OK, so I had recognised the need to properly manage my growing collection of images. If you’re paying attention you would have noted that I said “images”, not “photos” (despite the title of this article!). Hmm. Remember, that includes a number, soon to be in the hundreds and eventually in the thousands, of scanned photos up to maybe 100 years old, as well as my own scanned slides and prints from the last 50 years, not just photos taken since my conversion to digital cameras about 10 or so years ago. But also increasingly it was to include scanned copies of documents like birth or death certificates, military documents, shipping passenger lists, newspaper items, census pages, copies of wills and so on.
But I’m getting ahead of the story! In the early stages I was only really thinking of digital photos. I started using the software supplied with my first digital camera, Kodak EasyShare. Actually I don’t remember an awful lot about it, which probably says something, doesn’t it! It did import the photos from my camera, and I could do some basic editing like cropping and straightening, but as far as actually managing them effectively obviously it lacked what I felt I needed, even at that time.
I was soon searching for something more, but at that stage I didn’t feel the need to pay any money for a better solution. Then, indeed as now, Google Is My Friend, and verily it was, for I found an early version of Picasa. I can’t remember what version it was, but whatever its shortcomings at the time it filled my immediate needs, and so it became my image manager of choice. I don’t hesitate to say that except for the fact that I’ve moved on, can see some ongoing shortcomings and wanted more, in all likelihood it probably still would be. Since its early days Picasa has grown and now in addition to functions such as basic editing like cropping, straightening and red-eye removal and cataloging photos into albums, it offers advanced tagging (including geotagging). Recent versions added face tagging, my Number One favourite feature. It also added integration with online Google+ contacts, but IMHO that’s just fluff, I’m not at all interested in that and actually it gets in the way of what I want to do (would you want to add your long-dead ancestors as Google+ contacts?). But face tagging, YEAH! That’s really cool, and I’ve taken to the concept with a vengeance.
Face tagging? So what does that involve? If you’re not familiar with it, in basic form it means you add “tags” to an image that contain the names of people displayed in it. This information (known as “metadata”) is searchable from within the image management software, so you can say pull up all the photos that contain Uncle Frank in less time than it takes to say it. For a genealogist (even an amateur like me) that’s one fantastic feature! I’ve sort of become the de facto archivist for my extended family, and I’m often sharing photos I’ve collected with relatives. So this one feature enables me to do that pleasurable job much better.
But face tagging is only half the story. Picasa extends that with facial recognition, which means that as you incrementally assign names to faces Picasa learns to recognise that face in other photos. In fairly short order Picasa starts to suggest names to faces in photos you haven’t yet specifically looked at. And it does a really good job at it too… in fact sometimes it’s scary how accurately it can pick people! Of course it’s not perfect, and as with any similar software, if the person’s face is not pretty-well vertical and front-on, it either mis-identifies it or doesn’t even “see” a face where a human being does. But nevertheless it’s very good, and it does reduce the time it takes to keep all those tags up-to-date.
So there we are. Over the last 4 or 5 years I’ve face-tagged almost my entire collection of photos, many thousands as there are. Yes, it does take time, but Picasa certainly helps the process. And I now have an archive that hopefully will be useful for my descendants and extended family for generations to come.
Or do I? That brings me to what is in my view Picasa’s biggest failing. Good as it is in identifying and tagging faces (remember, my #1 feature!), by default Picasa stores that information in an external database and folder-based files. So what does that mean? It means that if I share a photo, or upload it to either my personal website’s genealogy section or my Ancestry.com family tree, the face tagging information doesn’t go with it. All that hard work, down the drain!
But wait! Enthusiasts might point out that Picasa does offer access to an “experimental” feature whereby it can write face-tagging information directly into the photo’s “XMP” metadata. The acronym isn’t important at this point in the story, but this metadata is saved (along with the other “EXIF” and “IPTC” metadata types) internally in the photograph file itself. In theory, that information is then available to any other application that reads that type of data, as most photo-viewing software worth its salt does. I say “in theory” because that’s exactly what it is – theory. The biggest issue facing anyone wanting to preserve and share face-tagging information in photos is that there is no single standard for doing so. As we will see in the next post, information you write into a photo with one application is more than likely not recognised by another. Geez!
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