Managing Photo Libraries – Part 6

Time for another episode in my saga of trying to manage my library of photos. This has been prompted by the release this week of the beta of what will be the next major release of Microsoft’s Windows Live Photo Gallery.

While there’s a lot to like about Photo Gallery, it continues to have shortcomings that stop me from making much use of it. Some of them are down to bugs that Microsoft really should address, while others are limitations in its capabilities. But even here, at least one of the limitations could be removed by Microsoft as I’ll illustrate.

First, the bugs. One that I find particularly irritating, because it’s been known about by Microsoft for nearly a year, but still has not been fixed in this new beta, is the “Publish to Flickr” bug. It’s probably even a very simple fix – a change to a single line of code would probably do it – so I fail to understand why this has not been done. Update: this bug was finally fixed by a release of WLPG on 16 December 2008.

Another long-standing bug, but one that may be more tricky to fix, is that Windows Live Photo Gallery (WLPG) is aware of IPTC/XMP metadata tags that images may have, but seems to deal with them on a hit or miss basis. Sometimes WLPG will correctly read in the IPTC/XMP tags from an image file and add them to its own tag list, and sometimes it won’t. Here’s an illustration of this. The following image is a WLPG screenshot of twelve photos that have been tagged with IPTC/XMP metadata. I happen to have used IDimager, which is my current tool of choice at the heart of my digital workflow, but I could also have used Microsoft’s own Pro Photo Tools 2 to add IPTC/XMP metadata. (Note: IDimager is no longer available. Its successor is Photo Supreme, which I am now using)

In this screenshot of WLPG, I have selected the first of the twelve images, and in the information panel on the right are the description tags associated with the image. I’ve highlighted the tags with a red box for clarity. Now, I did not use WLPG to add the tags to the image, they were automatically read in from the image by WLPG itself and added to WLPG’s list of tags.

WLPG Wave 3 Beta 1 test 1

That’s how it should work – WLPG should check images for IPTC/XMP metadata and use this to maintain its own tag hierarchy. But now look at this next screenshot. Here, I’ve selected the second image in the sequence of twelve. Remember that all twelve images have had IPTC/XMP metadata added to them, in fact they all have exactly the same metadata. But here, in this screenshot, WLPG is showing that there are no tags associated with this image, so it seems to have failed to read in the metadata from the image.

WLPG Wave 3 Beta 1 test 2

In fact, in this set of twelve images, all of which have the same metadata, WLPG failed on nine images, and only correctly read in the metadata on three (numbers 1, 10 and 12). While WLPG has a “Refresh” command, this doesn’t seem to have any effect on reading in metadata. It still stubbornly claims that nine of the images have no descriptive tags associated with them.

This is a showstopper of a bug as far as I’m concerned. For me, the “truth is in the file” – in other words, the metadata describing an image file must be preserved in the file itself. That means that the IPTC/XMP and EXIF metadata is central for management of my photo library. Having metadata held outside the image files (as WLPG is doing in its own database) may be necessary for performance reasons, but the content must always reflect the metadata in the files themselves.

A rather good analogy that I came across is this… Imagine that you have an album of family photos. It’s full of photos of members of your family stretching back several generations. Underneath each photo is a handwritten description of who is in the photo – that is the metadata for the photo. It’s a marvellous resource for you and your family – a record of your family history. But over time, the glue degrades, and the photos become loose. Worse, many of them become unstuck. What do you have then? A pile of loose photos, and an album with blanks where the photos should be – and no way of knowing which photo should go where. The metadata has become separated from the photos.

What’s the solution? Well, what should have been done in the first place is to write on the back of every photo who is in the photo before sticking the photos in the album. In other words, the metadata should be directly associated with the photos themselves. Then it doesn’t matter if the photos fall out, the album can always be reconstructed. Indeed, a new album can be made when the old one falls apart.

Anyway, back to WLPG. I mentioned limitations. One is in the photo import process (when you transfer off a batch of photos from a camera or memory card into the PC). While WLPG gives some options for creating folders and renaming the files as part of the process, they are nowhere near flexible enough to meet my requirements. I spelt out what I was looking for in part 5 of this series of posts. I also mentioned that Microsoft had claimed that the underlying import engine was flexible enough to do what I wanted. It’s a pity then that in this latest beta, the claimed flexibility has not been exposed. We still have the same old limited options that we had a year ago.

There are a couple of new features in this beta of WLPG. The first is one that has long been asked for: the ability to select photos based on rating. I’m a little surprised that it’s taken so long to be included, given that it has always been in Vista’s Photo Gallery. Still, I suppose I shouldn’t be churlish.

The second is a totally new feature: face recognition. You can tag faces in your photos with people tags. Interestingly, if you are using Windows Live Contacts, then your people tags are automatically populated with your contact list to start with, and changes to this list are reflected in WLPG. I still need to investigate this feature a bit more carefully. Unless these tags are written back to the individual image files as XMP metadata, so that they can be used in other applications, then I would not want to make much use of this feature. It would be too much like simply writing names underneath photos in an album. No guaranteed longevity there, then…

So, all in all, one cheer for WLPG. But until the metadata bug in particular is addressed, I’m not going to be making much use of this application.

Update 24 September 2008: I’ve done some more testing on the metadata bug, and I think what is happening is that WLPG is confused by hierarchical keyword metadata. In WLPG, you can have a long list of keywords/tags, or you can start to group them in a hierarchy. So, for example, my keyword cows is actually part of a hierarchy that starts Nature/Animals/livestock/cattle/dairy cattle/cows. That way, when I search for photos with the keyword cows, it will just show me those with cows in them. But if I search for photos with the keyword livestock, it will show me photos of cows, horses, pigs, sheep, and so on.

It looks as though WLPG will recognise a hierarchy of IPTC/XMP keywords in new files, and uses it to add to its own hierarchy. However, thereafter it refuses to recognise any changes to the metadata of image files containing hierarchical metadata, and so ignores them. Not very useful, and what I consider to be a showstopper bug.

Update 4 December 2008: here’s the blog entry where I track down this issue of hierarchical keywords causing a problem in WLPG…

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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7 Responses to Managing Photo Libraries – Part 6

  1. Michael says:

    Hi Geoff,
    I’m a Program Manager on the Photo Gallery team.  Would you mind sending us a couple of those photos that haven’t been read completely?  You can send me them via email at michaelp AT msft (spelled out) dot com. 
    Thanks for using the Windows Live beta.

  2. Geoff says:

    Michael, the photos will be on their way to you later today. Thanks for your reaction.

  3. Robert says:

    Hi Geoffe,
    As for your question about whether the face information is stored in the file as XMP, yes. If you crack the file open and look at the metadata written out, you’ll notice that the face data is there in XMP.

  4. Geoff says:

    Robert, thanks, I thought it probably was. But at the moment, I’m seeing some files that have had people tags added that seem to be without the XMP face data, while copies of the same files are showing them. It may be that the effects of the bug on hierarchical keyword handling has some other side effects as well.
    I think I’ll wait until at least the next beta before tagging in earnest…

  5. Pingback: Managing Photo Libraries – Part 5 | Geoff Coupe's Blog

  6. Pingback: Windows Live Photo Gallery Revisited | Geoff Coupe's Blog

  7. Pingback: Managing Metadata | Geoff Coupe's Blog

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