Photo Mechanic for Workflow Management (Review)

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In the world of digital photography, our  dark room is actually a virtual studio – a piece of software where we make magic happen.  The photo editing software matters.  It makes our lives easier and it gives our projects and photos the polish that they need.  But photo editing software does not complete a virtual studio.  One needs to keep things organized for the purpose of workflow (at the very least).  The solution is photo management software, your workflow tool.  Thanks to Camera Bits, we got the opportunity to try out their solution:  Photo Mechanic.

Photo Mechanic is a photo browser and manager that serves as a mediator between your camera and the photo editing software.  It provides everything you need to import, file, tag, prioritize and view your photos.  It even has a few built-in tools to conduct simple edits such as rotations, crops and so on.  The purpose of the software is to improve your workflow and increase your efficiency.  As any photographer can attest:  After a few years, you’ll collect so many photos that you’ll need a good organizational system that will help you find and quickly format your photos.  Photo Mechanic strives to help you there.

Interface

The interface of Photo Mechanic is pretty basic and barren of any frills.  Instead, Camera Bits focused on performance and utility.  We here at Shutter Photo certainly have no problem with that.  We aren’t swayed by sugar coating.  We want to get stuff done.  With that said, Camera Bits doesn’t make any bones about the purpose of Photo Mechanice.  It is, first and foremost, a management software.  In terms of organization and managing your workflow, it does everything:  Organize, preview (both contact sheets and full-size), ratings, classifications, tagging and so on.  But editing is limited.  You’ll be able to rotate images and crop some images, but that’s really about it.  Color, exposure, contrast and other such adjustments are probably best left to the photo editor (especially with JPGs and other lossy formats), and so Photo Mechanic doesn’t really address it.  This will be a minor frustration for the in-the-camera shooters as we don’t have as much need to get into a full-blown editor.  On the other hand, Photo Mechanic plays well with outside editors, allowing you to set the default editor under the preferences editor (Edit Menu | Preferences | Launching).  In my case, I use Adobe Photoshop, and it seemed to work with it quite smoothly.  It even loaded Adobe Camera RAW when loading my RAW files.

Photo Mechanic - Default Screen

Photo Mechanic - Default Screen

The default screen layout, as shown at left, features a simple toolbar at the top, “Navigator” and a “Favorites”  panels at the left, some general information and sorting tools at the bottom and the balance of the screen contains a contact sheet of all the photos in that given directory.  The Favorites panel contains only fold paths that you’ve dragged into it.  You can organize your favorite folders in any way that you wish without affecting the actual file tree.  It will also contain any sub-folders of that folder - collapsible of course.  The contact sheet (thumbnails) portion of the interface features a bunch of other information.  Each photo is contained within a slide frame that contains any ratings or categorization that you’ve applied to any of the photos.  As you can see in this example, I’ve rated some of my photos already (note, it actually pulled this information from the XMP profile embedded within the photos from Adobe Bridge) plus I’ve further categorized a few of the photos into the red category.  Personally, I use the ratings to determine workflow priority, and I have been using the categorization to help me keep track of which I feel are potential for specific jobs or portfolios.  Each color can be associated with a more descriptive label (which you can change in preferences).  In case you’re wondering, I’m using the red category for a Public Parks project that I’m working on.  Also on each slide is a checkbox that you can use to select multiple files for multi-file operations.

This contact sheet actually has a lot of power with photo management.  Right clicking on any photo opens up a menu with a bunch of the most commonly used tools.  It even has a quick-view of the image info such as time, camera, lens, shutter speed, aperture, GPS info and so on (assuming such information is available and saved within the EXIF/XMP/IPTC header).  Hovering over any photo shows you some specific tools at either of the corners including (clockwise from top left) rotate left, rotate right, Info (IPTC data editor)  and preview (larger view).  Double-clicking on any thumbnail will also give you the preview screen.

If the default layout does not suit you, there are ways to customize your workspace.  You can drag the Favorites and Navigator panels anywhere you like.  The size of the thumbnail pane (and in turn, the size of the docked panels) can be changed as well.   One can eve tweak the size of the thumbnails using the handy slider in the toolbar.  And if you like to see everything clutter free, you can turn any of the panels or toolbars.  By default, Photo Mechanic stacks the RAW and JPG files to reduce the number of slides/thumbnails (see screen shot at right which shows the DNG and JPG file stacked as indicated by the filename).  This can be turned off, if you’d like.  Please note that in my screenshot at right, I have several versions of some of my finished works with slightly different file names, which is why not all the photos stacked like the RAW and JPG (the original files) did.

