28 April 2009

Digital archiving: Photoshop Elements

It's been a while since I set out to explore archiving software. My trials have expired a long time ago, but I made notes as I tested so the only thing missing is to write it all together. First out is Photoshop Elements.

Version explored: 6.0
Yes, I know that Version 7.0 is already out. However I own a license of v6.0, so I wanted to have a go at that. I've tried to figure out what's new with version 7 from forums and Adobe's website, and it seems to me that most of the improvements are in other areas than the archiving bit.

So let's see if this "entry-level" product has anything to show for itself.

1. Magic words
PSE v6 supports hierarchical keywords. However it does not store the assigned keywords in the file metadata (XMP or IPTC), so you can't expect to retrieve your keywords when working in other applications. However it will gladly import keywords from XMP and IPTC assigned by other applications when importing images.

I also tried to assign some keywords to a Raw file (into a sidecar file) in LightRoom to see if PSE would detect it. No response. However it detected a few other tags, like "title" and "caption" when I updated the thumbnail in PSE.

As a standalone system, PSE is quite adequate for assigning keywords. It also has a very nice way of tagging the thumbnail view so that you can see what kind of keywords you have assigned to each image.

Note: One improvement to version 7 is free-text search. According to a test in the Norwegian journal Fotografi, it's a significant improvement in searching functionality. However, it seems that version 7 still holds all the metadata in a proprietary database only. No writing to the IPTC or XMP in the file system.

2. Image Version handling and bundling
As long as you do your editing within PSE, you can choose to save your files as New Versions of original files. PSE will then group the files in a Version Set, and group the thumbnails as a stack. You can save files in different folders on the disk, or even on different disks, if you like. This applies also to raw file development using Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). The developed file will also inherit all metadata from the raw version.

You can also stack images manually.

Further, there is a function for autodetecting stacks. This function browse through your thumbnails, and make suggestions for stacking based on image similarity and proximity in time. And it works quite well, too. Sluggish for folders with a ton of images, but still.

It is not possible, however, to detect new versions of an image created by other applications.

3. Backup, restore, and migration
PSE has built-in functions for making backups of both the database (catalog) and the images. However, since keywords are only stored in the database and not in XMP or IPTC, it is difficult (if at all possible) to migrate the archive to other platforms from PSE.

4. Support for offline archives
PSE does retain thumbnails for offline media, if you use PSE to copy the files to the offline medium. Otherwise PSE will just claim the file is "missing". Compared to the other programs I have looked at this is kinda primitive.

PSE does not support branching out one part of its catalog.

5. other stuff
I can't help liking the interface of PSE. It is clear-cut, tidy and comprehensible. To a happy snapper who just tries to manage his or her memories, this is a great program. The main downside about the archiving part of PSE ("organiser"), is that it is a bit too proprietary in its way of handling the metadata. It doesn't readily allow other applications into its workflow.

And speaking of workflow, the weakest part of PSE is the editor. It does not support any serious editing in 16-bit colour depth (eg. layers), and the version of Adobe Camera Raw bundled with PSE is quite stripped-down compared to the version that goes with the CS series of Photoshop and LightRoom. It is possible to configure PSE to use an external program as editor, but then you lose all its versioning capabilities.

In all, I think PSE is a nice tool, but too proprietary. Since all the metadata is only stored inside its catalog (database), and not in the files or sidecar files, it will be difficult to migrate to a different system down the line. This is not the way I want to go, but many people would do just fine for a lifetime with this software. Provided it stays compatible with shifting computers... :-)

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