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Photo Renaissance

New web-based tools like Picasa and Coolect make it easier to save, organize, and share all those digital pictures.

One of the best features of digital cameras is that they encourage people to be snap-happy, taking many pictures without having to worry about the steep development and printing charges with old-fashioned film. And with the capacity of digital-camera storage cards rising past a gigabyte, photographers can take a huge number of pictures before having to empty their cards onto a PC hard drive.

This technological advance has created a new problem, though: image overload. While taking digital photos is easy, actually looking at them later – let alone organizing, renaming, and publishing them – is a chore. The result: millions of hard drives holding billions of photos in neglected folders called “My Pictures,” with anonymous filenames like DSC0113.jpg and PICT0274.jpg.

But the latest crop of photo management tools – inspired by now-familiar concepts from the Web such as searching and hyperlinking – can present your pictures in an organized way without turning you into a file clerk. With a bit of effort, you can even use some of these tools to create a multimedia album of your life, with each image or other file connected to the people, events, and topics that are important to you.

Picasa, a free download for Windows machines from search leader Google, has several highly useful features. The best, by far, is its ability to “find the pictures you forgot you had,” as Google puts it. When you start Picasa, it automatically scans specified folders on your hard drive, for example, “My Pictures,” and organizes the photos it finds there by date, using the information (known as EXIF data, for Exchangable Image File Format) attached by your camera when you took them.

From Picasa’s main photo library window, you can then scroll through thumbnails of your photos, select a group of them to view as a full-screen slide show, or – using a feature unique to Picasa – wheel through an animated timeline that spins either right-to-left (backward into the past) or left-to-right (forward to the present). It’s a fun way to retrace your photographic journeys, and be reminded of just how many pictures you’ve taken over the years.

Like most other image-management software, Picasa also automates simple image editing tasks, such as removing red-eye, adjusting color and contrast, straightening and cropping, and adding special effects. (Also, befitting a Google product, one editing button is labeled “I’m Feeling Lucky.”)

But what makes Picasa stand out are its unexpected features – like the ability to make posters and collages, burn a gift CD in a few clicks, trade photos with friends via Picasa’s “Hello” instant-messaging program, upload your photos to a blog on Google’s free Blogger service, and even export your photos for viewing on a TiVo digital video recorder.

Why Google gives away powerful imaging tools like Picasa and Google Earth for free is an intriguing question. My guess: the more images consumers save on their hard drives and exchange on the Internet, the more there is for Google to search.

If Picasa is a traditional photo-album program on steroids, Coolect is an entirely different beast. Built by a quirky Australian company called Immortal Dimensions, the program is really a “media collecting tool” – it combines the features of a photo organizer, address book, calendar, journal, and audio- and video-management programs, such as Apple’s iTunes and iMovie. It’s available for a free trial download at Coolect’s website, and can be purchased for $39.95.

The first step in using Coolect is to import your digital media – all of it, if you like, including photos, music, video, and contact lists from programs like Microsoft Outlook. You can then browse these materials in standard ways, such as browsing through thumbnails or watching a slide show. The innovation behind Coolect, however, is that it allows you to connect items of different types into a private “mini-Web” representing your entire digital existence, then navigate it using a nifty 3-D interface called the Nexus.

Creating a connection between one item and another – say, a birthday party photograph and the contact list entry for the birthday boy or girl – is as simple as bringing up the two items, selecting them, and clicking a “Connect” icon. This forms a permanent link between the two.

If you then select the birthday person’s contact list entry and open the Nexus screen, you’ll see thumbnail picture of that person, surrounded in 3-D space by the birthday photo and all other media you’ve connected to that person. Clicking on any media item in the Nexus moves that item to the center, and shows its own set of connections. In this way, you can browse through your entire media collection – and, along the way, develop a more visual sense of how the people, events, locations, and memories in your life are connected in a real-life web. (Okay, it might sound a bit new-agey; but as with other new graphical interfaces, such as that used by the search engine Grokker, you need to try it out yourself to experience its usefulness.)

Coolect’s $40 price tag may sound steep in an era when one expects free software, like Picasa. But people with a lot of material to document and browse – family histories, antique collections, home video libraries, and scrapbooks – will find the investment worth it.

In another, related arena, a new and compelling set of online media-sharing services is emerging. They’re led by Flickr, a Yahoo-owned site where photographers can upload their images, network with other members, and “tag” their images with keywords that allow others to find them more easily. Given the speed with which Web-based software is overtaking PC-based software in other areas, I expect that services like Flickr and the blogger-building site Blogger will soon begin to merge with desktop programs like Picasa and Coolect, making it easier to share personal media collections with others and enhance online identities.

One thing’s for sure: we’ve come a long way since the time – not so long ago, most of us would have to admit – when we squirreled away our old photo prints and negatives in shoeboxes or fading, plastic-covered albums. Today’s photo software helps anyone organize and enjoy personal images, and, if one likes, assemble them into an ever-expanding digital life record. Today, we may have to deal with an overload of images. But increasingly it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.

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