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Capturing images is, in some ways, the easy part of a photography project It can be more difficult, and certainly just as important, to establish a reliable and practical system for storing, categorizing and retrieving images.

Image management systems (IMS) are essentially databases designed specifically for managing and delivering images and their associated metadata. An IMS store not only images, or links to the images, but also all of the relevant metadata needed to facilitate convenient and effective searching within a collection.

Traditional images such as slides, prints and negatives exist in a physical form. They can be retrieved, handled and viewed, and a photographer can establish a system for locating them within a storage area. However, a digital image has no "real world" physical form and is viewable only through the monitor of a computer. This means that the user has no physical information with which to locate an image. Metadata is the solution to this problem. Indeed an image collection without metadata is soon rendered worthless because images cannot be found and photographers soon lose track of subjects, locations and dates.

An IMS is therefore simply a database dedicated to working with images and their associated metadata. It also provides a visual interface to the file structure, allowing images to be viewed individually or browsed in groups. At the simplest level, it should be able to:

  • store images;store image metadata;
  • provide a facility to search within image metadata;
  • and provide a means of visually inspecting and browsing images.

At the amateur level there are basically two types of software which provide the required facilities. These are folder viewers and simple image management systems.

Folder viewers are the simpler and cheaper of the two options. They provide a visual representation of all the images within a folder but have little or no ability to store metadata or create database files. They can merely read, list and search within basic information such as filenames, file sizes and file creation dates. They are consequently best suited to small image collections where an understanding of the computer file structure, and structures file-naming, is sufficient to locate images. Detailed knowledge of every image must be held by the photographer.

Simple image management systems have simple folder structures similar to those used by folder viewers, but also have the ability to automatically create thumbnail index images and store a selection of metadata entered by the photographer. Some systems allow customization of metadata fields, but others have only a fixed number of standard fields. The advantage that simple IMSs have over folder viewers is that metadata can be used to find and group particular images. However many do not use industry-standard database engines and may therefore not provide good connectivity to other systems.


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