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Going Digital? Things to Consider

You've probably spent a fair amount of time viewing your picture collection. Like most people, this collection probably includes paper photos and slides. It's likely the paper photos are stored in some sort of paged photo album, and the slides are in some sort of tray for use in a slide projector.

But just like movie film transitioned over to camcorders years ago, pictures are now transitioning to a digital format. Slides and paper photos can be converted to digital form by scanning. Photos today are likely to be taken with a digital camera.

With picture viewing technology constantly improving, there are some major benefits to going digital (and a few disadvantages). Taking full advantage of these benefits requires some understanding of the factors involved in displaying digital pictures. The remainder of this web page will discuss these factors.

Paper Photos Weren't that Bad!

The technology behind paper photos has been around for many years, and really did offer certain advantages:

  • You don't need a computer to look at the pictures
  • The album is relatively small and easily transported
  • Cost is relatively low
  • You can easily flip from page to page
Slides weren't much different. But they did require a projector to view them.

Going Digital has some Real Advantages

As we're all well aware of, technology marches on, and this advancing technology is now giving us more and more of our pictures in digital form. There are some big advantages to having your pictures in digital form:

  • they don't fade over time
  • they take up virtually no physical room
  • they can easily be copied and sent to family members
  • a backup copy can be easily made and stored in a safe place
  • they can be easily printed at home
  • they can be easily edited (e.g.,cropped, color enhanced)
  • they can be posted on a website for all to see
  • they can be e-mailed to one or more friends at very little cost

You've Got to Manage a Picture Collection

Of course, you could (as a friend of mine does) just throw your old paper photos into a shoebox and never look at them. Then you don't need to worry about some way to organize and view them. But most people put their paper photos into a photo album. Repeating the above advantages, they are:
  • You don't need a computer to look at the pictures
  • The album is relatively small and easily transported
  • The cost is relatively low
  • You can easily flip from page to page
Balancing these avantages are the following disadvantages:
  • As the number of albums grows, they begin to take up a substantial amount of room
  • Once organized into an album, it's difficult to easily add, remove, or reorder pictures
  • Adding text to describe the picture content can be a real problem
  • Some albums don't allow pictures of varying sizes
Slides pose similar problems. For example, instead of a fixed-size album, they make use of a fixed-size tray. Textual annotation becomes an even bigger since there is virtually no surface to write on.

In contrast, organizing your digital pictures within a computer file folder has quite a few advantages:

  • Reordering, insertion, and deletion is easy
  • The size of the pictures is irrelevant
  • Its as easy to copy the folder as it is to copy a single picture
  • Its easy to arrange your pictures in any hierarchy
  • The pictures take up a very small amount of physical space
  • A typical CD-ROM can typically store over 500 high resolution pictures

Looking at your Digital Pictures

Ultimately, you need some way to look at all those beautiful pictures you've collected. The industry realizes this, and has produced many commercial programs that let you do just that. There are also dozens of shareware programs that do the same thing, and that are available at low cost over the Internet. Some of these programs are even free.

Choosing the Picture to Display Next

Advancing from picture to picture is one of the most basic actions when looking at pictures. When using a photo album, this is as simple as a turn of the head or a flip of the page. With slides it implies going to the next or previous slide.

Picture viewing programs also have this "next" or "previous" paradigm, but go on to include "go to the first picture" and "go to the last picture". They also let you jump ahead 5, 10, or 25 pictures.

An even more useful capability is that of showing many of your pictures at once, each in a small size (about 1" by 1") referred to as a "thumbnail". A "thumbnails window" serves as an index to your pictures, so that by clicking on a thumbnail you cause its full size picture to be displayed. This means you can choose, by sight, whatever picture you want to display next.

This usefulness of this Thumbnails window is further enhanced by its ability to be shown, hidden, resized, and repositioned - with or without the main picture window simultaneously showing.

A Thumbnails window gives you another big benefit - it enables you to easily reorder your pictures using the mouse. For example, when you move a picture, all the other pictures are automatically adjusted in position. That's much easier than working with physical pictures.

Instead of manually setting the display order, you can have the display program automatically order the pictures by their file name, creation date, or size. You can even specify that they be randomly ordered!

No picture viewing program would be complete without a timer that caused the next picture to be displayed every so-many seconds ("slide show" mode). Of course, you can specify this delay time, as well as whether the "slide show" continuously repeats.

Choosing the Size of your Picture

With paper photos and slides, the size you see is the size you get. Picture display programs have no such restriction. Since they often are displayed within a standard window, you can resize the window (and the picture within it) to whatever size you choose. You can also click on the window's Maximize button to have the picture fill the screen.

Examine Picture Details with Pan and Zoom

Pictures frequently contain more detail than is immediately apparent. You don't have to reach for a magnifying glass to check out this detail. Often you simply click on a point within a picture in order to have the picture view zoomed into that point. Alternatively, you can use your mouse to "drag a rectangle" around an area of interest, and upon removing your finger from the mouse button, that rectangular area will be expanded to fill the viewing window.

Once you find yourself zoomed into the picture, you may want to move (pan) your view around a bit to check out surrounding detail. This is also easily done with another mouse-click or via keyboard buttons. For example, doing a control-click on a point within the picture will cause the view to be centered about that point.

Picture Sounds - A Whole New Dimension

Pictures very often are even more interesting if the person who took the picture verbally describes it. An audio recording (residing on a WAV file) can be associated with a picture file such that when the picture is displayed, the accompanying audio is played. Combine this with the timed slide show, and it will appear as if the person himself is presenting the slide show!

