The Fog of DAM

Any digital asset management solution you choose is only as good as the work you put into it. Here are some pro-tips to help you navigate the potentially difficult road.

One of my normal activities as a professional photographer is digital asset management (DAM) or keeping track of the hundreds of thousands of photos and videos that I and others have produced over the years.  In 2013, I shot over 20,000 images and I currently manage more than 330,000 digital assets, and growing.  I have several tools in place that I use as part of my regular workflow which allows me to retrieve any of them in an instant.  But first, a little background.

My DAM History

No one at my company ever asked me to set up a Digital Asset Management system.  It was just a hobby of mine that I quickly realized was critical to the proper functioning of my world.  I knew that if I wanted to grow my department into something bigger, I was going to have to set a few things into place such as the ability to shoot less and draw on our growing library more.  At first, we used several off-the-shelf programs like Picasa (when it was a standalone client).  Then I transitioned out of that because it wouldn’t show me everything.  So I tried many other products and none of them seemed any good.  This was back in 2005 and I often thought that if I ever wanted to make millions, I should quit my job, learn database management and create the ultimate DAM software for everyone.  Then Adobe did it.

DAM Tools I use

My main tool for entering in metadata is Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.  This tool is invaluable to me and as it has developed over the years and as I’ve become exposed to other tools, I find that it is one of the best, if not THE best tool out there for editing, distributing and keeping track of almost everything image-related.  Ideally, I would just use Lightroom for the entire company, but they don’t make a server version.

The server based solution we use for enterprise-wide digital asset management and distribution is Canto Cumulus.  We are just starting to use it for our 10,000 employees and are in the process of launching it at the moment so I can’t speak to it’s effectiveness just yet.  There are a few problems (like not being able to properly read DNGs) but we are finding workarounds and so far it looks like it will solve many problems such as streamlining distribution of images directly to requestors, integrating with InDesign, reducing unnecessary copies, version control and finding images much more quickly and easily than what we could with our last DAM solution.  Previously, as a placeholder for something better, we were using Portfolio client and I can’t overemphasize how bad of a tool it was (slow, constant crashes, no tech support, four years without an update).  So we had a great need for something functional and professional and we put the word out.  In all, we had ten companies give us pitches and about eight of those did web-based or in-person demonstrations of their products.  Canto was far and away the best product.  Honestly, the other companies weren’t even close.

Metadata is your friend

So how do these tools work?  They are all completely dependent on metadata.  Metadata is any non-image information stored in the photo files.

Exposure information is one thing (ISO, shutter speed, f/ stop) but keeping track of the date, the photographer, the location, focal length, camera model and other information is paramount to being able to get a photo into the hands of someone who needs it right away.  At my company, we track almost everything you can imagine in a photo.  When I’m editing, the last step after color correction and other image-related changes is to keyword and set the GPS coordinates of everything that I’ve shot.  Anything that I think someone might search on is what I enter into the keywords.  Some examples are people’s names, type of angle (high angle vs. low angle), type of lighting (high key vs. low key), impact, quality, whether something have technology in it, whether a certain ethnicity is present in the shot (publications call for this all of the time), the non-human subject or object present in the shot (flowers, desks, signs, whatever), and anything else I can think of and that I have time to enter.  This process can be fun and can be not-fun depending on the number and complexity of photos.  But in the end, it pays off when you find exactly what you are looking for.

Tips and Tricks

When choosing our enterprise-wide DAM solution, I was very glad for my years of experience though because this is a very technical process with lots of hidden things which nothing but experience with several DAM products could prepare you for.  Basically, we needed a product that was as easy to use as Google Image Search, but as powerful and controlled as Getty’s website.  We needed everyone to be able to use it, we needed tiered access so some files were restricted and some were just not visible depending on the user. We needed support for multiple different video file types and we needed support for DNG files including the metadata that Adobe embeds in the XMP metadata.  Above all, we needed something fast and totally reliable.

The secret to metadata is to enter it when you are editing your photos.  The chances of you going back through everything and adding detailed keywords is very low.  But if you haven’t been doing it, now is the time to start.  Here’s my basic workflow:

    • Assign copyright, usage rights and terms, enter in other legal metadata
    • Assign basic keywords to be assigned during ingestion
    • Mark rejects for deletion
    • Enter in some keywords at this point of things I might forget later
    • Exposure, color correction and other visual edits
    • Final edits
    • Print and web jpgs for general clients, tiffs for publications, tiffs for ingesting in Canto Cumulus

Other tips… don’t use any “relative” terms such as “new” or “old” or “best”.  These words have meanings that are temporary or that aren’t universal.  Also, don’t delete “bad” photos because you might go back later and rethink your choices.  Also, shoot raw now.  You can edit them years later with improved tools and it will look like you shot them yesterday.  Don’t abandon your raw files for TIFFs.  You will need to go back to them later.  Choose a DAM solution that is based in photography.  Most of the systems out there were originally designed for keeping track of documents or logos.  Photographers have very special needs (such as the ability to change color space to sRGB when outputting web resolution jpgs from an AdobeRGB-spaced TIFF master file).  Document-based solutions have never heard of that.

A note on formats

One of the problems with having a DNG as your master file in a non-Adobe DAM is that some DAMs can’t access the metadata embedded by Adobe into the XMP (even if they think that CAN access DNGs). So local adjustments like grad filters, paintbrushes, spot remover, and other Lightroom and Photoshop developments can’t always be seen by the DAM making them useless as a master file (unless your DAM uses Adobe Camera Raw to view/edit master files). Also, since DNGs are a non-destructive format, if your DAM doesn’t have a raw processor, a simple non-destructive crop on a DNG will be considered a permanent pixel removing crop by the DAM. You’ll never be able to uncrop a DNG in a non-raw-enabled or non-Adobe DAM system.

Also, TIFFs are huge, even with Zip compression. He’s not an aging hipster, he’s an aging obese man. So using them as a master when you have hundreds of thousands of images means that you’ll be investing in extra terabytes on the server which can get expensive and which can definitely slow down the performance of the DAM (during ingestion and during production of jpegs for end users). Also, if your regular master file format is DNG or some other raw format that you edit in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom, you’ll have to convert everything to TIFF for the DAM which (if you have hundreds of thousands of images) means that you’ll looking at days of downtime as you generate the massive terabytes of TIFFs.

Unfortunately, using JPEGs as your master file in a DAM means that they are no longer 16 bit color, and making a copy of one is a copy of a compressed format. So every re-sized copy will be a generation 2 JPEG and slightly softer.

You should still hold onto your DNGs and TIFFS, but I’m not sure about letting them hang around your DAM, unless your DAM is run by Adobe. Then the only one I’d let in is a DNG.  Unfortunately, the DAM that Adobe has now is extremely expensive (around $100k USD for an enterprise-level installation).

A final note

Any digital asset management solution you choose is only as good as the work you put into it.  If you are crazy anal about the amount of data you enter per photo, it will help you in the end, but you might get so tired of it that you don’t do it as often as you should.  So you need to have a good middle ground.  Lightroom has some great features like metadata presets, autocompleting of common keywords, exporting and importing of lists, support for all major metadata standards, Google Maps inclusion for easy GPS assigning, and many other hidden features which only become obvious once you need them.  But whatever system you use, make sure you plan for the future.  Do the work now and you won’t regret it later.

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