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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2001-08-29

Scrounging Images
By Vince Laforet, The New York Times

The archiving of digital images or the failure to do so, is perhaps the single biggest hurdle photography departments have been facing since they've adopted the new digital technology.

Do you have better things to do with your personal time than burning CDs? Are you tired of running out to Best Buy on road trips in search of a box of CDRs? Want to find that image of the quarterback you know you shot six months ago but you're away from the office and the deadline is NOW? Tired of going through each take and deleting the images you think are irrelevant in order to save space and praying that image you deleted doesn't become relevant in the future? (Dirck Halstead's image of Monica Lewinsky embracing former President Clinton certainly comes to mind.)

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, there is now a viable solution available to almost any paper out there: it's called Scrounger and produced by Merlin One. David Frank along with the help of Roger Strong, have successfully implemented the system for our paper, and worked hand in hand with Merlin One to iron out the initial hurdles. From an outsider's point of view - my user experience has been excellent so far.

Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times

Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times
For over a year, photographers at the New York Times were assigned CD burners along with their digital cameras and laptops, and asked to engrave an endless wave of CDs containing their raw images. This was, as most of you know, a mind numbing, and time consuming process, often producing imperfect or unreadable CDs and therefore resulting in the loss of important originals. The CDs were then stacked by the hundreds in closets never to be seen again. Only a determined editor or photographer would take the time to sort through the CDs and go through the painfully slow task of editing through the original files on CDs. Therefore digital takes rarely made it to a second edit

Scrounger is an image archiving system that when combined with a few easy steps on the part of the photographer, becomes an extremely useful and expeditious way of finding that long lost digital frame. It's also much less time consuming for the busy photographer who probably wants to spend more time shooting - and less time archiving photographs! So here's how it's worked for us at the Times so far:

First of all, every assignment at the Times is entered into our assignment database called Trax, which is also created by Merlin One (if you purchase the Scrounger system, they provide you with a similar program as part of the package.) The assignment contains the name of photographer, section, date of the assignment, and the basic description, including location, and subjects of the assignment. The assignment is then printed and handed to the photographer and is also assigned a "sack number" - or a master serial number.

Following the shoot, the photographer captions each individual photograph, including the sack number within the caption field (this is not mandatory, but makes finding the original take using an archived transmit much easier.) The photographs are then transmitted into the office and the transmits archived by editors. The photographer can chose to copy over the raw files from the disk either prior to transmitting or after, and then place them into a folder containing the original sack number, section, and slug. For example a Yankee baseball game would result in a folder named 200108023 SPT-YANKEES.

Here comes the good part: once the photographer is ready to archive the photographs, they drag the folder containing all of the captioned transmits onto a little application called Caption Extractor. The program goes through all of the IPTC caption files written in Photoshop or any other program, and creates a single text file containing all of the transmits' captions. This file is automatically placed into the folder containing all of the raw images.

How do we get the photographs into scrounger? As I mentioned before CDs are laborious and undependable, so we have implemented the use of firewire hard drives. The VST firewire units we have chosen to use come in sizes ranging from 3 GB to over 30 GB and start at $119 (for a 3GB drive.) The drives are incredibly small, sturdy, fast, reliable, and require no external power source.

Photo by
You only need to carry around a VST drive and cable on the road. It also doubles as a great backup tool to put copies of all essential programs in case of a computer meltdown and is a wonderful way to transfer files from computer to computer around the office. The photographer copies the folder(s) containing the raw files and the text file with all of the caption info. Once copied, the VST hard drive is turned into the lab where a technician, or the photographer if time permits, simply copies the contents of the hard drive into the Scrounger database with one click. And that's it! (TheTimes now provide each digital photographer with two VST drives - which is cheaper than buying him or her a CD burner and a box of CDRs.)

The database copies all of the files into its master file, and attaches the text document to the original Trax assignment. You can also input images directly from you PCMCIA disks and other media (Type II/III PC card, SmartMedia, and/or CompactFlash with PC card adapter, CD, ZIP, and DVD.) Scrounger supports media and image file formats from all contemporary digital cameras, including the Nikon D1, Kodak DCS 520 / 620, Canon D2000, and AP NC2000e.

