Programs help you get the picture
Owners of digital cameras can organize collections of photos
Monday, February 17, 2003
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback
A new program called Adobe Photoshop Album goes on sale Tuesday, highlighting a recent flurry of activity in a previously obscure corner of the software marketplace: digital image management.
Like at least a half dozen new or recently revamped competitors, the $50 Adobe offering is designed to help owners of digital cameras organize and search their growing picture collections and to bring tools for sharing their favorites, both in hard copy and in electronic form, together in one convenient location.
It’s not hard to figure out what’s behind this trend. If you’re among the millions of Americans who have bought a digital camera in the last year or two, you’ve probably already discovered one of their big advantages over film cameras: You can snap all the shots you want at virtually no incremental cost once you’ve figured out how to transfer them from the camera or memory card to your computer.
It usually doesn’t take long, though, to discover the downside to this story: The more images you take, the easier it is to lose track of the ones you want to x keep. In fact, it’s just as easy to lose a picture on your hard drive or CD as in the proverbial shoe box or drawer stuffed with envelopes from the photo finisher.
You know that stunning shot of little Lateisha you want to e-mail to your cousins, or that gorgeous sunset over the Big Island you’d like to include in the family calendar you’re putting together, is in there somewhere, but finding it—clicking and scrolling through dozens of folders, peering at tiny thumbnails and trying to make sense of file names like “STE_0197”—sometimes seems to be more trouble than it’s worth.
Even when you find the shots you want, taking advantage of the vast range of options for sharing your pictures that digital technology permits—via e- mail, on the Web, on DVD players that can project them on TV screens, in the form of plain prints or custom creations like greeting cards, calendars and even books—can be a challenge.
Sure, most cameras come with software offering many of these possibilities; so do home printers and many CD or DVD burners. But this wealth of possibilities can be confusing with the options scattered among half a dozen or more applications, each with its own user interface and terminology.
Until recently, these issues weren’t much of a problem. Digital cameras were sold mainly to graphics professionals, who often had high-end media asset management programs, and to technology enthusiasts accustomed to sorting through jumbles of bundled software.
For those who wanted something more, several small publishers offered modestly priced image-management utilities, but their capabilities were typically hidden behind crowded, convoluted user interfaces only a geek could love.
THE NEW WAVE
Now digital imaging is moving into the mainstream: In 2001, 6.5 million Americans purchased consumer-level digital cameras. Last year, the total shot up to 10.2 million, according to Chris Chute, an analyst the market research firm IDC.
At that rate, it will be only a year or two before sales pass those of conventional cameras, which declined from 16.3 million in 2001 to 14.2 million last year, according to the Photo Marketing Association International.
With this expanding camera market has come a sudden flurry of activity on the software side, with a new generation of low-cost, consumer-friendly image- management programs. Apple led the way in January 2002 with iPhoto, a slick, critically acclaimed application offered free to Mac OS X users. (Version 2.0 arrived last month.)
Clearly inspired by iPhoto, a small Boston developer, Lifescape Solutions, last October brought out a similar Windows program called Picasa ($30), then last month delivered a major upgrade, Version 1.5.
Meanwhile, publishers of older photo-management programs have been cranking out ambitious upgrades. ACD Systems, for example, recently updated its $50 ACDSee package—until now the market leader, according to IDC’s Chute—while Ulead Systems advanced its $30 Photo Explorer utility all the way up to Version 8.0.
At least two more updated alternatives are expected soon. Jasc Software, publisher of the popular Paint Shop Pro painting and image-editing utility, already offers a free public beta version of a program now known as Paint Shop Photo Album (previous releases were called After Shot), and the $49 commercial version is due next month.
Roxio, which acquired graphics-software developer MGI Software in December 2001, is set to release a major upgrade to that company’s flagship product, PhotoSuite ($60), on March 3.
Adding one more choice to the mix, Kodak recently decided to make its EasyShare software, previously available only with the photo giant’s own cameras, available free to anyone, regardless of camera brand.
Before getting into what these programs offer, it’s worth noting that with a little effort, you can accomplish some of the same things with just your PC operating system, particularly if you are using Windows Millennium Edition or, better yet, Windows XP.
