Media Pro is a fast, powerful and sturdy digital assets management system which integrates well with Phase One Capture One, but is also worth looking at even if you mainly use Photoshop, Nikon Capture or dXo as your primary raw developer.
In 2006 we ran a shoot-out between iView Media Pro and half a dozen other digital assets management systems — including the Beta of Photoshop Lightroom — to decide on a system to manage our 20,000+ corporate images. The hands-down winner in terms of speed, facilities and value for money was iView Media Pro. Ties have since changed. Media Pro was acquired by Microsoft, who re-released it as Microsoft Expressions Media, and Adobe released version 1, then version 2, and finally version 3 of Lightroom. Version 3 of Lightroom is dramatically faster and more useful than the earlier versions. But — and here's the big But — if you are managing tens of thousands of images, you spend a lot of time waiting for Lightroom to catch up with you. Having moved off Media Pro when I changed employer, and not being willing to invest in it if it was (as it appeared) destined to be a component of Microsoft Office geared around managing business graphics, I was absolutely delighted to hear that Phase One had bought it, and were re-releasing it under the original name Media Pro.
So — how suited is Media Pro for the modern photographic work flow, how well does it integrate with Capture One, and, most important of all, is it this, or Apple Aperture, or Adobe Lightroom that serious photographers should be looking at to manage their digital assets?
1 What is DAM, and what's it for?
Before going any further, we need to clarify what Digital Assets Management (DAM) is, what it's for, and what the crucial features are, compared to the merely nice-to-haves.
A Digital Assets Manager is essentially a multi-media database of your files. Most particularly, it databases and catalogues the kind of files that your system's built in search facility can't cope with. For the photographer, it's all about finding your photographs, being able to quickly preview them, and being able to tag them, catalogue them, sort them, label them, or do whatever else it is that fits with the way you want to find your pictures quickly. Some of this can be automatic — for example, by reading the date, and any IPTC information already in your pictures. Some of it has to be done manually, where you tell the computer what the picture about. Just as important as being able to find what you want, then, is the ability to quickly put everything where you want it and label it. You'll also want to be able to rate images and put them in collections.
Ten years ago most DAMs would have wanted to pull your pictures into their own database. These days, virtually all DAMs let you leave your pictures whereever you want, and store only thumbnails, or generate the thumbnails 'on the fly'. Storing the thumbnails takes up a lot of disk-space, but generating the thumbnails on the fly is a lot slower.
Finally, you want to be able to go from your DAM to wherever it is you actually process the images quickly and easily.
2 How well does Media Pro live up to the DAM requirements?
The big advantage of Media Pro over virtually every other current commercial Digital Assets Management system is that it is fast*. It took most of the night for it to load in and database my 70,000 images (35,000 NEF, 35,000 JPEG). Once it had done so, it was a matter of moments to flick through all of them. That's right, you can scroll through all your images and watch them flick in front of your eyes. If you've set it to build 640 x 640 pixel previews (recommended, but not on by default), then you can flick through at sufficient size to pin down exactly which picture has the right facial expression. It's fairly simple to tag your images — more on that in a moment — and Media Pro does a pretty good job of mining any XMP side-car files that you already had — for example generated by Lightroom — and embedded IPTC data to automatically include all the tagging you've ever done.
Light Table view
If the thumbnails are not enough, you can compare images in the 'light table', which allows you to look closely at up to six images at once. This takes a few seconds to load up, but is instant once you have— you can zoom and pan to your heart's content without any appreciable lag. One of the particularly nice features is that if you zoom or pan one of the images on the Light Table, all of them zoom or pan at the same time. You can view in rows, columns or as a grid, and you can also have a histogram and/or exposure warning on screen. You can have the Light Table view on one screen and the thumbnails on the other, if that's how you like to work. The Light Table is naturally creating previews from whatever you give it — preferably RAW files — not using the low resolution embedded preview that comes with the file.
Rating the images
Rating the images, in regular view or in Light Table, is easy enough, using the standard 5 star and colour coding system. Press a number for colour coding, and a ctrl-number for 5-star rating. It's instant.
Media Pro has a lot of different ways of cataloging. You can tag images, you can hierarchically tag images, you can put them in catalog sets, you can automatically group them by date, place, person, even capture-burst — especially useful if you are a photojournalist who shoots in sets of maybe thirty captures in two minutes. Tagging or cataloging can be done by either typing the words in, or (more usually) simply dragging the pictures onto the tag. This is ever so slightly counter intuitive — you would expect to drag images into a catalogue, but drag tags onto the images. The Hierarchical Tags separate from ordinary tags seems like a combination of mostly-good-idea and supporting legacy information. The good bit is that you can organise your pictures your way using the hierarchical tags: harvest is a sub-tag of summer is a sub-tag of seasons on my system, for example, whereas the regular tags lift keywords from anything already in your IPTC, XML or EXIF information, which can create a flood of tags that you really don't want or need. The bad bit is that you can't simply drag a regular tag into the hierarchical section, although all hierarchical tags do appear as flat tags as well.