Photosmith Review
Feb 21, 2013, last edit: Mar 19, 2013
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Photosmith tag line

Jerry-Rigs Review of Photosmith

Although this rant is intended as a review of Photosmith, I have included comments that are particular to Adobe Lightroom and its usage as it affects Photosmith. Photosmith is used as an extension of Lightroom and the overall workflow and interaction of the two products must be considered. This is not sponsored, exhaustive, or even always technically accurate (that would imply I knew what I was doing…).

Adobe Lightroom Shortcoming

I use LightRoom (LR) for developing my RAW images and for sorting/tagging/organizing my images.  I like it a lot but it has a particular problem. Tagging is always time consuming but it is something that can be done in small increments, like perhaps between bites of lunch or while riding in planes, trains, and automobiles. Unfortunately, LR does not support use from multiple locations (that is, a desktop and a laptop) or a shared catalog. The license supports that configuration but the software doesn’t (later rant). As a result, mobile tagging is basically not supported. That makes it difficult to do tagging unless I’m at my primary workstation. A niche to be filled!

Photosmith to the Rescue

Photosmith (PSmith) is an iPad app that was purpose built to work with LR. PSmith is not a photo editor. It is a mobile tagging app. I think it is the only mobile tagging app that works with LR. PSmith provides a LR plugin to sync meta data and user defined photo collections between PSmith and LR. On the surface, that sounds wonderful. But, as with so many things, the devil is in the details.  

Lightroom PhotoSmith Plugin

Before LR, I used my file directory structure to group photos by date and topic in LR. That mechanism worked as my main method of defining collections but it has obvious limits. When I starting using LR, I maintained my directory structure and started trying to tag everything. I could use keyword filters to find what I wanted. Now I am finding the benefits of using collections so I will be changing the way I work. I will maintain my date/topic folders under a root folder to keep LR maintenance easy but using PSmith has pushed me down the path of using defined collections with only a little kicking and a few soft screams.

PSmith provides a LR Publish Service plug-in to interact with PSmith.  The LR PSmith Plug-In (LPP) (yes, I make up acronyms as I go along) defines a base collection called “all photos” and allows the user to define additional collections. These publish collections act like any other collection but they are also used to provide a 2-way sync PSmith. The collections can be created in LR or on the iPad in PSmith. Any user created publish collection is automatically included in the “all photos” collection but can be excluded if desired (or maybe I have the default backwards).

Collections in LR publish plugins have an interesting feature that I understand, but don’t like. A lot. It appears to apply to all publish collections. Publish collections have several groups for their contained photos. The groups are: New Photos To Publish, Modified Photos To Republish, Published Photos, Deleted Photos To Remove. Publish collections manage which group a photo belongs in. When photos are added to a PSmith collection, the photos are initially in the New Photos group. After I have published (synced) a collection to PSmith, all the photos go into the Published group. If I modify one of those photos in any way including meta-data edits, it moves out of the Published group and into the Modified group. Makes sense. The user interface allows the groups to be collapsed to hide the photos or expanded to show the photos.  Publish collections always display the photos in one (and only one) of the groups; there is no “all photos” group for the collection. Bad. The effect is that when I tag a photo in the Published group, it disappears from where I was looking at it. If I wasn’t finished with it, I have to find it in the Modified group or in a folder or different collection. What a pain. Another solution is to mark the entire Publish collection as Modified so the one photo doesn’t jump. I think the preferred solution is to mirror the Publish collection with a standard collection and do all the work in the standard collection. That is a LR problem. It’s extra work no matter how you look at it.

WiFi Sync

The LPP uses WiFi to sync. Both the iPad and the computer must be on the same network (more correctly stated: in the same subnet). There is no USB tethering.  That is a technical restriction imposed by Apple/iOS (but I hear PSmith is re-architecting around that restriction). There is no syncing across internet, but I suspect that will come later. It would require an exposed port at home (big security issues) or a central server (big investment) and I don’t think PSmith has resources to handle it right now.

Interestingly, EyeFi cards are supported. EyeFi cards are storage cards that have WiFi built into them and wirelessly send photos to a server. That’s an interesting idea that provides some capabilities that are useful (to somebody else, since I don’t have Eye-Fi).

There are a lot of requests to sync via Dropbox, Google Docs, iCloud, SugarSync, and other cloud storage/sharing solutions. Maybe PSmith should supply plugin functionality and publish the API to leverage other developers to fill those gaps.

You might think that you could go into Starbucks or anyplace else that has free WiFi and sync there, but that may not be the case. Some wireless routers can be configured to not allow direct device to device links and that will prevent PSmith from making the connection and syncing. It is my understanding that public WiFi typically configure their routers that way for security. So, WiFi syncing at public hotspots is not likely to work.

So, oh woe is me. I’m not at home/office so I don’t have WiFi that I can sync with. Well, that may not be true either. Cell-capable iPad’s , some smart phones, and most laptops support personal hotspots, mobile hotspots, or ad hoc networks. What it is called depends on who is providing the service. Depending on the hardware/software/ provider, you may not even need an internet connection or cell coverage to establish the hotspot. I haven’t tried it yet and there are likely issues but in theory, it should work.