If, for example, you’re not satisfied with your camera-maker’s image- transfer software, Microsoft’s recent systems will take over the task for you.
In addition, on the left side of XP’s My Pictures window and the windows of subfolders within it, there’s a “Picture Tasks” box offering links for printing your photos, ordering professional prints online, displaying the folder’s contents as a slide show or archiving the images on CD-R or CD-RW discs.
With these or previous versions of Windows, you can go a long way toward solving the problem of organizing and searching your image collection just by taking the time to assign meaningful names to your photo files and folders.
BEYOND THE BASICS
If you want more image-management help than Windows provides, the new utilities offer options galore. All of them have numerous features—more than most people are ever likely to use—for organizing, annotating and searching your image collection.
They all create fancy slide shows, optionally with digital soundtracks, and provide plenty of printing options, including contact sheets and templates for making things like greeting cards and calendars.
They’ll also help you e-mail images, post them on the Web or get them printed at selected online services. Some of them let you record your images on CDs, including video CDs playable on many consumer DVD players, directly from the program. Photoshop Album and Photo Explorer support archiving on DVD discs if you have a DVD burner.
One clarification: If you’re interested in doing a lot of pixel-level retouching and filtering, these are not the programs for you. All offer some basic editing tools—cropping, red-eye removal, adjusting brightness and contrast, etc.—and some have some fun special effects.
ACDSee comes bundled with a more advanced editing application. In general, if you’re into sophisticated image editing, you’d be better off with a program dedicated to that kind of work, such as Jasc’s Paint Shop Pro ($109), Ulead’s PhotoImpact ($90) and Adobe’s Photoshop Elements ($99) if the not the full, $609 version of Photoshop.
In terms of features, Photoshop Album is the clear winner. Among my favorites:
—Two nifty point-and-click ways of locating photos taken at a particular time, a time line and a calendar that displays thumbnails of the first picture taken each day. (Picasa has an animated time line, but it’s more flashy than functional.)
—A system of tags that, once you’ve customized it, makes it fast and easy to zero in on images that meet any criteria you wish.
—An enormous array of tools, templates and wizards for producing your own creations, as Adobe calls them: cards, calendars, even professionally printed books (using MyPublisher.com, the same company Apple uses for books made in iPhoto). If you’re exporting to the Web, you can mount your pictures on the walls of a virtual museum.
Album, however, seems oriented not so much to casual consumers as to users with a consuming passion for digital photography and a lot of time to indulge it. Its drag-and-drop tag system, for example, works beautifully (much better than the keyword features the competitors offer), but only if you’re willing to invest a lot of time creating and applying tags.
The program also suffers under an interface cluttered with an excess of toolbars, buttons, check boxes and other controls. Adobe’s obvious efforts to mitigate the problem—by adding a floating “Quick Guide” and incorporating tips and instructions into many of the program’s screens—are some help, but they don’t get to the root of the problem.
As for the alternatives, I found ACDSee’s interface, though very different, even more confusing.
Picasa’s is the most attractive visually, but it has some rough edges in terms of usability: I still haven’t figured out, for example, how a feature called the “holding area” is supposed to work.
Roxio’s PhotoSuite 5 also sports a spare, modern look, but as I worked with it, I frequently got lost among its screens and couldn’t find my way back.
In the end, I found myself most comfortable with the beta version of Jasc’s Paint Shop Photo Album, which has more traditional Windows interface, but one that’s logical and easy to work with.
Altogether, I’m convinced that almost anyone actively involved in digital photography will find some real value in using image-management software, but I still haven’t decided which program I prefer.
If you want the richest set of features and are willing to put in some serious time to learn and use them, Photoshop Album is the way to go.
If you’re inclined toward something simpler, my best advice is to download the free demo versions of two or three of the alternatives, put each through its paces on a couple of tasks you’d like to complete and see which works best for you.
UNCLUTTERING DIGITAL PICTURES
Image-management software organizes digital photos .
