The computer helper: Free tools for digital photographers

The computer helper: Free tools for digital photographers

Washington - You've purchased a digital camera. So why should you need to spend a lot more to do fun things with your photographs? You don't have to.

The Internet is overflowing with high-quality, free software designed to make working with digital photographs easier and more fun. You just have to know where to look. Read on for some tips.

Q: I just recently purchased a digital camera. I have been using Windows Explorer to view thumbnails of my photographs, but it's slow. Are there totally free programs out there that are better?

A: Yes, there are plenty. For image browsing and organising, Google's Picasa (http://picasa.google.com) stands out as one of the best free tools available. The latest version of Picasa, 3.0, goes significantly beyond just browsing photos to offer you some impressive editing and sharing tools, including the ability to create free Web albums on which you can share images with the world.

Windows Live Photo Gallery (http://download.live.com/photogallery), however, is quickly becoming an able competitor to Picasa. The program adds some novel and truly time-saving features that other programs don't have. Among them is "people tagging," which automatically finds people in your photographs and allows you to identify them. Later, to find images of particular people, all you need to do is enter the names.

FastStone (http://www.faststone.org) has long been one of the most popular free image browsers, and with good reason. It is, first of all, fast - which is important for image browsers, since building thumbnails of images and displaying them can slow a computer down. But FastStone also makes short work of the types of adjustments that most people want - red-eye removal, easy e-mailing, resizing, and cropping. An accompanying program, FastStone Photo Resizer, can take the pain out of resizing a whole directory's worth of images. It's also free.

Q: I am saving up money to buy Photoshop. Are there capable image editing programs that I can use in the meantime?

A: Sure. If you have your heart set on Photoshop, which is expensive, you might want to start out with the much lower cost Photoshop Elements (http://www.adobe.com/products/photoshopelwin), which is really tailored to the needs of digital photographers and may just offer you all of the editing control that you need. Photoshop costs 500 dollars more than Elements, which retails for under 100 dollars, and is geared as much toward professional graphics designers as photographers.

Elements, in fact, has some features lacking in Photoshop, including red-eye removal, a Quick Fix mode, and a Photo Organizer tool. In addition, most Photoshop plug-ins work just fine in Elements. Plug-ins are third party add-ons that provide functionality not present in the base package, and you'll find free plug-ins around the Internet.

Probably the most powerful free image editor available, however, is GiMP (http://www.gimp.org), an open source program that now rivals Photoshop in features and usability, many believe. GiMP offers a customisable user interface, so you can set it up to provide you with just the features you need so that you're not overwhelmed with options. GiMP has its own plug-in system, and over 100 free plug-ins are already available. What's more, you can use GiMP to open and save files in formats supported by most other image editing software, including Photoshop.

Q: I'd like to start a scrap book using photographs from my digital camera. Are there software programs that can make my hobby easier?

A: Yes. Scrapbook Flair (http://www.scrapbookflairsoftware.com) is easy-to-use software that's absolutely free. The program gives you the tools you need to design and lay out scrap book pages around your digital photographs. You have access to a range of design templates, backgrounds, and other embellishments, as well. The software runs on Windows.

Also, Hewlett Packard hosts an Activity Centre Web site (http://tinyurl.com/bztnfk) that provides a wide range of ideas and software for all kinds of photo-intensive projects, including scrapbooks. Canon's Creative Park (http://cp.c-ij.com/en), likewise, includes sections and software for those interested in using their digital photos for scrapbooks, calendars, paper crafts, and art projects. Both the HP and the Canon site are created to steer you in the direction of using paper and printing products from these manufacturers, but you don't have to.

Q: I'd like to try my hand at high dynamic range (HDR) photography. Are there free programs out there that can help?

A: HDR photography, as you probably know, involves capturing two or more images of the same scene using different exposure levels for each capture. Afterwards, you use software to digitally "combine" the images, thereby creating one photograph that has a dynamic range that far exceeds what a camera can recreate in just one image. The effect can be stunning, surreal, inspiring.

PhotoMatix (http://www.hdrsoft.com) is the premiere program for creating this effect, but it's not the only one. Picturenaut (http://www.hdrlabs.com/picturenaut), developed in Germany, is a powerful tool that's fast and gives you most of the tools you need to produce HDR images. Qtpfsgui (http://qtpfsgui.sourceforge.net) is an open-source HDR program that offers automatic image alignment and a wizard to walk you through the image creation process. FDRTools Basic (http://www.fdrtools.com/fdrtools_basic_e.php) is another excellent free HDR tool that allows you to use and import your camera's RAW files as the basis for your creations.

--- Have a computer question? Send it to the Computer Helper at jayd@csi.com. (dpa)

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