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Managing Digital Photos

Digital photography comes with its own set of archiving problems. Microsoft, Cirius, and Lifescape want to help.

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.

Picasa’s big gimmick is its “timeline” view, which takes over the entire screen, displays dots along the bottom corresponding to individual albums, shows a few photographs for each album in a big swoosh that moves across the screen, and displays a low-contrast black-and-white image across the background to set the mood. Some graphic artist spent a lot of time on this display. Personally, I don’t care for it.

Picasa 1.0 also has the typical bugs and limitations that one would expect in a Release 1.0 program. The good news is that a 1.1 program will be released later this month. Long term, however, the program must handle image formats other than JPEG, integrate archiving, and include better tools for editing the information associated with images, as well as the images themselves.

But despite these problems, in many ways Picasa is the best thing going for managing personal digital images. (Professional tools, such as Canto’s Cumulus, offer more features, but prices start north of $1,000.) The chronological ordering is certainly head-and-shoulders above the tools from Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, and Sony. It’s also quite fast-the program handled my entire photo archive without any trouble at all. The interface is a visual delight, and the program is a real pleasure to use.

Finally, in a discussion of digital photography, I would be remiss to forget Hewlett Packard’s new deskjet 450 printer, introduced just a few weeks ago. The printer lists at $349.99, but you can find it for $300 if you look around.

Weighing just under five pounds, the 450 is a portable inkjet printer that’s equally happy running off its compact power supply or its detachable lithium-ion battery. The printer features the traditional parallel and USB interfaces, but it also has a compact-flash reader, allowing you to take a compact-flash module out of your camera and print the images directly, without having to go through your computer (provided that your camera supports the DPOF standard for specifying which photos you want printed). The printer also has both an infrared and a Bluetooth adapter, allowing you to print from laptops, handhelds, and even Bluetooth-enabled cell phones.

Hewlett Packard claims that this printer will print “up to 9” pages per minute; in my tests, a page takes somewhere between 20 seconds and 45 seconds, depending on how much print is on it. The real benefit of this printer is that it lets you print in a motel room, in your car, or even on a train. This printer makes digital photography almost as easy as shooting a Polaroid instant print-except its results are bigger, they look better, and can be printed over and over again.

The 450 takes Hewlett Packard’s new 56/57/58 inkjet cartridges, meaning you can print photos with either four colors or six (the more colors you use, the better a photograph looks). Hewlett Packard claims that these inks are archival and will last “generations.” Of course, there’s no easy way to test this claim, so it’s probably a good idea to keep your original digital files as well.

Digital imaging has certainly come a long way. With the combination of a good modern digital camera, a good image management system, and a printer, most people can have the pleasure of shooting parties, friends and special events, keep the images for years, and never have to invest the time, energy, and space in creating binders like the ones I have upstairs. Now if only there was some easy way to get all of those old binders into digital format

Next month I’ll be taking a break from computers and explore what’s happening in the world of LED illumination.

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