Monday, June 21, 2010

My Search for the Perfect Online Image Database Software

An essential part of any photographer's kit of marketing tools -- particularly nature photographers -- is the searchable database of images for a photographer's website. This database allows clients to search a library of images to find an image or create lightboxes of their favorites for future reference. It took me years to find the right software for my needs and those of my clients.

Developing your own software:
I’ve had an internal database of my images since 1988. It began as a text file where I kept and printed out caption information for my best images. As personal computers and databases developed over the years, my database changed from a simple text database to a Filemaker database that included a visual of my image. I am still using that Filemaker database in my office.

Filemaker is known for its ease of use. I use it for invoicing, maintaining contacts, tracking submissions, organizing footage, recording timesheets for my staff, and several other office needs.

Because Filemaker is customizable, I can create databases to suit my needs. Off-the-shelf photographer-friendly software packages have the capabilities to do many of the functions I need but offer neither flexibility nor control. Microsoft Access is another popular database program worth considering.

Get the Database Online

If you are in business to license the usage rights to your images and have a fairly large library (more than 100) of saleable digitized images, you will want to get them online. One way to do this is to use static web pages. There are dozens of great programs that allow users to organize and search their image collections in-house. Examples are Aperture, iPhoto, Extensis Portfolio, Lightroom, ACDSee, and others. These programs will create static galleries of images that can be posted to the web, but once posted they cannot be modified, nor are they responsive to individual client needs.

To get more customizable results, you’ll need software that allows your clients to search for images by typing in keywords. There are several available, but many of them might not suit your needs.

Filemaker and other database programs

Filemaker offers a fairly easy way to post images to the web in a searchable database. You can see an example of this “Instant Web Publishing” method at: (log in as a guest, no password required). I’ve posted the best of my HDTV footage at that URL.

Filemaker is a fine database for internal use and can easily put images and video clips on the web. But to modify it to allow clients to create private lightboxes will require $20,000-$50,000 in development fees. And even at that price, there’s no guarantee you’ll get what you want. Price is determined by how much time and work is involved.  I saw one site that did exactly what I wanted. The developer told me that it had cost $250,000 to develop that particular site – way beyond my budget. Yikes!

Leasing Existing Software.

I have leased web-driven database software from Aurora & Quanta Production’s Independent Photography Network (IPN), Digital Railroad and most recently, PhotoShelter.

These are all web-based services that, for a price, allow you to upload your images into their system, include a web gallery to show off a “home page” using one of their pre-designed templates, and offer image search capabilities for your library. Clients can login and create private lightboxes of your images.

All of these companies have developed software that does a decent job. The problem is that once the companies have developed the software, they often try to increase their fees. Many companies form agencies or collectives based on their subscriber base, and strongly encourage their photographers to join the collective agency. Sometimes that requires giving up a percentage of your sales in return for their increased “marketing power.” I have always refused to give up this percentage.

IPN was purchased by the conglomerate that publishes Photo District News. I did not choose to join the new collective, even though the publisher admonished me with the line, “But you will missing out on all the sales to the advertising market. You don’t want to make money?” (The publisher left or was otherwise replaced from his position at PDN before the year was out).

Digital Railroad (DRR) had a great software platform, and I was with them for a couple of years after leaving IPN. They went bankrupt even though they had a base of a few hundred paying photographers. I was concerned that I had paid an annual fee rather than a monthly fee every September, and the November bankruptcy of DRR meant my entire annual fee (in the order of $600) would be lost. Thankfully, however, my credit card company resolved the dispute in my favor and refunded me for the remaining lost months. I learned a few lessons from this experience – always pay with a credit card that stands behind you, and try to pay these types of companies monthly rather than annually so you don’t get stiffed.

PhotoShelter made offers to stranded DRR clients, and I signed on with them. They have a nice program, but I have found a few problems with it. One of the biggest concerns I've had with PhotoShelter, is that thumbnail images are not presented with captions. As my images are editorial and usually require explanation, not including the caption could result in missed sales.

