Finding images on the Internet tends to be difficult and time-consuming. You have to switch from one search engine to another, clicking through to a separate page for advanced settings if you need specific types of images. Then, looking at a larger version takes you to another page, from which you can check out the full-size image or the website it was found on (with yet another click and page load). I hate it.
Skyscraper (formerly Pandora; renamed to avoid confusion with the popular music service) tries to solve that problem, giving you an app to search for images online from the comfort of your Mac. It has a raft of handy features that stand it as a major player in the image-search apps arena, and does a decent job of fulfilling its tagline: “Find and download images of anything.”
You’ve likely never thought of installing a new app just to find images online, but Skyscraper makes it so easy, you’ll wonder why you haven’t tried this approach sooner. It’s simple to get started with. The main window looks just like a web browser, with a preview column on the left side. The app shows its guide in any empty window by default, so if you’re unsure on how to do something just skim through and it should be there. You can create as many tabs and windows as you like; each one is a separate process.
To search, just type your keywords and hit return (or click the Start button). Skyscraper uses Google Image Search by default. If you want to limit results to images of a specific size, color, type, license, website, or SafeSearch restriction, just click the Setup button and choose your options.
There are also plugins for Flickr (with an authentication option) and Yahoo image search, with similarly reformatted option panes. To switch plugins, click and hold on the Setup button and make your choice from the resultant pop-up menu. I was hoping for an option to combine plugins on a single search, but you’ll have to use them individually. I suspect that the Yahoo plugin is out of date, since it never once worked for me. But Flickr search in Skyscraper is a much better experience than on the web (which I’ll get into shortly).
Skyscraper also includes two web spidersvwhich take a URL rather than keywords as input. The default spider finds images by looking through the HTML tags on a web page. It can follow links indefinitely (until it reaches a site with no new links) or to a set depth, and you can restrict it to search only within the given domain.
The other web spider plugin finds consecutively-numbered files in a directory at the specified URL. It’s essentially a batch downloader — just enter the pattern, with square brackets and a dash for upper and lower bounds, and it will grab everything that matches. This is great for photographers who want to restore from their online backups and repositories (or just to download images to a new computer).
The web spiders can download music, movies, and documents, too. You set preferred file types in the Preferences, and place limits for minimum and/or maximum file size, then they’ll do the rest. This could be invaluable to anyone who stores or links to a lot of files on their personal or business web sites.
Finding and Browsing Images
Found images show up as thumbnails in the Preview pane on the left. Click on one to see a larger version in the display on the right. You can scale it to any of eleven sizes. The file size and dimensions are shown in a box near the bottom left. The URL of the image is below that in the window footer.
You can visit the web page that hosts the image via the Web Page button, set it as a new Desktop background, reveal it in the Finder, save it to a new location, print it out, or send it to the trash. You can select and drag any number of images from the Preview pane to other apps or windows. There’s also an option to view results in a slideshow.
All images are automatically downloaded to your computer, which is a great help if you plan on using them offline or in other documents. But images can be a huge storage burden, so make sure you monitor this. You can tell Skyscraper to delete collected files after you close a search tab. If you’re worried about thousands of images downloading in the background, you can cap the results to a given file count.
I had a great experience with Skyscraper — certainly much better than I’ve found using image search tools on websites such as Flickr and Google. It takes a lot of the pain out of image search, especially on Flickr — which may have a powerful search tool, but lacks user friendliness and accessibility. No longer do you have to go through pages of thumbnails and open dozens of tabs for each promising candidate. They’re all right on your hard drive, ready to go.
Everything’s clearly labelled and easy to understand. And advanced users can easily check a well-formatted log file to see if anything went wrong or to study load times (or whatever else).
Skyscraper’s not the first — or the only — image search app in town, so I took a look at the alternatives. HyperImage is perhaps the most similar to Skyscraper, with a familiar Finder-like interface and plenty of advanced features. It uses Google for search — minus the advanced filtering options — and also allows downloading of all images on a website. With Tumblr integration, it’s a better choice for bloggers.
As for the others, the Java-based Web Image Collector appears to use multiple web-based search tools at once, and it boasts lots of features, but is really quite horrible to use. Viewfinder sports a streamlined interface and feature set, with Flickr used for search, and includes a handy button to send an image directly to a Keynote presentation. Beholder is very impressive, with detailed client-side filtering options, but it hasn’t been updated in three years, and there’s no way to filter by license.
Powerful but Pricey
It’s easy to recommend Skyscraper to anyone who needs to search the web for images a lot. It saves time, energy, and frustration, with a clean interface, advanced filtering, and complete integration of browser image search tools with OS X. Skyscraper doesn’t come cheap, though. At $29.99, it may not be worth it for some. But if you need to both find and download images on a regular basis, it’s the best tool I’ve seen.
Editor’s Note: Most of us download images online all the time without thinking, but it should be remembered that, just as with music and movies, everything online isn’t free, and you shouldn’t pirate. Always good to check and make sure sites are ok with you copying their images, especially if you’ll be using them in a public-facing project.