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Public beta of Photo Mechanic 4.4 expected by November 1  
Monday, October 24, 2005 | by Rob Galbraith

Camera Bits has been talking openly about the impending arrival of v4.4 of Photo Mechanic for some time; now, they've put a date on when photographers can first touch and try the new release of the company's pro photo importer and browser. Version 4.4, a workflow-focused update of the program for Windows and Mac, will emerge initially in public beta form by November 1, 2005. The public beta period, says Dennis Walker of Camera Bits, is anticipated to be brief. Assuming that no significant gotchas are unearthed by testers, Camera Bits plans to roll out v4.4 officially by November 15, 2005.

What's New in Photo Mechanic 4.4

Here's a look at what has made the feature list for next month's release:

Captioning on steroids The main attraction in v4.4 is pumped-up captioning. Photo Mechanic has long been one of the most capable programs at applying IPTC-format text information inside a picture file. In the new version, Camera Bits provides a captioning method for every scenario we can think of, including what Walker promises to be the first truly safe way to insert caption data into RAW files on both Windows and Mac. It's safe, says Walker, because it's done in accordance with the latest metadata specifications and because it's reversible in the event of an incompatibility with RAW conversion software. For any RAW file in which Photo Mechanic embeds caption information, it will be possible to later remove that data and return the RAW file to its original, pre-captioned state. Camera Bits has dubbed this technology Caption Safe and, to our knowledge, is the only program to offer a complete captioning undo with a variety of RAW file formats.

But that's only the beginning: users can choose whether to embed IPTC or XMP format caption data, or both, within JPEG, TIFF and supported RAW files. Or, if preferred, all caption data for a RAW photo can be stuffed into an XMP sidecar file, thereby avoiding any RAW file compatibility problems by not actually touching the RAW file when captioning. XMP sidecar files that have been created by Photoshop to store caption data and Camera Raw processing instructions are renamed and copied along with the parent RAW file by the current version of Photo Mechanic. But it won't create a sidecar file or edit what's inside a sidecar file. In v.4.4, Photo Mechanic will continue to keep a RAW file and its associated XMP sidecar file linked through various file handling operations, but it will also create and/or edit a sidecar file when adding or editing caption data if no sidecar file already exists.

Embedding caption data in the RAW file will be possible only if that file uses a TIFF container. Most RAW formats do, fortunately: Photo Mechanic 4.4 will be able to embed IPTC and/or XMP text information into Adobe DNG, Canon CR2, Canon (RAW) TIF, Epson ERF, Nikon NEF and Olympus ORF. The XMP sidecar file will be an option for these formats also. For RAW formats supported by Photo Mechanic that aren't TIFF-based, embedding will not be possible; all captioning will be via an XMP sidecar file only. The most notable such format is Canon's retired CRW. As with the existing version of Photo Mechanic, Kodak TIF and DCR files are not supported at all in v4.4.

To bring RAW files captioned in an earlier version of Photo Mechanic for Mac into the new world order, v4.4 will include the ability to pull caption data from the IPTC-NAA record in the resource fork of a RAW file on the Mac and embed it v4.4-style into the picture file or an XMP sidecar. This will have to be done contact sheet by contact sheet, however; at launch, the new version of Photo Mechanic will not include a caption converter utility that can be pointed at, say, an entire drive of RAW files nested in a series of subfolders. Such a utility is being considered, however, says Walker.

There are a multitude of other caption-synchronization options. For example, caption data can be copied from JPEG to RAW photos, or RAW to JPEG (RAW-to-TIFF and TIFF-to-RAW caption synching is also being looked at, though it's unlikely to make it into the initial release of v4.4). For us, this should allow for JPEG (and later, TIFF) versions of RAW files, that came into being through RAW conversion software that tosses away embedded caption data, to be fairly easily re-captioned. Right now, we do this using a time-consuming method that relies on Photo Mechanic 4.3.8's IPTC Snapshot function (not to be confused with the new Snapshot feature of 4.4 discussed later in this article). Being able to synchronize caption data across multiple iterations of the same photo with one command, issued one time, will be a notable step forward. This is only one example of the caption synching capabilities of 4.4.

If all the captioning features work as advertised in v.4.4 on both platforms, then Photo Mechanic will be the most flexible and powerful JPEG, TIFF and RAW captioning application we've ever encountered. If your photography depends on the pictures you create to always have caption information associated with them, Photo Mechanic v.4.4 should be a killer upgrade. Prepare to spend some time grappling with all the new options, however, as well as testing to find out which captioning option(s) provide the smoothest and most compatible flow through to RAW conversion applications, other browsers and archiving systems.

