Downsize My Photos

from the November 2006 Actrix Newsletter
by Rob Zorn

Digital cameras and photo-capable mobiles are great. They've freed us from the constraints of our old 35mm film cameras. We no longer have to carefully ration our 24 shots or put up with having to wait for the inevitable disappointment once we get our photos back from the developer. And they've also made it really easy for us to share the photos we've taken; either by putting them online, or by sending them to friends via e-mail.

The problem is that when we upload the photos from our camera to our PC, they're often quite large in terms of file size, and this makes sharing them via the Internet a bit of a problem. If you're sharing photos by e-mail or by putting them on the web, reducing their file size is really important. No one using a dialup modem will thank you for sending them massive images that will clog their e-mail download for hours, and anyone looking at your photos online will want them to appear on the screen quickly.

It's true, you can usually set your digital camera to take lower quality photos that don't take up so much disk space, but that isn't really recommended. You want your originals to stay crisp and clear and high-quality. The software that came with your camera (that you use to upload the photos to your PC) may have some editing features. If it does, search the help menu for things like compression or sending your photos by e-mail. These topics may well cover how to compress and save copies of your originals for online sharing. But there are other ways of reducing files size, even if you don't have much in the way of special software.

Two ways to reduce file size

Keep in mind there are two types of size reduction to think about. The first is reducing the height and width of your photo. Reducing it from 1500 pixels wide to 500 pixels wide, for example, will make it a smaller picture as well as a smaller file. Reducing the file size, on the other hand refers to reducing how much room it takes up on your hard drive in terms of kilobytes. Two ways of reducing the file size of a photo are firstly reducing its height and width as just mentioned, and secondly, compressing it. Compressing a photo removes some of the file's information. If you compress it too much you will get a fuzzy result, so you're looking for a trade-off - maximum compression with minimum quality loss. Most photos can be compressed by 20-30% without losing too much in quality, but you should probably experiment a little as you go.

Always use "Save As…" when saving a photo you've edited or compressed, and save it with a different name. This will leave the original higher-quality photo intact in case you're not happy with the edited version and can't undo your changes. You can usually find “Save As…” under the File menu of most of the programs you might use to edit photos. If you're just planning on looking at the photos on your own PC, there's no need to compress them, and they're best left at high quality.

Compressing with Microsoft tools

If you have a reasonably recent version of Office installed on your PC, you'll also have either Microsoft Photo Editor or Microsoft Office Picture Manager (Office 2003 and later). If you have one of these programs, you'll be able to find it by clicking the Start button, then selecting Programs, then Microsoft Office, then Microsoft Office Tools.

These programs are able to search your computer for photos, and will display them for you, including lots of forgotten stuff that may have been languishing on your hard drive for months or even years. These programs feature a small set of tools that can help edit, crop and resize your photos as well as compress them.

Microsoft Office Picture Manager

Once you've opened this program, you can use the folder list on the left to browse to the folder containing the photos you want to work with or share. Select a photo by clicking on it, and then click on the Edit Pictures button at the top of the screen. A menu will appear on the right that contains a number of tools including crop, rotate and redeye removal. The most useful feature of all is the Compress Pictures tool (JPEG Quality factor in Photo Editor) which can be used to reduce the file size of your photo. There's also a re-size feature which will allow you to reduce the height and width of your photos before you compress them, further helping to reduce file size. If you're sending them by e-mail or putting them on the web, you want to try to get each photo down to between 20 and 40 kilobytes in size.

Picture Manager also comes with an "Email pictures" feature on its main menu (right hand side when you first open the program). Select a photo (or ctrl-click to select more than one) and then click this feature. Picture Manager will allow you to choose from a number of different sizes (postcard size is probably about right) and whether you want them displayed in or attached to a message. Click Create Message and an e-mail will automatically open with the compressed photos attached. Pretty darn handy!

Plenty of free online tutorials are available for both Microsoft Picture Manager and Photo Editor. A couple of examples are:

http://ittraining.lse.ac.uk/Documentation/OnlineGuides/Picture-Manager.htm, and
http://cite.nwmissouri.edu/phototutorial.htm.

If you don't like these ones, a Google search will bring up plenty more for you.

