Tom Sawyer/ENR
Systems that rely on one person�s memory about where images might be found are the norm.

Digital images are becoming more and more valuable to the companies whose work they record, and to the photographers to whom they, at least initially, belong. But they are also multiplying by the thousands on hard drives and CDs and if they are not organized to make them retrievable, they can quickly go to waste.

The professionals call the process Digital Asset Management. They say having a functioning DAM system can be the difference between putting your hands on an image when you need it, and not being able to put it to use. Systems used by the photographers interviewed for this issue vary in sophistication, although most say what they are doing now is not as good as it should be. All considered the problem serious, whose remedy starts with protecting files.

“Digital Asset Management is something I am still trying to figure out,” says Boston-based Stephen Sette Ducati, a photographer who specializes in shooting construction. “I have three 100-gig LaCie hard drives which I back up, all the time.”

Most of the photographers say they start by backing up every image right as it comes out of the camera. They then apply standard conventions to the information they add, which starts the minute they put the images into a folder.

Ducati, who has been shooting film for 25 years but now shoots about 90% of his work digitally, says standard practices are the key to making images searchable. “It’s a lot different than negatives, but it is a lot more manageable. I type in search criteria on my Mac and immediately start to scroll through images.”

Ducati says he never attaches his camera to the computer, but removes the card and downloads by a separate card reader as a safety precaution for his camera. He then opens the card directory and copies the files from any project shoot into a folder with that day’s date, always formatted the same way, as in “10 January 2007.” Each then goes into a master file for each client.

There may be several files on any day with the same date name, but each is nested into its own master client file. Image names remain unchanged, unless he works on a shot to adjust, size or crop it for printing. Then he adds an identifying word at the end of the original name to help him backtrack to the original if he needs it again. “Whatever is not usable I immediately delete,” he says.

The key to Ducati’s system is in the folder names. Joseph A. Blum, who shoots in the San Francisco Bay area, has a similar system, with a big emphasis on backups.  Blum uses a Windows computer, relies on a Palm Pilot diary of his daily activity, and searches for images by the origination date embedded in the image files by the camera. He says it is simple, but effective, and leverages a built-in feature of digital camera technology: Every shot carries lots of embedded information picked up in the camera.

“Every image has a date and time stamp from the camera,” Blum says. “We can tell exactly when it was shot.” To demonstrate, he searches for his oldest digital image; his first shot. (11/20/2004 15:34:06 IMAGE 001 Nikon D70). He says it was a test shot of the new camera taken in the park near his house.

Blum unloads all of his images each day into a new, sequentially numbered folder. If he edits a photo it goes back into the same folder, with identifying words added. “Rodbusters”, or “ironworkers” might be tagged on. “I can backtrack to the original using the creation date/time stamp. I save them at two settings, one in the highest quality, another in a good size for e-mailing. They go back into the same folder the originals came from. 

But for end users and the photographers’ customers, like Zachry Construction, tracking down images can call for a much more sophisticated process. Zachry turns $1.5 billion annual revenue through a vast range of construction and maintenance and reliability services. “We have a lot of people to communicate with on a lot of different topics, across markets that are segmented and with geographical challenges,” says Michael Lake, marketing director. A great shot of concrete work in Arizona may be totally useless when trying to land a job in Miami, for instance. When he needs a shot, he needs to search on the basis of content, not date, and he needs a lot of choices. 

“This is something that began rolling around in my head 10 years ago,” says Lake. “We didn’t have that many digital assets, but even with the small number that we had, [after putting] some name on it you really couldn’t find it again.” After trying several products that “wigged-out when you got too many images,” he settled on server-based, image cataloging software called Extensis Portfolio.

“We have had great success,” he says. “When we get a request for a photo it’s pretty easy to find.

We now have 14,000 images in there without a hiccup.” Lake can add keywords, project names and captions to describe the photos.

One of the first difficulties, though, was to decide what information to put where. Like other image cataloging software, Portfolio  creates a catalog of thumbnail images and textual information about folders of photos it is told to index. It doesn’t directly store the photos, but when you find one in the catalog that you want to use, the software knows where the original is and copies it to a work file.

But the power of catalogers to search for images based on information about them is often complicated by all the large number of fields that can be used to enter data. The key is to get the same kinds of information in consistent places.

“We had to put a structure in place,” says Lake. “We developed an outline of the key categories we would place metadata into, like ‘business unit’ or ‘partners’ or ‘Zachry Enterprises.’ We did that by trying to identify who each picture was taken for.” Photos are assigned an associated job number, customer identification, shot location and information about any major partner, event or special situation.

Unlike the “who, where and when” information captured elsewhere, the keyword fields describe the content of the images, using generic terms like “concrete,” and “sunrise” and “misty” and “dozer.” Lake and Jayson Boulet, Zachry’s brand and creative services manager, actively maintain the catalog by regularly reviewing the keywords being used to make sure that any image tagged as “window” also has the tag of “glass,” for instance, so that a search of either term will turn it up. Other expert DAM users advise using a standard set of keywords to reduce the need for maintenance.


Jan. 2, 2007

I enjoyed this article; boy do we ever understand that DAM is an unforgiving master - CoStar's library contains over 2.5 million images of commercial real estate. We currently have over 130 field photographers across the country shooting on a daily basis. Also, your Images of the Year was excellent, I look forward to it every year…

While not in engineering or construction, ENR is an excellent source of information! Thank You.

Kurt Liestenfeltz
Senior Field Research Manager
CoStar Group, Inc.
Bethesda MD