While previous Windows versions included basic digital photo management capabilities in the Explorer shell and excellent photo acquisition capabilities that popped up whenever a digital camera or memory card was plugged into the PC, users clamored for more. In Windows Vista, they get it in the form of Windows Photo Gallery, a simplified version of the Digital Image Suite product Microsoft sold for over a decade. (So back off Apple fans: Yes, Windows Photo Gallery was no doubt inspired to include Photo Gallery in Windows by the success of Apple's iPhoto application, but the features in this application were kicking around in various Microsoft applications several years before iPhoto ever shipped. Look it up.) Windows Photo Gallery is an excellent application for viewing, organizing, and editing digital photos. It's also at the heart of Vista's photo acquisition functionality, which, sadly, is quite lacking compared to that of Windows XP. For this reason and a few other niggling issues, Windows Photo Gallery can't be your only digital picture solution. Thankfully, there's a handy free application that can tie up any Photo Gallery loose ends.

Windows Photo Gallery is new and unique to Windows Vista. In XP, Microsoft expected users to manage photos in the Explorer shell, which actually worked pretty well but was no doubt confusing to inexperienced users. What makes Photo Gallery special is that it can be used to edit photos, too, a feature that XP lacked. In fact, Photo Gallery is arguably one of the most versatile applications in Vista, as it provides four separate features. Let's take a look

Image viewing

In Windows XP, an application called Picture and Fax Viewer would appear whenever you double-clicked a picture file in the shell. In Vista, this functionality is now provided by Windows Photo Gallery, which in such cases is running in a reduced UI mode where only the top-mounted toolbar and bottom-mounted navigational bar appear. Here, Windows Photo Gallery works just like its predecessor: You can navigate sequentially through pictures in a folder, zoom in and out, and so on.

Even in this reduced UI mode, Windows Photo Gallery provides a couple of simple editing features: You can rotate the displayed image 90 degrees in either direction, or delete it.

But you can also perform other unique tasks in this mode. You can launch cool slideshows, with a variety of themes, by clicking the circular Play Slide Show in the center of the navigational bar. These slideshows are one of the nicest hidden features in Vista, and some of the themes are quite attractive. However, if you want some music to accompany that slideshow, you'll need to start some music playing, in Windows Media Player 11 or another digital jukebox, first.

Photo Gallery also lets you open individual images in other image editing applications you might have installed. So if you want to edit a picture in, say, Adobe PhotoShop Elements, you can do so by clicking the Open button and then selecting that application from the list.

Image editing

To edit an individual image with Photo Gallery, you can click the Fix button while it's displayed. Alternatively, you can directly launch Photo Gallery into this mode by right-clicking a compatible image file in the shell and choosing Edit from the pop-up menu that appears. In Edit mode, Windows Photo Gallery appears similarly to View mode, except that there's now an edit pane on the right side of the application window. From here, you can perform various common editing tasks.

The following choices are available:

Auto Adjust. As Photo Gallery's sole automatic adjustment, this feature will examine the photo and automatically adjust its brightness, contrast, color temperature, and tint at the click of the button. This either works tremendously well or absolutely horribly, depending on the picture, and when the change is made, you'll see a checkmark next to Auto Adjust and any other image facets of the image you've changed.

Adjust Exposure. This option expands to reveal two choices, brightness and contrast, both of which can be manually edited with sliders. Typically, you'll only need to access these sliders if the Auto Adjust change was unacceptable.

Adjust Color. This option expands to reveal three choices: Color temperature, tint, and saturation. The color temperature choice lets you change to cooler or warmer color palettes, which can dramatically change the look of a picture. Tint is used to remove color inaccuracies in a picture, which is a common problem with digital photos. And saturation determines how saturated the colors are in the image; you can move between virtually colorless (grayscale) to deeply over-colored.

Crop Picture. This option allows you to crop unwanted parts of your picture out, which can be quite useful. You can choose between common photo sizes and aspect ratios, as well as Original, which keeps the cropping rectangle at the same aspect ratio as the original photo. What's missing, curiously, is more granular image resizing. You can't, for example, resize or crop to specific pixel sizes, which seems like a rather obvious feature.

Fix Red Eye. Photo Gallery's red eye removal feature works quite well for the most part, and I've come to try this first when removing red eye. If it doesn't work for some reason--some red eye photos are just hard to correct--I start attempting the fix with other applications.

Note: Any time you make a change to a photo in Photo Gallery, the application copies the original and makes changes to the copy. That way, you can go back later and remove any edits you made after the fact. You can also undo edit operations right away with the Undo button or by clicking CTRL+Z.

Image management

To use Photo Gallery to its utmost, you're going to need to start the application from the Start Menu. When you do so, you'll see the complete Photo Gallery experience, complete with image management capabilities. Like the Digital Image Suite products on which it is based, Photo Gallery offers a wide range of organizational possibilities, including:

Recently Imported. Photos that were recently acquired from a digital camera or memory card will be contained in the Recently Imported view. There's not much else to say about that, but we'll look at image acquisition below.

Tags. Windows Vista was supposed to kick off the era of meta-data, where users would "tag" their documents, pictures, and other files with meaningful information that would help Instant search find them more easily in the future. Most of that promise has been lost to delays and feature cuts, but you can still see Microsoft's vision of the future most obviously in Vista in Photo Gallery, where you can apply tags to each picture.