PM44_Screen_0018.jpg
Photo Mechanic 4.4
Captioning of RAW files across both platforms, and a host of other new captioning capabilities, is the big news in the upcoming release of Camera Bits' pro photo browser.

Variables in folder names Yippee! This small change to the program will smooth out a longstanding workflow wrinkle here. Namely, we've been unable to automatically have the capture date form part of the destination folder name when using Photo Mechanic's beefy Ingest Disks function for card-to-computer transfers. In v.4.4, it's possible to use a subset of the program's Variables (information extracted from a picture file or customized for a given assignment), including {datesort}, so that we can have the program make destination folder names be something like 20051024 Soccer 001, 20051024 Soccer 002, etc., without manually typing in the capture date portion. The capture date, job name (one of a new set of Variables), photographer and several other Variables are eligible for inclusion in the destination folder naming field in v.4.4.

New user/client Variables The number of Variables in v4.4 has grown to more than 175. Among the additions are a set of customized Variables, where the information inserted when using these Variables to caption, rename or perform other operations is pulled from a user-configurable dialog. This dialog (a screenshot is shown later in this article) contain job name, contact information and other fields specific to a user and client for a particular assignment. For workflows in which standardized bits of information - including the name of the assignment - need to be plopped into the file name, certain caption text fields or even as part of the data accompanying a photo in an html gallery, the new user/client Variables should be helpful.

Ingest from a folder Right now, the program's image import function slurps up the entire contents of a card or drive. In v4.4, a folder (and its subfolders) can be designated as an Ingest source as well. This will make it possible, for example, to select the folder on a mobile drive or standalone image backup device (like the Epson P-4000 or similar) for importing, or a folder on a computer's drive filled with pictures that were copied manually and not Ingested. Camera Bits is beavering away on a number of other refinements to the Ingest function, though not all will make it into v4.4 across both platforms, says Walker.

View multiple folders in the same contact sheet To date, Photo Mechanic has been all about viewing a single folder's worth of pictures in a contact sheet. In v4.4, it will be possible to select multiple folders and view them together in the same contact sheet. From there, all Photo Mechanic functions that can be performed on a single folder's worth of pictures can be applied to pictures across multiple folders being displayed at the same time. Holding down the Option(Mac)/Shift(Windows) key while clicking on an additional folder in a contact sheet's Favorite Folders or Folder Navigator panes will force the display of that folder's contents along with the folder(s) currently being viewed.

PM44_Screen_0001.jpg
Color Class filter
As shown above, the Color Class filter is enabled and set to display all photo marked as Keepers and Keeper Seconds (both the colour and the label for each Color Class are configurable)

Refined Color Class filter In Photo Mechanic 4.3.8, it's only possible to view a single Color Class at a time in a contact sheet. In v4.4, photos from multiple Color Classes can be displayed simultaneously, with a simple interface in the lower right corner of a contact sheet window for enabling/disabling this feature and selecting which Color Classes to show.

We use Color Classes heavily, in support of an approach to picture assessment in which we make our final selects in a maximum of three rounds through a folder. The first time through, we assign the Keeper Thirds Color Class to good photos; the next time through, we winnow the take down further by assigning Keeper Seconds to the better frames; and finally, the best frames we identify on the third pass are the Keepers. In v4.4 it's possible to see, for example, all the Keepers and Keeper Seconds simultaneously in one contact sheet view, instead of just the Keepers or just the Keeper Seconds. For reconsidering the edit, this new Color Class flexibility should be beneficial.

Camera Bits is evaluating whether to include, in a post-4.4 release, the ability to dynamically change the selection of pictures being shown in the Preview window, through the applying of Color Class filtering and other view options there. At the time 4.4 ships, however, it's expected that view filtering will take place only in contact sheets (the filtered selection can then be viewed in the Preview window).

Take a Snapshot In v4.3.8, it's possible to save the state of Photo Mechanic's IPTC-related dialogs to an .ipt file. The process of creating and later loading an .ipt file in either the IPTC Stationery Pad or the single-image caption dialog is somewhat clunky, but it does work and is a useful way to store common captioning setups as templates for future use. In v4.4, this concept has been extended to a number of the program's other functions, including renaming, copying and emailing photos, setting which metadata appears as Info Text, user and client job name configurations and more. The mechanism for saving and loading a snapshot state in v4.4 is also smoother and smarter than the saving and loading of .ipt files in 4.3.8 (it's still possible to save/load .ipt's the 4.3.8 way in v4.4, if desired). In snapshot-capable dialogs, a lightning bolt icon appears. Click on the icon and choose Save from the pull-down menu to name and store the state. Click on the icon and choose the name of the saved state to load it. The saved state exists as a small .snap file inside the program's preferences folder; put the .snap file into the same location on another machine and it appears to be recognized as a saved state on that computer too.