The Preview Screen

Photo Mechanic - Preview Screen

Photo Mechanic - Preview Screen

As mentioned above, you can access Photo Mechanic’s Preview screen by either clicking on the magnifying glass at the bottom-right of a given slide/thumbnail, or you can double click the image.  By doing either, you are presented with a screen that will look much like the one shown at left.  Again, you can customize the presentation of this screen to a lesser extent.  The panel on the right side presents you with a few specific tools and information including (from top), File Info, Crop (settings, info and tool), Zoom (settings and tool) and a full-spectrum Histogram.  Shown at left is one of my photos – a shot of my daughter – with the limits of my anticipated crop shown.  Once you set a crop, it’s boundaries are saved with the photo in a non-destructive manner and it will be presented with everything outside the crop boundary as darkened.  This is great when you’re doing some quick preliminary edits of your works.  My one problem with the crop tool is that it doesn’t save the info into RAW files in a way that Photoshop can use it (I didn’t test with other external editors, but I suspect the same might be true).  You can set the crop in Photo Mechanic, but once you send the photo to Photoshop, Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) doesn’t seem to acknowledge the crop.  If there is already a crop set with ACR, it will ignore the crop set in Photo Mechanic and load the one defined in ACR.  This is a bit of a nuisance as I often like to roughly map out a crop to give myself a better idea of my intentions, especially when I don’t intend to finalize the photo right away.

IPTC Data Editor

Photo Mechanic: IPTC Info Editor

Photo Mechanic: IPTC Info Editor

Metadata – the information built into the header of your image file – can tell you quite a bit of information about your photos including, but not limited to, camera settings, GPS info, author (if set), camera model, lens and so on.  There are a couple of formats floating around the web including the Extensible Metadata Platform (XMP, Adobe’s format), Exchangeable Image File Format (EXIF) and the International Press Communications Council format, IPTC.   Photo Mechanic natively supports the two most common formats:  IPTC and XMP (but for all tool cues, it will refer to the IPTC mostly, even though you’re technically editing both).  The data screen (shown at right) will give you an opportunity to fill out any and all information related to the IPTC profile.  Changing this information will update both the IPTC and XMP data, despite referencing only the IPTC format.   The information is presented to comply with the IPTC standard, and so it might not look like the EXIF and XMP editors that are more common among other programs.  I, for example, and not used to seeing the Headline field.

One great feature of this editor is that you can insert variables directly into any field.  Variables include anything that can be pulled from the camera, such as actuation counts, aperture settings and so on.  The variable dialog allows you to quickly and easily select these variables for a given field.  Inserting a variable sets up a placeholder (eg:  {actuations} ) until you save the data by clicking the “OK” button.  Reopening the dialog will show you the actual information, which is again pulled from already known information.  This is great if you have a standard template that you’re using for, say, your captions where you always want to show photo-specific information like aperture, shutter speed, etc.

You can change the behaviors with respect to reading and writing IPTC and XMP data to a file in the preferences panel.  It even reads the XMP sidecar files when you’re using manufacturer specific RAW files, as these formats rarely support such headers (DNG, Adobe’s universal RAW file format, supports both IPTC and XMP data within its headers).  I will admit my naivete with respect to IPTC headers, and so I didn’t really experiment with these settings.

In Use

I have been using Photo Mechanic exclusively for almost two months now to manage my photo library and to streamline my workflow.  Since I started using it, I have imported nearly 400 new photos in addition to my photo library which contains thousands of photos (not including duplicate filenames/formats).  As I was using Adobe Bridge prior, I already had ratings for many of my incoming works set already.  Photo Mechanic was able to read this information (which is part of the XMP data), and so that saved me a good deal of time.  I generally found the contact sheet thumbnails and image previews to be fast and responsive, which is a must.  I also grew to really appreciate the Image Info pulldown (right-click) as a means to quickly get an idea of the data saved with each photo.   If you’re really going to want to see this info, you can enable a feature that shows the file info as a tooltip while you hover over a thumbnail.  This is a nice feature as it eliminates a panel from the workspace that is not always used, and I’m all about eliminating clutter.

Unfortunately, I found that Photo Mechanic had a few shortcomings in terms of organization.  Outside of the IPTC data’s Keywords field, there is no way to quickly tag files.  You can’t really add keywords to multiple files simply either.  In my opinion, tagging is an essential aspect of any photo management software.  It is a quick and easy way to organize photos and a great way find photos based on your tagging.  I don’t always want these tags to show up in the keywords field of my metadata either, which would inevitably end up under public eyes.  For example, I will tag photos with the names of the people in the shot…information that I don’t always want to share with the world.  Not having a tagging interface is a major downfall of the program.

For the record, Photo Mechanic has a Keyword editor that allows you to quickly add keywords to photos.  However, if you want to use a bunch of keywords that you regularly use, you will have to populate a master keyword list.  It will not pull keywords from files that already have keywords in them.   That just adds more work while I am trying to organize my files.  I find the Keyword editor to be a bit clunky.  And so, even if you aren’t bothered by using the Keywords field within the metadata, the keyword system is still a bit of a downfall for the application.

