Monday, February 28, 2005

Picasa 2 - Photo Albums Done Right

After finally getting fed up with Adobe's Photoshop Album software last night, I went ahead and downloaded Google's new(ish) Picasa 2 - and I'm so excited about it that I just have to share. It's hard for me to get excited about any software application, but this one does exactly what I want from a photo album app, it looks slick and has a great interface, and by God, it's free.

Most reviewers don't seem to quite understand how people really use these things or why Picasa 2 is so much better than everything else. Let me explain my situation to you. My wife and I own two digital cameras between us, and a decent scanner that I've used to scan a whole mess of older film negatives, which are mostly in tif format. We also have a few RAW photos of our formal wedding pictures. And of course, tons of jpegs from our digicams.

I use Photoshop for heavy editing or retouching, such as I had to do for the RAW wedding photos, which I then organized and printed into a photo book using Shutterfly. Shutterfly's another great service, but I may get into talking about online photo services in another post. Anyway, the problem is while Photoshop is great for heavy retouching work, it has absolutely no capability for cataloging and organizing photos, and it is terrible if all you want to do is something like removing redeye from snapshots. (You can get a plug-in to do it automatically, but you've still gotta take two minutes to launch the app, then find the file, then edit it, then re-save it, which itself is another three step process.)

So a large photo collection demands an album or catalog application. Adobe themselves released Photoshop Album a while back, but it has several problems which, to me, make it basically useless. For one thing, it is not free - itself not a deal-breaker, but definitely an issue when there are free options available. The bigger problem, though, is that with large collections the app takes progressively more and more memory, and demands progressively greater CPU usage, until the point at which it simply chugs to a halt. It is simply a poorly-written application, bloatware of the worst kind. Its sluggishness is unacceptable, and combined with an unintuitive interface (for the life of me, I never could figure out how to view a photo full-size), it makes the program nearly impossible to use.

Enter Picasa 2, which suffers from none of the same problems and includes features I would never expect from a free application. Its red-eye removal algorithm is amazing. It includes several useful filters, and a workable (i.e. not too aggressive) auto-color and auto-contrast function. It includes a search feature, something Photoshop Album lacks, and you can search by both keyword and technical aspects (based on EXIF data). It includes a chronological timeline, like Photoshop Album, but Picasa's the only free app that I know of that does. These are all amazing features. But the thing that just bowls me over, and that would slay almost anybody who knows anything about digital photo editing, is this:

Unlimited undos. Forever.

Not even top-end image editors can do this. Photoshop can't. Photoshop Album sure can't. I don't mean multiple undos until your memory's used up. I mean edit the photo, move on to a different photo, close Picasa, shut down your computer, boot the next day, open up Picasa, move to that photo, and you can still undo everything. You could come back to a photo a year later and still have that undo button lit up.

I'm not sure how it works - I have a feeling it's not actually doing anything to your photos until/unless you export (which is actually good), but this doesn't matter. This application was written to take advantage of the way people actually work, not to force you to adapt to the way your computer stores files and folders on a disk. It's a very Mac way of looking at things, in a PC application. I wouldn't want Photoshop to work this way, but this is not Photoshop. I don't want Photoshop in an image catalog app. I love the way Picasa 2 works. It is great at what it does.

There are so many little things that make Picasa a pleasure as well; just little touches that the developers came up with that show an attention to detail that other applications lack. I love the way, for example, a little progress meter stays on top of my other applications if I'm uploading a large number of photos to Shutterfly through Picasa (so, for example, I can browse the web and still know what's going on with my upload). It's unobtrusive and informative and I'm glad it's there. I love the way scrolling through a catalog works - you can use the standard page-up/page-down keys, but Google has added a custom scroll slider where a normal scrollbar would be that functions more similarly to a gas pedal (the harder you pull it in one direction, the faster the scrolling). For a decent-size collection, this works much better than a standard scrollbar, which is far too imprecise when the content to scroll through is very large.

Picasa 2 supports pretty much every image format under the sun, and a bunch of movie formats too (for cameras that can shoot videos, like mine). It even supports RAW files, which is highly unusual for an app of this type, but a very welcome feature for me.

I cannot recommend this program highly enough. You'll wonder how you ever lived without it.


  1. Anonymous10:37 AM

    Thanks for that helpful review. I've been toying with switching from my simple folder based orgainzation to picasa for a while now. Photoshop album came with my last photoshop upgrade and it annoys me that everytime I double click a photo to take it to photoshop to edit, it pops into album so I uninstalled.

    I also just came across "photozig", but your review has convinced me that picasa is the way to go.

    I've heard other good reviews of picasa, but have not taken the time to download and start organizing - guess summers as good a time as any.

    Thanks again.

  2. Hi Melanie,

    You've found an old page of mine! I still use Picasa, though, and I'd recommend it - but it does have a few things that I've grown a little tired of over the years now. The first thing is the lack of a real scroll bar. The second is that I can never seem to get a folder display view that I like - it always wants to reorganize your folders in various small ways, even if you set it to just show a tree view that is supposed to look like a Windows folder view.

    Then there are little minor things like tools and filters that I use most often not quite working the way I want them to. The rotate tool, for example, always blurs the image to an unacceptable level in the display window - but it doesn't seem to blur the image itself when you save or export. It always stays blurred in the image window, though. The sharpen tool, which is another one I'd *like* to use a lot, goes way overboard on the sharpening and there's no "amount" adjustment. Often I just need a little sharpening to non-critical images that I plan to put in blog posts or whatever, but I still have to open them up in Photoshop to do it.

    But don't let this discourage you - Picasa's a free download, and I still don't think I could live without it given the volume of photos on my hard drive (I've got about 30GB worth at this point). It's my default interface for viewing photos. I just wish Google would maintain and update it a little better - they've been neglecting it ever since purchasing it a few years back.


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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