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Using Picturelife – a review of metadata preservation

April 25, 2014 1 comment

As my previous post mentioned, I’ve just signed up to Picturelife as a means of hopefully (ideally) finally getting our family photos under control. Regarding this aspect, one of the most important features for me is the ability to avoid ‘lock in’ – so that if I ever want to take my photos out, then I don’t lose the hours of painstaking rating, comments, notes, tagging, and other metadata that I’ve added to my photos in order to get them into some form of order.

What I’m trying to ascertain here, is how well Picturelife preserves tags and metadata in photos and videos that I export from the service – in this case, downloading to my local PC.

To test this, I’ve selected a month without too much data (since the default method is to allow you to download zip archives of a month at a time), and then sprinkled various tags, album names, comments, ratings, etc. through these, and see if they’re preserved in the downloaded files.

 

Tagging the Photos

There’s various ways you can add metadata to photos, including:

  • Tags (duh!)
  • Ratings (0-5 stars)
  • Favourites
  • Face tagging
  • Album names
  • Photo captions
  • Timeline ‘event’ captions (for the day)
  • Timeline ‘event’ descriptions (again, for the day)
  • User comments

These will be familiar from almost any photo organising or management site or tool, and different ones are convenient or relevant depending on how you interact with the UI. What I wanted to ascertain, is which of these are worth using – if you want to preserve that information – and which will be lost forever if you download your photos.

Adding Metadata with Album name, Comment, Tags and Ratings

 

For a start, while doing the tagging, I found some issues which slowed down the process. Some of these I’ve mentioned to Picturelife support, and some I haven’t:

  • The Web UI shows the Timeline, a day at a time. If you want to scroll back to 2007… then you need to do a lot of scrolling. This is in contrast to the iOS app, which allows you to select a year/month, and then drill down to a day
  • You can’t select multiple photos from the timeline across different days – you need to open each day one at a time in order to make your tags, add them to albums, etc. You could do this using the All Pictures view, but you’d then need to scroll to find the pictures in the crowd
  • You can’t highlight faces for tagging yourself – if Picturelife hasn’t automatically detected a face and placed a box for you to tag who it is, then you simply can’t tag it.
  • If you do tag faces, you can select contacts from your linked social media sites – for example, Facebook. This is very convenient, as long as you’re comfortable with the privacy concerns (for example, I prefer not to link photos to unique IDs that could be used by someone to identify my friends, against their wishes).
  • If adding photos to an Album, at present, Picturelife presents a single list of albums in alphabetical order. If you have tens or hundreds of albums, that’s going to get tiring. Hopefully they’ll arrange a picker with recently used albums at the top, and an auto-complete search interface for finding other albums in the crowd.
  • Picturelife have generally made a good job of ‘not losing your position’ if you mis-click. For example, if go from Timeline, click All Pictures, then Timeline again, they could have forgotten where in the timeline I had my position, but luckily, they take me back to where I was, for pretty much every view

     

Once you request the download from this static link, Picturelife grabs the photos, places them in a zipfile, and you can download them.

Figure 2: Ready to download your photos…

 

Downloading and unzipping the archive received, gives you this:

Figure 3: Received files

As you can see, the filenames appear to be original – these are how they were originally named on disk before I used the native Windows client to upload them. These were all JPGs before, and they’re now accompanied by an XMP file containing more metadata.

 

JPEG metadata

OK, so let’s have a look at the JPEG metadata first:

This file had no inserted metadata beforehand – it came from an early digital camera with no GPS or tagging capability. It’s carried through the tags and ratings as I created them in Picturelife, and the original dimensions and timestamps are intact, including details like the “Author” (this came from a smartphone, which inserted the owner’s name as the ‘Author’).

It has marked Picturelife as the creating program.

 

For the cat photos, all the camera metadata is preserved…

 

So… pretty good! All standard stuff, and about as good as you could expect.

 

Other JPEG metadata

OK… so how about the other metadata? Namely, the album name and timeline info. See in the screenshot at the top how I named the date Flying to NYC, and that all these are in the Test for Jan2007 album. This is useful organisational/search information. Is that preserved?

Well, in the file metadata – no, at least not as visible in Windows 7 Explorer. How about if we view them in Picasa (which should support XMP)

Again, no – this is all the same data as in Windows Explorer. The tags are visible here, too:

So –the most natural way of initially organising your photos, the Timeline captions, will be lost.

 

XMP Information

Ok – so what about the XMP information? With each file, you get a couple of bytes of extra information.

 

Well, opening this XML file, we see a bit more info. Alongside the previous rating and tags, we see the Album name – which means if you organise your photos using albums, this will be preserved in some form.

