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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Update on Photo Management Software for Genealogists

One of the major challenges of digitizing a lot of photos and documents to use as sources in your genealogical database program is managing the images. If you are diligent in taking digital photos and if you also scan piles of documents, the number of files you create can become overwhelming. I have mentioned before that I presently have into the hundreds of thousands of files, most of which are digital photos or digitized images of documents. My latest backup disk has slightly over 3 TB of data. So how do you manage huge (or even small) collections of documents, including photos, in an efficient manner?

Fortunately, there are a number of programs out there that can help organize your records and in some cases, those same programs can be used to add metadata (information about the files that is stored with the file). The idea here is to let the computers do what they do best; organize and search large data collections. Taking this path will help you, as a genealogist, to focus more on research and less on files and organization.

What exactly do computers do well? If you think about the old needle-in-the-haystack problem, you will see what they do. Let's suppose we update the needle with either a unique file name or some metadata. Then it really doesn't matter, time-wise, how big the stack of hay becomes, with the proper software program, the computer can always find the needle in less time than it takes to think about it. The trick is giving a unique name or identifier to each file (or needle in the example). Since the computer quickly looks at huge masses of data, any further organization other than proper naming and/or tagging (adding metadata) is superfluous (i.e. a waste of time). For you programmers out there, I fully realize that my example is simplistic, but for the sake of brevity, I assume that the "computer" is essentially equivalent to a "black box," that is, I am defining a computer only in terms of its function instead of addressing the really complicated stuff that occurs inside the box.

Computers, with a program, can do a lot more besides simply finding things, they also organize information so that it is more accessible to humans. In the case of genealogy programs, they organize names into families, of course, with the assistance of a human in entering the data. Computer programs have also been designed to organize photos.

At the first level of organization, I suggest you start thinking about your genealogy software program of choice as a way to organize photos, documents or any other item that could be reduced to a digital image. It doesn't really matter which one you pick, all of the top-rated genealogy programs will suffice for organizing your photos and documents by attaching a digital copy of the photo or document directly to the people in your genealogical database program. For example, if I have a document showing a marriage event, I can digitize (or scan) the document and attach the copy of that same document to each person in your program's data file. If you have a genealogy program, look for the function that lets you attach a media file, that is a photo, document, video or audio to events or facts for each person in your file.

By using your genealogy program to organize your documents and photos (including scanned images) you do two things at once, you organize you files so that you can find anything you have attached.

But what if you already have a huge pile of scanned documents or photos or other images scattered on your hard drive. There are quite a few options for finding and organizing this disorganized pile of files. The good news is that there are very good programs for free downloaded from the Web. The not-so-good news is that the really professional programs that also involve complex photo editing, are quite expensive.

At the entry level, there is Google's Picasa. This program is up to Version 3.9 and is a free download from Google. The program will automatically begin searching your computer's hard drive and any attached hard drives for images. It does not make a copy of the images and it does not share any of the images with the online world. It merely makes a thumbnail version index of each image and leaves the original image exactly where you had it on your hard drive. You then have a visual index of every image on or connected to your computer. Using Picasa you can move an image to a different file, rename images, rename file folders and find the original image on your computer. The program will also do some basic photo editing. There are many more functions of the program including tagging people in the photos and adding metadata tags to the images.

I often get the question as to why someone would want anything more than Picasa. The answer is rather simple, if you have to ask the question, you don't. If you get the point of doing complex photo editing or advanced metadata or sorting and ranking photos for professional reasons, you will soon see the need for a more advanced program. There are a huge number of these commercial programs available but the most popular at the high end is Adobe's Lightroom at about $149. Apple also has a program called Aperture that costs about $79.00 from the App Store. Adobe has a less expensive option called Adobe Photoshop Elements for about $89.00 that includes a good management program.

In previous posts on this subject, I have mention iPhoto. I no longer view iPhoto as a useful photo management software program. The problem is that it moves the photos to a proprietary iPhoto storage file on your hard drive and to get a file out of iPhoto, you need to export a copy. I am sure it has its defenders but I prefer using other programs.

There are dozens of additional programs both for your computer and online. I short list might include 87 different programs. If you need to get started and already have a lot of photos or images, at least look at Picasa. If your files are semi-organized already, be sure and attach the files to the individuals and families using your genealogy database program.

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