Software keeps track of photos

May 15, 2000|By Mike Himowitz

I've been an inveterate picture-taker for 30 years. At family gatherings and on vacations I snap away at anything that moves. The problem is that once we've looked over the photos, I've never been much good at organizing them. We have bags full of pictures, most still in the envelopes that came back from the photo finisher. There just doesn't seem to be enough time to go through them and put them into albums. And when I want to find a photo a month or a year after I've taken it -- well, good luck.

I thought this would change when I started toting around a digital camera, but the new equipment just turned me from a paper slob into a digital slob. True, my hard drive allows me to organize my snapshots a bit better than I did before -- in folders with names attached. But after a month or so, it's hard to remember which folders contain which photos.

To the rescue comes a remarkable photo-tracking program called Ulead Photo Explorer 6.0, and it's free for the downloading if you're willing to put up with some annoying banner ads. Photo Explorer not only helps you find and organize your photos, but also makes it a snap to print them and upload them to the Web for sharing with friends and family.

If you're not familiar with Ulead (www.ulead.com), the company produces superb image-editing software. I've been using Ulead's PhotoImpact for a couple of years now because it has the best combination of power and ease of use that I've found.

Photo Explorer was once bundled with PhotoImpact, but for some reason the company dropped it a couple of releases ago, which caused me no end of grief because I relied on it so heavily. It's good to have the program back as a stand-alone with so many new features.

At its heart, Photo Explorer is a file manager that takes its name from Windows Explorer. But unlike that program, it's optimized for photo enthusiasts. When you launch it, you'll see three windows with three panes. On the top left is a familiar Explorer tree that shows a diagram of your hard drive's directories, which Windows calls folders. By clicking your way through the folders, you can examine their contents. While Windows Explorer displays file names only, Photo Explorer finds every photo in the current directory and displays a thumbnail image of each in a pane at the right. You can adjust the size of the thumbnails to display more images with less detail or vice versa.

Click once on a thumbnail image and an enlargement appears in a pane on the left below the file and folder tree. This alone is worth the price of admission. You may not remember what file name you gave that snapshot of Aunt Rhoda, but you can certainly find her at a glance. Once you've located a photo, you can click on it and copy it or move it to another folder, just as you can with Windows Explorer. Or, you can double-click on a photo to call it up in a full-screen viewing window.

Although it isn't a full-scale editing program, Photo Explorer will allow you to rotate and crop a photo and make adjustments in brightness, contrast and color balance. With another click, you can transfer the image to a more sophisticated editor such as PhotoImpact for serious work. The program will also convert image files from one format to another. For example, you might want to convert a high-resolution TIF file, which can occupy millions of bytes of storage space, to a highly compressed JPEG format that's easier to transfer over the Internet or display on a Web page.

Photo Explorer can also help you collect your images by importing them directly from a scanner or digital camera. Obviously, the makers of these devices provide software to handle these chores, but it's nice to be able to do everything in one place.

If you want quick prints, the program will handle that, too, printing a single image or making multiple copies of a photo on a single sheet for wallet-sized snapshots. You can also print out a "contact sheet" with thumbnails of all the photos in a particular folder, which makes it easier to organize and find images when you're away from your computer or share your collection with friends and family, who can pick out the shots they'd like.

Just be aware that Photo Explorer's printing capabilities aren't as sophisticated as those in a full-scale photo editor's -- you'll probably get better results using your regular software, particularly with lower-quality images.

An entirely new feature in this release is one-click Web photo sharing. Ulead has jumped into this exploding market with a new site called iMira.com, which allows you to create online photo albums that can be viewed by friends and family. While there's little to distinguish iMira from most other photo Web sites, Photo Explorer makes it easy to transfer one picture or a whole folder to iMira with a couple of mouse clicks. This convenient touch gives the iMira-Photo Explorer combination a big advantage over many competitors.

In short, Photo Explorer is a well-designed Swiss army knife for digital photographers and image collectors. The only "feature" that turned me off was a succession of gaudy, flashing banner ads for other Ulead products that appeared at the top of my Explorer window.

You can get rid of the ads by paying $29.95 for the nonannoying version, which can also be downloaded from Ulead's Web site. Even at that price, Photo Explorer is a bargain.

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