Photo Mechanic, automating photo ingestion and handling

We all know Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture, but the real pros use Photo Mechanic, a photo ingestion and browsing tool. Photo Mechanic originally served to help photo editors quickly sift through the hundreds of photos they get on their desk each day. To make their life easier, the app has a lot of automation and integration functionality built-in. Far more than Lightroom, Aperture and iPhoto combined.

Camera Bits, Photo Mechanic’s developer, has decided to broaden the target market as photo journalists find themselves going the same path as newspaper editors and journalists, i.e. on their way to the unemployment agency. That’s why I’m looking at Photo Mechanic today from a point of view of a semi-pro / serious amateur. I am going to shed some light on Photo Mechanic’s capabilities for enterprise DAM and publishing system users too.

A year ago, Camera Bits released Photo Mechanic 5, a major upgrade of the photo preparation tool for professional photographers and photo editors. Version 5 is a step closer to Photo Mechanic Catalog, a true DAM for photos, which will be based on a SQL database. Storing photos inside a SQL database opens the door to versioning and collaborative revision management. It’s also quite difficult to get it right, which is probably why it takes Camera Bits a little longer than anticipated to release the Catalog version.

Photo Mechanic 5 photo ingestion tool: interface

While the Catalog version will be good news for image databank managers and the publishers of photo material, Photo Mechanic 5 is in a league of its own when it comes to photo ingestion and preparation. With Photo Mechanic, you can tag, colour code and star rate photographs. You can review them, compare them until you find the best one among a series (with the “G” shortcut key), view their histogram, sharpness, and soft-rotate them.

If you want an app to edit the image itself — changing colours, saturation, etc. — then you’re barking up the wrong tree with Photo Mechanic. That’s not what it is meant for.

Photo Mechanic’s main aim is to make it easy to add a description, a title, caption, keywords, and the complete set of IPTC metadata to your photos, and act upon that metadata for automatically handling photos. The review has over 2000 words, so I’ve split it up in several chapters. You can jump to any of these below.

Contents

Why should you add metadata to your photos?
Metadata is labour intensive — but not with this app it isn’t
How Photo Mechanic eases the burden of photo ingestion, reviewing and handling: a workflow example
The editing in Capture One
Uploading the photos
Other goodies worth mentioning

Why should you add metadata to your photos?

Why should you rename photos that your camera names “_DSC0007.ACR” ? Why should you add information such as a caption, copyright data, who’s in the photo, the locations you visited before or after? If you’re only uploading to Flickr for family to see and no-one else, then why indeed?

But if you’re using your photos for a blog, you’re a journalist working for one or several publications, or a photo editor who has to sift through photo journalists’ entries and file them automatically, then metadata is extremely important. If you are telling a story with your photos, it’s important that you ‘embed’ as much verbal information as possible. The reason for this is simple: there’s no computer ever going to be capable to tap into your memory and tell you what a photo you took several years ago was about, or who you shot it for.

By the same token no computer will ever be capable to read your mind regarding what the purpose of a shot was and file it in a location you specifically defined for that one purpose.

Photo editors of course know what I’m talking about, and so do librarians and DAM managers. “A picture is worth a thousand words” applies to the content, not to the picture itself. And that’s why you need metadata.

Photo Mechanic 5 photo ingestion tool: IPTC Stationary Pad

And if you want to manage photos in a sense of copying, moving, exporting, uploading or publishing, metadata will help you automate the creation of folders, the copying of photos to the right place and person depending on the metadata in the photo. This is why Photo Mechanic exists.

Metadata is labour intensive — but not with this app, it isn’t

Adding metadata is a chore if you have to do it in Lightroom, Aperture or iPhoto. Those cataloguing applications aren’t really made to efficiently populate photos with metadata. They support it, but it remains a fairly static affair. That, in turn, is probably the reason why many people don’t see the use of filling in metadata fields. After all, what can you *do* with it?

Photo Mechanic 5, on the other hand, has been specifically developed for photo ingestion and metadata population, and for automatic handling of your photos based on this metadata.

After having played with the demo I received from Camera Bits every day for the past two weeks, I would associate Photo Mechanic 5 with three strong features:

  • Photo ingestion, both static and dynamic (Watched folders, auto-Ingest upon insertion of a memory card)
  • Adding useful information to every photo (IPTC, but also ratings, colour codes and Photo Mechanic specific metadata) both manually and automatically (fill in once, apply to many)
  • Handling (copying, moving, saving, uploading, exporting and publishing to web page or contact sheet) photos dynamically and semi-automatically using variables that are based on metadata.

How Photo Mechanic eases the burden of photo ingestion, reviewing and handling

For this review I’m not going to take you through the features. Instead, I’m going to use a typical workflow of someone who uses photos for two small online publications. There is no specialist photo editor involved in this process as there would be in, for example, a paper magazine workflow. Also please note that Photo Mechanic 5 has a lot of variables and features that are not described here.

Suffice it to say that I consider Photo Mechanic 5 to be a photo ingestion and browsing tool that enables you to offload and manipulate/handle photos the best way possible with the least possible effort.

Using Photo Mechanic 5’s Auto Ingest feature — a check box in the Ingest dialogue — I can insert my CF cards and have my photos automatically being added to the folders I define in the Ingest dialogue. I’m going to have my photos automatically backed up by designating a secondary folder as well as a primary offload folder in the Ingest dialogue.

