My infuriatingly unsuccessful quest for a good media asset management tool

The one in which David's search for a comprehensive, powerful, fast and flexible media asset management program turns out to be a complete bust. There is ranting. There is whining. Good times.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Update: We have a winner. Take a look at Beyond Lightroom: How one Mac power user found the Holy Grail of media asset management.

I'm giving up. I don't normally give up when it comes to tech projects, but I'm out of time and I am so, totally, completely, tear-my-hair-out, out of patience.

Oh, and no, this isn't about Linux. Surprised?

Over the past two weeks I have continually lowered my requirement set, reduced my "must haves," given up on my "like to haves," to the point where there's nothing left, not really.

It's about image management. Sigh. Don't start telling me image management is easy, Picasa, yada yada, Elements Organizer, yada yada, Lightroom, yada yada, Bridge... whatever. I've heard it all. I've tried it all.

I give a lot of presentations. A very lot. I spend hours, days, weeks, months of my life in PowerPoint. No need to pity me. I actually quite like PowerPoint. But the point is, to make these presentations more interesting and explain things more clearly, I use a lot of images.

Not just photos. Images. And here's where things begin to break down.

There are two completely different classes of images out there: bitmap-based images and vector-based images. Photos are bitmaps, filled with lots and lots of pixels of information. The more pixels you have, the higher-resolution the image.

Vector-based images are line drawings with fills. Rather than huge matrices filled with dots, vectors are actual line and curve formulas, linked together in a format that describes an illustration.

Bitmaps only scale if you have a boatload of bits. Vector images scale naturally, because the formula just recalculates for the larger size. Vectors, therefore, are ideal for drawings and illustrations, rather than photos and paintings.

Photoshop does bitmaps. Illustrator does vectors. Photo file formats are things like JPEG, TIFF, PNG, GIF, RAW, and so on. Vector file formats are things like EPS and AI.

With me so far?

I have thousands of images, both bitmap and vector. In the case of photos, I've taken quite a few myself. I've also bought a lot of stock images. In the case of vectors, I've bought most of them, but modified some of them in Illustrator and Photoshop to best suit my presentations.

The problem is, finding the right image has been getting out of control. It can take an hour or more to just find an image in my library. Yes, I've organized my folders as best as possible, and I can easily dig through and see thumbnails, but I wanted a better way.

I wanted to search by keyword, review images quickly, search across collections, choose based on metadata, file type, and more. I wanted a way to find an image in 30 seconds instead of 30 minutes. I wanted an image organizer.

Here then, are the simple set of specs I started out with:

  • 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.

I am in a foul mood. Enter the photo organizer category.

There is a very large category of software called the photo organizer. As you might imagine, these products organize photos. Right away, you can see the problem, right? Photos. Bitmaps. They know nothing of illustrations and vector graphic files.

I set these products aside for a while as I searched for a more comprehensive asset management tool. In terms of standalone products, the only one I found was called Portfolio from Extensis. This product hasn't been updated since 2011, and its main version number hasn't changed since something like 2005. The company also didn't respond to requests for information.

There is a category called "Digital Asset Management" out there as well. These are enterprise-level products, often Web-based. You can begin to tell they'll be trouble because there's no price for the product on the site. Almost all providers of DAM tools have a "let us have an expert call you" button.

Here's a hint: I have two remaining days to implement the entire solution, and if I have to have an expert call me (apparently, a unique phrase for DAM solutions), then I can pretty much be assured it's not going to save me time (and most likely will be way outside my budget).

I even tried SharePoint. I have Office 365, which comes with a SharePoint account, and SharePoint has a Media Asset Management application. Feh. It will store files, but it is about as interactive and drag-and-droppy as a dead fish. On top of that, PDF files loaded into SharePoint's media management system show as default files. They couldn't even be bothered to render a thumbnail of the PDF.

Plus, after two or three calls to Microsoft, no one could answer whether or not it's possible to grow my 10GB SharePoint disk quota to a larger capacity, if I needed it to store more images.

Major fail.

So I decided to lower my expectations. Rather than organizing all my images together, I'd create one bucket for bitmaps and one bucket for vectors. After all, the market is clogged with photo organizing tools.

The Big Kahuna of photo organizing tools is Adobe Lightroom. I'll get back to that in a minute. First, let me talk about all the other photo organizing tools, with a particular nod of "WTF" to Google's Picasa.

Most photo organizing tools try to be editors as well. I just ignored that part. I didn't want red-eye correction, I wanted to find pictures with eyes in them. But most of the tools will catalog JPEGs and camera RAW. Some can handle PNGs and TIFFs, and a few handle old-school GIF images.

With one or two exceptions, the database catalog in these systems resides on your local system. This is a single-user application, and if you try to move the database somewhere else, there's no end of complaining on the part of the application.

Next up, I rant some more, talk about Picasa's weirdnesses and Lightroom's fail, and rant even more. Good times, good times...

Picasa is special though. Picasa doesn't just open once you install it. Picasa gives you a choice: scan your entire hard drive, or just major folders. There's no "don't scan because I want to tell your where my stuff is" option. So Picasa scans. It found hundreds of folders filled with various parts from previous projects, none of which I wanted in my database.

