Saturday, November 04, 2006

Organizing those photos!

I'm struggling once again with the problem of how to organize my growing photo collection and you might be, too. There are at least two questions here. First, what software (if any) to use, and second, what do to with that software. I've used various photo management apps over the years. I'm going to focus on just three: iPhoto 5, Picasa 2.5 and Adobe Photoshop Elements 4. (I have not used iPhoto 6, but as far as I can tell, it's improvements over iPhoto 5 don't materially affect what I'm saying here.) These are consumer apps, marketed to non-professional photographers. In other words, they are all aimed right at me and my needs. This article summarizes my experience with these very popular applications.

Software: Photoshop Elements 4

Photoshop Elements 4 is undoubtedly the most powerful and feature-laden of this little group that I have worked with. Photoshop Elements has some whiz-bang features, such as face recognition. If you're obsessive about labeling and organizing your images but don't need a pro tool like Aperture from Apple, well, you will like Photoshop Elements. It's organizational tools are outstanding - labels, tags, the ability to "stack" images. As for editing, the editing tools in Photoshop Elements are a substantial subset of Photoshop's tools, in other words, there's very little you cannot do in Photoshop Elements, if you know how. It's the knowing how that's tricky. Unless you're already an ace with Photoshop, Photoshop Elements is hard to learn and impossible to learn on your own; you'll need a book or a course and plenty of time to practice. I am more interested in wasting my time taking pictures than in wasting my time futzing around with pictures on the computer.

For my purposes, at least, there is another serious problem with Photoshop Elements 4 (and I doubt it will change much with Photoshop Elements 5). Photoshop Elements is primarily a desktop application, that is, it prefers that your pictures stay on your hard disk and that you view them there in Photoshop Elements. But like many amateurs, sharing my photos on the Web is the goal of much of my photography. I take the pictures, move them to the computer, edit them slightly if necessary, select my favorites, then upload them to Picasa Web Albums or Flickr so I can share them with family and friends. This is not a strength of Photoshop Elements. It will create a web album for you - create the html, etc. - and let you upload the album to your own web site, if you have one. But that's so 1990s.

Software: iPhoto and Picasa

Which brings me to Picasa 2.5 (Windows only) and iPhoto 5 (Mac only). My wild guess is that these are the two most widely used photo management apps going today. They have similar feature sets, they are both much easier to use than Photoshop Elements, and they include most of what most amateurs want to do with their pictures. And both are very much aware that you want to put your photos online.

Now there are differences. While iPhoto reorganizes all your images into its own folder hierarchy, Picasa 2 does not. In fact, I like Picasa 2 better for that fact alone. I have moved my photo collection to an external hard drive because it was too rapidly eating up space on my increasingly inadequate 80GB internal drive. Picasa doesn't care where the photos are; iPhoto does (and so, I believe, does Photoshop Elements). I am pretty sure that it's possible to move your iPhoto libraries to somewhere other than your laptop's internal drive, but it's not obvious or easy. And there is no getting around that iPhoto reorganizes your photos into its own labyrinthine folder structure, so that any attempt to get at your photos directly in the Mac OS X Finder is an exercise in frustration.

Another nifty and unique feature in Picasa 2 is the ability to "geo-tag" pictures, that is, to tie them to spots you view in Google Earth. I notice that Adobe Photoshop Elements 5 (not released yet?) will have a similar feature, but Google Earth seems to be the gold standard here and Picasa 2 and Earth work together very nicely.

And Picasa 2 works seamlessly with more online photo-sharing and photo-printing sites than iPhoto. For sharing your pictures online, Picasa Web Albums is both free and an up-and-coming service, while .Mac is not free and seems to be on its deathbed. The other day I clicked on the "order prints" button in Picasa 2. I was shown a dozen different options. I noticed that Walgreen's was one of the options, quickly determined that I could have the pictures sent to the Walgreen's a few blocks from my house. 45 minutes later - I kid you not - I picked up my prints. Not bad. There are plug-ins for iPhoto that make it a snap to upload either to Picasa Web Albums (yes, from iPhoto) or Flickr.

Finally, Picasa itself is free; iPhoto is not.

