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Photo Story 3


Photo Story 3

Photo Story 3 Review     

Originally envisioned as part of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (see my review), and the successor to the most exciting application in Plus! Digital Media Edition (see my review), Microsoft Photo Story 3 was instead realigned as a standalone application that all Windows XP users will be able to download for free. And bravo to that decision, because Photo Story 3 is, arguably, the greatest tool ever made for digital photography enthusiasts. In this review, I'll examine the new features in Photo Story 3 and discuss how much it's improved since the Plus! Photo Story and Plus! Photo Story 2 days. But let me cut the chase right now: If you use Windows XP, you need to download Photo Story 3 immediately. It's that good.

History of Photo Story

In December 2002, Microsoft announced the first version of Plus! Digital Media Edition. It then released the product on January 7, 2003. The release was notable for a number of reasons. First, Plus! DME was the first paid Microsoft product to be distributed online. Second, it was launched as part of Microsoft's "Corona" wave, which included Windows Media Player 9 Series and the accompanying 9 Series audio and video codecs. And finally, Plus! DME included one of the most impressive photo slideshow applications ever made, Plus! Photo Story.


Coincidentally, Apple Computer announced iMovie 3.0 for Mac on January 7, 2003 as well. That product included a highly-publicized feature called "the Ken Burns effect" which provided iMovie with Plus! Photo Story-style animations and slideshows. Curiously, given Apple's digital media strengths, however, iMovie 3.0 and the Ken Burns effect were harder to use and delivered poorer results than did Photo Story. I find it odd to this day that, while Microsoft announced its product first and delivered a more elegant solution and simpler solution, Apple is still given credit for "innovating" with animated photo slideshows.

In any event, Photo Story continued as a largely unheralded but excellent tool throughout 2003, though the company sold over 1 million copies of the $20 package in its first five months of availability. On October 14, 2003, Microsoft released the Plus! DME Update (see my review), a free upgrade to Plus! DME that included new Plus! Dancers and, most notably, a major update to Plus! Photo Story dubbed Plus! Photo Story 2. This version added support for projects, so you could go back and re-edit photo stories after making them, and it could create Video CDs (VCDs) of your photo stories

What both versions of Photo Story had in common was the basic way in which they work: You import a succession of photos to be turned into an animated slideshow, arrange and edit them in a timeline, add narration, music, motion animation and transitions, and then save and share the finished product.

In April 2004, I was told that Microsoft was working on a new version of Photo Story, Photo Story 3, that was to have originally shipped with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. However, development lagged somewhat, and the resulting change ultimately benefited all XP users: Now, Photo Story 3 is available as a free download for all Windows XP users (see below for details).

New features in Photo Story 3

While the basic functionality of Photo Story is unchanged, Photo Story 3 is a much more full-featured product, with a surprising number of improvements over previous versions. And in typical Microsoft fashion, the look and feel of Photo Story 3 is both updated and simplified (Figure). Like Plus! Photo Story 2, Photo Story 3 lets you import photos from your hard drive, removable media like CD-ROM, and from MSN Groups, though most people will obviously simply use locally stored files only.

Obvious improvements

Once you've imported your photos, you'll see a number of major improvements in this release (Figure). First, you can edit photos you've imported, which we'll discuss in the next section, using a set of action buttons under the monitor window. Second, you can remove the black borders in photos (especially those that are portrait oriented). And finally, you can save your project at this early stage of the Photo Story wizard. Previously, you had to wait until you added narration, titles, and music before you could save your project. This is going to be particularly handy for people making large photo stories, as Photo Story 3 now supports up to 300 photos per story.

Photo editing

While you should arguably be touching up your digital photos from outside Photo Story 3, many people don't own any photo editing applications, so Microsoft made it possible to perform basic photo editing tasks using the action buttons under the monitor window. The following edits are possible:

Correct color levels. You can toggle the display of each image between the original version and one that is color-corrected. When the photo is color-corrected, the Correct Color Levels button remains selected (Figure).

Correct red eye. Unlike some photo editing solutions that force you to manually select the areas of a photo which you'd like to correct for the common "red eye" effect, Photo Story just includes a simple toggle button that automatically seeks out red eye and corrects it (Figure). In my tests, this functionality appears to work well. Like Correct Color Levels, Correct Red Eye is a toggle action that can be on or off.

Rotating. Usinng the Rotate Counterclockwise and Rotate Clockwise buttons, you can rotate uncorrected photos directly from within Photo Story.