Before I start using Photo Mechanic 5 for ingesting photos on my local system and then preparing them for upload to my two online publications, I am using one of Photo Mechanic’s Variables, called “clientname” by going to the Edit menu and properly filling in the User/Client form. For each of the publications, I’ll fill in the publications’ name in the client name field of the form and save it as a “Snapshot”. This will allow me to label photos for each publication by simply selecting one of both Snapshots in the Ingest dialogue (via the “Job” button).

Photo Mechanic 5 photo ingestion tool: the Ingest dialogue

In the Ingest dialogue I’ve also checked the Local IPTC Stationary Pad to be used. The Local IPTC Stationary Pad is an IPTC template that you’ll use for the current Ingest only. The Global one is set from the Image menu and applies to selected images while reviewing.

In the Local IPTC Stationary Pad I’ve inserted Variable “clientname” in the “Special Instructions” field. This will enable me to quickly save five star rated photos as JPEGs to an individual folder for each online publication on my system.

I will edit the JPEGs in that folder further with Capture One Pro so they look exactly the way I want them to. The reason why I’m using Capture One is that it keeps all metadata intact after exporting. With the metadata intact after editing, I can re-ingest the images into Photo Mechanic 5 via Live Ingest and have them automatically uploaded to my web server using FTP, or to a bunch of online photo services such as PhotoShelter, Flickr, etc.

As soon as I’ve inserted my CF card, the offload process begins. When my photos have been ingested and the metadata I had pre-defined has been automatically filled in, I start reviewing my photos. I can preview photos at 100% zoom to check for sharpness. I can star rate them and give them a colour code. I have set up the eight available colours so they represent the technical quality of the photo. The star rating in my workflow represents the photo’s creative quality.

Photo Mechanic 5 photo ingestion tool: Save As dialogue

When I’ve rated all my photos, I can now select all of the five star rated ones and save them as JPEGs. In the Save As dialogue, I’ll name the folders into which I want to export them with the clientname Variable. This will create (sub)folders with each publication’s name and automatically dump the correct images in each of them.

The editing in Capture One

I can now switch to Capture One, navigate to each publication’s folder and edit my photo in there and export it to JPEG at 60%. When I set up my Capture One export folders so they have the same name as the Photo Mechanic 5 Variable “clientname”, Photo Mechanic 5’s Live Ingest will be able to automatically ingest the JPEGs into a contact sheet (which basically is a folder) using — again — the same name convention. This contact sheet or folder is an intermediate step before Photo Mechanic will upload the photos to each publication’s server.

The only problem now is that I can’t just apply the IPTC Stationary Pad and then hope to see the images automagically move to the correct clientname (i.e. publication name) folder because the Live Ingest operation will be over when the IPTC metadata has been replaced or appended.

Photo Mechanic 5 photo ingestion tool: Live Ingest dialogue

Photo Mechanic 5 gives me a way out of this. It will let me define a Variable “folder”. This variable takes the folder name for a photo, not the entire path (that is another Variable). If I followed my own rules, I have set up my photo  folders so that for each step in my workflow, I have one folder named after my first publication and one folder named after my second publication. So, instead of using the “clientname” Variable in Live Ingest as the destination folder’s name, I’ll be using the “folder” Variable in the Live Ingest dialogue’s destination field and Photo Mechanic will automatically pick that up and dump my edited JPEGs in the correctly named folders/contact sheets.

Uploading the photos

Now all I have to do is upload the photos to the servers. Let’s pretend I’m using my own FTP servers for this purpose. I can fill in the FTP server information for each server in Photo Mechanic. Additionally, as the dialogue has settings for the JPEG/RAW quality, size and scale, I can have one publication with better quality JPEGs than the other by saving Snapshots for each.

Photo Mechanic 5 photo ingestion tool: FTP file uploader

Alternatively, I can upload my photos to a whole bunch of online photo services, including Zenfolio, Exposure Manager, SmugMug, etc, etc.

Photo Mechanic 5 photo ingestion tool: Zenfolio integration

Other goodies worth mentioning

Well, as I said, Photo Mechanic has other features worth mentioning as well. GPS support, for example, is stunning, with the ability to enter GPS data using a live map and view the GPS location on a map. Localisation of photos therefore doesn’t necessarily mean you need a GPS-enabled camera if you have Photo Mechanic.

For DAM users, Photo Mechanic’s support of controlled vocabularies is essential. Its XML export capabilities are essential for integrating the application with enterprise-scale systems.

Creating HTML photo galleries is easy with the templates provided by Camera Bits, and which you can load in Photo Mechanic and then automatically populate with photos. As always, the list of about 100+ Variables is there to help with the automation of the task. Printing: ditto.

Searching photos is also well supported with Spotlight having a centre stage role on Macs. Colour management in the sense of attaching a profile to a photo is available, as is the capability to burn DVDs with your images directly from within Photo Mechanic.

Is Photo Mechanic perfect? Probably not. One point of mild criticism that I have is the design of icons and buttons used throughout the app. I’ve seen nicer design and more OS X like buttons. But it’s not ugly. It doesn’t distract from the job at hand, and that’s the most important.

Will it appeal to the broad audience of people who use photos on blogs and online publications? It depends. Photo Mechanic isn’t really cheap. And many people think they can go by perfectly without metadata. It’s probably going to be hard to convince them to pay for an app that specialises in this part of digital asset management.

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p>Those who shoot a lot and/or know better will have a hard time finding a better program for the approx. 112 Euros Camera Bits charges.