Picasa, the photo software company that Google acquired in last July, has released the second version of its namesake Picasa photo management tool, offering advanced photo editing tools to the public for free.
In this article, I'm going to talk about some of the new features in Picasa but come at them from a very personal perspective, that of someone who has used rival product Adobe Photoshop Album 2 for over the past year to organize and manage my photos.
With all the buzz we've had about desktop search over the past few months, none of those new products are going to help you find your photos more easily. Take Microsoft's desktop search product, for example. Sure, it can locate photo images. But it's only able to index the words that appear within the meta data that your camera automatically adds, as well as any words in the photo filenames.
So need to find all the digital pictures of a particular family member? Good luck. Your photos almost certainly won't contain enough information to make this possible. Without decent photo management software -- and a bit of effort on your part -- it's not going to happen. But with them both, magical things can happen!
For example, I can easily find all the pictures of my youngest son with a click. Want to see all the pictures of my family during Christmas over the past four years, taken from when I first got a digital camera. No problem! All the pictures of birthday parties? Simple. Just my oldest son's various birthday parties? Easily done.
Adobe Photoshop Album: My Photo Savior
It's all thanks to Photoshop Album, or at least the tools it provides. I'd read about the software winning several awards, bought a copy in January 2004 and understood why. The ability to create "tags" and assign them to photos is simple and intuitive.
For example, I have a tag for me, each of my sons and my wife. When I import a batch of photos, I quickly drag and drop the tags on the right group of photos. I can select all the photos of my youngest son, drop his name on them and boom! All tagged. Is my oldest son also in one of the photos? Drop his name on it, and now the photo is tagged both my children.
Similarly, photos can be tagged for places -- such as when we were at Disneyland -- or events, such as Christmas. You can have tags for anything you like. And once the photos are tagged, it just takes a click to filter out all the photos but those that match your criteria.
Yep, I'm weird. I'm diligent about tagging my photos as soon as I import them. Many people I know aren't. But you should! It doesn't take long, and a tool like Photoshop Album makes it so easy.
Aside from tagging, you can also view photos by date -- and one of the best features is the ability to adjust dates if your camera got things wrong. For example, say you set the date wrong, so all your pictures in a group you shot had the dates of Jan. 1, 2 & 3, 1980. Photoshop Album lets you give a group of photos the correct date -- and it will even adjust things so that they are spread correctly over a period of time.
For instance, say the real date of when you started shooting photos was July 23, 2004. Select all the photos, give the correct day and time for the first in the group, and all will automatically be adjusted to match. In other words, Jan. 1 becomes July 23, Jan. 2 becomes July 24 and Jan. 3 becomes July 25.
Remember, time is a type of tagging as well -- and one of the few key things automatically embedded in your pictures. That's why the ability to correct the wrong time is incredibly helpful.
Google Picasa 2 Still Needs More
What about Google's Picasa? I looked at the first version when I learned of it following Google's acquisition. It didn't have anywhere near the photo management tools I liked in Adobe Photoshop, so I wasn't tempted.
Picasa 2 has more to like, but from a photo management standpoint, Adobe Photoshop Album is still much ahead.
As with Photoshop Album, you can tag photos. In Picasa, these are called "labels." Create labels for anything you like. Assign them to photos, then you can view only the photos that match those labels.
Unfortunately, labels have a long way to go compared to Album's tags. For one, although photos can have multiple labels, you can only view photos that match one label at a time. In other words, Photoshop Album would let me see all photos tagged to show my youngest son AND tagged as birthday photos. With Picasa, I can only see all the photos of my youngest or all the photos of birthdays -- not the combination of the two.
I also like the drag-and-drop system with Photoshop Album better. With Picasa, you have to select photos, then click and add them to a label. Drag-and-drop just feels easier to me.
Labels in Picasa are not hierarchical, as in Album. In other words, Photoshop Album lets me have a tags called Places, with a subtag of California, with further subtags of Disneyland and Newport Beach. That's handy because if I click to see all photos called California, it will include any subtags. With Picasa, each label resides at the "top" level. There are no subcategories.
Finally, using the labels in Picasa does not write IPTC keywords to your photos, which is ironically one of the strengths of Picasa in another way.
IPTC Keywords & Meta Data
When you take a photo, your camera records a ton of meta data right in the picture. The size of the photo, the model of camera, was a flash used -- that's just some of the information recorded along with the date and time.
You can also add your own information, in particular IPTC keywords. IPTC is the International Press Telecommunications Council, which established a way for users to embed information into photos, such as captions and keywords.
A great new feature in Picasa is the fact that any caption or keywords you give a photo will be written to the photo itself, embedded as meta data.
Why's that great? With Photoshop Album, the information is stored within a proprietary database. So at the moment, all my hard work in tagging photos is useless to me if I leave Album (but Album users, don't fret -- I'll come back to a workaround).
