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Cataloging digital camera Photos

Organizing digital photos is an absolute necessity for anyone shooting digital. There is no question that a digital photographer will shoot more than a film photographer. And, it is also often the case that a digital photographer will keep most photos on the computer, rather than printing them all into an album, like a film photographer. The combination of these two scenarios means that a growing collection must be organized before it gets out of hand.

Select a Topic
Comparison of Photo Catalog Software
Versioning in IMatch - Manage Versions 2.3.4
Photo Catalog Software Reviews
Review: Adobe Photoshop Album 2.0
Photo Catalog software and how to choose
Export tags from Photoshop Album
Why catalog your digital photos?
Photo Catalogs - How they work
Photo Catalogs and multiple versions
Categories / keywords and centralized databases
Review: Photools IMatch 3.5
Important features for an image catalog program
Image databases and external renaming / editing
Category / Keyword Hierarchy


Why you must catalog your digital photographs!

For some background, please read the article, Why you need to organize your photos.

Which photo catalog software to use? Choose carefully!

Understand one thing: by selecting your catalog software, you are entering into a long-term relationship. This relationship is an exclusive one. [Serial] monogamy is the only option if you value the life of your collection.

As we begin the time-consuming task of categorizing our photo collections, we are investing a huge amount of effort. It is not a task that any of us would ever care to redo. If you are like me, you will have a large number of categories (eg. > 250), and many photos might be associated with a dozens tags. If you have tens of thousands of photos, you can imagine how much work could be invested in the tagging process.

Unfortunately, many asset management programs keep that huge investment hidden in a closed, proprietary format with no export functionality. What does this mean? The software stores those associations between tags and files in an optimized database, one that they will never open to the public. Why? By never allowing people to extract the tag information from the database, the software has essentially locked you in! You cannot simply take all of your careful tagging investment and transfer it to another asset management program. It is not in the best interest of the software companies to do this! Once they have you "locked in", you will definitely chose to stay with that particular program rather than leave and face the prospects of redoing all of your hard work. Think of it as trying to leave a bad relationship (to my wife, no I'm not trying to tell you something!). You feel that you have invested so much time, you might as well continue, rather than starting fresh and developing all of those life memories again!

To make matters worse, your collection will ony grow over time, which means that your "tagging investment" will also grow. The longer one stays with a particular "locked in" program, the harder it will be to leave!

Fortunately, there are a number of tools which provide a means by which you can export the tagging data to some text-based (or documented) format. Some even document the database format, but this is far less common. The key here, to ensure the future of your time investment is to select a program that will allow you to export the contents of the database into a known format.

More common, however, is the ability to write out the keywords / tags into the IPTC metadata of the image files. By allowing you to transfer this information into a common format (that can be read by most programs), you are essentially able to extract your investment. Fortunately, many programs now offer this ability. Even though this is not as good as a strict export of the tagging database, it does provide a means by which you can migrate to other products.

One feature that some programs offer is the ability to import the keywords and photo tag associations from a text file. This has the distinct advantage in allowing you to transfer your work into the program, provided you find a way to generate that text file in the first place. If anything, this is a feature that all catalog / asset management programs will want to advertise: an easy migration from a competitor's tool.

Unfortunately, generating this file requires that key export option. There are a few hacks available that will actually create this extracted file from various catalog tools. For example, a tool called psatool will extract the tagging data from a Photoshop Album 2 database into a text file (see the IMatch page for more details on this script). But one should be forewarned that the presence of such tools may cause the catalog software developers to make the data harder to extract from the later database versions.

Does your tool lock you in?

The following table is an attempt to assess the ability of each of the major digital asset management / photo catalog tools on the basis of import & export.

Tool Text Export? Meta Export? Import?
IMatch 3.4 Full, script Yes Many, script
idImager 2.6 Yes Yes iMatch, ACDSee5 XML, FotoTime, IPTC Keywords
Photoshop Album 2 No Not automatic No
Photoshop Elements 3 No Yes No?
ACDSee 7 ? Yes? No, only captions (via descript.ion files)?
Portfolio 7 Yes Yes Yes
iView Media Pro Yes Yes Yes
Cumulus ? ? ?

