Thursday, 31 May 2007

Geotagging in Picasa

A cool feature I played with while sorting out some photos last night is the Geotag option in Picasa. It's been there for a little while, but I haven't gotten around to looking at it. The implementation is pretty slick: you select one or more photos in Picasa, select "Geotag" and it opens up Google Earth. For each photo, you pinpoint a spot on earth and tag it, or tag a whole group of photos with the same location.

I think this kind of linking back photos to their real world locations is fascinating, and would happily go through and geotag all my old travel photos, except it doesn't really do much yet. For instance, I use Picasa Web Albums, but when I upload an album all the geotag information is lost.

All that geotagging appears to do so far is let you view your photos in Google Earth, which isn't quite as convenient. I would have expected Google to do some amazing integration with Google Maps, live, inside your online photo album, but there's nothing. Not even a latitude/longitude listed in the "photo details" section. Rather disappointing.

On the bright side, knowing Google's knack for creating cool new ways to integrate their services, I know something like that can't be far off. Especially after seeing their extremely impressive new Street View in Google Maps yesterday, I'd expect they'll do it even better than I can imagine.

Using iPhoto with Picasa

I've taken about 15Gb of photos over the years, and have always organised them with Picasa because it's so damn easy to use. However I recently bought a new MacBook which Picasa isn't available for yet, and I wanted to try Apple's bundled iPhoto. After a bit of playing around, I think I've come up with a way to use the best of both.

Since I'd also just caved and gotten a 2nd gen Shuffle so I wanted to try doing everything the "Mac way". I spent a lot of time cleaning up my music collection and importing it into iTunes, and I'm very happy with how that's gone.

So I figured I'd also start using iPhoto to organise all my new photos too, and eventually bring across all of my old ones. However after a while I discovered that iPhoto just isn't up to the same level of quality as most of the other Mac apps, and it has nothing on Picasa. Basically, the few advantages of iPhoto that I've found are:

  • Using iPhoto means better integration with all the other iLife apps - everything that loads pictures defaults to looking in your iPhoto library. For example, if I want to make a DVD of my photo albums, it will be much easier if I have everything in iPhoto. Plus as far as I know, FrontRow only loads your iPhoto pics.
  • iPhoto has the Retouch feature which is great for cleaning up smudges or marks, especially since I seem to have collected some nasty dust on my camera lens that is noticeable in some photos.
  • iPhoto has some nice features in the editing interface (eg holding the Ctrl key to compare to the original photo) but Picasa is pretty slick in this department too, so I don't mind using either.
On the down side, iPhoto insists on making a full copy of every photo that you make even the slightest edit too. Even just rotating a photo results in it making a backup copy, and at 2-3Mb each, that can quickly grow to 5-10Gb of unneeded copies.

I've always loved how Picasa lets you make as many edits as you like without touching or duplicating your original photos. Instead it saves all the changes you make to a tiny text file as a kind of macro, and applies these changes on the fly whenever you view the photo. The only time it makes a backup copy is when you use the red-eye tool, and the only time it ever saves them to file is when you explicitly save or export them.

Compared to this, iPhoto is positively primitive. As soon as you adjust the contrast, crop a photo or do anything at all, it saves it as a full-size copy in the Modified folder. Even just importing photos that are internally marked as portrait layout (eg if you rotated them on your camera) causes a copy to be made with the correct orientation.

I realise that iPhoto integrates with more applications than Picasa, but surely it wouldn't be hard to have a common library that applies your edits on the fly whenever an external application needs to use the photos?

That's my one big gripe with iPhoto, but there are a few other little things that I prefer about Picasa:
  • The "I'm Feeling Lucky" button is brilliant. It seems to make such a huge difference to some photos, which look so grey when you go back and compare them. iPhoto has a similar auto-fix feature but I seem to get better results with the other one. So much so that I sometimes just select a whole batch of new photos and apply the "I'm Feeling Lucky" to the lot of them in one go.
  • I find the simple lighting/contrast controls in Picasa easier to use than those in iPhoto, which tend to be more technically oriented. Plus the "Sharpen" filter is nice sometimes, which iPhoto has no equivalent for as far as I can recall.
  • I prefer Picasa's implementation of albums and how they map to physical folders, whereas iPhoto keeps all album information in it's database and stores them on disk in a less intuitive way.
  • Finally, since I use Picasa's Web Albums (my gallery is here), the integration into Picasa is unsurprisingly a bit better than the plugin available for iPhoto.
After all that, I think I've found a solution which gives the best of both worlds.

I want to be able to use the editing features of Picasa and the integration of iPhoto while avoiding the whole backup copies problem. Essentially my setup now is: I'm continuing to use Picasa as my main photo organiser (using Parallels for Mac), while importing my photos folder into iPhoto as well.

By default, iPhoto is configured to move any imported photos into it's own folder structure, but you can turn off this option and make it leave your photos where they are. This means I can continue editing them with Picasa, but also see them in my iPhoto library, without needing to duplicate any 2Mb-plus image files.

The photos themselves are stored on my Mac hard disk (not the Parallels virtual disk), which is required for them to be accessible from OS X. The Parallels link between the virtualised XP and my main partition (which appears as a mapped drive) is seamless, and I've had no problems with it.

Of course iPhoto still creates it's own thumbnails for your photos, but the size of these is nothing compared to the original files. It also keeps creating copies of any "pre-rotated" photos as you import, but you can just delete these copies if you don't mind seeing a few sideways images in iPhoto.

The main drawback to this setup is that iPhoto will only see your original untouched photos, because any edits you made are kept within Picasa. However that's not a big problem for me, since so far, I only really use iPhoto for the odd slideshow in FrontRow. As far as I'm concerned, it's worth saving the 10Gb or so of disk space in duplicated photos.

Hopefully with the next version of iPhoto, Apple includes some of the good features from Picasa, especially the zero-copy editing. Even better would be if they collaborated with Google on an iPhoto/Picasa hybrid for the Mac, but one thing at a time. Either way, I'll probably keep using my current setup for now, just because I have so many edits done in Picasa. Unless Apple added an "import from Picasa" feature... a man can dream.