Sinking Sync

In my case getting the connection established was a real pain in the air gap. I couldn’t get the connection established so I contacted support. They were very quick and helpful. After trying what they suggested, it still wouldn’t work so I quit trying. Time passed. I looked up and saw the connection was ready to sync. It just started to work. Don’t know why. I hate not knowing why. Then, after I had been using it for a couple weeks, I made a trivial change and the connection failed. I was able to manually connect but not auto connect. Then I couldn’t manual connect. Frustrating. (Minutes later:  Now I can. What…? )

Possible Workflows

All of the workflows I can imagine for PSmith/LR have their pros and cons and requires tweaking of settings.  For this discussion, imports direct into the iPad are via the Camera Connection Kit into the camera roll. (don’t get me started on the CCK. More Apple “we make it proprietary so it just works” (but it doesn’t) half-assed but at least they‘re expensive hogwash that looks pretty (I definitely feel an Apple rant coming on)).

2 Card Field Workflow

The optimal suggested workflow requires a camera that supports dual cards to separate RAW and JPEG. In the field, you only import the JPEG card into the iPAd, then into PSmith. Build the collections in PSmith and set meta-data. When you get back, you import the RAW card into LR and sync. The advantage is that you are not eating space on the iPad with the RAW’s and you only sync data that you need too. Sounds good, but I my camera doesn’t support that and I bought to software (and the iPad) to support the camera, not the other way around.  This workflow assumes you save filled cards until you get home instead of formatting and reusing each day.

1 Card Field Workflow

In the field, import JPEG’s & RAW’s (gotta take both if using 1 card) into the iPad, and set the meta-data. When you get home, sync with LR. I think you could load the import RAW’s & JPEG’s into LR directly before the sync as well. Either way, that will eat space on the iPad. The WiFi sync will take a while too because all the image data to be transferred. This workflow does not require saving the cards till you get home unless you take the optional path. I don’t think the iPad works well as a photo bank because of lack of storage.

LR first Workflow

You can import JPEG’s & RAW’s into LR and then sync with PSmith. The PSmith LR plug-in will generate iPad sized JPEG’s to sync with PSmith. This works well and I can get a lot of photos onto the iPad/PSmith that way, but that means I still have to carry a laptop with LR on travel or wait till I get home to start tagging (partially defeating the purpose of PSmith in the first place). Of course that means I have to deal with the hassle of syncing LR on my laptop with LR on my desktop. Not optimal.  However, it does allow me to tag during lunch or while waiting at the DMV.

Tagging Functionality

View-Tagging-Add

Photosmith screencap showing how to add an existing tag to a photo.

View-Tagging-Hierarchy

Photosmith screencap showing support for Lightroom keyword hierarchy.

View-Tagging-Search

Photosmith screencap showing how to search for an existing keyword or add a new one.

LR has a rich tagging system that allows you make complex keyword hierarchies that support synonyms and even non-exported keywords. PSmith is fairly basic. You have keyword create/read/delete (not keyword edit) access to the full hierarchy but you cannot set synonyms or control the exportability of the keywords. That’s fine. Those details are easily edited inside of LR and it’s probably better done there anyway.  You can also export your entire keyword list from LR and import it into PSmith (I just saw a support topic that makes me question whether the hierarchy support is doing what I want it to or not). You can also define meta data presets to be applied automatically at import or manually to a photo or group of photos.

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User Interface

The PSmith user interface takes a little while to learn but several functions are optimized for user convenience.  It helps to know iPad standard gestures. As a iPad newbie I didn’t know that physically shaking an iPad (like erasing an etch-a-sketch) means “undo”. After working with it to tag ~1000 photos from a recent Disney trip, I think I have a pretty good handle on it. From what I’ve been able to learn, the UI has improved dramatically from 1.x. I’d like a little more vertical space to allow more “recent tags” or “favorite tags” for quick selection, but PSmith is locked in landscape (iOS technical issue). Considering that there is a lot to of functionality to provide, the UI is not great but not bad. I don’t know what changes I would suggest.

View-Catalog-Grid

Photosmith screencap showing the grid view of the catalog. Note the collection list on the left.

View-Services-Grid

Photosmith screencap showing the available syncing and export services.

View-Tagging-Loupe

Photosmith screencap showing tagging in the photo loupe view

Documentation

The app suffers because there is not a user’s manual and the FAQ’s are limited and outdated. A dedicated discussion group is planned but it is understandably lower on the developers TODO list. The support page has a feature voting capability that allows users anybody to suggest and vote on the features they want supported. Unfortunately, it is a mad house with some of the same features entered a number of times with different descriptions and votes.

Maturity and Stability

Although there have apparently been a lot of improvement since its initial release, Photosmith v2.2.1 still has a very low software maturity rating of about 2 and is not ready for production use. It randomly crashes, locks up, or otherwise requires a restart every 2-30 minutes. I can’t confirm that I’ve lost data but I see a meta data glitch sometimes that could be explained by a crash. I doubt any professional photographers use it because it is too unreliable for production use. If they do, it is because it’s the only game in town.

Conclusion

I’m an amateur, not a pro. My livelihood is not dependent on my photography. At $20, Photosmith is moderately expensive for an iPad app. Of course it is targeting users who have already spent $1000’s on gear (DSLR (assumed for hobbyist and above), Lightroom, Computer, iPad, etc) so another $20 is not much.

Photosmith does what I want it to do, just not very well … yet. It is painful to use because its frequent crashes slow me down and interrupt my train of thought. I haven’t been able to establish a workflow that I like … yet. However, it is the only game in town to add Lightroom compatible meta-data while away from Lightroom.

A new version that targets stability and independence from the buggy iPad PhotoRoll is due out Real Soon Now. I am anxiously and hopefully awaiting the release.

I will continue to use it and recommend it with reservations.

--je

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