What gave me the willies about Picasa, though, was its insistence that it wanted to share my images on Google+. I avoided this by refusing to log into Google with Picasa, but it made me nervous. I have a lot of licensed images I'm allowed to use in my own works, but not that I'm allowed to publish as standalone images. I didn't want Picasa to just upload all my files, willy-nilly.

And, besides, Picasa only handled bitmaps anyway.

With most of the other photo organizers, there's really not much of a difference. They all were a bit sucky in one way or another (I downloaded and tried at least eight of them beyond the usual suspects), and since there was a well-regarded professional option, I decided to discard the consumer products and look, once again, to Adobe.

This is where Lightroom comes into the picture.

No matter who you talk to, when you start talking about professional photo management, Lightroom comes up. So I bought Lightroom. I found a good one-day discount deal, but still, there's a hundred bucks down the toilet.

Lightroom is a little more fussy than some of the other photo organizers, in that it doesn't recognize PNG files. PNG files have pretty much replaced GIF images in Web design, are used all over the Web, and have the happy property of being able to be transparent, so if you want to stick a person in a presentation, you don't have to bring the background along with it.

Lightroom doesn't like PNG. Apparently, PNG doesn't handle metadata in a way that Lightroom considers robust enough, so if you have PNG images, well, you're just out of luck.

I don't need PNG images, but I do need transparent images. TIFF also supports transparent images and Lightroom supports TIFF. So I bought a couple of batch converter programs that convert from PNG to TIFF. For those of you keeping track, there went another hundred bucks, flushed away.

Can you see where this is going? Lightroom couldn't read the TIFFs produced by the conversion programs, although Photoshop could. But if I couldn't organize them in Lightroom, then I pretty much couldn't use Lightroom. And yes, I could convert the PNG images to transparent TIFFs in Photoshop, but even with some of Photoshop's batch settings, my desire to save time managing images was rapidly becoming a second full-time job (well, technically, it would be a fourth full-time job, but who's counting?).

And I haven't even talked about the curation process required to assign appropriate keywords, and so forth. We're not even there yet. That's another nightmare and lifetime of organizing, all on its own.

If you've been following along, you've figured out that Adobe's gift to professional photographers, Lightroom, couldn't cut the mustard with my project. Not only couldn't it handle vectors, it also couldn't handle PNGs or converted TIFFs.

Exit Lightroom, enter Bridge.

Bridge is the other "must-have" Adobe solution for managing files. The win with Bridge is that it can read all the different file formats, including the vector formats. Yay that.

But Bridge doesn't have a central database. Every time you enter a directory and want to see the images in it (or in its subdirectories), or search the images in it, Bridge does a new scan. I selected one collection of a mere 2500 photos and I tested Bridge on it. Ten minutes to do a scan. Leave the directory to look somewhere else and come back. Ten minutes again.

This, essentially, makes Bridge too slow to use. But the kicker was that Bridge won't show transparent PNGs as transparent.

It insists on putting a white background on them, so it's impossible, visually, to tell which PNGs are transparent, and which have a white background, unless you go ahead and open the image up in Photoshop -- which defeats the whole purpose of trying to use an organizer tool for quick image searches.

So where does this all leave me? Cranky. Very, very, very cranky.

Lightroom can't organize vectors, won't read PNGs, and won't understand converted transparent TIFFs. Bridge takes a lifetime to scan large directories of images (which is the whole point) and won't display transparent PNGs as transparent. The other photo organizers break in similar ways, and won't display vectors.

Worse, the curation process -- trying to sort out, label, and keyword thousands upon thousands of images -- is a job for a team of people over six months, not one lone professor working in the comfort of his home office.

I have to say that it astonishes me that there isn't a widely available solution to this. I'm flabbergasted (love that word!) that Adobe doesn't have just the perfect solution to this problem (beyond the somewhat anemic Bridge) because solving this sort of image management problem is at the heart of what Adobe does.

I'm also disappointed in the Web-based and enterprise-based solutions.

First, the barrier of entry is huge. There appears to be a disconnect between the needs of a professional designer with thousands of images and a large corporation buying an enterprise package.

Second, most of the Web gallery and enterprise solutions still use relatively primative upload dialogs and download buttons. There are very few solutions that will let you drag from a Web page into a desktop application, or to the desktop, and do it for a bunch of images, and those that do also seem to think the only type of image that exists is based on bitmaps.

Say what you will about cloud computing, the true, native desktop application is still better at some types of interaction.

So, I've given up on this project.

I have had two days until I need to start my next major series of PowerPoints, and I'll be doing them straight for about six weeks, so there's clearly no way I can solve this in two days. I'll probably spend a day doing a little disk file system housekeeping, but other than that, my search for media asset management is a complete bust.

Did I mention that I'm cranky? I want a cookie.

UPDATE: Well, I haven't completely given up. I never really do when there's a problem to be solved. I'm working on a new approach. Rather than look for a good media asset management tool, I've decided to focus on super-charged file managers, and see which ones are available with good media extensions. I've been looking at one over the weekend and it shows promise. So, stay tuned. There's probably another article on this topic coming real soon now.

I still want a cookie.

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