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?
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.
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.
Media Pro in use
You can get a 30 day free trial of Media Pro, but I would suggest you avoid this unless you're actually in a position to buy it: once you try it, you'll want it, even if you never thought you needed it. If you do go for it, this is what I suggest you do.
First off, watch the videos on Phase One's website about setting the preferences, as the recommended settings are not the defaults. More on that in a moment. On the import settings, turn off everything but images (you don't want to index all your html and text files). Set the preview size to Medium 640 px, and tell iView not to use the embedded image preview.
Second, make sure you have about a gigabyte of space on the drive where you are going to save the catalogue file. Then set iView to index all of the hard drives you have, even if you don't normally keep images on them. Let it run overnight if you have a lot of files. When it's done, save it!
You should now have virtually instant access to every image file on your drives. If you're anything like me, you'll see that 80% of your images are where you expected them to be, but you probably also have quite a legacy of temporary copies, as well as maybe some images that got lost and you could never relocate.
You are now ready for the serious business of cataloging. Begin by letting Media Pro make Capture Sets, which is when it connects together bursts of images. This doesn't take very long. Then set the display to the smallest possible thumbnail so that you can see the maximum number of images. Quickly scroll through all the images to see what you have. Then go back to the beginning and start tagging with place, person, event and your own hierarchical keywords. You'll notice that any previous tagging you'd done in Lightroom or similar will have been brought over into Media Pro. You can tag vast swathes of images by simply dragging them onto a keyword, place, person or event you have previously set.
How long this takes depends a bit on how complex you want to make your keywords, and how diverse your images are. As a guide, tagging 70,000 images took me about half a day. If this sounds like a long time, I estimate the same process would have taken about a four times as long in Lightroom, simply because Media Pro has no lag when you move from image to image, something which just can't be said for Lightroom.
Does this sound like a lot of work? It's not until you get all of your images under control that you realise just how valuable your photographic assets are.
Compared to Lightroom, Aperture and the others
Aperture and Lightroom both do media cataloging, and they do a lot more besides. So why take Media Pro when Aperture is there at the same price, and Lightroom for not much more? If you have less than about 5,000 pictures, or you've organised your images so that you never, ever need to see a catalogue of more than that number, then you are probably better off sticking with whatever you are using now. Both Lightroom and Aperture do a good job of cataloging, and you're unlikely to be worried by their relative slowness. If you've got upwards of 10,000 images, you'll find that both of these tools are quite sluggish in moving round the entire database. If you've got more than 20,000, then you are going to be waiting an appreciable length of time while they catch up with you. Not so Media Pro: no matter how many images you have, it runs at pretty much the same blinding speed, once the images are actually loaded, which is a one-off task.
What Media Pro doesn't do, of course, is all of the raw development and image manipulation that Aperture and Lightroom do. Well, that's not quite true. Media Pro has Capture One's imaging engine, so it will convert Raw files very happily. It also contains some fairly rudimentary editing tools which are a legacy from previous versions. Expect these to either disappear in future versions, or be substantially enhanced. But if you have the numbers of images that make Media Pro a good investment, then you will be wanting something a lot more sophisticated.
The natural partner is Capture One, Phase One's premiere raw development software. The integration between Capture One and Media Pro is quite good at the moment, but expect this to improve in later versions. Equally, you can use Photoshop, DxO or your other imaging software, and Media Pro will happily pass files across to it.
Integration with Capture One
If you've used Capture One, you're probably well aware of it's responsiveness and power in image development, but all too aware of its fairly limited file management interface. Phase One have made a wise purchase in adding Media Pro to their stable, and they've taken some initial steps to make the two applications work together. This is fairly transparent once you've changed to preferences in both applications so that they exchange information through xml side-car files. The iView / Expressions interface has also been given a brief overhaul, so that it feels a lot more like Capture One. Dig a little deeper, though, and the integration is nowhere near 100%. You can't customise Media Pro to anything like the extent you can Capture One, for example, and many of the hot keys are annoyingly different. There are also legacy features, especially the image editing features, which really shouldn't be there, as they simply aren't in the same premium category as other Phase One products. Expect that to improve in later versions.
If you're a Microsoft Expressions or iView Media Pro user, then you get a very, very good discount on Media Pro. The upgrade price reflects the fact that there are relatively few new features, except for supporting raw files on the latest cameras. If you're not upgrading, then the price of $199 may seem like a lot when you can get Lightroom 3 for less, and it does so much more. The difference — which I've hopefully made clear in this review — is that Media Pro does its core function of databasing, cataloging and previewing images virtually instantaneously, whereas Lightroom is a bit sluggish when you have a couple of thousand images, and gets progressively slower once you go above 10,000. Lightroom does so many things that, for most photographers, it can be the only application you need. It even does them quite well. But it never does them quickly.
If you're a professional or semi-pro photographer then time is money and money spent on Media Pro will quickly reimburse itself. If you're an advanced amateur or you're an art photographer, then what you need depends a bit more on why you shoot. If you shoot a lot, though, Media Pro is a good investment. If you're a beginner photographer, or you never see yourself going beyond the hobby level, then Lightroom is a much better bet. It does all you want, including the all important uploading to Facebook, and the price is reasonable.
Media Pro isn't perfect, any more than Capture One is. Both have a tendency to quit unexpectedly a bit more frequently than you'd expect on a modern application. The interface of Media Pro reflects the legacy of iView and Microsoft, and it doesn't yet have quite the smooth sophistication of Capture One. All that is largely irrelevant, though, when you consider that it opens up instant access to every image you ever shot, provided that it's on a disk you own somewhere. For that, Media Pro can't be beaten, and everything else about it or its competitors fade into insignificance.
Other features not mentioned
The following all work (I've tried them) but they're not unique to Media Pro:
- web catalogue creation
- PDF picture package creation
- Email an image via you email application
- Print contact sheets, media sheets and lists
* Mosaic, which shipped with the Nikon D100, was faster, but the company that makes it doesn't sell it 'off the shelf' any more.
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