Additionally, background sound files can also be played, enabling "theme music" to accompany the display of a set of pictures. This background audio will only play when picture audio is not present.

Describe the Picture

No doubt you've seen many photo albums or slide collections that contain interesting pictures which would be far more interesting if you knew something about the people in them, the place they were taken, or simply anything about the context. You've got a chance to do this with some photo albums, but not with others. And you can't really do it with slides.

Picture display programs really come to the rescue here, and you can easily type in a caption/description, making it as extensive as you wish. But here's where you really have to be careful, since different picture display programs handle this task in very different ways. Here are some points to keep in mind:

Avoid programs which store your descriptions in their database
Some programs store this descriptive text within their own proprietary database, locking you in to their picture display program. If you lose that database file, or if it becomes corrupted, you could lose ALL your annotation effort! And that's not the only issue. If you rename, move, or delete pictures, you often must do it from within their program, or the database won't be able to follow the changes. Also, if you want to send the picture to a friend, the annotation won't go along with it.

You might wonder why they do this if it's a bad idea. They do it because they can handle a variety of picture annotation, for any picture file format. They also do it because it's fast to search this database for pictures containing specified text.

Insert your picture description within the picture
You can reduce your risk of future loss of annotation and stay compatible with other picture display programs by using only those programs that make use of the EXIF industry standard. Most of today's digital cameras create their pictures using this EXIF standard, which embeds a whole host of picture related information (including the picture description) within the picture. Each piece of this information is called a tag. EXIF data can only be used with TIF, GIF, PNG, and JPEG/JPG pictures. However, the vast majority of the pictures you encounter will be of one of these types.

When you select a picture display program, make sure it handles all EXIF tags. Some programs handle only a limited set (e.g., they may omit the Photographer tag), some restrict the amount of descriptive text (e.g., only allow a single line), and others don't let you update this text.

Where on the picture do you want to display the picture description?
In many photo albums, you can write a description of the picture somewhere on the picture, or next to the picture (e.g., under it). Picture display programs do the same thing. For example, you can display your annotation on the picture itself (e.g, upper-center, lower-center), or separate from the picture (e.g., over or under the picture).

What else besides picture description?
Digital pictures, especially those from a digital camera, typically contain a wealth of information, such as exposure time, photographer, date taken, etc. You may want to see a little, a lot, or none of this information along with the picture. Typically, the picture description and filename are shown, but you may select any set of information that is to be displayed.

Select the display format you prefer
Each item of picture annotation you want shown along with the picture is displayed using a default font style, color and size. That may be perfectly acceptable. But if you prefer another format (e.g., Red Bold Comic, size 20), you can easily select one. For example, the picture description could be shown in red, while the picture date could be shown underneath it in dark blue.

You may also choose a prefix and suffix for each item of information displayed. For example, instead of displaying the filename as "234.jpg", you could have it displayed as "File 234.jpg".

Transition Effects

When looking at paper photos or slides, you look at one, then the next one. But, as you see on TV, most picture display programs feature the ability to show a transition effect between pictures. For example, a vertical bar moving to the right will progressively display the new picture on its left, while overwriting the old picture on the right. Some picture display programs have dozens of these effects.

Searching for Pictures by Tag Content

When you have a big collection of pictures, you may want to search for a particular picture. With paper photos, you may have to take a second or so per picture in order to do this. Slides can take even longer. This search process goes much faster when using picture viewing programs that offer thumbnail views.

But if you've inserted some annotation within your pictures, you can do a fast automated search by looking for specific text within this annotation. For example, you may be viewing a picture folder containing several hundred pictures, and want to look at all pictures that contain the word "Erik". To do this, bring up the Search window, and key in Erik, specifying that it should appear somewhere within the picture description field. Within seconds you get a list of matching pictures which you can then browse over.

Enhancing a Picture's Appearance with Simulated Picture Frames

As everyone knows, when pictures are displayed for public viewing, they almost always are mounted within an attractive picture frame. True, the physical frame is necessary to hold the picture, but it often seems like a lot of thought went into selecting a frame that was complimentary to the picture so it would enhance the viewing experience.

A few picture viewing programs also have the capability of surrounding your pictures with simulated picture frames. If they do, look for a wide selection of frames to choose from, since you want the picture and it's frame to match both in theme and color. You also want the ability to specify the thickness of the framing bars. Finally there are some other smaller issues to consider: Does the frame obscure any part of the picture? Does the frame become part of the picture so that you can't easily change to another frame or resize it? Can the frame be printed along with the picture?

Printing your Pictures

You're no doubt going to want to print one or more of your pictures on your printer. While you could do that using many picture processing programs, seriously consider using a picture display program that lets you do more than simply print one picture per page. Specifically, it's very convenient if you have the ability to choose among several "layouts", so for example, you could print two 5x7 prints per page. You also want the ability to select which of your pictures is to be printed in each layout box. Since a picture won't often exactly "fit" a layout box, you also need the ability to rotate a picture to achieve the best fit. Closely associated with that, you want to be able to fit the full layout box and selectively clip any overhanging ends.

Then there are captions to consider. If you already have captions that display along with your picture, they should optionally also appear on your print. Along with this, if your picture has an assigned picture frame, it too should appear on the print if you choose to include it.


As you can see, a capable picture viewing program can offer a huge number of advantages in viewing your digital pictures. While these benefits were somewhat hard to achieve just a few years ago, they are now within reach of the average computer user. This is probably a major contributing reason why the sale of digital cameras and scanners has really taken off in recent years.

So you don't have to wait any longer - go digital now with your photos!


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