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All my life I have been an avid photographer. I have thousands of slides, negatives and prints from the past 30 years, carefully preserved in plastic sleeves in a score of three-ring binders. In 50 years, the color slides shot on Kodachrome will still be vibrant; the silver black-and-white negatives and the boxes of my favorite prints will still be beautiful works of art.

But there is a problem with my photographic archive: the photos are trapped in those binders. My digital shots, on the other hand, are a source of constant joy. That’s because I have a computer in my kitchen with a screen saver that displays random photographs taken from my digital photo album-currently 5,400 images totaling more than 3.6 gigabytes of data.

But keeping track of that many photos-without the orderly sleeves and binders of my offline collection-has turned into a big problem. When I first went digital in 1996, I took so few photos that I could dump them all in a directory named “1996.” The following year I created a directory for every month, or every major event. The system takes some work, and it’s pretty easy to make a mistake and misfile something.

Windows XP comes with some built-in tools for managing photos, letting you view preview images in a directory, and rotate images directly from Windows Explorer. If you want a little more control, there’s a nifty program called ThumbsPlus from Cerious Software. The latest version, ThumbsPlus 5, has an interface similar to Windows Explorer, but faster and more flexible. Still, ThumbsPlus is locked into that same file-and-directory metaphor; the software lets you efficiently move around files and directories, but still forces you to be a file clerk who knows the right location to put everything away.

For a much more refined and pleasing experience, I recommend Picasa, an integrated photograph management system released last month by Lifescape Solutions. Picasa costs $29.99; you can buy it from the company’s Web site and, soon, in all Ritz Camera stores.

Picasa is a second-generation digital photography management system: it emphasizes photographs, dates, and subject matter, rather than files, directories, computer formats.

When you first install Picasa, the program scans your hard drive, looking for every image that it can find. The program creates a photo album for each directory containing images. It then arranges these albums in chronological order, using either the timestamp inside some JPEG images or, failing that, the file’s timestamp. Each album consists of thumbnails for all of the photographs that it contains. You can instantly resize the thumbnails and scroll through them at blinding speed, making Picasa one of the fastest ways to find that long-lost photo buried someplace on your hard drive.

Picasa also helps you print an album. Click “print” and it will let you print out full-sized photos or a “contact sheet” of thumbnail images. The program adjusts the on-screen display to match the printer you select; if you have a black-and-white laser printer, you’ll see black-and-white photos on your screen.

Both Windows XP and Picasa feature a slideshow that cycles through your images. I prefer the XP screen saver: it picks random images and allows me to select transition effects. Picasa’s slide show is confined to a single album, and it always uses the same fade effect to transition between images. Many people like this kind of slide show, but it reminds me of a hackneyed, melodramatic movie. More importantly, Picasa’s slide show is not a screen saver, so it doesn’t turn on automatically when your computer is idle.

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