At this point, any editor or photographer can view an entire take, on any computer within the network using popular Internet browsers such as Netscape or Explorer. Scrounger produces contact sheets that load incredibly quickly and allow the editor to "tag" or select photos and send them directly to production - they can also add notes to individual frames in case a second editor looks at the take. The editor can of course click on the preview and see a high-resolution preview as with most available editing programs today. Both the small preview files and large previews are kept on the scrounger database for up to a year. We have been keeping the current month's worth of raw files on the 180 GB Raid drive system - anything older than a month is stored separately on a DVD discs.

If an editor knows the date of the shoot and photographers, they go to the Trax database and select the assignment (or the assignment application that is provided with the scrounger system) and with one click of the mouse, a window is launched in their Internet browser with the previews of the entire take!

Photo by
Now here comes the interesting part: Trax can also be searched, by photographer, date range, location, keyword or more to the point: caption - or any word the photographer entered into their original captions at the time they transmitted their photographs. I can type in the name "Jeter" and "Laforet" and find every assignment I ever shot and transmitted photographs of Derek Jeter. The catch here is that unless I transmitted a photo with Jeter's name in it, all of the assignments would not necessarily pop up - a broader search for Yankees would probably work though.

The point is, the search potential is only as good as the information that was entered into the database - the computer cannot yet recognize Jeter's face from within all of its raw files! This is not altogether different from the archiving system we have been using for years when filing negs - in I would argue that given that the original captions can now be quickly searched and matched with the original shoot, the archiving system is now a much more powerful tool. One could search for Dinkins AND Koch - and comb through thousands of assignments in seconds to find any take where the two New York Mayors were possibly photographed together.

I believe this system will continue to be a success for us because it is painless. Caption extractor instantly copies the file captions into a text file and it takes seconds to a few minutes to copy over hundreds of raw files onto the fast fire wire hard drives. With a set of two fire wire hard drives, the photographer can drop off a drive at a time and pick it up the next day - or wait an leave with it a few minutes later. The drives can also be sent overnight from an out of town assignment. And the original take can be viewed on any computer in the newsroom equipped with a web browser - basically ANY computer.

So far the browsing of images is faster then reading off of PCMCIA disk, that was the biggest surprise for me and the loading of previews is almost instantaneous. Given that we can log into our network remotely using SECURE ID at The Times, a take can be seen from a remote location via phone line, or preferably a fast Internet connection. I could go back to an assignment I shot a few months ago in search of a particular frame, from a hotel room in Florida if needed. I could then select the photo and send it to production in New York. (I actually did do this a few months ago during a presentation.) That's the amazing part of this system - you're not tied down to searching from a single computer or archive room. Better yet - the editor doesn't have to get up from his/her desk to go to the archive room. If they have Netscape on their computer - they can go to any take that's been shot and archived in its entirety.

So how much does the system cost and can your paper afford it? Presumably everyone should be able to afford it because Merlin scales the cost of the system to the size of the paper/organization it sells it to.The input system basically consists of a monitor and computer tower and can of course be expanded. You can plug in a firewire drive or input a CD containing images or input directly off PCMCIA disks.

Photo by
We've been using the system for five months now - and I haven't seen any sign of a slow down yet. It still seems to run very smoothly. As mentioned before, the original files are burned to DVD - but the low-res previews, as well as the larger preview files are kept on the master drive for as long as you want - right now the Times is planning on limiting the period to one year to keep the system running quickly.

I now archive my photographs regularly - often the same day of the shoot (the entire archiving process takes me less time than it would take to have a roll of film processed.) This has already saved me a lot of headaches.

The other week I shot an assignment at 6 a.m. of a water tower implosion. By 9 p.m. the editors at the paper decided they wanted to do a multiple picture sequence and they needed an additional frame that I had not transmitted. I was at the gym when I got the page requesting the image - normally I would have had to drop everything and run home to go transmit the photo. Luckily I had already archived the shoot earlier that day and the editor was able to find the frame she needed within seconds while I was still on the line and make her deadline with time to spare. I was able to go on with my life outside of work - something that immediately sold me on Scrounger.

Links:

http://merlinone.com/html/scrounger.html
http://www.vsttech.com

(Vincent Laforet is a staff photographer at The New York Times and can be contacted through http://www.vincentlaforet.com.)

 


Related Links:
merlinone.com/html/scrounger.html
www.vsttech.com
www.vincentlaforet.com

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