A Computer Darkroom Essay

When Adobe first released Photoshop CS much was made of improvements to the File Browser feature set and workflow flexibility. This feature article is intended to provide you with a better understanding of  how File Browser can be incorporated into your digital workflow.


What File Browser is and is not!

Let's begin by stating what File Browser isn't. File Browser isn't a replacement for Windows Explorer or the Apple Finder. In other words "asset" or "file management" are not File Browsers intended use. In a sense you could think of the File Browser as a Digital Light Box, but then that would ignore the fact that it does much more than allow the digital Photographer to preview a batch of images prior to editing. The File Browser is a workflow tool, which has been designed so that digital photographers can, amongst other things: view, rotate, search, sort, flag, rank and annotate digital image files directly from within Adobe Photoshop. File Browser also provides you with the facility to automate Photoshop processes such as: renaming images; insert metadata; convert camera raw files; build contact sheets and web photo galleries; and create PDF presentations. However, all of this flexibility comes at a price with some users finding that it has an unwelcome impact on the overall performance of the application. Nevertheless, with careful setup and a better understanding of how File Browser processes and caches images you should realise significant improvements in your Photoshop workflow.


Figure 1 - File Browser Layout (Default View)

Part 1 - Configuring the File Browser Preferences

The key to maximising File Browser performance is for you to ensure that the special preference settings are optimally configured to meet your needs. The File Browser preferences can be configured from the main Photoshop Preferences dialog box (found at the bottom of the Edit menu on PC's or Photoshop menu on the Mac) or from the Edit menu of the File Browser itself. Actually, where you choose to configure File Browser from really makes no difference; the important thing is to do it right. So, what do the various options mean, when should you deviate from the defaults, and should you even be concerned?

I'll take the last question first. OK then, the answer to our last question is YES you should be concerned because configuring the File Browser preferences wrongly has the potential to slow your computer to a virtual standstill. Figure 2 below shows the default File Browser preferences and to be perfectly honest I find little or nothing actually wrong with these settings. However, since some users have been quite vociferous in their criticism of these defaults I thought it might be helpful to offer up some of my own thoughts on each. Hopefully the following explanation will also shed some light on why some users have observed a significant reduction in performance since upgrading from Photoshop 7. I've also added a few tips along the way.


Figure 2 - Default File Browser Preferences

Do Not Process Files Larger than: ------- MB. The value you choose here determines the file size below which the File Browser will create Thumbnail and Preview; images. The larger the file size the longer it will take to create the thumbnail and preview images. In a folder with many large images (especially images with multiple layers) it is possible that File Browser will take many minutes or even hours to automatically generate all the Thumbnail and Preview images. Therefore, if your work typically results in many larger multi layer files you should stick with the default value or lower.

Tip: Creating the previews and thumbnails for the large or multilayered images can be done later by simply clicking the image icon in File Browsers thumbnail palette.

Display: ---- Most Recently Used Folders in the Location Popup. The default is 10 and I see little reason to change it. For those who haven't already established where to find the Location Popup I've identified it (red text) in Figure 1 above.

Custom Thumbnail Size: ---- px Wide. The default size for custom thumbnails is 256 pixels wide and many users will find this to be more than adequate. Choosing a larger size may be beneficial when using a large display or for when you create a customised File Browser layout with the focus on thumbnails (e.g. Figure 11 below).


Allow Background Processing. This option is Off by default and generally it's recommended that you leave it Off. When this option is set to On it will: collect the metadata, generate the thumbnail images, and preview images whilst letting you do something else in Photoshop. The problem with allowing File Browser to work in the background is that it uses processor cycles and can slow down everything else in Photoshop. This slow down can be very significant and has the potential to bring even the most powerful of computers to a virtual standstill. At best  you'll see some screen or tool anomalies such as: the Healing Brush and Clone Stamp tool becoming very slow or unresponsive, and screen is slow to redraw after zooming or applying filters. Unless you have very good reason for doing otherwise it would be prudent to leave this option at its default setting.

Tip: Photoshop users who are in the habit of minimising the File Browser are in fact allowing it to operate in Background Processing mode, which may explain why they experience lower than expected performance, even when this option is Off. You should always CLOSE File Browser when you're not using it or at least be aware that when minimised it's still working away in the background.

