Paperless Photo Albums

Switch to a digital camera, and you can stop worrying about those unruly stacks of old-fashioned prints and negatives. But all too often the mess moves straight into the computer, where thousands of digital shots end up scattered across a vast hard drive, many never to be seen again. Ironically, this means that while folks take far more digital pictures, they print and share fewer of them than in the days of the Instamatic.

Photo-album software, which helps to locate, organize, and share digital snapshots, can transform this photo overload into a creative opportunity. The programs are great for novices but can also help more experienced shooters organize their archives.

Lots of new photo organizers are pouring into the market. They range from freeware, such as Google's (GOOG ) practical Picasa, to Adobe's (ADBE ) more powerful -- but harder to use -- Photoshop Album ($49.99). All of them include basic photo editing tools, such as red-eye reduction. For more serious retouching, consider specialized image-editing programs such as Adobe's popular PhotoShop Elements or Ulead's PhotoImpact.

At the core of album software is a search engine that scours a hard drive for images and produces a single, tidy view of them, no matter which long-forgotten folders they occupy. You can zoom out to see many pictures at once or focus on just a few, and sort them into batches by topic or by date. Picasa makes this especially easy. In its "timeline" view, the program arranges stacks of photos along an arc across your computer screen. Sliding the cursor to the left on this arc brings older photos to the fore. This tool makes it easy to navigate vast numbers of images quickly. Using these programs, you can select pictures and send them by e-mail or, for 20 cents to 30 cents a shot, order prints online from Shutterfly or Ofoto.

At $49, Jasc's Paint Shop Photo Album is the best of this lot. It complements an easy to use set of organization tools with some nice extras such as a photo-backup utility and a deep bank of scrapbook and greeting card templates. These can help turn that unruly cache of digital images into a real-world album worthy of your coffee table.

By Adam Aston

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