Picasa by Google

Good, Great, full of Warts



November 2010:

Earlier this summer I decided to look at Picasa again. Nancy K told me she's been using it for off site backup of her photos and that really appealed to me.  I updated to version 3 and found the features fun to use. It was so much fun that I started on an ambitious project - getting ALL my photos onto my hard drive. Along the way I've learned a few things. Sometimes Picasa is just amazing in what it will do. Other times I have wanted to shoot the screen. Here I lay it all out for you.

Get Your Photos Digital

If you're young you may only have digital photos. Good for you, skip this tip. If you're a bit older, like me, then you probably have a box or two full of photos and negatives. If you don't have the negatives, then this tip is not for you. However, I am lucky enough to have several boxes of old negatives and slides. As CD-ROMs first came available for photos I remember thinking, "why would I pay $2 more to get a CD of my photos?" Well, now I know why.

My first thought was to look at each roll of film and get only the best rolls, and maybe even just the best photos from each roll, onto a CD. I quickly found that I spent a lot of time looking at each roll and trying to decide if it was worthy of a CD or not. Instead, and I recommend this to you, just bite the bullet and get every damn roll onto a CD. Once the photos are on your hard disk you can decide what to delete - if anything.

I found that the local CVS will transfer an entire roll of film negatives to a CD for just $3.00. The scans are not super high quality, but they look fantastic on the computer screen. I started this at Walgreens, but I found the local place didn't do as good a job - they tended to mix up my slides. I don't think it's the equipment but the attention to detail of the staff. Where ever you go, try three or four rolls of negatives and see how they do. If the results are not perfect, try another store.

If you're like me this process will take you months and cost you a few hundred bucks. Don't wait until you're complete to start using Picasa.

Hard Drive Layout

I keep all my photos in one folder with sub-folders for each roll or event. When I pull photos from my camera (or I get a CD back from CVS) I create a new subfolder of the form YYYYMMDD - EVENTNAME. Something like "19951225 - Christmas". This makes the natural sort of the folders be time sequenced. If I don't know the actual date, then I use YYYY0000 and figure I'll come back later to sort it out. If I don't know the year, well that's harder. I try to guess the decade and do YYYx0000 so I can easily find these in the future to change them.

I do not use sub folder of the sub folders. That depth made it harder to work with Picasa, and more dangerous; so I don't do this anymore. 

Once the files are in a sub folder I want to rename them. You don't have to, but I like the picture file names to have some indication of their contents. I use a free program called TheRenameProgram to do this. Unfortunately it seems to have disappeared from the internet. Search CNET.com to find a good bulk file rename program. Use the program to modify the file names in one sub folder at a time. I suggest adding the year/month and a note to each file name. If your photos come from a CD, don't completely destroy the existing file name as that gives you a map back to the CD in case you ever need it.

In my case my files are often named something like  R0-100044.jpg; I rename it to 199512_Christmas_R0-100044.jpg.

If you're a CD person, remove the CD from your drive and use a permanent marker to write the date and event on the CD. Put the CDs in a drawer. This is the new equivalent of your pile of old negatives!

Picasa Set Up

Download Picasa from Google. After the install it will begin scanning your whole drive. Go to the Tools menu, Folder Manager and unclick the box for C:\. Navigate to the master folder holding all your photos and select that box. Make sure to select the box for Picasa to keep watching the folder for new files.

Picasa will create a "folder-album" for each of the folders it finds. The folders will be given the name of the folder on disk. Nice that you used a good naming convention for your folders, right?

WART: You'll find that Picasa flattens your disk folder hierarchy. If you had sub folders of sub folders they will all be shown and siblings of the top-most folder. That's why I don't recommend sub folders of sub folders. Really, Picasa should support a folder hierarchy. On top of this, if you use Picasa to delete a folder-album from the disk then all it's sub folders are deleted too - WITHOUT warning. Really. I NEVER delete folders from within Picasa, it's just too out of control. If you want to delete folders, do it in Windows File Explorer and let Picasa figure it out. You might use the Picasa feature "remove from Picasa"; this is safe to do.

