Whether you're repairing a leaky tap or editing your photos, everything is easier if you use the right tools for the task. I use a variety of programs on my own photos, for example. When I'm editing a photo I plan to print or publish, for example, I use Adobe Lightroom. For projects that require compositing - such as combining multiple images in layers, replacing a sky, or moving a person from one photo to another - I'll use a more traditional photo editor like Adobe Photoshop or Corel Paint Shop Pro.
But for panoramic stitching, quick and simple touch-up work, and photo sharing, nothing beats Windows Live Photo Gallery. It's free, and the public beta of the latest version just hit the streets. Allow me to give you a tour. (You can also read PCWorld's complete review of Windows Live Essentials Wave 4).
Find Your Photos Easily
If you're not familiar with Windows Live Photo Gallery, you can think of it as a photo organiser with integrated photo editing tools. The program displays thumbnails of all of your photos in a single view, and you can drill into specific folders using the Navigation pane on the left side of the screen. To get back to all of your photos, just click All photos and videos.
Photo Gallery gives you a few powerful ways to find specific photos quickly. I'm a huge fan of tagging to keep track of your photos, and Photo Gallery makes this task easy to do. Just select a photo (or a group of photos) and then, on the right side of the screen, type a tag in the Descriptive Tags field. Any tags you've already created will appear, making it easy to re-use tags without memorizing them all.
Face Identification at Last
The previous version of Photo Gallery could recognise the existence of faces, but the hard work was up to you - you'd have to manually identify each and every person in all of your photos if you wanted to be able to search our photos by who was in them.
Wave 4 can identify faces automatically. Just 'seed' Photo Gallery by identifying a few people, and then the program will figure out where they are in your other photos. When you open a photo, Photo Gallery will let you identify the people in it, or you can use the Batch people tag button to accept Photo Gallery's guesses on multiple photos at once. In my experience, Photo Gallery is right most of the time.
Getting Around the Ribbon
A key improvement in this newest version of Photo Gallery is the ribbon, similar to the one in Office and certain Windows 7 programs. I like the ribbon because it arranges Photo Gallery's various tools in logical groupings, making everything easier to find. Click the Find tab, for example, and you can filter your photos by date, zero in on pictures of certain people, or see photos you've given certain star ratings or tags.
You can even combine these criteria. Want to see 5-star photos of your daughter taken only in 2010? Click each of those items in the ribbon, and you'll see them appear in a status bar atop the photos. To clear these search constraints, just click the status bar's X.
I love Photo Gallery's organiser tools, but it is handy as a simple photo editor as well. When you double-click a photo, the Edit tab appears, where you can do all the standard stuff - rotate, straighten, crop, remove red eye. There are also some special effects, like color tones and a 'retouching' tool that removes blemishes.
My favourite new feature is Photo Fuse, which lets you swap elements among several very similar photos. What does that mean? Suppose you're taking a group portrait. You try taking three shots, but there's something wrong in each one. People blink, sneeze, look away - you know the drill. Select the photos and choose Photo Fuse from the Create tab. After a short processing time, you'll be able to click on a new "composite" version of the photo. Wherever there's something different, you choose which version from among the photos you want to use. I can use it in an orchestra snapshot, for example, to make certain that everyone is looking forward.
The results won't be perfect - there might be some weird artifacts that aren't easy to eliminate - but it's pretty close to magic.
Stitching, Sharing, and More
The list goes on. There's a surprising amount of power and capabilities in Photo Gallery, especially when you consider that it's completely free and has no in-program advertisements or other annoyances.
Photo Gallery still has what I consider to be just about the best panoramic stitching engine available - that hasn't changed. New, though, is a group of sharing tools on both the Home and Create tabs. You can, with just a click, post photos and video to all sorts of places, such as a SkyDrive folder, YouTube, or Facebook.
Is Photo Gallery a comprehensive replacement for Photoshop or some other photo editing program? Of course not. But it can get the job done 80 percent of the time. As a general purpose photo organiser, though, it's second to none - and that's pretty awesome.