—ADOBE PHOTOSHOP ALBUM 1.0
Price: $50 (available Tuesday)
Pros: Drag-and-drop tag feature makes it fast and easy to classify and locate photos by custom criteria (once you’ve created and applied tags). Nifty calendar finds images by date taken. Numerous ways to share photos, including slide shows, greeting cards, books, CD and DVDs. Good support for cross- platform .pdf format.
Cons: Sheer variety of features and cluttered interface can be overwhelming.
Launching is slow. Limited and slow image-editing features.
More info: http://www.adobe.com/products/photoshopalbum/main.html .
—LIFESCAPE SOLUTIONS’ PICASA 1.5.1
Price: $30 (15-day trial version free)
Pros: Simple, attractive user interface. Good set of basic organizing and sharing options. Fast. Inexpensive.
Cons: Minimal image-editing capabilities. No support for burning CDs or DVDs. Keyword feature is not as convenient or consistent as Album’s tags, and other annotation features work only on whole albums, not individual photos. Most features more limited than Album’s.
More info: http://www.picasa.net .
—KODAK EASY SHARE 2.1
Pros: Provides basic organizing tools at a price that can’t be beat. Simple, consistent user interface. Supports non-Kodak cameras and online printing services. Includes some special effects, such as sepia toning and “coloring book” transformation, not available in Album or Picasa.
Cons: Importing photos already on hard drive is cumbersome. Keyword system cumbersome. Sharing options limited to printing, e-mail, simple slide shows and wallpaper. No support for CD or DVD burning, books, cards, HTML or .pdf export, etc.
More info: http://www.kodak.com/global/en/digital/easyShare/software/software.jhtml .
—ACD SYSTEMS’ ACDSEE
Price: $50 (free 15-day trial version can be extended to 45 days)
Pros: Speedy even with large numbers of files. Numerous categorization, annotation, search, sort and export options. Works with bundled image editor. Batch-mode options apply same effects to multiple images. Numerous keyboard shortcuts.
Cons: Cluttered, confusing user interface and wealth of options mean major investment of time and effort to take advantage of application’s power. No support for burning CDs.
More info: http://www.acdsystems.com/English/Products/ACDSee/index.htm .
—ULEAD PHOTO EXPLORER
Price: $30 (30-day trial version free)
Pros: Lots of power for the price. Convenient and flexible auto-rename feature. User interface can be customized. Numerous Web export options. Can import video or convert images to video. Special effects (ripple, mosaic, whirlpool, etc.) and lens distortion options, with convenient before-and-after previews. Burns CDs and DVDs.
Cons: Sometimes suffers severe slowdowns and visual glitches. Relies on Windows folder hierarchy to organize files.
More info: http://www.ulead.com/pex .
—JASC’S PAINT SHOP PHOTO ALBUM
Price: $49 (available next month—free beta-test version downloadable now)
Pros: Traditional but clean, well designed user interface. QuickFix tool works well. Adjust Wizard and split-image previews of special effects let you choose changes that look best, without having to test and undo. Some interesting special effects, including solarization and Thinify. Burns video CDs (playable in many DVD players), but not DVDs.
Cons: Supports only one online printing service (Shutterfly).
More info: http://www.jasc.com/pbeta/pspa .
—ROXIO PHOTOSUITE 5 PLATINUM
Price: $60 (available online March 3, via retail later in March)
Pros: Rich array of features combined with fairly simple, clean interface. Multi-Photo Enhance feature simplifies editing and renaming of multiple pictures. Includes templates for numerous project types, such as fancy frames, cards and calendars. Burns CDs (including Video CDs, which work in many DVD players), but not DVD discs.
Cons: Switching among modes and features sometimes confusing. PhotoDoctor feature makes some images worse.
More info: Check at http://www.roxio.com on March 3.
NEW PROGRAMS HELP MANAGE DIGITAL PICTURES
—Organizing and searching pictures by category, keyword, time line or other attributes.
—Putting pictures into onscreen slide shows and hard-copy creations such as calendars, cards, even books.
—Ordering prints online.
—Sending pictures by e-mail, posting them on the Web or burning them onto CDs or DVDs.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback
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