PC photo software is getting better

In the old days of digital photography, before digital cameras became common among average snapshot takers, photo software was focused on what most interested the early adopters: editing and perfecting each picture. Tools for cataloging and sharing photos were primitive.

Then, a few years back, Apple Computer turned that software formula on its head to better suit the needs of the emerging mass of digital-camera owners, whose picture collections were growing so fast that they cared more about organizing their images than perfecting them. The company’s iPhoto software, which works only on its Macintosh computers, is all about managing and sharing photos, with a minor emphasis on editing and improving them.

There are three keys to iPhoto. First, it eliminates the need for the user to know where in the computer’s file system her photos are stored, or to create folders to store specific pictures. They are all simply available from a large photo library within iPhoto. Second, it allows users to create virtual “albums” of photos, again without any reference to actual folders on the hard disk. These virtual albums can include any photo, regardless of where it’s stored, and a single photo can be included in many different albums.

Finally, iPhoto allows users to edit and share photos easily, without any technical knowledge, through a dead-simple group of tools that range from one-click fixing of images to a simple method for ordering a hardcover book of your pictures.

For a while, there was nothing comparable to iPhoto on Windows. Then, in its second version, Adobe’s Photoshop album acquired a virtual album feature, called “Collections,” and thus made the grade. Soon, a second promising Windows photo program, Picasa, which is now owned by Google, will add iPhoto-style virtual albums in its forthcoming version 2.0.

Now, yet another popular Windows photo organizer, Jasc Paint Shop Photo Album, is adding virtual albums in a new version 5.2. The new version is already available for download from the company’s Web site, www.jasc.com, for $45. It will eventually be available in stores as well.

I’ve been trying out this new edition of Jasc’s Photo Album, and I like a lot about it. It’s relatively straightforward, and it has some unusual features. But it’s not as good as the Adobe product because, despite the new virtual albums, it still forces users to rely too much on a well-organized and well-understood system of folders on the hard disk. And I simply don’t believe users should have to master the computer’s file system just to enjoy their pictures.

Jasc made its reputation with its Paint Shop Pro, a photo-editing program that is very dense and technical. Its audience is serious photo hobbyists and techies. Now, the company, which has recently been acquired by Corel Corp., is trying to attract a broader audience.

Jasc’s Photo Album product uses a simple layout and bold, well-labeled icons to identify functions. A large central area where photos are viewed is flanked on the left by a panel that lets you locate pictures and a strip at the right that shows thumbnails of related photos.

Like Adobe, Jasc calls its virtual albums “Collections.” You can create them by simply dragging photos into them, or by right-clicking on a thumbnail and selecting a command called “Add to Collection … .” For instance, I opened pictures from a trip to Alaska in several different folders and organized them into Collections that corresponded to the trip’s themes, not where I had stored the photos on my hard disk.

Tabs across the top of the screen identify core functions of the product: Organize, Enhance, Create and Share. The Enhance tab includes a set of simple editing tools, including a one-click “Quick Fix,” a red-eye removal tool and a cool feature called “Thinnify,” which can make people look thinner, albeit at the risk of distorting other objects in a scene. There’s also a very nice step-by-step wizard that lets you alter the basic characteristics of a photo, such as color and exposure, and shows previews of potential changes.

The Organize tab includes a potent “batch” feature that lets you perform operations on many photos at once. You can do a Quick Fix on them, rename them or resize them. The Create tab lets you turn photos into calendars, cards and books. And the Share tab lets you e-mail pictures, burn them to CDs, and more. Another nice feature called PhotoSafe Archive is a system that easily archives your photos by burning them to CD. There’s also a calendar view that lets you find photos by recalling the dates on which you took them.

So what’s not to like about Jasc Paint Shop Photo Album? Well, the product lacks a fundamental iPhotolike feature: a central photo library. Instead, it’s still based around the idea that you will choose which photos to view and work with from folders on your hard disk. And that inevitably forces users to learn the file system and spend time creating, naming and organizing folders.

The new Collections feature helps to mitigate this emphasis on folders, but even creating Collections requires you to first decide which folders the relevant photos live in.

Until Jasc abandons this reliance on the Windows file and folder system and adds a real library feature to its Photo Album product, I can’t place it on a par with Adobe Photoshop Album.

Walter Mossberg writes about personal technology for The Wall Street Journal.

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