Microsoft Paint

If you don't have Office installed, you can use Paint to at least reduce the height and width of your images, or crop out the part of an image you want to save.. Paint also has some very basic editing tools. Paint is a standard part of Windows and can be found under Programs/Accessories.

Click File and then Open to load up an image to work with. The very basic set of tools is over on the left. Paint will allow you to do lots of manual editing with pencils and airbrushes, but if you just want to reduce the height and width of your image, Choose Stretch/Skew under the Image menu. Change the height and width settings from 100% to 50% for example. Remember to use "Save As…" under the File menu to keep your edited version separate from the original.

A reasonably straightforward Paint tutorial can be found at http://lkwdpl.org/classes/MSPaint/paint.html.

Once you've edited photos and gotten them ready, make sure you save them somewhere you'll be able to find them so that you can manually attach them to an e-mail or upload them to your web space if you need to later. To send a photo manually by e-mail, just open a fresh e-mail and click the little paper-clip icon. This will allow you to browse to and select the photo (or any other file) you want to send by e-mail. You can add as many attachments to an e-mail as you like, but just keep in mind that your poor recipient may struggle to download the e-mail if you load too many.

Editing with Picasa

Picasa (http://picasa.google.com/) is a free 4.5 Megabyte download from Google. It provides fun, easy and powerful ways to sort and edit your photos. It searches your entire hard drive and presents every image you have in a time ordered library of directories. This saves you having to spend hours trying to remember where you put older pictures, and you will probably be surprised at how much you've forgotten you had. The timeline feature is especially funky, presenting your image folders to you via a rotating 3D interface.

Picasa's main purpose is to help you sort your photos and it is great for that. You can simply drag photos to your desired folders and right-click to rename them or move them to a new folder, but that's just the beginning. You can also assign labels to individual images for further sorting. These work like hidden post it notes which will remind you later on about what your intentions were for that photo. The star feature lets you mark a photo so that you can come back to it later.

You can also view a slideshow of a folder's contents, or burn a folder of photos to a Gift CD. Double-click an image to open the editing tools which include redeye removal, rotation, cropping, sharpening and even a one-click auto-fix for lighting and colour.

The Export feature allows you to reduce the file size of a photo as you move it to another folder (ideal for getting photos ready for the web), and Picasa will even automatically compress a photo and attach it to an outgoing email with just a single mouse-click. Just select the photo and click the Email button.

One downside is that Picasa's help is all online, which is a bit of a nuisance for dialup users, but it isn't a feature you're going to need very often. Picasa is intuitive and interesting to use. It's hard to find free software as good as this.

Getting your photos online

Setting up a web site and uploading photos to it (or using your free Actrix web space is the stuff of another article, but one option you might want to consider is Flickr (http://www.flickr.com).

Flickr is one of the latest of many online communities. Joining is free, and you can log straight in using your Yahoo ID if you have one. If not, creating an account is easy enough.

There's no limit on how many photos you can upload to Flickr, so long as you don't exceed 20 megabytes per month. This is plenty if you compress your photos before uploading them, and you can upgrade to a pro account with a 2 Gigabyte monthly allowance for $US 24.95 per year. For most of us, this won't be at all necessary.

Once your photos are uploaded the Organizr tool can be used to organise them in all sorts of ways. You can group your photos into sets that can be viewed as a slide show, or you can just leave them as individual pictures, with a short paragraph of comment or explanation. The map feature is excellent for showing off just how well-travelled you are. You can drag your photos onto a map of the world so everyone can see at a glance just where you were when you took them.

You can set privacy levels for individual photos or sets if you just want to share them with designated friends, or you can go the whole hog and join special interest groups to share your photos with people of like mind.

Browsing other people's photos or searching by key word is a good way to get an idea of what others have done with their photos at Flickr. You can comment on the photos that others have uploaded, or respond to comments that have been made about yours. If you like the idea of the world seeing your photos, leave good descriptions and tags with them so that they are more likely to be picked up in searches.

But you don't have to have an account to look at other people's photos. Even if you don't want to join, there's still a lot to see at Flickr. With literally millions of photos online, you're bound to find a wealth of pictures on just about any topic.