Advanced editing. If you click the Edit button, a new window appears, giving you access to a new range of functionality. There are three tabs here. In the first tab, Rotate and Crop, you can rotate photos or crop them using a handy cropping rectangle that retains the landscape aspect ratio needed to display the picture without black borders (Figure).

The Auto Fix tab lets you correct contrast, color levels, and red eye (Figure). It's unclear why only two of these three options are available from the main wizard window, but there you go.

In the third tab, Add Effect, you can apply various effects to each picture. We'll look at these effects in the next section.

Adding effects

In the Add Effect tab of the Edit Pictures window, you can add a number of effects to the current picture, or to all of the pictures in your story. The following effects are available:

Black and White. This applies a grayscale effect to the photo (Figure).

Chalk and Charcoal. This applies an artistic grayscale effect to the photo (Figure).

Colored Pencil. This applies a colored pencil effect to the photo, with a bit too much emphasis on the edges (Figure).

Diffuse Glow. This applies a halo-like effect to the photo, washing out and blurring much of it (Figure).

Negative. This reverses the colors in the photo, creating a negative of the original image (Figure).

Outline, Black. This creates a blackened edge-heavy version of the photo (Figure).

Outline, Grey. Similar to the previous event, but with a much lighter color cast (Figure).

Sepia. This applies an old-fashioned sepia tone effect to the photo (Figure).

Washout. This washes out the photo (Figure).

Water Color. This applies a nice colorized effect, though I've never seen a watercolor painting this detailed (Figure).

While most of these effects appear to have been lifted directly from Windows Movie Maker 2 (see my review), few of them are particularly interesting, and you can't combine effects. I could see some people being interested in the black and white, sepia, washout, and water color effects, however.

Removing the borders: Auto crop functionality

Back in the Import and arrange your pictures stage of the Photo Story 3 wizard, there is an option titled Remove black borders that can help you automatically crop any portrait-oriented pictures so that they are landscape-oriented and zoomed-in on the most important part of the picture. When you click this option, Photo Story examines all of the pictures in your story and then displays the Removing Black Borders window (Figure), where you can step through each portrait-oriented photo and pick an appropriate crop. Once you're done editing, you'll be returned to the Import and arrange your pictures stage of the wizard.

So why would you want to do this? Depending on your tastes, the black bands that surround vertical photos might be considered visually unappealing, and this option helps you get rid of them. Having made numerous photo stories in the past, I'm happy to see this addition.

Captions and titles

In the next phase of the wizard, you can add title text to your photo story. This option has changed in dramatic ways when compared to the previous version, which let you add a separate title page, with an optional (non-animated) background image, forcing you to really think ahead if you were going to use this option. Instead of making the title page a completely separate entity from the rest of the story, Photo Story 3 simply adds the title text over the beginning of your story (Figure), much as you would add a title to a movie in Windows Movie Maker.

Unlike Plus! Photo Story 2, Photo Story 3 includes just a title text block, and not a description block, though it uses the same text formatting options. You can also add an effect to the photo over which the title will display, which is a nice touch, using the Effect drop-down box. This is one of the few times when the Effects feature in Photo Story 3 actually makes sense: By blurring the initial photo somewhat, you can bring more attention to the title text.

Also, you can add captions to any photo in the story. Typically, the title text is considered the caption that appears over the initial photo, while any other text is simply a caption.

New narration capabilities

In the next phase of the wizard, you can add narration to and customize the motion of your photo story. In previous versions, the narration phase came before the adding of titles, and it's unclear why the order changed in this version. It's also unclear why the customization of each photo's animation effects is combined with narration. Anyway.

Like most other Photo Story features, Narration has changed somewhat (Figure). You can add narration to the entire story, stepping through the photos by clicking on each in succession as you talk, or just apply narration to specific photos, which is nice. Photo Story also provides a place to add reminder text for each photo so you can remember what it is you want to say during the narration.

New motion animation and transition features

In previous Photo Story versions, you could customize the panning and zooming effects through an Advanced Options window that appeared early in the wizard. Typically, you would just leave Photo Story to its own devices, since the automatically generated animations were well done. In Photo Story 3, you can customize both the panning and zooming effects for each photo, as well as the transitions between each photo. You do this using the new Customize Motion window (Figure), which provides per-picture configuration of both of these options.