 

 

How about Videos?

I ran a second test with some face-tagged photos and a video. For the video, the rating and tag were preserved in the XMP sidecar file. Nothing was added to the MP4 file’s metadata itself, but since metadata varies per file type / container, I wasn’t expecting to see this.

 

Captions, Comments and Face Tags

So – how about the more exotic metadata?

Well, Captions work – anything you write as a caption in a photo, will appear under Title in Windows. (Obfuscated here as they contain names of people).

 

Interestingly, although Picasa generally plays well with EXIF data too, it didn’t pick this up as a caption for its own purposes, prompting for its own caption to be entered.

 

Looking at the general properties of the file in Picasa, the Picturelife-entered caption was there, under Title. Just not recognised by Picasa as such.

 

How about Face Tagging? Well, that’s in the XMP:

You’ll see the co-ordinates of the face tag, and the name of the person. The name in this case was the full name as autocompleted from Facebook; however, there’s no Unique IDs or references that might uniquely relate to that particular friend – probably because Facebook doesn’t expose them. So there’s some privacy in obscurity there, particularly for common names that aren’t easily Googlable.

 

And Comments? Well – nothing. The comments I made in the picture, didn’t make it into the XMP, so evidently, you can’t export these, which is a shame.

 

 

 

In summary

 

So, in summary, which tags are actually preserved outside Picturelife?

Tags

Yes

Both EXIF and XMP

Ratings (0-5 stars)

Yes

Both EXIF and XMP

Favourites

Unsure

 

Face tagging

Yes

XMP as Social Media Name

Album names

Yes

XMP field only

Photo captions

Yes

EXIF as title

Timeline ‘event’ captions (for the day)

No

 

Timeline ‘event’ descriptions (again, for the day)

No

 

User comments

No

 

 

It’s pretty good, but it’s disappointing that the other methods proposed for interacting and tagging events – such as timeline captions, descriptions, and anything that you can search on, are not stored as tags as well, perhaps with a system prefix like “PL:”, so that they’re never lost.

Wishlist

Although Picturelife is the closest to a perfect Photo sharing and organisational tool that I’ve found (except perhaps for Google+ and Picasa, which I prefer not to use), I’m constantly sharing feature requests with the team. In this exercise, I came up with a few more.

  • It should be possible to include the Timeline Description and comment in the XMP Sidecar files
  • It should be possible to identify the folder name that imported photos are contained within, and add this as an album name or tag, so as not to lose any existing photo organisation
  • It should be possible to search on the filename, or words within it, if this was used for organisation
  • If amendments are made to the photos after a zipfile is created, it should be possible to refresh the archive – as I noticed then I added a comment and album allocation to some photos, and yet the old zipfile still existed, and there was no way to delete or refresh it
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Next stop, Picturelife – review to follow

April 14, 2014 Leave a comment

So – just a quick note about PictureLife.2014-04-14 11_14_04-Picturelife

Having had a continuous thread in this blog following my search for the perfect picture management tool, I turned this weekend to PictureLife

Picturelife seems to have some things that the other tools don’t, such as:

  • Providing an easy means to make sure we offload the photos from our phones/cameras in the first place (iPhone/Android clients)
  • Providing some automatic tagging, organising, etc
  • NOT sharing by default, and allowing you to download your photos WITH ALL THE METADATA PRESERVED IN A STANDARD FORMAT
  • Allowing us to consume/share the photos easily when we want – iPad/iPhone/Android/Web clients.

The last is the most important… it’s not trying every route to either force you to share photos, or to lock you in! Of course, they want to, the same as every other company, but at present, they’re giving very good options to take your data with you. And this is key to actually trusting such a service.

So – we’re dipping our toes: all photos from 2014 are now in Picturelife, and we’ll default to uploading and organising the photos in Picturelife as well.

My first impressions is that it has the fundamentals right, but there are a lot of bugs and issues that I’m discovering. For example, I’m watching as photos I uploaded a few hours ago are appearing in the browser before my eyes.

The strongest competition with PictureLife is Picasa/Google+. They also retain metadata, provide flexible editing/organisation, and granular sharing, and export with metadata inline. They’re far cheaper – even free and unlimited for storing lower-res photos. The problem is… it’s Google! I just don’t trust Google with my most personal data.

So… I could actually pay big bucks for PictureLife – possibly $200 a year if I choose to upload ALL our photos and movies, ever.

But then… you spend much of your waking time taking this endless stream of photos, interrupting your enjoyment of the occasion itself… and then never, ever look at them. So what’s the point? What value to actually enjoy those photos? To be able to share them with friends and colleagues when out, instantly, easily. Is $200 that much?

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