When I complained, I was told that PhotoShelter made the choice not to show captions below thumbnail images because captions would detract from the design of the web page. I had had a similar discussion with the folks at DRR, who finally allowed this feature two years after I requested it.

The ironic part of this is that I called PhotoShelter shortly after they sent me a mailing stating what designers and clients wanted to see in a photo search engine. One of the points was that clients wanted to see caption information associated with images, including thumbnails!

In summary, while putting your images with a company like IPN and PhotoShelter is a viable way to get your images into a searchable online database, getting into bed with these companies comes with frustrations. Natural history photographers need captions below thumbnail images so the clients will know what they are looking at.

The captions are all-important. I was shocked to learn that one of my online software providers did not even include captions in their search base -- only keywords. My office had to spend hours putting our caption information into the keyword field for our 6000 images in the library.

Off-the-shelf software
After years of searching, I have finally found a near-perfect solution to my needs: Stockbox Photo Software, made by a company in Canada ( I was able to get this software up and running to service all my images in one day. It took only a few hours to customize it, and I am even able to put video clips on the database -- something no other leased software package has been capable of doing. Stockbox software is both affordable and reasonably easy to install and administer, and it offers just about everything that I have ever wanted or needed for my website's image database.
It’s currently up and running at:
Because I have had experience setting up my own web pages, getting Stockbox to work was relatively easy. The folks at Stockbox Photo installed the software on the servers at my website hosting company after I supplied them with my username, password, and other information. A consultant I hired spent about three hours getting familiar with the software and showing me how to work with and modify the program; after that, I have been able to tweak the system with few problems.
Any photographer who decides to use Stockbox software will want to find a web hosting service that has enough expertise to help install the software. You can find web hosting services advertised in magazines such as PC World and MacWorld. Some will host your site (including specialized software) and give you email for less than $20 per month. The only thing you’ll need is high speed internet access (DSL, cable, satellite, etc from your home or office, so that you can access the software and images.
It is entirely possible to host Stockbox on a Mac, Linux, or Windows computer (server) in your office or home. The software requires specialized, but free, programs such as PHP 4.31 or later, My SQL 3.23.58 or later, Apache 1.3 or later, and some others. Most remote hosting services provide these software programs as part of their monthly fee.
As far as I know, Stockbox is the only software platform that allows users to display any file formats that are viewable in a web browser, such as . gif, jpg, au, avi, aif, htm, html, mid, mp3, mpg, mov, png, ra, ram, rar, swf, wav, zip, wma, wmv and pdf. If the file format is not viewable from within a web browser, the system provides a link for users to download other formats and files so that the user can view or play them locally in the associated application.
Stockbox Photo is not perfect. The documentation is not great, and I encountered some obstacles that left me scratching my head until their technical support folks clarified things for me. Their staff seems small, which is reflected in their email response time.
Movie files display in the gallery, but it is not possible to edit the movie files from within the system. The user has to choose the video frame that will serve as the preview frame of the video clip. Automating this process would be helpful. Because I do not have the time for all the steps that have to be taken to get video clips into the system, I have gone back to using Filemaker to show my video clips to clients.
Other Choices to Suit your Needs
Photographer needs vary depending on what you do with your images and with whom you are dealing. Filemaker or other programs can certainly work for a photographer who only needs to provide the most basic search capability of his library. If you only need to make submissions of static web pages of images to clients, then almost any imaging program can help you do this – examples in the Mac world include Photo Mechanic, iPhoto, Aperture and Extensis Portfolio. I use all of the preceding programs (except iPhoto) when static web pages are sufficient for my clients.
There are a world of alternatives out there for photographers. Extensis Netpublish is a software package that provides online search capability for a library of images. Extensis also makes the program Portfolio, which helps photographers manage images on their Mac or Windows computers – but offers no internet search capabilities. The AGPix online platform will host your images; and photographers can create lightboxes on this platform for clients.
My office handles the pricing and actual delivery of images to clients. All of our images are unique, and we price our images according to the usage, how difficult and expensive it was to obtain the image, how unique the image is, etc. The ecommerce capabilities of these software packages would not work for me. My office delivers high-resolution images via email and FTP once a fee has been agreed upon, and I do not rely on the above software to do the job, even though it may be capable of doing it. I strongly recommend that high-res images be sent only to trusted clients and only after they have paid for usage.
Making a Choice
Choose a program or service that is designed to be used over the web using a standard web browser. If you have a broadband internet connection, you can sit in your RV on the beach, upload images, and manage just about everything you may need. Once you’ve learned how the software works, it is quite easy to upload new images and make those new images available to clients. You can create a lightbox for a client to see, and clients can create their own lightboxes by searching your image database.
The 6000+ images on my website take up about 25gb of hard drive space. They are all saved in high-resolution 1-6mb JPGs. My existing web hosting service provides me with 30gb of space for under $15 per month. I can store my entire library of high-resolution images on their servers along with the Lightbox software .
Photoshelter hosted these same files and the same amount of space, charging a few hundred dollars annually to host the images, while providing their software for me to use. PhotoShelter will take a percentage of any online sales you may consummate with their service, but if you do not allow e-commerce sales on the site, this point is moot.
If your images and software are hosted by a remote server, you don’t have to worry about your server going down. However, you must still backup your images, software, and software settings. My web hosting service allows this to be done automatically. Regardless, I always have at least three hard drives with all my images backed up at my office, home, and a third location. I always input captions, keywords, and other metadata into the original, master images that I have in my office and not into any remote servers. This way, the metadata always stays with and travels with the original, master images – and is transferred to lower-resolution versions if needed. If I change services or software, none of the metadata is lost in transition.
There are some pluses to leasing software as opposed to owning it. Whenever a leasing company comes up with new capabilities, you will benefit from them immediately. If a purchased software program is upgraded substantively, you must pay for the new iteration. For photographers who are fairly new to the business, don’t have much experience administering photo databases and websites, or who want a relatively painless solution to putting their images online, then services such as PhotoShelter are probably the best choice.
If you have a fair amount of computer expertise, are tired of services making choices for you, and know exactly what you want in an online searchable database of images, then a software package that you own, such as Stockbox Photo, might be the perfect solution.
No matter your choice, keep in mind that getting your images online and searchable does not guarantee that people will see them. That requires marketing skills and hard work.