For all its simplicity, some of the menus really run deep – two or three sub-menus in some cases, and they aren’t always organized intuitively.  This only impacts learning curves, of course, as once you get used to the software it isn’t as much of a hindrance.  Even so, I do occasionally long for a few more icons in my toolbar, or at least a customizable toolbar.

Exporter and GPS

Photo Mechanic - GPS Viewer

Photo Mechanic - GPS Viewer

Two of the more unique features of Photo Mechanic is the exporter tool and the GPS tool.  The GPS tool is pretty cool in that it automatically imports the data that is saved with your photos, if you happen to have equipment that does so.  Otherwise, there is a pretty smooth map tool that uses Google Maps.  You can search for and choose the location for any photo and apply it to your image.  Any time you want to view this information, simply right-click on any photo and select “Show Map” from the menu.  The dialog looks like the one at right.

As for the exporter, this tool really serves to bridge an important gap:  Getting your photos on the web.  You can export to an HTML template (there are dozens to choose from, or you can edit your own).  Photo Mechanic automatically down-samples your photos and converts to a web friendly format as necessary.  The result is a pretty clean HTML package that can be easily be uploaded to your server.

If you already belong to a service such as Smug Mug, Zenfolio, Photoshelter or more (many are supported), Photo Mechanic natively supports and interfaces with all of those services directly.  Simple.

Final Thoughts

When considering software, I often think in terms of value.  At the premium end of the spectrum, you have something like Adobe Lightroom or ACDSee, which weigh in at roughly $300 USD and $230 USD respectively.  At the more budget conscious side of the spectrum is of course Photo Mechanic, weighing in at only $150 USD.  But I have to ask the question, is the premium gap so significant? In this case, I fear that Photo Mechanic has enough shortcomings as to negate any cost savings.  The most significant shortcoming is the tagging interface, or lack thereof, which is of significant concern in my opinion.

Perhaps I’m being overly critical.  I am, after all, a bit of an organizational junkie.  But I don’t feel my concerns are all that rare.  I want a database that would permit me to search any photo in the entire library regardless of what folder its in, a fairly common feature these days.  I want to be able to tag photos any way that I want without the wrong eyes seeing my tags.  And finally, I’d like to be able to do just a tiny bit more editing natively within the interface.  I’m not asking for the world here, I just want to do some quick edits – especially on RAW files – to tweak exposures, contrasts and so on.

I really see this software as a workflow manager for large volume photographers first and foremost:  Event photographers, portrait photographers and so on – the type of photographer that has a whole series of photos tied to one client, or one session.  But I get the idea that the software was designed with those people in mind.  For the fine art photographers – for the guys like me who want to be able to catalog a set of photos in any number of ways (again, not using IPTC keywords) – Photo Mechanic might fall short.  But it will aid to streamline nearly any workflow.  It would significantly benefit those who aren’t using Photoshop, which has its own Bridge software that performs many of the same functions.  If you’re using an alternative software such as GIMP, Photo Mechanic serves to really streamline your workflow, I have no question about that.  And so if you are a photographer without the means or interest in using Photoshop, I suspect that Photo Mechanic would be an indispensable piece of your tool set.

Probably the best aspect of the program is the exporter tool.  It really seems to streamline the whole process of getting your photos on the web, and it communicates directly with so many widely used services.  For many, this will be a great benefit and potentially a major time saver.

As of this writing, Photo Mechanic seems to be available only by direct purchase through Camera Bits’s website for $150 USD.

Things We Liked

  • Fast and good quality format conversions without the use of an external program (eg. RAW to DNG, DNG to JPG)
  • Intuitive interface.
  • No-frills interface.  It’s simple and clean.
  • Stacking files when two formats of the same photo are present.
  • Connectivity with other applications, including Photoshop.  But this is especially a bonus if you’re not a Photoshop user, or if you use multiple programs.
  • IPTC editor’s Variables:  Dynamic placeholders that can be incorporated into IPTC fields that will pull known-information from the metadata.  A great way to set defaults for fields (such as captions) that includes information specific to each photo (eg. aperture, shutter speed, etc).
  • The Exporter Tool makes it easy to get your stuff up and on the web.  It even supports services like Smug Mug, Zenfolio, Photoshelter and so on.

Things We Didn’t Like

  • The Crop Tool doesn’t communicate with Adobe Camera RAW or Photoshop to save crop.
  • We’d like to see just a few more basic photo editing tool natively supported, such as contrast/brightness, white balance, etc…if only to improve workflow.
  • No Tagging support – you’re forced to use the IPTC keywords field, which can be viewed by the public and is only searchable through a complex search function.
  • The Keyword editor is a bit clunky, requiring you to maintain a master list of keywords (not generated from photos already keyworded)
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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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