High Quality Previews. The default On option means that File Browser generates relatively high quality images that enable you to view large fully colour managed preview images. Setting this option to Off will mean that the previews will not be accurately colour rendered and possibly pixelated, but they will be generated a lot faster. It's also worth noting that when generating thumbnails/preview images for digital cameras File Browser derives a lot of information relating to each image from the Camera Raw database or individual XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform) sidecar files. This means that as you alter the white balance or otherwise edit the image within Camera Raw then it will be the result of these edits that will be previewed. Figure 12 shows a customised layout with the focus on large high quality previews.

Render Vector files.

As the name implies this option allows File Browser to create or not previews for Vector based formats such as PDF and EPS. Unless you have very good reason to enable it then it's best left in the default Off state.

Parse XMP Metadata from Non-Image Files.

This option enables File Browser to extract metadata from non-image files such as the sidecar files that are created by applications such as Adobe Illustrator. The default setting is Off and currently I see little reason to enable it.

Keep Sidecar Files with Master Files.

This is without doubt the most important setting within the File Browser preferences dialog, and if I had no more time or space to explain what it does then I would simply say - "LEAVE IT ON". Why do I say to leave it On? Simple, doing so should ensure that everything you do with or to your images  (e.g. keywords, flags, metadata, etc.) within File Browser will be recorded and stored in a sidecar file that travels with the original image. This workflow can be further improved by configuring the Camera Raw preferences to also store individual image settings in the sidecar file (see figure 3 below).


Figure 3 - Camera Raw Preferences

Tip: You'll have no doubt noticed that there is no Copy or Move commands in the File Browser Edit menu. To move images you simply drag and drop them, and to copy them you hold down the Option key (Mac) or Alt key (PC) whilst dragging the images to the new location. You should also get into the habit of using File Browser when you need to Rotate, Rename and Delete images as this will ensure that the all-important sidecar files and/or cache files are kept up to date and accurate. In other words manage your images in the File Browser and leave Explorer or Finder for non-image related files.

Figure 4 below shows my customised File Browser settings. With these settings I am assured of a fairly speedy cache build along with large sized and accurately colour rendered thumbnails for various the custom layouts that I use. Notice that only the change from the default preferences is the custom pixel dimension setting for thumbnails.


Figure 4 - Customised File Browser Preferences

Part 2 - Building the Cache

Next I discuss the aspect of File Browser that seems to confuse users the most - the Cache! Once you point to a folder containing your images File Browser will immediately check to see if it has already got a record of it's contents. For new folders you will see the text message "Getting directory file list" and for folders that have changed (e.g. those that have been moved or renamed) you will see "Updating directory file list" in the window status bar. This record is usually referred to as the File Browser cache and comprises three files for each folder (i.e. thumbnails, previews and metadata). However, doing a search of your hard drive won't ever find anything called the "File Browser Cache". To find the cache files you'll need to look in a dedicated folder found at: "Users/yourname/Library/Application Support/Adobe/File Browser/Photoshop CS" on the Mac or " \Documents and Settings\user\Application Data\Adobe\File Browser\PhotoshopCS" on the PC. To keep things simple I'll call this cache the Dynamic cache since it's being continually updated. If a cache for this folder isn't found then Photoshop will begin the process of building it and as discussed in Part 1 this can take from only a few seconds to many hours.

Building the dynamic cache from scratch always follows the same sequence: getting the thumbnail, gathering the metadata, and generating a preview image. The preferences that I suggested earlier should in most cases be the best, but this may also depend upon how you've actually stored the images on the hard disk. In the remaining paragraphs of Part 2 I'll try to explain the four commands that are be used to manage the File Browser cache.


Figure 5 - File Browsers File Menu

As I mentioned above moving or renaming an existing folder will mean that the File Browser needs to rebuild a new dynamic cache for that folder, and as we know this can be very time consuming. File Browser provides a means of ensuring that this time is minimised, but it must be used correctly and at the appropriate time. By choosing Export Cache from the File menu you are in fact instructing File Browser to create a localised version of the dynamic cache for the selected folder. Again for simplicity I will call this version of the cache the Local cache.

