Ottawa PC Users' Group, Inc.
 Product Review 


Picasa – Image Management by Google
by Alan German

Picasa is a free image management program available from Google. As might be expected, the package has a number of web-based components. These include the ability to order prints by E-mail from your favourite photo finisher, share photographs with friends and relatives using “Hello” (http://www.hello.com/), and even post images to a free blogging site (http://www.blogger.com/start). But, the software also has many of the desirable features of a stand-alone image manager, albeit with some novel twists in their operation.

The download from
http://picasa.google.com/download/ is around 4.7 MB. The package is easily installed; however, note that it requires an MMX-capable processor (it refused to run on my old desktop machine!).

Picasa thinks its mission in life is to catalogue all the image files on your hard drive into its library. Consequently, running the program for the first time offers the opportunity to either scan the entire computer for available image files, or just look for images in My Documents, My Pictures and the Desktop. Being a perverse being and, since I don’t normally store images in the latter directories, I opted for the partial scan that produced just a single folder in Picasa’s list, this being My Pictures containing sample.jpg. The Actions button let me remove the folder from Picasa and thus I had a clean slate with which to start. In fact, I now had a very clean slate, with most of the available menu items and action buttons being greyed out!

Finding some images to work with was straightforward – File – Add Folder to Picasa – c:\nikon – Scan Once. The alternative to the latter was Scan Always, which has Picasa “watch” the folder for any changes. Although I didn't use the watch mode to start with, this should be the preferred method for a production system. Any changes to the files, e.g. deletions through Windows Explorer, or additions by importing pictures from a digital camera, are instantly shown in Picasa's display. By default, the program includes images in sub-directories below the specific folder chosen. It also recognizes the date order of the photographs and automatically orders the list of sub-folders by year and month.

The layout of Picasa’s main window provides three main panes - a list of folders (file directories), thumbnail views of the images in these folders, and a Picture Tray where selected images can be temporarily located for various processing operations, including image rotation. A convenient slider bar allows the thumbnail images to be resized, so you can have lots of tiny thumbnail images in view at any given time, or a smaller number of larger - and crystal clear – images.

The program has the usual File, Edit, View menu bar with a bunch of additional commands under Folder, Picture, Create and Tools menu options. A large number of the program's parameters can be customized through a set of tabs – General, E-Mail, File Types, Slideshow and Printing – in the Tools-Options menu. The Help menu is restricted to a web-based system and thus requires an available Internet connection; however, most of the program's operations are pretty intuitive, especially if you have used any other image management program.

A second level menu provides icons to import images from an external device (e.g. a digital camera), run a slideshow, view images on a timeline, or create a “gift CD” of various images.

The slideshow runs a full-screen display of the images in a selected folder. Moving the mouse pops-up an options menu where, for example, you can change the delay between slides. The timeline view is interesting, using the dates of the images in various folders to allow selection of a folder using a slide bar. Specific points marked on the “timeline” correspond to the date of a folder. These are also denoted on the screen by a pile of thumbnail “prints” of the images indicating the folder's contents in a very novel way. Another interesting feature is that as the slider moves from point to point on the timeline, the background screen image switches to a faded, grey-tone vignette of the first image in the corresponding folder.

The lower window on the program's main screen is named the Picture Tray. Clicking on any image in the selected folder creates a mini-thumbnail image in this tray. Multiple images can be added by using Shift-Click, or by pressing the Hold button to retain a selected image in the tray whilst others are added. Icons in the tray include quick links to print the selected images, send them by E-mail, or even to go on-line to order prints. Another option in this menu is the ability to create a collage of the images in the tray. This can be a Picture Pile - where the images are scattered seemingly randomly and usually overlapping – an interesting effect but of dubious practical use. More useful is an option to create a contact sheet of the images, or perhaps even a Picture Grid where all the images are tiled to make a composite image.

Double-clicking on an image provides some picture editing tools including crop, straighten, fix red eye, colour and contrast controls. With Picasa coming from Google it isn't surprising that one of the tools is “I'm feeling lucky” - providing automatic lighting and contrast modifications. Changes made with any of the editing tools are previewed in the editor window and are easily undone and redone to observe the effect before committing to the change. Changes in any image are retained within Picasa's library environment. The modified version of the image is available even after exiting from the program. Next time the program is run, any changes can still be undone. Saving a changed image permanently requires “exporting” the image from the Picture Tray to a new folder.

The “Basic Fixes” in the image editor are complemented by a “Tuning” tab that provides fine control over parameters like fill lighting, highlights, shadows, and color temperature. There is also an “Effects” tab that includes changing colour photographs to sepia or black and white, adding tints of various colours, “sharpening” the image, or adding a soft focus with varying degrees of the size of the central area and the amount of the surrounding “softness”. A really strange effect for my money is to add a “film grain”, especially since, as with all these effects, this can be added multiple times to make your beautiful digital image incredibly grainy!

Picasa has many more features including the ability to add labels and keywords to images. Adding a label to a set of images, e.g. “Bird” to photographs of birds stored in various folders on your hard disk, creates a new (virtual) folder named Bird that contains all the images with the label. I call the folder virtual because, effectively, it contains links to the original images, and not copies of the image files themselves. So, if you delete an image from the label directory, it is still available in its original folder. In a similar manner, one or more keywords can be added to a group of images. Images tagged with the same keyword do not appear in a separate folder; however, Picasa has a search engine that will display images with the target keyword, grouped by their original folders. In fact, both keywords and labels can be the subject of a search to identify various categories of images.

If several of the above-noted features sound as though they would be useful to you as image-management tools, then give Picasa a try. Some of its features are similar to other such programs, but some things it does very differently. There is a bit of a learning curve involved to find out exactly what Picasa does, and how it does it, but this is no worse than for other software packages. And, Picasa is freeware so - if it works, it's a bargain, and - if it doesn't work (for you), it's a bargain!


Bottom Line:

Picasa Version 2.2.0 (Freeware)
Google, Inc.
http://picasa.google.com/


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