PM44_Screen_0017.jpg
The Tools menu

Lossless JPEG rotation, time adjustment and more A new Tools menu provides a centralized home for some existing Photo Mechanic functions as well as those that are appearing for the first time in 4.4. The Tools are:

  • Adjust Capture Dates and Times - This function enables the date and/or time stamped into a picture file in various locations to be changed, either to a specific date/time or an offset from the file's current date/time.

  • Update IPTC/XMP - Working in conjunction with the settings in the IPTC/XMP tab of the program's Preferences dialog, this function enables the synching of caption data, creation of XMP sidecar files and more.

  • Revert TIFF-based RAW to original - If it's necessary to remove a Photo Mechanic-embedded caption from a TIFF-based RAW file, this tool will do it.

  • Mask/Unmask - To help determine which metadata format - IPTC or XMP - a caption-reading program downstream from Photo Mechanic is reading first (or at all), as well as to prevent the viewing of EXIF shooting information without actually removing it from a picture file, it's possible to hide, or mask, some or all of these metadata types. An unmask command exposes this information in the picture file again.

  • Set Resolution - This will add or update Photoshop resolution information inside compatible picture files.

  • ICC Profiles (Embed/Remove)

  • Lossless JPEG Rotation

  • Extract JPEG Previews from RAW files - This function will pull from any supported RAW file the embedded JPEG and use that to create a separate picture file. During the extraction, the appropriate ICC profile will be embedded, as well as caption information (based on how Photo Mechanic 4.4's IPTC/XMP preferences are set). In addition, the Color Class, Tag and soft-rotation state of the parent RAW file will be preserved in the extracted JPEG.

More zoom In v4.4, the Zoom function inside the Preview window now has a magnification range of 25% to 800%, in eleven steps.

PM44_Screen_0023.jpg
Info Text tool tip

Info Text as tool tip Enabling CAPS Lock turns on the display of Info Text as a tool tip when hovering over thumbnails in a contact sheet (as shown at right).The Info Text displayed is the same as in the Preview window, and is user-configurable.

Improved keywording Version 4.4 revamps the keyword editor to make it easier to manage larger numbers of keywords.

CD/DVD burning (Mac only) Mac users will gain the ability to write CDs or DVDs from within Photo Mechanic.

The disc burning function doesn't first create a space-hogging temporary directory to house the pictures, it will optionally preserve the source folder structure and it will also automatically burn a selection of pictures over multiple discs when their total capacity is greater than a single disc. The discs themselves will be in a cross-platform hybrid format that will mount on either a Mac or Windows system.

Camera Bits plans to eventually introduce disc burning in the Windows version also. The company is currently evaluating third-party code libraries that provide this functionality, says Walker.

Spotlight searching (Mac OS X 10.4 and later only) On Macs running OS X 10.4.x, Photo Mechanic will utilize the operating system's built-in Spotlight indexing to rapidly find picture files and present them in a contact sheet. A simple query can be done via the search field built into the contact sheet window; for more focused queries, the program also has a separate search window that allows for specific metadata to be the target for the search. The integration of Spotlight into Photo Mechanic marks the first time that pictures from multiple folders can be displayed in the same contact sheet, giving the program a small measure of image cataloging functionality. Spotlight, however, doesn't allow for media (external hard drives, CDs, DVDs, and so on) that's offline to be searched, so Photo Mechanic 4.4 won't be a replacement for a true image cataloger. The new search function, however, does appear to dramatically speed up the locating of picture files on mounted drives.

Other changes in both the Mac and Windows versions of 4.4 include a pull-down menu in Ingest Disks where you choose between having a contact sheet window automatically opened at the start of an ingest session (so that you can begin viewing and editing arriving photos), at the end of an ingest session or not at all. Also, the slide mount in the contact sheet window can optionally display a soft-rotation icon when the photo's thumbnail has been turned upright by the program but the original image data is still flopped over. This should help distinguish between JPEGs that have been hard-rotated (i.e. rotated with the program's new lossless JPEG rotation function or separately in an image editor) and those that haven't.