Picasa also has just plain "albums". Photos can belong to a folder-album and as many other albums as you want. It's easy to drag photos from one album to drop them into another.

WART: These drag-drops do NOT get reflected on the disk file system. So you cannot use this method to clean up your hard disk. Folder-album renaming does not get reflected on the disk either. Really, when working in the folder view Picasa should commit these changes to disk.

While viewing photos in Picasa I found that a few were in the wrong sub folder. To clean these up I have to bring up Windows File Explorer, find the file(s) in question and move them to the correct folder.

WART: Do NOT move files around when Picasa is not running. If you do it will lose them. Always have Picasa running when you make any file system moves or renames in your photo folder. This way Picasa will keep track of what's happening. Really, Picasa should MD5 every file and when it discovers new files it should use the MD5 to fix things right up.

Picasa shows the folder-albums in folder-album date order. If your photos are all from digital cameras with the correct date/time, then you're fine. If your photos have the wrong date in them, then Picasa will use that. If your photos, negatives, slides were scanned in by CVS or some other service then the date used will be the date of the scanning - way wrong. Do not upload an album to a Picasa web-album until you correct the dates. You correct the dates by first selecting all the photos in an album. Then use Tools/SetDate to change the date to a correct one. Then double click on the album and select "auto date." If that date is wrong then look at the photos again, you have not set the correct date on all of them.

Correct the Orientation

Each time Picasa finds new photos you'll need to look at each one in Picasa and check that the orientation is correct. Use the Rotate buttons to get it right. This helps facial recognition.

Facial Recognition

Give Picasa some time to scan your photos. Like a few hours. In my case it took two days to scan and complete the facial recognition. In the left hand pane you'll see some sections. Be sure the People section is open. You should see an "album" titled "Unrecognized". Now the fun begins, and it is really cool.

Select a face you recognize and give it a name. You'll see a new Person-album show up under the Unrecognized album. Add names to a few more faces. Do some that are in a lot of your photos. Wait a few minutes. Picasa uses your input to find similar faces. When it does you'll see a gold icon appear next to the Person-album. When you see that click on the Person-album to see what Picasa is suggesting. You can then accept or reject the suggestions. As you do this, Picasa may suggest more faces for the person. It feels a bit like a game.

Picasa doesn't find all faces in all photos. You can click on a Folder-album and the right pane will display all the faces, identified and not identified, in the album. You can double click on a photo and see which faces have been found in the photo. Use the right-arrow key to progress through the photos in the album. If some face is  not found, you can manually add that face and identify who it is. It's a bit like tagging photos in Facebook.

Face Movies

Once you have a Person-album you can create the coolest of all things, a face movie. In a face movie all the photos that contain the person you select are rotated, shifted, and cropped so that the person of interest is right in the center of the picture. Click the Play icon and the photos are displayed one after another with a dissolve between them. I found it very creepy at first - like I was watching a slide show at my own memorial service. When I got over that I found it delightful.

To make a face movie, select the person's album and in the middle pane, under their name, you'll find an icon for face movie. Click that and bingo, you have a movie of that person. You'll find several options - play around with them. Preview the movie and delete any images that are too blurry or too embarrassing. Picasa also blows it sometimes and you have to delete those too. These are not deleted from the disk, but just from the movie.

Once you like the movie click Save. This will take a while; Picasa is building an MPEG file of the face movie. When it's done you can upload the movie to YouTube and share it with your friends. Or copy it to a thumbdrive and US Mail it.

Picasa Web Albums

Picasa offers Web-albums. Any album in your local PC Picasa application can be selected for "web sync". This will create a web album with the same name as the local PC Picasa album and upload the files. Once the album is set to sync, any changes in the local PC album will be reflected in the web album - almost.

WART: Not all local album changes are synced to the web site. I know for a fact that album date is not. Really, how can it not sync every property? So don't select an album for web sync until after you have all the album properties set the way you like.