The above table should help identify a key area of flexibility in certain tools available today. If you can help fill in any of the missing details or for other tools, please let me know. Thanks.


Reader's Comments:

Please leave your comments or suggestions below!
 ACDSee has a way to import files and have them sorted by hierarchical dates year/month/day that I like a lot. I have been using ACDSee for a long time but my photos are way over 150,000 and the database seems to crash and 152,000
2014-09-20Rick F
 Hi, thanks for all the work you've done creating this site.

Having just moved my in-laws into assisted living, my wife and I are in the process of organizing all the family photos (90 years worth) and videos. We're preparing to have thousands of photos scanned (as well as slides, film converted to video etc.). We'd like a single software application that would allow us to do the following:
1. Manage the collection as albums to allow for very easy browsing by other family members, many of which are older, and allow them to comment on each image in a dialog format, similar to facebook.
2. Allow these people to assist in tagging people in the photos, identifying the location (city / state) or adding other data.
3. Search by date, location, topic, people in photo or other data.
4. I'd like a light table / sorting feature that will allow me to easily (relative term I know) go through the massive amount of un-categorized images, compare the images and categorize them so they can be included in albums and search.
5. Somewhat easy learning curve for me, need to be simpler for other family members. I can learn new software, some of them will not.

There are other "nice to have" features, such as allowing copying the image to their computer or posting it to another application, but the above are what I'm looking for.

 Are you looking to have the photos accessible from multiple computers or will the rest of the family be browsing and tagging from the same computer? If it is a single computer, then I'd strongly suggest you take a look at Photo Supreme. It is relatively easy to use and appears to address all of the things you're after.
 Hi Great Article

can you point me in the right direction, i am after software that acts like a database so user can serach terms and get results, but i dont want users to be able to edit or change the photos ?

we have about 10,000 photos stored on a NAS drive for a youth program, nad have 12 computers that users use for internet use so software would be great to view the photos on the NAS

thansk alot

2009-06-09Lonny Lindquist
 I have a hard time finding programs that will catalog my CD's and DVD's of images. So many need to have the images accessible. This may be worth putting in your comparison chart. I'm glad you have done this.
 How do I choose a software package that supports uploading of image sets to on-line printing services, such as Snapfish?
2008-01-07Lynnea Kleinschmidt
 I think that DAM software reviews should begin to include more detailed OS information. I am moving to the Windows Ultimate 64-bit platform and may not be able to use my current DAM software with that OS.
 Good point. The arrival of Vista certainly brought about many other incompatibilities. This is one problem with some of the older apps -- it's less likely to be updated for the newer OSes.
 Hi Calvin,

Just a quick update in my search for a program or program(s) to hlep me on my cataloging project in my office. First, IDImager is now in beta testing on v.4. I have played around witht he program a bit, and Hert seems to have done a nice job of tweaking the GUI. Its still not quite as intuitive as I would like, but Hert is still refining things during the beta test period. I think the final version could have great potential if all goes well.

Second, I stumbled upon a DAM program that I previously ignored and it also seems tohave some potential, albeit its not quite as powerful as the top tier programs, but it seems to have a very easy to understand GUI. The program is Fotoalbum Pro from Fototime. What I like about the program is that uses categories and keywords; can create read-only catalogs on CD or DVD that do not require any software to be installed; comes in a fully operational U3 package; and, only costs $30 ($20 if you sign up for a free Fototime account). I will let you know more aobut the program after I spend some more time with it, but it seems to be a good choice for a "lite" and easy DAM program with reasonable features. Their user manual is available for view/download if anybody is interested.

Take care,
 Thanks Ken! Yes, IDImager looks very promising, and Hert has certainly done a great job of supporting and developing the product. As for the lightweight DAM options, thanks for the pointer about Fotoalbum pro and U3 support. I am sure that there are many others out there who may also be looking for this type of portable setup.
 Hello again Calvin,

I hope you are enjoying our "tease of summer" weather today here in the PNW. I am still evaluating DAM programs, and I am beginning to wonder if reading support forums at each company can be dangerous to one's decision-making abilities. It seems as though all of the major players (iMatch, iView, Portfolio, IDimager) seems to have software "issues". I realize forums are the place to talk about bugs and problems, but am beginning to wonder who has the most robust program for moderate useage. My needs are not great in terms of the number of images needing to be managed, but I want a reliable program. Do you know if anybody has specifically looked at these issues? The problems that I see being discussed makes me believe that we are all using "works in progress" software. Granted, some are better supported, but few are bug free. Any thoughts?

