Tag, religiously

Posted on Jan 17, 2005

A couple of months ago the copy of Mac OS X on my powerbook “lost” its’ copy of the WebCore dynamic library. I think that this happened when the machine crashed during applying an update (memo to self: don’t insert a dodgy copied DVD whilst doing something important). Once WebCore is gone there are lots of things that don’t work - the obvious like Safari I’d expect. The fact that Software Update no longer functioned was something of a surprise. Maybe more interesting was that I didn’t notice any of this for about a week, which suggests that emacs really is a place in which you can spend all of your time.

After discovering the problem and deciding that a re-install was the best way forward, I copied any data that I cared about across the network and rebuilt from scratch.

Replacing the data over the network was easy, but I hit a problem: iPhoto didn’t seem to have all of the albums present. The pictures themselves were all visible, just the groupings were missing. To say that I’d been a happy user of iPhoto would have been to overstate things a little, but it was okay. The inability to nest albums was an irritation, but I survived. But now I’d lost something almost as important as my pictures: the meta-data I’d spent time creating. No amount of fiddling around got it back for me, so I resolved not to trust iPhoto again.

It’s worth noting that I didn’t ever trust iPhoto to have the only copy of my images - they were always backed up somewhere else as well.

Since then my photos have been hanging around in my home directory in a date based hierarchy, courtesy of jhead. I’d like to re-create some of the meta-data, but it takes time and some software to assist would be nice. Time spent playing with Flickr and del.icio.us made me think that perhaps tagging rather than traditional grouping was the right solution, but there didn’t seem to be a good open-source web application that did this in a useful way.

Obviously using Flickr itself is a possibility, but one that I’ve discounted. The idea of storing my previous data on someone else’s machines a few thousand miles away isn’t appealing. The company might go bust, maybe they’ll just have a catastrophic system failure and lose everything. Even worse, perhaps ninety percent of my photos would not be marked for public consumption. Supposing they get that wrong some day? The whole thing makes me nervous. I have to say that it’s not the cost - their prices seem very reasonable. It’s not the features - they are continually adding cool tools and I like using the site. The upload performance could be better, but I’m sure that this is being worked on.

Casting around for alternatives I played with the new version of Gallery. The 1.0 version has been installed on my server at home for a while, though I’ve never really used it much as it requires that all of your pictures are on view to the public (that’s not entirely correct, but the reality is that the access control in 1.0 is inadequate). Gallery 2.0 is in alpha test and seems better - the access control problems are solved and the meta-data has been moved into an SQL database, presumably to improve the performance of the application. But tagging (keywords in Gallery) support seems lacking - keyword support in the upload API is second-class and it’s difficult to tag a bunch of pictures in one pass. I can’t help but think that Gallery 2.0 will get there, but it’s not quite right for me yet.

KDE sprouts a bunch of desktop based photo management tools with certainly look and sound good, but I’m generally a Gnome user, though that’s through habit and corporate preference rather than anything else.

On Gnome it seems that gThumb and F-Spot are the leading image management applications. gThumb is included in Solaris 10, a big plus, and F-Spot requires Mono, an irritation.

A couple of days spent playing with gThumb makes me thing that it will probably suffice. The tagging (called categories) works and is useful, though I’d rather that it were free-form than the current “add something to a selection list” approach. Adding tags to multiple images in one go is easy and works well with a pleasant user interface. Searching based on tags works and it’s possible to create catalogues from a search, a feature that I really like.

So far there are only three real problems:

  • It’s not a web-based application: web-based is nice because I can then use it from anywhere. I’ll probably just live with the desktop based application and regularly export the images to a web-server with some supporting structure.
  • Printing modified images is awkward: if you want to print a black-and-white version of an image (including tweaking the contrast) then it seems to be necessary to save it before printing.
  • I’ve no idea where the per-image tag data is stored: I need to know because I plan to back it up! Backup of comments is already supported, so I’m sure that this can be done.

So, at the moment it’s gThumb for me. Given that it’s an open-source tool I can run it on any system (at the moment I’m using Solaris 10 build 74l1) and modify it should I wish. Later versions support grabbing images directly from cameras, but that’s not so interesting to me (USB compact flash readers work just fine on Solaris, Mac OS X and Linux) and other neat features (creating a CD, etc.). I’ll play when they arrive on my desktop :-)

More immediately I’d like to look at storing the tags inside the images directly. Norm Walsh has jpegRDF for this, but I think that’s overkill for my needs. We’ll see.

Update: The per-image tag data is stored with the comments. It’s all in ~/.gnome2/gthumb.