SnagIt were provided some years ago.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

Editorial standards