In my line of work, I receive tons of software programs to test out: some of them good, some of them redundant and much of them, unfortunately, total crap. It’s gotten to the point where I can tell ten minutes into the user experience whether a program is something I would use on a regular basis or if I should just delete it immediately from my hard drive.
One piece of software, however, that I find myself returning to again and again, even though I have other good imaging programs that do sort of the same thing, is Photo Mechanic. What do I like about this almost cultish photo browser that has similar functionality to the better-known Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Bridge and Apple Aperture? It’s that Photo Mechanic is just flat out fast, letting me open and review an entire library of high-res images (including RAW files) while those other programs are still starting up.
Of course, it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Unlike Lightroom and Aperture, Photo Mechanic is not a RAW image converter—it’s just a photo browser that’s more of a direct competitor to Adobe Bridge than anything else. But you know what? Even though I love me some Adobe Bridge, Photo Mechanic still whips its butt when it comes to speed. And, for many photographers, particularly sports shooters, Photo Mechanic performs many more timesaving tricks than Bridge.
While for years, new versions of Photo Mechanic crept along as incremental updates—the last one I reviewed was 4.6.5 in 2010—the small Portland, Oregon-based company that produces the software, Camera Bits, finally released Photo Mechanic 5 and it’s added helpful new features without drastically altering the program. That’s a good thing.
The speedy core of the program, which quickly generates previews of high-res images by using a JPEG proxy file embedded in the RAW, remains the same. With Photo Mechanic 5, I was able to drop a huge file of thousands of RAW and JPEG images onto the program and have them all pop up quicker than I could scan through them.
The disadvantage of using an image browser like Photo Mechanic though is that you’ll need to convert those RAW shots later in another program. Sports photographers and photojournalists, who tend to be the biggest users of Photo Mechanic, care less about that since time is of the essence when covering a news event in the field. RAW conversions can always be done later by those back at the office with the big computer screens.
Unlike Lightroom and Aperture, which seem to continually add editing functions, Photo Mechanic isn’t a photo editor at all. With version 5, some new photo-cropping functionality has been added to the program but it’s for compatibility reasons. For instance, now you can rotate photos to any angle or add non-integral crop ratios to your shots, and they’ll be replicated in Adobe Camera RAW.
If you’re familiar with Photo Mechanic, you’ve heard of the Ingest feature, which is how you import images into the program. With Photo Mechanic 5, there’s now Auto Ingest, which automatically imports shots when a disk is mounted.
And, for the first time, you can play back movies and save individual frames from your clips within Photo Mechanic’s preview window. (At the time of this writing, however, that feature was only available to Mac users.)
The new program also looks different from the old version but not dramatically. This is also a good thing because I always liked Photo Mechanic’s simplicity. Colors are more neutral and sliders and controls are of a higher contrast so they’re easier to see and use. In some ways, it’s more of a Lightroom-style look but that’s fine with me. That Adobe program has really been a pioneer of image management design.
One small-but-important design change is that you can now keep both the preview window and the contact sheet open at the same time, which is great if you’re working with two monitors. Thumbnail strips of images can be displayed either horizontally or vertically, and there are new options for showing lost shadow detail or blown highlights in your images.
Photo Mechanic’s helpful IPTC Stationery Pad, which makes it easy to batch caption shots, and add metadata, photographer credits, copyright info, rights usage, etc, has been enhanced so you can also include color class, rating and tag values to your images. Photo Mechanic’s timesaving Code Replacement function, which lets photographers and editors quickly add info—such as a caption—to an image based around a text file code, has been added to the IPTC Stationery Pad so you can quickly fill in file data.
There are also dozens of new IPTC/XMP fields for your images that you can customize and tweak to adjust them to your studio’s or news organization’s workflow.
And finally, if you can believe it, Photo Mechanic 5 runs even faster than previous versions of the program but this time it’s true JPEG viewing that gets a speed boost. The new program has a better JPEG compressor and decompressor that zips through JPEG previews and speeds up RAW viewing when it’s set to use the embedded JPEG rather than rendering the RAW.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It took a while for Camera Bits to introduce version 5 of its speedy photo browser but it was worth the wait. While adding some helpful new features and a revamped design, Photo Mechanic 5 sticks to what it’s good at: quickly importing and displaying high-resolution images so photographers can spend more time shooting photos than diddling with them in software.
Camera Bits Photo Mechanic 5
Pros: Faster; more features; improved design
Cons: Zoom tool in full preview mode is still inferior to the competition; can only compare two images side by side.