On the down side, Picasa 2's editing tools are easy because they're limited. I can live without layers (a feature that makes Photoshop and Photoshop so powerful), but one thing I do miss in Picasa is the ability to view both the before and after side-by-side as I edit an image - something that Photoshop Elements does. Picasa does have an "open in editor" command and I suppose I could still use Photoshop Elements just for editing, if I could figure out how to keep it from demanding its own copy of all my photos.

Organizing photos in Picasa 2.5

Some users will also feel that Picasa 2.5's organizational tools are limited. This is certainly not an obvious strength of the program as compared to Photoshop Elements, which if anything offers too many ways to organize photos, or even iPhoto. But Picasa is deceptive. It lets you organize your photos in four different ways.

First, Picasa is aware of the physical organization of photos on your hard disk, and it allows you to further organize those folders into "collections". I put every new import from the camera into its own folder (named "20061104 import" if I were to import photos today), which goes into its own parent folder for the year of the import. But after that, all further organization is done in Picasa. Picasa lists folders in a pane on the right, much like the folder panes used in email programs like Apple Mail or Mozilla Thunderbird. But these folders are given a sort of super-organization into collections. Some of the collections are created by Picasa automatically (like Albums), but it is possible to create new collections. I've played with collections a little, creating collections for my folders by year. But I don't yet see the point of 'em.

Second, in Picasa, I can pick my favorite pictures and give them a star. That's it - star or no star. iPhoto lets you assign 1, 2, 3 or 4 stars (or is it up to 5 stars? I can't remember). If you like agonizing over whether to assign 2 or 3 stars, well, you'll prefer iPhoto. For me, a simple thumbs up or thumbs down is quite adequate. I don't star a photo unless I'm really pleased with it.

Third, Picasa lets you create "albums." Albums used to be called "labels" in Picasa, and I think labels was a more accurate term. Now, an image can be assigned to as many albums as you like, because an album is really just a collection of links to pictures, not a way of reorganizing actual files. So a single photograph with my daughter Catherine in it could be organized into albums named "Catherine," "Family", "Vacations", etc. The problem with this is that you're then likely to end up using albums both synchronically and diachronically, that is, some albums are organized by subject or theme, without respect to date, while you're likely also to want to create albums by date. If you had both labels and albums, you could use the labels for synchronic organization, and albums for display. One solution to this problem is to forget about creating display albums in Picasa and use Picasa Web Albums (or Flickr, or some other online service) for that purpose. This is a reasonable compromise, it's what I do and indeed, I think it's what Picasa expects you to do. There is in Picasa 2.5 a built-in search option that will show you all the photos you have uploaded to the Web. Albums for display - my best pictures from my vacation, etc. - end up online and I share them there. Albums in Picasa, on the other hand, are all defined by subject or theme. Picasa does not have "smart albums" that can basically create themselves, as iPhoto does, but I'm not a big fan of smart albums, so I do not care about this.

The fourth and final way to organize photos in Picasa 2.5 is by keywords. You can assign multiple keywords to a single picture, for example, "Catherine," "vacation," "pets". And you can search for pictures by keywords, using the simple search tool. Unfortunately, when you go to assign keywords to a photograph, you don't get to select keywords from a list, you have to type the keywords in manually. This is a bit more work than selecting from a list, but the bigger problem is that it means you may not use the same keywords all the time when you would like to. You might use "holiday" for a picture when you have used "vacation" for other similar photos. The other problem is that there's no way to find photos by keyword alone. You simply search for a word. If you search for "vacation," Picasa 2.5 shows you pictures that have "vacation" as a keyword but no caption, but also pictures that have the word "vacation" in their caption or even their folder name but no keywords. I must add that I doubt that this is an accident in Picasa 2.5. This is part of Google's general philosophy: it's finding that matters, not organizing.

All in all, my feeling at the moment is that Picasa 2.5 offers the best compromise in the many categories that matter to me. I should say that for me, anyway, the fact that Picasa 2.5 is free is the least of its advantages. I'd be willing to pay money for it. I like it because it allows me to organize my pictures my way, doesn't use its own proprietary library of photos, lets me organize my movies as well as my photos, and it integrates very well with the Picasa Web Albums service that I'm now using to put my photos online.

