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Photo Programs Add Tools but Still Need Sharpening

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By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, November 13, 2008

For most of its life, consumer photo-editing software has looked up to the expensive but powerful programs used by professional photographers. Now it may be turning to a simpler source of inspiration: the software embedded in many digital cameras.

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If a new camera can detect a friend's face in the picture, fix any red-eye effects and upload the shot automatically over the nearest WiFi connection, why should a photo-album application leave those tasks to you?

Two new programs, Google's free Picasa (Windows XP or Vista, http://picasa.com) and Adobe's $99.99 Photoshop Elements 7 (XP or Vista, http://adobe.com/products/photoshopelwin/), address that question with a few automatic photo-management tools of their own.

And if you could only mash up these two applications' best features, you'd have an unbeatable program. Instead, you have to pick your disappointments.

Picasa 3, released in beta-test form in early September, adds valuable editing and sharing features but does little to improve already inadequate photo-organizing tools.

The best addition to its palette may be a "Sync to Web" option that uploads a set of photos to Google's Picasa Web Albums site, then updates the pictures online to mirror any changes you make to them in Picasa. (To get changes made online to appear on a computer, however, I had to select a "Refresh Online Status" command.) This eliminates the need to re-upload a picture after fiddling with it and ensures a current backup of your work.

Editing your photos gets a little easier in this version as well. Its red-eye fix no longer requires you to select each eyeball, and you can wipe out scratches and blemishes in old pictures with a simple, effective retouch command.

But Picasa 3 persists in assuming that you will first sort your photos by the day you took them, resulting in a lengthy list of date-specific folders that you'll eventually want to consolidate -- or ignore in favor of collecting photos in a separate series of albums. Picasa lets you assign tags ("family," "D.C.," "field trip") to pictures, but its tagging interface lacks the obviousness of the label system in Google's Gmail.

Picasa 3 adds one new way to sift through your shots, a "Select photos with faces" command. This automatic tool can err -- it thought an antique streetlight in front of a building hid a human face. But it can also speed the process of picking out shots of friends. Its real potential awaits in Picasa Web Albums, where a "name tag" option can find friends in photos for you.

This update to Picasa throws in some nifty, if not quite essential, additions to its photo-sharing options, such as fancier collages of pictures and movies woven together from a series of photos.

Adobe's Photoshop Elements 7 brings a different mix of upgrades and oversights. Its photo-management features, among the few to offer the same flexibility and simplicity as Apple's iPhoto, take a step up with Adobe's "Find Faces for Tagging" command, which scans through your entire photo library for any portraits. As in Picasa, it misses some shots and mistakenly grabs others, but Photoshop Elements makes its tagging commands far easier to discover and use than Picasa's.

Like its competitor, Photoshop Elements adds automatic online synchronization, in this case wired to Adobe's free Photoshop.com photo-sharing site. (The company pushes its $49.99/year Plus plan, which upgrades your Web storage from 2 to 20 gigabytes, as a discounted bundle with Elements.) Changes flowed back and forth reliably, with the exception of a picture that appeared upright in the program but sideways on the site.

This new release offers an automatic red-eye fix, plus a wealth of other editing tools. Among other reality-distorting options, you can fix scratches and blemishes with a "Healing Brush" (though it takes more clicks than Picasa's retouch tool), whiten teeth and "Make Dull Skies Blue." But most of them are confined to a separate Editor Workspace that took almost a minute to launch on a new Windows Vista laptop and owed far too much to Adobe's pro-level Photoshop, with its intimidating profusion of toolbars. Even the name is wrong: "Editor Workspace" sounds like something the IT department loaded on your desktop at work.

That's not the only case of Elements disregarding common-sense design principles. It abandons consistency to hide some tasks in right-click menus and twice refused to recognize non-Microsoft e-mail programs.

Both Elements and Picasa could learn from each other, and not just in sorting and editing features. Although each program supports "geotagging" -- adding geographic coordinates to a picture -- both made this an inefficient process. Picasa even required a separate program, Google Earth, for this work. These two programs also need to improve their offline sharing options: DVDs they produced only worked in Windows PCs, not Macs -- let alone regular DVD players.

Their next versions (plus, whenever it ships, the next iPhoto) could constitute a major upgrade if their developers borrow creatively. We'll just have to wait to see how that picture develops.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at robp@washpost.com. Read more at http://blog.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward/


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