WART: It's reported that web album dates cannot be earlier than 1972. If you set a date earlier than this Picasa web albums will just set the date to 1972. Really, doesn't Google offer adult supervision of its R&D staff?

WART: All my hard work doing people identification is not replicated to the web album. Really?

Picasa also offers several options under Tools. I set the following:

  • Default Privacy - The albums can be set so that Everyone can see them, or Private, or "by invitation only". I set my default to be Private. Then I can upload all my albums without worry and decide later which ones to share.
  • Default Size - The photos are resized before uploading. If you worry about space usage on their web site, then set this. Or if you want an exact copy of your local files, then set the size to "original."
  • Watermark - Picasa will put a visible watermark over each uploaded photo. If you're worried about people stealing your photos why not just make the web albums private? In any case the auto watermark is a nice feature.

Via the web site you can then choose to share the album with others. When shared By Invitation, your friends will have to create their own free Picasa account to see the albums you share with them.

You can also create more albums on the web site with just some of the photos in them. NOTE: the sync is one way. Changing photos or deleting them on the web site DOES NOT affect your local PC Picasa. That's a good thing.

WART: It's not easy on the web site to see which albums have been shared with others. Really, why don't we have a view for that?

My own approach is to upload ALL my albums as private. When I want to share photos I create a new web album that starts with the name "SHARE - ". This way I always know which photos I've allowed others to see.

Picasa recently made enhancements that allows you to have "thousands of albums." Cool. Oh, except that the web site does not have groups of albums.

WART: Without groups of Web Albums it is impractical to have "thousands of albums." I had just a few hundred and they were unwieldy. The list of albums is linear and I had to go through pages and pages of album thumbnails to find the one I wanted. Really, why not have automatic groups of web albums by year?

I had been happily uploading all my Picasa albums to web albums. I'd even paid for the upgrade to 20GB to hold them all. When I finally discovered some of these warts I needed to make some big changes. I wanted to delete all the web albums and start again. Ooop, no way to do that. Crap.

WART: Picasa does not let you operate on several web albums at once. I wanted to delete a number of web albums and I had to do them one painful click after another. Really, why not let the user select several albums in a list view? Picasa also does not let you operate on more than one PC album at a time. I needed to turn on the web sync feature for a bunch of albums and it required a rather painful navigation and click, click yes, click surely yes on all 500 albums. Really...

Web Albums are Poor for Backup

This is where I started. I found the idea of cloud based storage for my photo backup very attractive. Unfortunately Picasa web albums is not really designed for this. Several things make this a poor backup.

  1. There's no easy way to get all your photos back down from Picasa. It could be argued that recovery from a catastrophic hard drive failure doesn't have to be easy. But it should be.

    WART: Picasa Web Albums should have a way for me to "initialize" my local hard drive. It should copy down all my photos and construct my hard drive the way it was when I uploaded to the web albums.
  2. Watermarks are permanent on the uploaded files. Well, they should be. But not for the owner of the account.

    WART: As the owner of the account I should have some way to get back my photos without the watermark on them.

Backup Your Photos Locally!!!

For sure something is going to go wrong with your computer some day. You put a lot of effort into these photo files. You MUST back them up.

Picasa offers a nice backup function. I have several backups defined. One backup is to a second hard drive on my PC. I do that backup any time I make changes. A second backup is to an external USB hard drive. I do that backup every so often. I keep that drive powered off so it is not subject to AC power problems. A third backup is to an external USB hard drive that I keep at the office. I bring it home every so often and do a backup to that.

Do you trust Picasa? With all the warts I've found so far, I don't know that I can trust them for my backup. I do the backup they provide, but I also periodically back up all the files on my PC to an external hard drive and keep that in another place.

Am I paranoid? You bet. You should be too.

This is the end of my saga. I hope you find the story of my travels helpful to you. I hope you might even be working for Google and get around to removing some of these warts. It's a good product. I hope it has a good future.


Jim Schrempp is a sometimes freelance writer (only Vanity Press will publish his work) living in Saratoga, California. His writings have appeared on numerous pages on his own web site. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of anyone else (although Jim wishes more people shared his opinions)