So what's special about the local cache? The local cache is static; i.e. it doesn't get updated when images are added or changed. The local cache is created at a point in time from the data making up the dynamic cache. Once exported the local cache is stored as three files (i.e. AdobeP8M <metadata>, AdobeP8P <preview images> and AdobeP8T <thumbnail images>) within the same folder as the actual images. Therefore all of the data associated with the images that existed within the folder when the local cache was originally created will be saved. This data includes: the Thumbnail and Preview images, Metadata, Flags and a lot of other important  information. However, any subsequent changes to the images, folders or sub folders will not be recorded by the local cache.

Tip: If you rename an image a folder or sub folder, append metadata, rotate or even flag an image then always follow that action by exporting the cache. Remember the local cache does not automatically keep track of changes so you must manually update it after making any kind of change to an image or folder.

There are arguments for and against exporting the cache but I think the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. One of the disadvantages that you will probably have already observed is an increase in the amount of hard-disk space used. This happens because two sets of cache data are now stored (one dynamic and the other static). However, the local cache can actually be viewed upon as a backup, which can also substantially reduce the time needed to rebuild the dynamic cache should the need ever arise. Even better is the folder mobility and naming flexibility that having a local cache offers. Best of all you can save the images complete with cache files to CD or DVD for future use in the knowledge that they'll be instantly ready for use.

So what does Build Cache for Subfolders do? Well that's a tad more complicated and might be easier to explain using an example project. Figure 6 shows the folder structure that I tend to follow for each photo-shoot. Typically the master folder for the shoot will include a number of subfolders. The example shown in figure 6 has subfolders for each day and/or the camera used on that day, although this can vary a lot according to the specific circumstances of the shoot.


Figure 6 - Typical Job Folder Structure

Unless you specifically instruct File Browser to build a cache for subfolders then it will look no further than the selected folder. Taking the Iceland 2004 Raw Images folder in figure 6 as an example. By pointing to this folder File Browser, by default, caches details on that folders contents (i.e.10 subfolders). However, since this folder itself doesn't contain any images then no thumbnail images, metadata or previews will appear in File Browser window. To build a useful cache; i.e. extract the thumbnails, gather the metadata and generate the previews you must either point to each individual subfolder or choose "Build cache for Subfolders" from the File menu. Be aware that choosing "Build cache for subfolders" means that Photoshop will dedicate all of its resources (normally depicted by the progress bar appearing on screen) to building the cache, which means that you will  have no access to Photoshop until the cache is complete. This may not be a bad thing, but don't go thinking that it will significantly speed up the process of building the subfolder caches.

This brings me to a "Gotcha". When you choose "Build cache for subfolders" don't be fooled into thinking that you can simply follow it up by choosing "Export the Cache". If you do all that happens is that the three files associated with the master folder (Iceland 2004 Raw Images) will be exported. If there were images in that folder then the local cache will have the data for them, but there will be no local cache exported for the contents of the individual subfolders. To export the cache correctly you must select each individual subfolder and then choose Export cache. It's time consuming but worth the effort. The last two File commands that I've highlighted are Purge Cache and Purge Entire Cache.

Fortunately purging the cache is something you'll need to do on very rare occasions (e.g. if it gets corrupted).With Purge Cache you are only deleting the dynamic cache for the selected folder; therefore if you've previously created a local cache then this version will remain. It's the fact that the local cache remains that catches many users out. No sooner have they purged the cache than all the thumbnails, etc reappear. The headache gets worse when in desperation they choose Purge Entire Cache. With this option all of the dynamic cache files are deleted, but again the local version will remain intact, and you guessed up pops all of the thumbnails. The only way to remove the local cache from a folder is to manually delete it. Remember that other than the Export Cache command all other cache related commands only affect the dynamic cache.

Part 3 - Working with your Images

Once File Browser has completed building the cache for a particular folder and/or sub folders it's time to begin the process of renaming, appending copyright details, sorting, flagging, etc. However, each photographer will tend to handle this aspect of their workflow in a way that best matches their own requirements. Even so you should find that File Browser has all the tools you need to make this a fairly quick and straightforward process. In my case I tend to begin by renaming the images before appending copyright information. The following screenshots show my normal procedure.