Conclusion

Based on what we've seen while thumping away on a build of Photo Mechanic 4.4 these past few days, it looks like this will be a strong update to a program that has long been a critical part of our own workflow. But we want more (always!), and to that end we'll be pestering Camera Bits to further improve Photo Mechanic's integration with the other applications we depend on to manage or process pictures, including cross-platform RAW converters such as Canon Digital Photo Professional, Nikon Capture and Phase One Capture One PRO, as well as image catalogers like iView MediaPro and Extensis Portfolio. We also really want the ability to maintain a crop set in Photo Mechanic when sending JPEGs and TIFFs to Photoshop via the program's Send to Droplet feature, which was a hoped-for addition to 4.4 that didn't make the cut. And finally, it's time to move the caption entry points in Photo Mechanic away from separate dialogs and into something that's smoothly integrated into both the contact sheet and Preview windows.

This is by no means a complete accounting of what we want in Photo Mechanic as it evolves, though these items would be near the top of the list. For Mac users, it will probably also be important for Camera Bits to look at ways for Photo Mechanic to work in conjunction with Aperture, on the assumption that Apple's upcoming pro imaging application is going to provide some interesting workflow features of its own. And on the assumption that Aperture will provide useful mechanisms for applications like Photo Mechanic to incorporate a measure of integration.

As noted earlier, a public beta release of Photo Mechanic 4.4 is expected to come available by November 1, 2005 and will be downloadable from the Camera Bits web site. Assuming that the public beta version is solid, the official release of v4.4 is to follow by November 15, 2005. The Mac version will require OS X 10.3 or later (10.4 or later for the Spotlight search functionality); the Windows version will require Windows 2000 or XP. Photo Mechanic 4.4 will be a free update for anyone who purchases v4.3.8 now, or any user who ponied up for the software on or since November 1, 2004. If the software was registered prior to that date, and is v3.0 or later, the upgrade cost to 4.4 is US$90. To upgrade any v2.x release to 4.4, the cost is US$100.

Photo Mechanic 4.4 Screenshots

The screenshots throughout this article have been generated from a non-final build of Photo Mechanic 4.4 for Mac. As such, the program's appearance may change before the public beta or official release of the software.

PM44_Screen_0003.jpg
Improved file type to application mapping
It's now possible to include external image editors as alternates to the main editor for a given file type, by adding them as custom editor entries in the program's Preferences. This is possible in v4.3.8 only through a workaround that involves associating an external editor with a little-used file type.

PM44_Screen_0005.jpg
Additional Preview Preferences
The Preview tab in Preferences sports options that control whether to display a soft-rotation icon and whether to wrap around to the first or last picture in a selection when navigating through pictures in the Preview window.

PM44_Screen_0006.jpg
Mission control for captioning
The IPTC/XMP tab of Preferences contains a wealth of options that impact the new captioning functionality in v4.4.

PM44_Screen_0002.jpg
Refined Ingest
Certain Photo Mechanic Variables can be used as part of the destination folder name in v4.4, and a new pull-down menu enables you to choose between having a contact sheet window open automatically at the beginning of an ingest session, at the end or not at all.

PM44_Screen_0021.jpg
Spotlight searching (Mac OS X 10.4.x only)
For Mac users running OS X 10.4 and later, the program's search function utilizes the operating system's speedy Spotlight indexing of mounted media to quickly return results and present them in a single contact sheet.

PM44_Screen_0007.jpg
Custom job configurations

PM44_Screen_0022.jpg
Take a Snapshot
The state of various command dialogs in v4.4 can be saved and loaded from the new Snapshot pull-down menu.

PM44_Screen_0016.jpg
Adjust Capture Dates and Times

PM44_Screen_0015.jpg
Update IPTC/XMP

PM44_Screen_0014.jpg
Revert TIFF-based RAW to original state
This tool enables IPTC or XMP format metadata embedded by Photo Mechanic into a RAW file to be stripped out, thereby returning the picture file to its pre-captioned state.

PM44_Screen_0013.jpg
Mask and Unmask
To help determine which metadata format - IPTC or XMP - a caption-reading program downstream from Photo Mechanic is scanning first (or at all), as well as to prevent the viewing of EXIF shooting information without removing it from a picture file, it's possible to hide, or mask, some or all of these metadata types. The unmask command exposes this information in the picture file again.

PM44_Screen_0012.jpg
Set Resolution
This will add or update Photoshop resolution information inside compatible picture files.

PM44_Screen_0011.jpg
Embed or remove ICC profiles

PM44_Screen_0010.jpg
Losslessly rotate JPEGs

PM44_Screen_0009.jpg
Extract JPEG previews from RAW files
This function will pull from any supported RAW file the embedded JPEG and create a separate picture file.

PM44_Screen_0020.jpg
Burning a disc (Mac version only)
This is the first dialog that appears when the Burn Photos to Disc command is chosen.

PM44_Screen_0019.jpg
Burning a disc (Mac version only)
After pressing Start in the first dialog, this dialog appears and provides access to basic disc burning options.

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