Tags are created in two ways. First, every time you use Photo Gallery to acquire photos (see below), a tag is created using the name you apply to the pictures you're importing. This can lead to a proliferation of tags, as you might expect. I think a better approach is the second method where you manually create your own tags (things like Family, Vacation, etc.) and then apply those tags to your pictures. So, for example, you might return from a vacation, import all your trip photos into Photo Gallery, select them all, right-click, and choose Add Tags. This displays the Add Tags pane, where you can create new tags.

Or, you could create your tags ahead of time (right-click Tags in the navigation pane and choose Create Tag). Then, select photos and drag them onto the appropriate tags in the navigation pane, effectively "painting" them with those tags.

Note that when you delete tags, you don't delete the photos that are associated with them.

Date Taken. This view sorts your digital photos by the date they were taken, which works well for your own digital photos (assuming your camera is always up to date with the correct time and date) but not so well with scanned photos and other digital images. Photo Gallery provides sub-views under Date Taken for each year, month, and date for which you have individual photos. Note that you can manually change the Date Taken property for pictures without this information: Just right-click in Photo Gallery and choose Change Time Taken, or, for more control, choose Properties.

Ratings. Another stab at meta-data nirvana, Photo Gallery lets you rate your pictures, just as you would digital music, providing you with the ability to do things like view just your favorites photos. You rate photos in a manner similar to adding tags: Select photos and drag them onto the star ratings (Not Rated and 1 to 5 Stars) you see under Ratings.

Folders. If you're a traditionalist, Photo Gallery also lets you view photos by folder, and by default, you'll see the four watch folders--folders that Photo Gallery automatically watches for pictures and videos--listed in the navigation pane. However, if you store photos elsewhere, you can add other folders here, too: Just drag them from an Explorer window right onto the Folders node in the Photo Gallery navigation pane. You can delete folders from this list, too, but be very careful: If you do so, Photo Gallery will inexplicably delete the actual folder, too, along with everything in it. Yikes.

Finally, I should note that Photo Gallery, contrary to its name, can also be used to manage the digital videos on your PC. However, you cannot edit videos with Photo Gallery. For that, you'll need to use Windows Movie Maker.

Image acquisition

The fourth major function of Windows Photo Gallery is image acquisition. That is, when you connect a digital camera, plug-in a media card or photo CD or DVD, or start scanning with a scanner, the UI that appears is actually part of Windows Photo Gallery. And you can control how this UI functions--at least somewhat--via the Import tab in Photo Gallery's Options dialog.

Sadly, this is one of Windows Vista's worst features, because it's horribly limited and actually provides less functionality than the image acquisition feature in its predecessor, Windows XP, especially if you're using a digital camera. Here's what happens: When you plug in the camera, Vista will display Photo Gallery's Importing Pictures and Videos dialog:

Here, you can add a name for the photos you're importing. This name will be applied to the folder that's created to contain them under the Pictures folder, and it will be used to tag the pictures in Photo Gallery. There's just one problem: Unlike in XP, there's no way to choose which photos to import: You can only import every single picture on the camera or none at all. So if some of the photos are from family events, some are from a recent vacation, and others are from other events, too bad: They all get tagged exactly the same way.

This is stupid and limited. So you have two choices. You can use Vista's photo import feature and manually re-tag, rename, and relocate your photos when it's done. Or you can use something better.

Fixing Photo Gallery's missing features

If the missing features in Photo Gallery--like the lack of photo resizing and that awful image acquisition UI--have you down, or perhaps you're just looking for something a little more sophisticated, fear not. There are plenty of third party image editors that are worth putting on your hard drive. I use Adobe Photoshop Elements, Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006, and even Google Picasa pretty regularly, and even recommend them, but the truth is, you can get a free application that should meet the needs of virtually anyone with a digital camera. It's called Windows Live Photo Gallery, and as its name suggests, it is indeed the successor to Windows Photo Gallery. However, Windows Live Photo Gallery brings a number of advantanges over Windows Photo Gallery, including:

XP support. Unlike Windows Photo Gallery, Windows Live Photo Gallery runs on both XP and Vista.

Photo acquisition improvements. Windows Live Photo Gallery fixes every photo acquisition complaint I have about Windows Photo Gallery, allowing you to segregate and import as you prefer.

Photo stitching. Windows Live Photo Gallery includes a surprsingly excellent way to create panoramic images from two or more photos.

New photo fixes. In addition to the editing features available in Windows Photo Gallery, Windows Live Photo Gallery adds an Adjust Detail option that lets you adjust the sharpness of images.

QuickTime support. Because so many digital cameras can take short movies in QuickTime format, Windows Live Photo Gallery supports this format.

Windows Live integration. Windows Live Photo Gallery integrates with Microsoft's online services for photos and videos, Windows Live Spaces and MSN Soapbox, respectively.

Third-party services support. Thanks to an open API, Windows Live Photo Gallery can also integrate with third party online services. The first supported service is Flickr.

Final thoughts

While it's not perfect, Windows Photo Gallery is a huge improvement over the shell-based photo management functionality in Windows XP. Its editing features are decent as well, though not best-of-breed, and its image acquisition capabilities are lacking to say the least. If you're taking digital photos, you should at least give Photo Gallery a shot. But you're going to need other tools. Fortunately, there are a number of choices available, and other of the better ones, Windows Live Photo Gallery, is available for free.