Walt Mossberg

The Best Photo Organizers

If you got a new digital camera for Christmas or Hanukkah, by now you probably have enough digital pictures loaded onto your computer to feel totally confused. The pictures are likely to be stored in files and folders with techie-sounding names, and there are so many by now that it’s hard to find just the ones you’re looking for.

The software that comes with digital cameras typically isn’t very good, so it probably isn’t much help. And any photo program that came bundled with your PC, if you can find it, is also very likely of inferior quality.

Luckily, there are some good photo-organizing programs on the market, which cost little or are even free. These programs differ from traditional photo-editing software like Adobe’s Photoshop. They place less emphasis on tweaking and perfecting each picture, focusing instead on organizing your hundreds or thousands of photos and helping you share them with others. They do have basic editing tools, but they are mainly designed to help you manage your digital-photo collection.

Picasa version 2

Two of the best photo organizers have just been updated, and I have been testing them on my collection of more than 10,000 digital photos. One is Picasa 2, which runs only on Windows and is now a free offering from Google, which purchased Picasa last year. The other is Apple Computer’s iPhoto 5, which runs only on the Macintosh. It comes free on every new Mac. Existing Mac owners can buy it as part of the excellent $79 iLife suite, which also includes programs for organizing and editing music and videos, and for authoring DVDs.

Both programs are packed with good features and have been significantly upgraded in their new versions. But iPhoto is the better of the two — mainly because, unlike Picasa and most other competitors, it totally frees users from understanding the computer’s file-and-folder system. With iPhoto you can organize your photos in any way you choose, regardless of where the underlying picture files are stored on the computer. This makes iPhoto much easier to use than Picasa, or any other photo organizing program I have tested.

The key feature in iPhoto is something called the virtual album. With a few clicks of the mouse, you can move any group of photos — no matter what their subject, date or location on the hard disk — into an album you create on the fly. Any photo can appear in an unlimited number of these albums, without physically moving the file from its location on the hard disk or making any extra copies of the photos.

So, for instance, a picture of your daughter Marissa on vacation in Rhode Island could appear in folders labeled “Marissa,” “Vacations” and “Rhode Island.” This is similar to the way you can create multiple play lists in a music program like iTunes or Windows Media Player.

iPhoto version 5

Picasa, on the other hand, is largely hard-wired to the file system on your hard disk. Pictures appear in the file folders in which they are stored on the hard disk. This means you have to be good at setting up folders and naming them. There is a half-hearted effort at virtual albums in the new version of Picasa, which I’ll explain below. But it isn’t nearly as simple as the iPhoto system.

Like the original version, Picasa 2 is an attractive and speedy piece of software. It presents your photos as thumbnails in a large well at the right of the screen, and shows the hard disk’s folder organization in a list at the left. If you click on any of the photo thumbnails you are presented with options for sharing the photos, such as printing them, e-mailing them, or adding them to a Web page or blog. If you double-click on a thumbnail, you enter a slick, improved editing mode that allows you to tweak them in a wide variety of ways.

The editing system is the main new feature of Picasa 2, and it’s very good. The editing options are organized into categories called Basic Fixes, Tuning and Effects. In Basic Fixes, a button called “I’m Feeling Lucky” (a term borrowed from new parent Google) does an automatic enhancement of the picture. But you can also automatically fix contrast and color. And there’s a cool “fill light” feature that can eliminate shadows without washing out the whole image. There’s also an excellent feature that straightens a crooked picture.

The Tuning section offers control over highlights and shadows, and the Effects section has a raft of excellent features, including a “warmify” button that warms up the colors and a “glow” button that creates a sort of muted halo effect.

Picasa 2 also has a nice option for creating CDs of your photos, with slide shows included, and for backing up photos to CD or DVD.

In the original Picasa, you were stuck organizing your pictures by the hard disk’s file folders. That’s still the main organizing principle, but now you can rename the folders and move pictures among them right from within Picasa. And you can sort of create virtual albums, in a clumsy process called labeling. You first click on a picture and assign a label to it. Then you click on any other pictures to which you want to append the same label. These then appear on the folder panel in a section called “Labels.” Photos can appear in multiple labels. But the system is far slower and more awkward than in iPhoto, and each group of labeled photos gets tagged with a single date, no matter when they were actually taken.

Apple’s iPhoto is also attractive, with the same basic layout as Picasa — a library well of thumbnails to the right and a list of albums on the left. Only the albums on the left are all virtual. You don’t need to know a thing about the organization of your hard disk to use iPhoto. In the new version 5, in fact, Apple has beefed up the virtual-album system.

Now, you can create “smart albums” in iPhoto. These albums automatically collect any pictures that meet criteria you specify, such as pictures taken within a certain date range, or those with certain words in their titles. You can also now create uber-folders that can contain multiple albums, and you can save slide shows along with virtual albums on the left-hand pane.

The new iPhoto also has a much improved system for designing and ordering printed, bound books of your photos — something Picasa lacks entirely. You could always make these books in iPhoto, but now the process is simpler and there are more layouts to choose from, with more sizes and types of books.

However, iPhoto’s system for ordering mail-order prints works only with Kodak, while Picasa offers multiple vendors.

Version 5 of iPhoto also now organizes video clips as well as still photos (Picasa does this too). And, like Picasa, it can handle digital pictures in the uncompressed “RAW” format favored by photo enthusiasts. It has also added a method for finding photos by date — something competitors, including Picasa, already had.

Apple has also beefed up iPhoto’s editing functions. In addition to automatic fixes, Apple has built in a new translucent control panel that gives you manual control over brightness, contrast, saturation and other aspects of the image. Like Picasa, iPhoto now has an easy way to straighten crooked pictures. But it has many fewer editing and enhancement options than Picasa does.

And iPhoto is tightly integrated with other programs in the iLife suite. For instance, you can select play lists from the iTunes music program to enhance your slide shows without even opening iTunes. And you can send virtual albums to the iDVD authoring program for burning onto a DVD. You can easily burn an album to CD, but iPhoto lacks an automated backup feature such as Picasa’s.

If you have a Windows PC, Picasa is a decent choice, as long as you understand and maintain a good system of folders on the hard disk. But Mac owners have a better overall photo organizer in iPhoto.

With reporting by Katherine Boehret

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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