In the Transition tab of this window, you can select between 48 (yes, 48) Windows Movie Maker-like transitions (Figure). You can also manually change the duration of each photo display and transition if you'd like.

New music features

While previous versions of Photo Story allowed you to add music to your stories, this version expands on that capability by letting you apply music per-picture if desired (Figure). It also lets you create your own music using a unique feature that dynamically generates a soundtrack based on a selection of genre types, styles, bands, moods, tempo, and intensity. It then customizes that music to match its length to the length of the track of photo story to which it is applied (Figure).

I've been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the automatically generated music, though I still prefer to add music from favorite groups. Still, I suspect many people will be quite happy with the automatically generated soundtracks, mostly because they are timed exactly to the length of your photo story.

Improved saving and sharing capabilities

When the Save your story phase of the Photo Story 3 wizard appears (Figure), you're provided with a set of options that is both far more extensive than what was provided in previous versions and more inline with what we've come to expect from tools like Windows Movie Maker. Now, you can choose between a set of pre-chosen settings, like "Save your story for playback on your computer," "Send the story in an email message," and so on. Or, you can click the Settings button and select from a wide range of profiles (Figure), all way from 1024 x 768 (for computers) down to 160 x 120 (for smartphones). In the previous version, Plus! Photo Story 2, you had only two options for video quality (640 x 480 and 320 x 240), though you could download other higher-resolution profiles from the Web.

What's nice about the plain English settings list--what Microsoft calls Activities--is that anyone can understand them. Want to save the movie in a format that will play natively on a Portable Media Center? Simply choose the activity named "Save your story for playback on a Portable Media Center." Nice.

And while this may be tangential to specific new features in Photo Story 3, it's also worth noting that people who buy into the whole Microsoft "Digital Entertainment Anywhere" mantra can display their professional-looking photo stories in a variety of places: On their PCs, on TVs with a Media Center PC or Media Center Extender, or outside the home with a Portable Media Center, Pocket PC, or Windows-Powered Smartphone. It's kind of amazing what the possibilities are these days.

Problems with Photo Story 3

Though Photo Story 3 is a wonderful tool, it's not perfect. While I applaud the additional functionality in this version, the sheer number of options makes it a bit too complex, especially for a wizard-based application. Some options--like narration and motion customization--are inexplicably linked to the same phase of the wizard, while others--like effects and rotation--are available in two separate locations in the UI. What it all adds up to is a nicely thought-out product that is, in some ways, not optimally designed. This is a problem for any software interface, of course: Any time you pile features on top of a simple interface, things get more complex. But I suppose it's a fair tradeoff when you consider how much extra you get. I just hope it doesn't scare off new users. People familiar with previous versions will be thrilled.

Also, because Photo Story 3 was originally intended to be included only with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, Microsoft has stripped away the ability to burn VCDs directly from the Photo Story interface. That's because you can burn DVDs and VCDs directly from within Media Center. But for other users of XP, sorry, but you're out of luck. You'll need to find your own disc-burning solution.

Another small issue is that, while Photo Story 3 is provided free to all users of Windows XP (any version), you won't be able to download or install the application unless you've activated the OS. This isn't a problem with Photo Story 3, per se, but rather a problem with Microsoft's wider strategy of limiting any site downloads from to non-activated copies of Windows XP. Clearly, the company is attempting to prevent piracy, and obviously, giving Photo Story 3 away free as an additional benefit for using XP is nice. But as with any other software-based copy protection scheme, this block will no doubt bite legitimate XP users down the road, and that could turn into an ugly PR problem for the software giant. I don't think blocking downloads--let alone free software installs--is a valid approach to piracy at all. In fact, I think it's idiotic.


Photo Story 3 will ship Wednesday, October 27, 2004 as a free download for all users of Windows XP. Look for it at


Photo Story 3 is an almost perfect tool for digital photography enthusiasts and a must-have utility for anyone who enjoys their own digital photographs. The effects generated by this application are both stunning and compelling, and very similar to the photo slideshow capabilities that Media Center users enjoy. However, by making Photo Story 3 available for free to all users of Windows XP, Microsoft has both elevated the status of the XP platform and given all XP users a wonderful "thank you" present. If you're an XP user, you simply must download Photo Story 3 today and get busy creating your own stories. If you're not an XP user, then what are you waiting for? Photo Story 3 is just one of many excellent reasons to move to this most capable of digital media platforms.

--Paul Thurrott
October 27, 2004

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