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Working your image

For amateurs, making photos like a pro has never been easier.

Ease of use versus power: It’s the classic tradeoff. If something is really easy to use, then it probably can’t do much; and if it does a lot, it’s probably hard to use. This is one of the oldest problems in computing, a problem that jumped into high profile with the personal computer. Suddenly there were millions of non-geeks (regular folk) who wanted to do the things computers could do, but couldn’t or wouldn’t spend the time navigating the required learning curves. The industry–in particular, the software industry–scrambled to overcome the tradeoff, for therein lay the secret to success.

I’m dropping back into history a little because the ease-of-use-versus-power issue hasn’t gone away. While we’ve developed computers that are much easier to use than the 1970s models–which had toggle switches for binary data entry–we’ve also vastly increased the power and complexity. To illustrate the issue, I have only to reach as far as some new software on my desk, Jasc Paint Shop Photo Album 4 (PSP Album). I’ve packaged a review of this photo management product in this column because it’s representative of the development zone between the ability to easily manipulate our photographic images and the complexity that lurks just below the image.

Pixel progress

Digital photography has followed a familiar pattern. The technology appears first; it’s not great, but pictures can be taken for fun. The technology improves, and more pleasing and commercially viable work can be done. Prices continue to drop. As the camera-resolution megapixel count rises and digital cameras generally improve, more people step into the fray. Finally digital cameras reach a point where “serious” amateurs as well as snapshooters and photo professionals can endorse the technology, and to no one’s surprise, there’s a boom on. Film and standard cameras won’t disappear immediately, not even for years, but their years are numbered.

Catching the photo gravy train

It’s hard to estimate how big this transition from film to digital photography will be, except that it will be very big. We already have billions of people taking a trillion or more pictures a year. Digital photography is, per photo, much less expensive. A single $40 128MB memory card can hold an average of about 250 pictures, and it’s reusable thousands of times (in theory, at least–in our tests, the space reduces every time you purge a card). There is no film processing cost. Consequently, most people who use digital photography tend to take more pictures than ever. I just finished a week’s trip through central Europe averaging almost 200 pictures a day. Now I have around 1,400 pictures–what to do with them?

Obviously with that many pictures, help is needed. They must be transferred from the camera to a computer. They need to be organized. Many need to be improved (or destroyed). Some should be printed, others sent via e-mail. None of these operations are necessarily difficult, but there are a lot of steps. That’s where photo software comes in.

Photo management and manipulation software is a burgeoning industry. It was generated, more or less, by Adobe and its Photoshop product, but that was back in the precambrian professionals-only era of digital photography. The millions of new digital photographers generally don’t have the time or the hundreds of dollars to invest in Photoshop. So there is a “new” market consisting of snapshotters and serious amateurs. That’s primarily where Jasc has aimed its products.

The photo Four-Step

Leaving out the part involving the digital camera and taking pictures, consider the job of dealing with your digital pictures as having four phases: uploading, organizing, fixing, and distributing. Getting the pictures out of your camera’s memory and into a computer is uploading. Some cameras and operating systems can do this, more or less well. Jasc PSP Album is ready to step in and do the job, which offers no particular advantages other than being convenient. It also handles distribution (printing, CD-ROM creation, backup, e-mail, slide shows) quite well, although other products are better in some specifics.

Getting into sorts

Organizing pictures is a big part of what PSP Album is about. With more than 1,000 pictures from a single trip, it’s important for me to be able to review the pictures, weed out bad ones, and sort them. Fundamentally, all photo album software starts with a look at the photos in a folder, usually in thumbnail mode. From there you can isolate groups, look at the pictures in larger format and begin the job of sorting through them.

User interface refinements can make a difference. Other reviews have noted that PSP Album doesn’t have the “timeline” orientation of Adobe Photo Album, which automatically organizes photos according to the months and days on which they were taken. Personally, I couldn’t care less about this approach; I’m much more interested in where the picture was taken and who (or what) is in it; but this illustrates how personal preference can play a role in using this kind of software.

In PSP Album, the nuts and bolts of sorting and organizing are built around a database. To be useful, descriptions and keywords need to be entered manually. This is true of all the photo managers, but PSP Album makes very good use of keywords–in effect, you can use them to organize your photos instead of creating a jillion folders.

PSP Album isn’t particularly swift at display. Even on a husky, video-oriented 2.5GHz computer, it displayed a folder containing more than 2,000 photos (files) in seconds. Deleting images in the same folder causes the screen to blank, and after several longish seconds, photos reappear at the beginning of the folder, not at the point where the photo was deleted. Of course, if you don’t have loaded folders, you probably won’t have a problem with this.

Photo fixing

Uploading and organizing photos are not mysterious operations. Salvaging and enhancing photos can be. This is where the issue of power versus ease of use becomes most clear. First you have to recognize that a photo could be improved. Too light? Too dark? Out of focus? These problems are fairly easy to see. Unreal color? Poorly framed? Suddenly the criteria for good and bad become fuzzier.

These days, most photo management software offers some kind of a “one-click fix.” This is the ultimate ease of use, if it works. If I could run a testing pattern on all the major products, I’d find tendencies. Some can fix bad colors better than others. Some are better at exposure. None of them work all the time. In fact, like PSP Album’s Quick Fix, the feature works roughly 40 to 50 percent of the time, does nothing for 30 to 40 percent of the time, and makes a mess the rest of the time.

If the one-click fix doesn’t do the job, there are manual approaches. PSP Album has quite a few, including a sophisticated tool for removing red-eye from flash pictures. All of them require some learning and some artistic sense. There’s also an Adjust Wizard that walks you through the facets of technically improving a photo. It’s one of the best of its kind, and it illustrates that gray area between ease of use and a gentle guide down the learning curve.

Photo improvement

Another example of good support in a critical area is PSP Album’s Cropping Tool. The isolation (cropping) of sections from a photograph is a powerful technique, but also demanding of an artistic eye. PSP Album provides an unusually thick frame that makes it very clear what is contained in the crop and also provides a way to have the new image fit specific print formats (e.g., 4-by-6, 5-by-7).

PSP Album can also enhance pictures by toning, framing, and so on, but this isn’t the tool for photo creativity. For that you add Jasc Paint Shop Pro 8, which has been exquisitely designed to smooth the path toward more sophisticated image manipulation. Still, the jump can be mind-boggling. Suddenly you are confronted with literally hundreds of artistic options, new jargon (such as mask layers), and many more procedures. People make this leap for a variety of reasons: a quest for improving pictures to the max, or perhaps because they just like this kind of artistic capability. Otherwise you stay with Paint Shop Photo Album, a very good program of its kind, and accept its limitations. Leave it up to old coots like me to remember how far we’ve come with power versus ease of use, and trust that what we’ve got is essential to exploiting the value of digital photography.

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