 Hi Ken -- You're absolutely right about the danger in passing judgement on the basis of the support forums... people are much more likely to post when they encounter problems than successes with a product, so you end up with a skewed sample of the user community's experience.

However, there are definitely some trends that will appear on forums, especially in the way of fatal errors, data loss, instability and developer support. So, I still tend to think it is a worthwhile venture to get an idea of the overall condition of the product, once you've filtered out all of the "noise".

I don't know of any assessment across the various products with such a perspective, but I have received a number of reader submissions that detailed individual comparative experiences between these products (i.e. after using 2 or more of them with a fair trial). I may create a section for comparative feedback, as I think some of this information is much more valuable than comments on a particular product.

At this point I have received some input from users that have tried and compared IMatch vs IDimager, but I may wait until I receive some more before I post some excerpts.

Thanks Ken!
2007-04-23alan logan
 Good morning,

I have more than 60,000 digital photos/movies (jpeg, pdf, avi, ect., ect.). They are contained in a few thousand folders. Those are contained on 8 different hard drives. At the moment, I use 5 different digital cameras. I add 10,000+ photos a year.

I'm looking for software, that all I need to do is plug in the hard drives, select the software, select the upload device and it automatically will start a library .

It needs to be easy to use and configure/set-up.

It needs to be able, to group the photos by the original date & time taken (establish new folders chronographically by calendar month, Nov 06, Dec 06, Jan 07, Feb 07), without me having to open the various folders.

Some of the camera's have created a lot of duplicate file names, so if the software can open the folders and sort files by the original date and time taken, that should solve 1 of my big problems.

I tried a program and when it finished down loading it had many broken files as well as it changed/mixed the dates on numerous photos. The software needs to be able to process large work loads, without the broken file and miss-dates.

I want to maintain the original file size's (ranging from 3 to 8 MB)

I would like to access/process the photos quickly.

At the end of the download, I would like it to group/pair up the duplicates, I'll delete the copies after a final review.

I already have picture editing software, so what I really need is a good management program.

All of the processed archives, will need to be stored on an external hard drive, accessed through laptops.

I have a very small business (there is 2 of us), I will not be expanding, so cost of the software is important!

Please advise,

Thank you for your time,

Alan Logan
 It looks like you have two approaches available: import the photos into a single organized structure and then add them into a catalog database OR add the photos into a catalog database with the photos stored as they currently exist.

My preference is to get the photos organized (filenames, folders, etc.) first before importing into any catalog / image database, as it will make things immensely simpler later on (and remove the need to remove duplicate photos by hand later, etc.).

To start with, many of your initial problems can be solved easily with an image downloading application. There are a few on the market (some are integrated within the photo catalog program), but my favorite is still BreezeSys DownloaderPro for importing photos.

This will automatically create the folders according to the date the shot was taken, and name them exactly as you want. Plus, it will identify any binary duplicates (i.e. photos that are identical) and skip over them so you don't have to deal with them later.

Once you've imported the photos, it then becomes a rather easy matter to find a catalog program that supports offline photos (as I believe you still intend to keep your photos on these external drives for most of the time). Nearly all programs will offer you a timeline view of your photo collection. This is especially easy if you have used an image importing program that organizes your photos into dated directories.
 Hi -
First of all, thank you for so much information, in easy-to-understand writing.

I'm a mom, with a bent towards compulsive-organization.... I've been using PhotoShop Album, but I realize it's the wrong program, so I'm searching for an organizer (not currently concerned with output or webdesign or slideshows or editing). I'm a bit over-whelmed, but I think I have a handle on my basic question....

