Google Picasa 3.8: The First 10,000 Review

We’d all love our photos to come out of the camera perfect from the moment we’ve pressed the shutter down. While that will happen every so often, it’s generally the exception that proves the rule. More often, we look at the photo and realize the exposure’s just a little off, something’s in the frame that shouldn’t be, or we feel that maybe the photo would work better in black and white. There are literally dozens of photo editing and retouching options out there, some of which cost hundreds of dollars (and give you the degree of control a software package that costs you hundreds of dollars had better have) and others of which will cost you absolutely nothing, yet still manage to disprove the old saying that you get what you pay for. Case in point: Google’s Picasa 3.8. It’s a free download, and it’s easy enough to use that even though books have been written on it, you can easily teach yourself the basics and then some over the course of an afternoon. It does a great job of helping you organize, prioritize, tag, and share photos, but I’ll be concerning myself here with its use as an editor.
Figure One (Let's Just Call Him "Walter")

To give you an idea of the program’s capabilities, I’ll be performing a series of operations on multiple copies of the same photo. The image to the left is the original image, with absolutely nothing done to it. Obviously, there are some issues here. For one thing, it’s crooked. There’s also a bit of highlight clipping on the subject’s left sleeve, thanks to the mirror to his left that provided me with what was otherwise some nice reflected light. The whole thing is slightly out of focus. Obviously, under normal circumstances, not what you’d call a “keeper.” The burning (and/or dodging) question, then, is can Picasa turn this into, if not a work of art, then at least something less of an embarrassment?

The Basic Fixes screen

As you can see, the “Basic Fixes” screen provides limited EXIF and histogram data (a nice touch), as well as a number of basic commands. The “Crop” function allows you to crop to common custom sizes and aspect ratios (common print sizes, square crop, 4:3, 16:9, etc.). The “Straighten” feature overlays a grid on the entire photo, making alignment very easy. “Redeye” does a respectable job of reducing or eliminating redeye. “I’m Feeling Lucky” takes an educated guess at fixing color, contrast, saturation, and white balance. True to the name, sometimes you get lucky, but other times not; the program tends to cheat toward looking either too warm (think 1950’s postcard) or a bit too cold. “Text” works as advertised. “Retouch,” meant for minor blemishes, is a pretty ham-fisted solution. When I tried it on this fella’s sleeve, it looked as though he’d spilled something on it, and the less said about what it did to his nose, the better.

“Edit in Picnik” could probably get a review all to itself, but truth be told, I’d find very little nice to say about it. The bottom line about this feature, which includes all sorts of speech bubbles, cartoon characters, ribbons, frames, and cheesy filters to add to your photos, is that it’s just the thing if you like your photos to look like they were retouched by a five-year-old. If that’s not your thing, look elsewhere.

The Tuning screen

Now we come to the Tuning screen. “Fill Light” can be used if your photo is, on the whole, too dark. The problem is, your photograph can very quickly go from being too dark to being washed out; you may recover some details from underexposed areas, but you’ll also find that highlights that didn’t look clipped before suddenly do. “Highlights” is supposed to emphasize highlights, and does give a somewhat finer degree of control, but still leaves you with fundamentally the same issue.

Tuning: Shadows

“Shadows” takes the issue presented by the other two controls and inverts it; it can be used to increase shadows and contrast, but as there’s no way to choose the areas to which it’s applied, you’re really applying a global setting that darkens the entire picture. Now, instead of your highlights looking clipped, your shadows might instead. The “Natural Color Picker,” meantime, is meant to ensure accurate white balance, or blacks that are truly black. It generally works well for white balance, but be aware that it will also change color values across the rest of the photo as well, sometimes drastically.


The Effects screen

Finally, we come to the Effects screen. “Sharpen” is a mixed blessing; while it can sharpen edges and somewhat mitigate the effects of something that’s slightly out of focus, if it’s used too much, it gives you all sorts of ugly artifacts in the photo. The “Sepia” and “B&W” effects work as advertised; however, you may find yourself wanting or needing to go back and adjust other settings to get the most out of these effects (the black and whites produced, while they’re okay, leave a bit to be desired if you like a more contrasty look). You may also find that the “Filtered B&W” presets, which simulate shooting black and white through colored filters, serve you better.

The "Soft Focus" effect applied

“Soft Focus” isn’t. A true soft-focus shot is still in focus, but the edges are softened; done right, it gives a nice, sort of ethereal, glow to the subject. This just makes it look as though you’re looking at your subject through a foggy window. The “Glow” feature actually manages to get somewhat closer to the intended effect, but still makes your picture look a bit like a poorly-done Glamour Shot.


Walter, "Warmified."

In theory, “Warmify” is supposed to make your photos look as though they were shot through a warming filter. In practice, though, it doesn’t just warm the tones, it also has a distracting tendency to warm  everything to the same temperature, to the point that the photo looks flat. “Saturation” tends toward overkill if not used carefully. The “Tint” and “Graduated Tint” presets likewise take some practice; the latter is useful for adding a color cast to a washed-out sky, but since Picasa doesn’t allow layers or intelligent selection, odds are pretty good that the colors used will “bleed” into parts of the scene where they’re not needed or welcome.

PROS: Cost (free), ease of use, and a generally useful set of options; also an excellent tool for organizing and viewing your collection.

CONS: Lack of fine control over fundamentals like Hue, Saturation, and Brightness can make for a frustrating experience; some options can give your images a markedly overprocessed look.

Walter's Close-up

THE END RESULT: The straightening and cropping gave the expected results quickly and easily. Sharpening, however, introduced a bit more noise and loss of detail than I would have liked, and the color adjustments – in the instance of this particular picture, I should point out – just weren’t doing it for me. Being unable to selectively burn (darken) the subject’s sleeve, and finding the shadow tool a bit too heavy-handed in this case, I tried to split the difference. Converting to black and white, as I’ve done here, turns the noise from a distraction into something closer to film grain, and is also a bit more forgiving of the program’s issues with shadows.

THE VERDICT: This isn’t the most powerful tool available, even in its price range. However, once you learn its quirks and limitations (and get the hang of which features “need” other features to be used to full advantage), it can be a useful tool for small tweaks to individual photos. It isn’t quite the tool for major photo salvage; then again, that rather underscores the importance of getting the photo as close to correct as you possibly can the first time. Download it here:

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