Don't forget about movies

One of the real strengths of my wonderful camera - the Canon PowerShot S3 IS - is its ability to take high-quality video as well as high-quality still photos. So for me, it's very useful to be able to organize everything imported from the camera using the same software. iPhoto works hand-in-hand with iMovie, and quite well, but I do not think that iPhoto directly handles movies. Picasa 2.5 and Photoshop Elements 4 will allow you to view movies and organize them, although you can't edit video directly in either program. Considering that more and more digital cameras take movies as well as still photos, this seems like something to consider. I don't have experience with Premiere Elements, but I understand that Photoshop Elements works hand-in-hand with Premiere Elements. Something to consider if you're making movies (say, with music) from your photos. Two years ago, my brother-in-law and I collaborated on a movie for my mother-in-law's ninetieth birthday. We got all the pictures into iPhoto (original digital photos and scans of pictures going back 100 years), selected a couple hundred pictures from the 1000 or so we started with, moved everything into iMovie, where I created the movie with music, transitions, titles, etc. It really worked out fantastic. I confess that if I were going to do that today in Windows XP, I'm not sure how I'd start but I'd probably consider doing it with the Adobe Products. Most of the time, however, I'm not worried about putting still photos into movies. Picasa has a "make movie" command but it's very, very basic and hardly worth mentioning.

I should add that there's a free and very easy alternative to the above options, namely, just use your computer's operating system to manage the photos. In Microsoft Windows XP, for example, you can view images as thumbnails or in a filmstrip, view EXIF info, add your own tags and keywords, etc. But it's a lot easier to use a program to do these things. Picasa is far from perfect, but it's free and it's a darned sight than doing without anything.

You have the software: now what?

Once you pick your software, then you're on to problem #2: what to do with it. As you can tell from the preceding, you can't do something if your software does not support it. But if the software has a feature, you will have to figure out how much time and effort you want to spend using it. The impulse to organize your pictures means really that you want to organize them in some way other than chronologically. I say that because you get chronological order by default and for free. Generally speaking, you're going to want to dump pictures into folders by import date, then use your software to add levels of organization on top (so to speak) of the organization by folders. So, do you want to start labeling pictures ("vacation," "Christmas", "nature", etc.)? Do you want to rank your favorite pictures, and if so, is a thumbs up-or-thumbs down rating system good enough for you, or do you want to have the fun of agonizing over whether to give a picture 3 stars or 4 stars? My advice about this is, start simple and work your way to something complicated when you feel you really, really have to get more organized. Organizing your photos - especially for an amateur - is something that sounds like a fantastic idea at first ("Gee, I'd like to see all pictures of Catherine that were taken on vacation") until you discover how much work is involved. So to anybody who's not sure how to start, my advice would be, start free with Picasa (or iPhoto, if your Mac came with iLife already installed).

However, I hasten to acknowledge a problem with this otherwise sensible advice. Every program stores "metadata" - all that info that you enter about your photos - in its own proprietary database, and astonishingly, there is, as yet, no open standard for this data that is supported by all the main apps. In other words, if you spend 200 hours typing descriptions of your photos into, say, Picasa or iPhoto, adding keywords or organizing them into albums, and later you decide to upgrade to Photoshop Elements, well, you're going to lose all that info. It just doesn't transfer from one program to another. (I would love to be corrected on this point if someone knows otherwise!) The EXIF data is embedded in the photo file itself, so you don't lose info about the date the picture was taken, what camera, camera settings, etc. But everything you entered into your photo management program AFTER importing the photos will be lost if you switch from one program to another.

I know of no satisfactory solution to this problem. I have from time to time tried moving all my metadata (especially comments about my pictures) into a database that I built myself. But it just doesn't work.

So the best solution is to pick a good program and stick with it. If you pick a high-end program like Photoshop Elements, tell yourself that you'll grow into it. If you pick an easier to use program like Picasa 2, well, you'll certainly find the learning curve less steep, and you can cross your fingers and hope that Google improves the program with version 3.

About Me

I am an event photographer living in Dallas, Texas.