luca said...

Thanks for this. Though I don't see other comments I'm sure your article has been helpful to many. I've been looking for this kind of information for awhile.

Iain D. Williams said...

A very helpful and informative post. Thank you for sharing your opinions, Iain

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Steve Hudson said...

This Post explains all the thing in very effective manner. I also used online invoicing software named billomat and my experience was great!! It is really time saving.

online invoicing software

Steve Hudson said...

This Post explains all the thing in very effective manner. I also used online invoicing software named billomat and my experience was great!! It is really time saving. online invoicing software

Billy Suratt said...

Thanks for this great rundown. I've looked at various photo hosting systems for decades, but Stockbox is one that's never come up before. Are you still happy with Stockbox after a few years have passed?

Also, how good are the SEO features of the software? Specifically, do you often find your photos showing up in Google's image search?

Norbert Wu said...

Hi Billy: Your comment is timely. I just spent the last few weeks getting re-acquainted with the Stockbox software, and I've put in new images from my last three years. I changed the formatting of the site and learned a lot more about it than I knew before (when I had staff handle everything). I am more impressed than ever at the capabilities of the StockBox software. In answer to your question -- I am not the best person to answer this question, as I have not looked into this issue. I put up this software so that photo editors could search my internal database. Getting my images to show up in a Google Image Search was not my purpose. I am sure that the folks at Stockbox software can answer your question, however. Their site is at: