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Photo apps grow up, but not picture perfect

Digital cameras have made it simple and inexpensive enough to capture practically every moment in life but they also generate mounds of pictures that need to be fixed, organized and shared in one form or another.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Digital cameras have made it simple and inexpensive enough to capture practically every moment in life but they also generate mounds of pictures that need to be fixed, organized and shared in one form or another.

Programs have long been available to handle such time-consuming chores, though organization software has usually offered little or no editing capabilities and editing software didn't catalog images.

Now, digital photography packages are combining both tasks and piling on features even as prices drop. And the programs do a better job of providing tools that attempt to automatically fix poor-quality pictures while still making more technical options available.

I tested a trio of photo suites for Windows PCs to organize the two dozen or so pictures we shoot each week of our 14-month-old son, and to fix the 90 percent that suffer from exposure, color, focus or other quality problems.

The bad news, particularly when it comes to fixing blurry or badly exposed images, is that the quick-fix results were often far from picture perfect.

Adobe Systems Inc.'s Photoshop Elements 3 ($99.99)
Adobe Photoshop CS is widely used by pro photo shooters and editors, but its $649 price tag puts it out of the range of most shutterbugs. Photoshop Elements 3, on the other hand, has a consumer-friendly price but still maintains many features of its more powerful namesake.

Its advanced features might be considered intimidating by some. Fortunately, Adobe has provided three editing modes from very simple (available in the organizer component) to very advanced (in an editing component).

With one underexposed picture of our son crawling in the kitchen, I was disappointed with the results of the basic "Auto Fix" window. I switched over to the "Quick Fix" and was able to adjust the intensity of the corrections. If that hadn't worked, I could have deployed specific tools to correct the problems.

Dozens of tools, effects and filters are available for making improvements to whole pictures or just small areas. If there's a tree that appears to be growing out of grandma's head it's simple to remove it.

Photoshop Elements 3 now includes Adobe's previously separate organization software. On import from the camera, pictures go directly into organizer view, where they can be tagged and captioned for easy searching, browsing and sorting. It also handles backup and archiving.

There's a "Create" button that steps you through making calendars, books, scrapbook pages, postcards, DVDs and video CDs for playing as television slide shows. There are commands to send pictures to TiVo, e-mail and Kodak's Ofoto printing service.

And, of course, Photoshop Elements also supports e-mail attachments, including sending pictures embedded in fancy stationery.

Microsoft Digital Image Suite 10 ($99.95)
Microsoft's Digital Image Suite 10 offers all the basics and a lot of advanced features for organizing and editing photos but its biggest strength is what it can do with pictures once they're polished.

(MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

Included are 3,000 templates for creating everything from greeting cards and calendars to baby albums and playing cards. I was able to create a professional-looking wall calendar in a matter of minutes.

Finished photos can be combined with your narration and turned into a slick slideshow, or "Photo Story," that can be played by Windows Media Player or burned to a DVD or video CD for playback on a TV.

Photos are imported into the organization software through a visually stunning wizard that shows the pictures piling up in a stack as they're being transferred. Once imported, images can be captioned, tagged and moved around in folders.

Users can look for and browse pictures not only using keywords and dates but also the appearance of a photo. The "Find Similar" command searches for pictures of similar brightness, colors and other characteristics.

Editing takes place primarily in the editing component, which takes more than a few seconds to launch. Once there, you can make a variety of automatic adjustments or choose specific tools for more advanced tasks. (There aren't as many tools as Photoshop Elements, but that might be a good thing for beginners.)

Picasa 2 (Windows only; Free download)
Picasa, which was acquired by the search company Google Inc. last year, was well respected for its user interface. The latest version, released late last year, improves on that aspect and adds more editing tools.

Plus, it's free.

Picasa keeps track of pictures scattered about in folders on the computer. You can leave pictures where they are _ or move them to better places on your hard drive within the program.

Photos can be rated with stars and captioned. Those fields, along with the date the picture was taken if the camera supports it, can be used to quickly search for pictures. (There's also an alluring timeline that can be used to find pictures taken on a specific date.)

Though Picasa now offers more editing tools than previous versions, they don't really compete with those of programs that actually cost money. Beyond the basics of cropping, resizing, removing red eye and adjusting lighting, users can apply only a dozen effects.

There are also a handful of automatic fixes that worked particularly well. One button _ called "I'm Feeling Lucky" _ did a good job of fixing underexposed shots without introducing unnatural tints.

The coolest part of the program is how it handled pictures I mucked up in editing. Instead of having to remember to save a copy, I was able to undo any changes _ even after I quit Picasa and restarted the computer.

Finished pictures can be shared by e-mail, printed, transferred to a TiVo or sent to a traditional picture processor. It also works with Hello, which is basically a photo-enabled instant-messaging service. There's also a link to Blogger, Google's Web log service.

Still, you may find yourself eventually needing a more powerful tool. Until then, there's nothing to lose by trying Picasa _ and you may just find yourself still using it after graduating to a program with more advanced tools.