Good photo software is like a good tool. Bad tools just leave you wishing you'd made a better choice.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
Keeping the costs of digital photography down, Part 1: Software you simply must have (including one program that's totally free)

April 30, 2006

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2006, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2006, The Post-Standard

   Digital photography can be an expensive hobby.
   You might save a lot by never needing to buy film, but everything else you do as a digital photographer seems to drop straight into a money pit. Memory cards cost a lot, as do photo-quality printers and their supplies. The cost of inkjet ink cartridges is a scandal -- the equivalent of $3,840 a gallon, as I reported in a previous column (www.technofileonline.com/texts/tec040304.html).
   So this week and next I'll offer tips on how to keep your costs in line. I'll cover software this week and hardware next time.
   If you care about the pictures you take, you need a good photo editor. Unless you take only a few pictures a year, you also need a photo organizer.
   Most experts agree that the best photo editor is Adobe Photoshop CS2. It costs $550 or more. If that's an "Ouch!" I heard just now, stay with me a minute.
   Most photo hobbyists don't need all the functions in Photoshop -- many are designed for so-called "pre-press" work like the kind done at a magazine -- but one feature of Photoshop that's almost essential is its plug-in system. A plug-in is a small program that adds one or more features to the main program. There are thousands of plug-ins for Photoshop, including many that are free.
   That's why Photoshop's young cousin, Photoshop Elements, is such a bargain. It can use the same plug-ins as Photoshop and has most of Photoshop's photo-improvement functions. It comes in both Windows and OS X Macintosh versions. The current version is called Photoshop Elements 4 and sells for $80 to $100.
   You can spend less, of course, but you'll get software that's less capable in nearly every way. I don't recommend buying any lesser program. Good photo software is like a good tool. Bad tools just leave you wishing you'd made a better choice.
   If you're still looking for a way to justify the expense of Photoshop Elements 4, think of it this way: The best photo organizer for Windows is totally free (all you do is download it), and the best one for modern Macs comes with the computer (all you do is run the program). You'll save $50 to $100 by not needing to buy anything.
   The Windows photo organizer I recommend is Picasa, from Google. There's no charge for the program. Get it from http://picasa.google.com. (You need Windows 2000 or Windows XP. I haven't tried it under older versions of Windows, but it's superb on our Windows 2000 and Windows XP systems at home.)
   Picasa can organize thousands of pictures in just a few minutes. Thumbnails, slide shows and full-screen views of single images are easy to do. You can even do simple image editing.
   Modern Macs come with iPhoto, a photo organizer that matches the capabilities of Picasa while adding cool functions not available in any Windows programs, such as integration with Apple's iTunes and iDVD software. It also has simple image-editing functions built in.
   I recommend one other category of software for photo enthusiasts who make high-quality prints at home.
   If you're a Windows user, Qimage will improve the quality of every photo you print. Try it for free or buy it for $35. (There's a fancier version for $50.) Go to www.ddisoftware.com.
   If you have a modern (OS X) Mac, the printer software to consider is Portraits & Prints from www.econtechnologies.com. Try it for free, or get the standard version ($30) or a template-customizable version ($50). I own the fancier version and use it to print nearly all my photos.
   Next: Memory cards, printers, ink and photo-quality paper.