I know I want:
- the info to be attached to the file, not in a proprietary database.
- multi-file versioning, but that is rare and hard-to-come by.
- hierarcy keywords

My questions:
- I can't figure out the scoop on IPTC vs XMP, and which I should be focused on
- am I write that iDimager can handle hierarchal keywords, and then writes the keywords to IPTC?
- do you think I could make a script in iDimager, so that I could look at a photo of a group of people, run my cursor over the faces, and have pop-up labels tell me who's who? (ie, image mapping)

Thank you very much
 Both IMatch and idImager have both added support for XMP, but I must admit that I have found the integration with XMP to be somewhat difficult, so I don't use it in my workflow yet. So, I would not be the best resource for direction on this. Of course, this is certainly on my to-do list. The best bet is to look at the product forums for posts from users who have devised a workflow after a lot of trial-and-error.

Both IMatch and idImager should be able to take hierarchical keywords and write them into IPTC. One of the issues is how the hierarchy is represented in a keyword -- either separating each level of the hierarchy into separate keywords or concatenating them all together as one.

However, while your idea for a user script is out of the realm of possibility at this stage for IMatch or idImager, many companies are trying to solve this very problem! Imagine how useful it would be for a photo database program to automatically do initial tagging of your images with friends and family.

To this day, I have only seen one photo organizer that attempts to do something along these lines: Riya. Unfortunately, it is only an online tool, as I imagine that it probably uses your tagging-training efforts to help refine the general tool's capabilities.
2006-07-07Alex Angelo
 Why is it that the data i put in the keywords with in the ACDsee 6.0 application cannot be found by the windows search. While the data i put in the keywords with the windows properties can not be found by the search option with in the ACDsee 6.0 application.

Also the keyword data put in within the ACDsee 6.0 application can only be found on the computer it was applied in and not on the other computer's on the network
2006-02-13R. Pizur
 Hi Calvin;
I am new to digital photography, and have purchased Nikon
D50 with Photoshop elements 4.0. Further I anticipate
buying Imatch 3.5 when it is available. I have read and
expect to re-read your pages on file naming, folders,
and catalogues. Can you respond, to my email, with an
explanation on the steps from the camera (RAW) to actually
renaming process using your strategy. I am getting more
comfortable with your suggestions and believe much of it
will be tailored to my approach. I realize that I have
to become much more comfortable with both elements and
Imatch to complete this process; but I want to establish
a great foundation on which to start. I appreciate your
response and comments. I thank you for your time
and effort to help me get off the ground.
Great work.
R. Pizur
2005-12-10Manel Rodero
 Hello Calvin, I was looking at your file naming pages and I have a doubt. Until now I was using a hierarchy like this:

i.e. using some categories at the high level. I've found this to be useful sometimes but awful in other ocasions. So, I'm in the process of changing the strategy to use dates at the high level.

The only "problem" I have is how to localize some photos without using a catalog program. Until now I can go to a folder and found all the photos of a subject (i.e. JULIA), copying it to CD, send all of them to print, create a DVD presentation or an screensaver. But what happens if all these photos are organized in different folders? How you deal with this? Is then imperative use a catalog program and you have lost the simple "eye look at the folder".

Any idea? Thank you.
 Hi Manel -- What you have encountered is exactly one of the main reasons most people move to using a catalog program for retrieval. An image database will allow you to not only find images very quickly (across folders), but each image can be tagged with a large number of categories, something that is practically impossible to do with a folder-based keyword structure.

Note that once you import your photos into a catalog program, you can still use the same directory structure if you wish! So, in your case you might have the best of both worlds: the ability to look through the folders manually or using the image database program to locate / sort photos.

Most people typically use one of the following approaches:
  • Rely completely on the folders for organization (which is where you are at right now)
  • Rely completely on an image database for organization -- the folders and filenames can be anything, but are typically date-based.
  • Use one or two levels of keywords in the top folder names for images, but still use an image database for the rest of the keywording.
I recommend that you consider adopting the last approach: add your images to an image database but still rename the files as you have been doing. Over time you will see the benefits of the catalog software and you may no longer deem the extra effort in renaming files (and struggling with suitable folder names) worthwhile.

Good luck!

idImager will add full scripting support in 3.0 which is currently under development. The scripting feature allows access to the full internal Object Model as well as direct access to the underlying Access database. Also the scripter allows you to add forms to scripts which makes it possible to build a user interface to go with a script.

