As storage grows, inexpensive programs can help PC users keep track of picture

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 April, 1998, 12:00am

I returned to the US recently and stopped in to visit my dear grandma. As she does nearly every time I visit, she walked over to the large china cabinet in the dining area, put on her reading glasses, and began rummaging through one of the cabinet's large drawers.

'Have I shown the pictures of all the grandkids?' she asks, producing a small envelope of 3x5 prints.

Ah, if it were still so easy for me. My large drawer is actually a 1.2-gigabyte hard disk, a dozen Zip disks, and several CD-Roms.

Those with a fancy new digital still camera know exactly what I am talking about. In the digital world, there are no shoe-boxes full of negatives, and no photo albums that let you browse through family snapshots.

If you use digital images in your business, then you really know what I'm talking about: time spent trying to find the images you need is money down the drain.

So what do you do when your disk is brimming with digital pictures, when you cannot find your snaps of last year's vacation, or when browsing through pictures involves hours of opening images one at a time? Get a database.

There are four image databases for individual users - Cumulus, made by Canto, ImageAXS by Digital Arts and Sciences, CompuPic (CPIC) by Photodex, and Fetch, which has been released in a greatly improved form as Extensis Portfolio.

All are Windows and Mac-compatible and have downloadable demo versions on the Net.

In judging databases, the most important factor is ease of use. Nobody wants to spend their weekend keywording snapshots of the Grand Canyon. Ideally, a database should allow you to simply drag your pictures on to the open application and be done with it.

At US$49.95, CPIC is the second cheapest of the four, but it is overpriced for what it does. Born in a Windows 3.1 world, it has not really grown up much since then.

After five minutes of scratching my head, I could not figure out what it was supposed to do.

Beyond displaying thumbnails and sorting files into categories, CPIC can convert certain file formats. But why pay $50 when you can accomplish the same thing by sorting your images into folders on your hard disk and using a shareware thumbnail browser? The other three databases are remarkably alike. All support keywording, full-screen previews and can port the original image to an editing program such as PhotoShop.

All of these programs can archive images in almost any file format, as well as other types of files such as movies, sound files, page layouts and drawings.

I have several basic complaints about all three programs.

One of the most important pieces of Geek Speak you need to understand when dealing with image databases is IPTC. This refers to a standard by which caption information is attached to image files.

IPTC data includes the caption, photographer's byline, city, state and country where the photo was taken, keywords and a few other fields. While PhotoShop has the ability to attach IPTC data to the image through the File Info box, none of these programs could read all of the fields.

In order to get anything beyond the caption imported, users will have to buy a third-party captioning program such as Software Construction Co's Plug-In Kit.

The second problem was with the search engine itself. All three programs make keywording images and searching keywords simple. For many users this will be the easiest way to keep track of images. Simply by tagging images with the keyword 'Disneyland', a batch of thumbnails showing last year's vacation can be instantly displayed.

But if one or two keywords meet your needs, why shell out for a database? Just put them in a folder on your hard drive labelled 'Disneyland'.

Anyone who really needs a database needs to search on a more detailed description, which is most conveniently stored in the caption field.

Utilising the caption is also important because it allows you to store the image's description within the image file.

Should you ever decide to upgrade to a more powerful program, you only have to load the images into it. A system that relies on keywording may require you to re-keyword all of your pictures.

Although all three programs can perform a caption search, the search will look for any words that contain the letters you type into the search field.

One search for 'cat' brought up two photos of cats, one of the CAThay Hotel, and one of a man working for a comuniCATions company.

Not only is there no way around this, but Canto does not even cover caption searches in the manual.

Comparing the three side by side reminds me of those timelines showing the evolution of mankind, with the first image of an ape, and subsequent 'people' looking less hairy and standing more erect until we arrive at homo sapiens.

While CPIC has yet to come down from the trees, ImageAXS still has its knuckles dragging on the ground. It does allow users to create custom, searchable fields, but does not let you drag and drop pictures into your archive.

Basically, the interface in the software needs quite a bit of work before it can be considered easy to use. Still, at $29, the price can't be beaten.

Next up the line is the $99 Portfolio. It has drag-and-drop support and allows for custom fields. My main complaint with it was the thumbnail view. The program claimed it could display large thumbnails, but no matter what I did, I could not make this feature work properly.

Portfolio would simply take the tiny original thumbnails and enlarge them without increasing the resolution. The end result looked something like a mosaic tile floor, and the images, although larger, were unrecognisable.

Walking nearly upright is Canto Cumulus.

This program is the Swiss Army Knife of databases, with the ability to open almost any type of still, movie or sound format, including QuickTime movies, PageMaker layouts, CAD files and even native files from some digital still cameras.

In addition, Canto supports ColorSync on the Mac and can generate high-resolution thumbnails. The only problem I had with photographs in Canto came with the extremely esoteric TIFF/ LZW-LAB format. If you don't understand that last bit, then you don't need to worry about this problem. If you do, expect brown thumbnails.

Additionally, Canto comes in several different flavours, the least expensive running from $99 up to a client-server version at more than $1,000.

The $250 Desktop Plus version comes with interesting features, including the ability to auto-load files from a watch folder and the ability to port the contents of the database to other programs such as Filemaker Pro.

Desktop Plus also comes with a royalty-free reader that allows you to distribute read-only databases to clients.

Of the four programs, Canto definitely comes out on top. If caption searches really become a problem, it is a simple, although somewhat expensive, task to port the database to Filemaker which has a more robust search engine.

Although Canto's search engine needs to evolve more to be truly convenient, the combination of features, expandability and compatibility makes it the best image database for the money.