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Digital asset management

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Digital Asset Management (DAM) systems are a class of software applications for cataloguing and possibly processing digital images and other types of files. At its heart a DAM is a database capable of cataloguing and swiftly displaying a large number of images swiftly, and using some kind of index, tagging or keywording system to make it easy to find images by their content.

DAMs have risen to prominence since 2000. Early DAMs include Corel Mosaic (1992-97), Fotostation (1997-), Nikon View (2001-) and Adobe Bridge (2005-). The first major DAM system to receive widespread use was iPhoto (2002-), and most commercial DAMs are in some ways improvements on iPhoto. iPhoto, which comes with Apple Macintosh computers, is primarily designed for casual photographers, and most serious photographers find it limiting.

Key features of most DAMs are:

  • Ability to work with large numbers of files (10,000+) without slowing down
  • Ability to catalogue images on disk rather than force a full import into the system's database.
  • Ability to work with a wide variety of formats, including Raw
  • Ability to tag, keyword, or otherwise enable a word-based indexing system
  • Ability to access and possibly embed EXIF and IPTC data

Some DAMs distinguish themselves by:

  • Ability to develop RAW images
  • Ability to non-destructively edit images
  • Ability to introduce a degree of postprocessing
  • Customisation of look and feel
  • Versioning, managing several versions of the same image
  • Speed
  • Ability to re-export tags to IPTC embedded data
  • Ability to work with a wider range of files, for example fonts, DTP files, audio


Working with DAMs

File structure

Most DAMs will extract all the metadata present in the file, which means they can automatically sort images into order of capture by date and time. However, organising files on a hard drive or network volume will dramatically improve resilience, for example if the DAM loses compatibility with the system, or for some reason ceases to work. By default, many DAMs choose a folder structure where each folder is named according to the format [YYYY]-[MM]-[DD], eg 2009-03-23. It is generally wise to retain this format.

Tagging and keywording

For a solo photographer shooting for pleasure, the default cataloguing by date performed by most DAMs may be enough. In any kind of shared environment, or where images must be retrieved by theme, a tagging or keywording system is essential. Keywords and tags are essentially the same thing, and the terms are often used interchangeably.

A tag is simply a word which is likely to apply to a reasonably defined group of images. A tag that applies to all the images in the catalogue is clearly not useful, whereas if tags apply to too few images, the number of different tags will be very great, and it will be difficult to keep track of them. When a search is performed, the DAM simply finds all the files which include the tag.

The power of tagging comes into its own when you have interlocking sets of tags. For example, if you had:

  • predominant colour - red, blue, green, etc
  • tone - low key, high key, etc
  • main subject - model, object, etc
  • type of shot - portrait, landscape, still life,
  • mood - sombre, happy, etc

With just five types of tags, and an average of five possible keywords per tag, you would have a potential of 3,125 separate combinations. In other words, if you had 20,000 images on your database, carefully chosen keywords could narrow them down to an average of less than 7 images if you typed in the full set.

Tags can 'grow as you go', although it makes sense to control how you tag. If you are working on some images, and your current tagging narrows the field down to perhaps a hundred images, it makes sense as you evaluate those images to introduce a new tag to separate them.

Flagging and rating

Most DAMs allow some system for flagging or rating images. Many use a 5 star system, as well as possibly an accept and reject flag, or a colour coding system.

Collections and groups

Most DAMs allow you to create groups or collections. These are kept separately from the tags, and are useful for selecting a set of images for an album, a website, a publication, or whatever your end purpose is.

Cropping and Processing

Advanced DAMs such as Aperture and Lightroom allow the user to make (and reverse) a number of crucial editing decisions which can help with evaluating the image. This speeds up the process later on.

Basic Process for working with a DAM

This section constitutes advice, and may not suit everyone.

The first step in working with a DAM is importing the images. Many DAMs will offer to do this for you, taking the images straight from the card or camera and saving them on disk. However, it is more reliable, and less likely to result in corruption, if you use the system software (Windows file manager or OS X finder) to simply drag the files into the correct place on your hard disk or network drive. You should also ensure that some kind of backup regime is in place.

Following import into your computer system, you need to bring the images into the DAM. This generally takes some time, so it is worth initiating it when you are going to be doing non-computer work.

Once the images are imported, it is simplest to tag them and flag them accept or reject straight away. Every time you look at an image, it is costing you time — if you are able to record this information through tags or keywords straight away, you save doing that work again. Likewise, if you make cropping or developing decisions, it is easier to do this in your DAM if it supports it, rather than importing them into Photoshop and then potentially losing those changes if you have to reimport the picture later.

Some images can be emailed, printed or posted to the web straight away. Most DAMs are able to operate this procedure. However, for some images you will need to import into Photoshop or your favourite postprocessing application. It is important to adopt a procedure which prevents the changed image from being saved back on top of the original, and it is also important to reimport the new image into the DAM afterwards.

  • This page was last modified on 24 March 2009, at 21:24.
  • This page has been accessed 9,036 times.