Figure 7 shows the contents of a subfolder from the Iceland project after it has been copied onto my hard disk and the File Browser cache built. The folder contains images and the 3 files making up the local or static cache discussed in Part 2.


Figure 7 - Image Folder before Renaming

Renaming the Images

  • Highlight the folder containing the images that you want to rename.

  • Choose Batch Rename from the File Browser Automate menu.

  • Configure the fields in the Batch Rename dialog as appropriate.

  • Click OK

  • Remember to export the cache (this is very important).


Figure 8 - File Browser batch Rename

In the example shown above the files have been renamed according the location of the photo shoot and given a 4 digit serial number. Remember that the starting point for the serial number need not be 1. For cross platform compatibility I always check the appropriate Compatibility box. Figure 9 shows the renamed images.


Figure 9 - Image Folder after Renaming Images

The next step is to append the copyright details. For this Iíve already created a File Info template (Photoshop or File Browser File menu), which also includes information relating to my web site, etc. and I recommend that you do the same. With a template renaming the images and appending the metadata is fairly simple. Without the template youíll need to type the information into the editable fields

Appending Metadata

  • Highlight the folder containing the images and choose Select All from the File Browser Edit menu - Cmd+A (Mac) or Ctrl+A (PC)

  • If you have a ready made template you can click the little triangle button (circled red in screenshot) on the metadata palette to open the menu otherwise youíll need to type in the information to each of the fields provided.

  • Choose the relevant template and File Browser will automatically begin writing the copyright info into the file (or as a sidecar file if the images are camera raw format).

  • Export the cache (again, this is very important)


Figure 10 - Appending Metadata

The process of writing the metadata to file can take a few minutes for folders containing a large number of images, so do be patient. Once completed you are ready to write the renamed and copyrighted images to CD or DVD for safekeeping.

Part 4 - Customising the File Browser Window Layout

The following screenshots show two of the customised File Browser layouts that I use when working my way through the process described in Part 3. The first (Figure 11) is ideal for viewing large Thumbnails and reviewing Metadata. I use the second (Figure 12) when I need more detailed Preview images.


Figure 11 - Customised Layout with focus on Metadata and associated Thumbnail

As mentioned earlier I use the layout in Figure 11 for reviewing and occasionally inserting Metadata into my images. You can use templates; the editable fields depicted the pencil symbol to insert Metadata or alternatively the File Info command found under the File menu.  Editable Metadata can include: details on the image, copyright information, personal information, keywords to aid searching, etc. You should note that in the case of camera raw images this data will not be inserted into the actual image but instead stored as an XMP sidecar file within the same folder as the original image.

Tip: Normally the XMP (Sidecar) files cannot be seen in File Browser, but if you would feel more comfortable with them in view then choose Unreadable Files from the View menu.


Figure 12 - Customised Layout with focus on High Quality Preview

Configuring the File Browser layout in Photoshop CS is only limited by your skill at manipulating the File Browser window itself. Once you've pushed and pulled the various palettes to the size and position that you want then it's simply a matter of saving the layout using the Save Workspace command, which is found under the Photoshop Window menu.


Figure 13 - Saving your customised File Browser layouts

On the Macintosh platform the File Browser window can be moved to a second monitor, but due to interface limitations imposed by Microsoft the same is currently not possible on the Windows platform. Obviously not being able to place the File Browser on a second monitor will restrict the size of the window, but with a bit of planning and use of keyboard shortcuts it should still be possible to maximize the window without disrupting your workspace too much.

Tip: Holding down the Option/Alt key whilst double clicking an image to open it will automatically close File Browser. If the image is in camera raw format then the Adobe Camera Raw plugin will open.

Finally. This tutorial has only scraped the surface of what File Browser can do in so far as I have steered clear of any in depth discussion on features such as Automation and Metadata. If you need more comprehensive explanations on any of these topics then I recommend that you buy at least one of the following books: -

  • Real World  Adobe Photoshop CS by David Blatner and Bruce Fraser,

  • Real World Camera Raw for Photoshop CS by Bruce Fraser, and

  • Adobe Photoshop CS for Photographers by Martin Evening.

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