Similarly, take the popular photo sharing site Flickr. It doesn't yet (apparently) support reading IPTC data. But when that comes -- and I'm sure it will -- then having that data in your photos will mean you could more easily have it translated into Flickr's popular tag feature.
So thank you Picasa -- you've given this type of support in a free program. But boo -- as mentioned, it's not linked to the label feature. Instead, you have to select the photos you want to embed keywords in, select View, then Keywords, then add the keyword to them.
The downside is obvious -- all the hard work you do in labeling photos ought to translate into automatically keywording them, as well.
Picasa general manager Lars Perkins says that uniting these two features is something that should come in the future.
"It's something that we'll be moving together. We're practically there," he said.
Another fix that will come in the near feature is preserving keyword phrases. For example, say you give a photo a keyword of "new york." That will get broken apart into separate words in Picasa, as "new" and "york." Keeping the words together is more helpful if doing a keyword search, such as with a desktop tool that can read IPTC data.
By the way, keyword searching is something Picasa offers that Photoshop Album doesn't. Want to find all the photos shot with a flash? You can type "flash" into the search box in Picasa and do it. Photoshop Album lacks any search box that I can see -- though having said this, I've also never needed one, to date.
Photoshop Album 2 Vs Photoshop Elements 3
Picasa is a free product. Photoshop Album is available in a free Starter Edition and a paid version. I use the paid version, but all the tagging capabilities I love from a photo management standpoint are in the free one. So you can certainly go with it, if that's the primary thing you want -- good photo management.
The $50 fee based version provides extra features such as the ability to make video CDs, more picture editing tools and other goodies (here's a comparison chart).
I've been patiently waiting to see if Photoshop Album 3 would be released, to fix some of the small things I've wanted. Nope -- no word from Adobe, despite being registered with them. Nope, no news on the web site.
But in working on this story, I discovered that the new Adobe Photoshop Elements 3 DOES have some of those features. Previously, Photoshop Elements and Photoshop Album were different programs that worked together. Now, Photoshop Elements contains all the photo management capabilities of Photoshop Album plus improvements.
Downside? The cost is $100. Upside? This version DOES write IPTC data to your files (and yes, keyword phrases are preserved). So, you can easily organize your pictures, tagging them with drag-and-drop, and the information is written within the photo files themselves.
For me, it's a no brainer to upgrade. I've already made an investment of time into Photoshop Album. Moving into Photoshop Elements gives me the upgrades I want. The only downside I see so far is the fact that once tagged, the program doesn't appear to allow you to retag files.
For someone new to all this and not wanting to spend, staying with Photoshop Album 2 may make more sense. Down the line, I would imagine that someone would come up with a migration tool to embed your data. Better, hopefully Adobe will upgrade the tool. If not, download the trial version of Photoshop Elements, import your photos, write your keywords in IPTC format and move on to another program.
Beyond Photo Management
Outside of photo management, Picasa seems to shine much better when compared to the free version of Adobe Photoshop Album. The range of photo fixes available in Picasa is better -- and you've got to love the one-touch "fix it" feature being renamed "I'm Feeling Lucky." That's even more suitable with automatic photo adjusting than searching the web with Google!
I also love -- absolutely love -- how Picasa doesn't touch your original photo. Photoshop Album doesn't as well, but not in as slick a fashion. With Album, if you make an edit, crop, etc -- it duplicates your photo and creates a link. You see the edited version, but the original is not touched and always available so you can revert.
With Picasa, edits are stored within picasa.ini files that reside in the same directory as the photos. For example, the program knows you want a photo cropped a certain way, so it presents it to you that way -- even though the actual picture isn't touched. Instead, it reads the picasa.ini file to know how to change things. If you write a photo out of the program, say to a CD, then a copy with the edits are made.
As a result, you can remove changes at any point. "What we wanted to do was let people edit without fear," said Perkins. At that, the program delivers well.
Picasa also has a range of electronic export options. For example, you can create a "Gift CD" that anyone with a computer can play. You can send to Picasa's Hello photo sharing site, or Google's Blogger or to a number of online photo printing stores. By the time of the final release, sending to other online photo sharing sites was also promised. Flickr isn't on the list, though they could come in the future.
"We're interested in working with anyone, Perkins said. "We'd like to talk to them. They're certainly on our list of people we want to work with."
In contrast, the free version of Photoshop Album has no good electronic sharing features. Move up to the paid version, and you get features like my personal favorite, the ability to make video CDs that will play on virtually any DVD player. Photoshop Elements 3 even allows you to have VCDs that contain menus, so multiple slideshows can be on one CD.
It's also worth remembering that the tools needn't be exclusive. Want to send your photos to Blogger? Picasa is free, can read your photos even if you also use another program, so you could use it just as an exporting tool.
In the end, the photo management tools will keep me with Adobe for now. But I'll be watching Picasa closely as it continues to grow.
What about other tools? There are other choices out there. As I hear of new releases of promising free or affordable products, I'll bring news your way from a photo management standpoint.
This article was originally published on Jan. 18, 2005.
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