The Object Model offers access to: Catalog, Image Model (albums, galleries, collections), Effect Processor (edit images through scripts).

The scripter uses VB as well as Delphi (Pascal) programming language, configurable per script.

 Thanks Sandy!
2005-01-30John Mcmanus

I'm an Imatch user and I think its excellent software but currently you need to move images between two or three or more programs to move from a raw image to a finished product (imho). In that context IPTC support is to me the most important feature in an image management system.


The archive situtation I am working on creates a problem for me with finding the right software. The gentleman does not want everything scanned but his current work, last 2-3yrs, however he has 25 years in total worth of work that he wants put into a database. I have been unsuccessful in finding a piece of software for image cataloging that alows for both digitized imagery, as well as unscanned negatives and prints. What I need is a piece of software that allows for cataloging of:

  • Digitized Images (Scanned or Digital files)
  • Negatives not scanned
  • Prints not scanned
  • Work that has been scanned and is now on CD/DVD

Some people would disagree with some of these methods, however, this is the way this guy wants things. He does not want to put the time and money into scanning 25yrs worth of work.


There are many catalog programs available that let you catalog photos that are offline. For example, IMatch (and several others) allow you to catalog the image while it is online, then you relocate it to an offline media. The catalog program simply maintains the thumbnail, keeps a link to the removable media's serial number and continues to let you categorize at will.

However, I don't remember off-hand what tool directly allowed you to insert placeholders into the catalog. These placeholders are always offline (until scanned), will have no thumbnail, but still have an entry in the database that can have keywords associated with it. I do remember seeing one tool that could do this, and I'll see if I can find it again. I believe Extensis Portfolio had some provisions for placeholder images, but I need to double-check.

EDIT: Please see the section on placeholders.

In the interim, though, you can work around this with nearly any program that allows you to have offline / relocated media. Simply create a dummy thumbnail on your harddrive, replicate it as many times as necessary to give you the level of granularity you need in your database, and relocate it offline. As for the granularity, you have to decide how specific the cataloging needs are for the non-scanned images. Do they want to add a keyword tag per roll or on individual photos? This will determine how many entries of the dummy thumbnail you'd need to replicate. Then, when someday he wishes to scan some of these placeholder images, he simply updates the thumbnail and relocates the link back to the location on the hard drive.

Hope that helps, Cal.

2005-01-03Dustin Betterly

Is there a program you could suggest that is similar to iMatch for mac? I really like what it has to offer. Extensis doesn't seem to be nearly as good. Thank you for your help.


I am less familiar with the software available for the Mac platform, but it appears that iView MediaPro has a comparable feature-set. It also provides scripting capabilities like IMatch, and may even have support for placeholders, although I didn't see it indicated in the product datasheet.

2004-12-21John Beardsworth

Interesting. I think you're right in focussing on the impact of closed, proprietary formats and the need to get data out, but I disagree with you on a couple of the main effects.

Firstly I don't think we are in a long term relationship with your caaloguing software. It's more like serial monogamy, but I agree you do have to take a long term view. This market is evolving rapidly as digital formats multiply and as the software developers react to what users discover they want to do with the software. A good program today can be foreseen as being old and useless within a year or so, and you need to choose a program knowing there's a strong chance you and your data will move on to something newer and prettier.

I liken being able to leave with your data as like having a prenup agreement. While it would be nice to have ODBC access (which you can get with some programs), the proprietary format issue is less important than stabilty and the ability to get data out. So choose a program that lets you do this by a "traditional" export method (text file or XML as in iView) and preferably by scripting too. Remember you'll often have to massage the text file before it can be imported into a new program and you don't want these "divorce costs" to deter you from moving on. So a second way to carry your data with you is to ensure the program can write metadata to the image files themselves. Developers know that this means they are signing a prenup.


Great comment. Rereading what I wrote I see that I had mentioned "closed format" when the intention was to convey the idea of a closed system (ie. closed database format and no export ability). I have clarified the text now.

But what you said about the metadata export is completely true. As my current workflow does not copy tags into the metadata / IPTC fields, I had clearly overlooked this important backdoor. So, yes, if your tool supports the writing of tag information automatically (or via scripts) into the image's metadata, then the door is certainly left open to tool migration. Thanks!


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