Windows Live Photo Gallery & EXIF Damage

by JL Beeken on 11-07-2010

Windows LiveThe Windows Live Photo Gallery disaster has hit new heights of obscenity.

You’ve already heard about how it automatically applied garbage GPS co-ordinates to any photo with an embedded address and no co-ordinates. The Microsoft design team thought they’d do the world a favor by adding co-ordinates to save us the bother of doing it ourselves. Even though these co-ordinates could never be accurate and in some cases even hit the wrong country.

Co-ordinates were even applied when the address only contained a country. Or only a state and country. Or only a city, state and country. Or even if there was a street name with no number.

Well, it’s much worse than that. I have now discovered that all my photos hit by the GPS train, (about 10,000 of them) were also subjected to EXIF damage. And, most notably so far, were significantly reduced in size by LZW compression.

And for no reason except that my photos were exposed to Windows Live Photo Gallery. They weren’t edited by Windows Live Photo Gallery in any way. They weren’t face-tagged. Nothing. They were just there.

I scan all my photos large and save them as uncompressed TIFFs to allow for the highest quality in any future reproduction. It’s the only way I’ve ever done it and it’s the only thing that makes sense. I have photos going back as far as the 1860′s and scanning them was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Many of them are long gone to dust. If original copies still exist they are not at my house.

(Update: As it turns out, LZW-compression is not permanent damage. It’s a loseless compression and the photos can be brought back to original size. Please read more about this at Photo Odds & Ends.)

I’ve scanned these photos over years and spent thousands of hours meticulously restoring them pixel by pixel. Then I spent more hours carefully annotating them with captions, keywords, addresses, source and copyright information. Obviously, for many of them there are no GPS co-ordinates so that part was left blank. That’s where the Windows Live Photo Gallery bulldozer jumped in and ran them over.

Fortunately, I sent a backup disc of the BEEKEN side of the family to my cousin in Georgia and I can probably retrieve a copy. My sense is that it was about two years ago so that will set me back two years in my IPTC annotation work. And it won’t account for the many pictures collected from other sources since then.

Re-annotating photos might seem like a somewhat straightforward task since I can re-type the information from the damaged photos. My fingers and spine hurt just thinking about it. Eight IPTC fields ten thousand times.

But there’s another big problem. It’s called AFCP and it’s trash IPTC bequeathed to my photos by MediaDex. It’s not ‘seen’ by anything except Windows (although it shouldn’t be because it’s not standard IPTC) and deep analysis tools like ExifTool whose job it is to see everything. Picking multiple fields of this out of photos one at a time is part of the tedium I’ve just spent the past 15 days on from morning til night so I’d be doing it all over again.

I sent a backup disc to my mother of the BAKER side of the family, also about two years ago, and I should be able to retrieve a copy from her. Same problem. A two year setback in IPTC annotation, dealing with the AFCP again, and still missing all the photos collected, scanned and restored since then.

Thankfully, there are also copies out in the world of the large 1950-1976 collection. This was hit by the same EXIF and compression damage and also requires the same metadata restoration.

For all my personal photos from 1977-2003, there are no backups that pre-date Windows Live Photo Gallery. Just before I discovered the GPS problem I had spent three days dealing with the AFCP-IPTC trash left behind by MediaDex and backed up the changes to them, as well as all the other photos, to both external hard-drives.

I do have a backup at Carbonite but there’s a small issue there. At the time my computer crashed in August, the backup was 18GB behind. Right now it’s 68GB behind. Although Carbonite’s policy is to only keep files going back 30 days they keep files going back for months. There’s an obvious upside to that but the files I need to get back are only sporadically and minimally available. And the photos that might have been backed up a month ago, before the Windows Live Photo Gallery damage, have left the queue to make room for the damaged ones.

So, this is where I am, heading into the winter. On my knees.

According to Geoff Coupe, there is evidence that this damage began before the more recent GPS addition to Windows Live Photo Gallery. A more extensive list of EXIF damage covering many other facets has been sent to Microsoft.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Donna Wendt 12-29-2010 at 12:54 PM

Hi JL,
I am wondering that if I get a new PC computer and Windows (the latest one) will I be getting the Windows Live Photo Gallery with it? And will all my photos go to this WLPG that I have in my current hard drive and see either in folders in different areas, or mostly “My Pictures? Or is the danger of the mandatory GPS insertion happen only if I used WLPG to store pictures on the internet like Picassa? Currently I use Paint.net as my default photo editing software. How can I avoid your problems?
Thanks – Donna Wendt

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JL 12-29-2010 at 1:52 PM

Windows Live Photo Gallery comes with the Windows 7 operating system. There’s a link to it pinned to the Start Menu, which is how I came to have my problems. I was just looking around at my new system and clicked on it to see what was there. If I had not opened WLPG, ever, nothing would have happened.

But just the fact of clicking on WLPG was enough for it to start adding bogus GPS co-ordinates to all pictures within the My Pictures folder (there by default) that had location data in them but no co-ordinates. It also compressed all the files that it changed and made other changes to the metadata.

Because I do a lot of annotation work on my photos, this affected most of them. I’m still cleaning up the mess over two months later.

Since that time (mid October) Microsoft has changed WLPG (although it appears somewhat reluctantly) to stop adding co-ordinates automatically. Obviously, this is a huge relief as far as that problem goes.

However, and here it gets a little more technical, there are other issues with how Windows handles photo metadata that make me uncomfortable, so my choice is to simply not use WLPG. The entirety of Windows Live Essentials can be uninstalled which is what I’ve done. I believe single components can be added back if you want them, for instance Windows Messenger or Windows Movie Maker, etc.

In my opinion, there is much better software available for all these purposes so I don’t see a use for any of them.

You will still be able to see your photos in My Pictures, Windows Photo Viewer and Windows Explorer. Just viewing them seems safe. There’s more options there than XP in being able to add tags on the fly but I don’t trust it for that. I use XnView (free) as my default browser sometimes and GeoSetter (free) and Photo Mechanic ($150) for annotation work. GeoSetter is excellent and run in the background by Phil Harvey’s ExifTool. Phil is extremely knowledgeable about metadata, and also cares, so I think you can feel confident your photos will be safe there. GeoSetter also uses embedded Google Maps, so if you’re addicted to Picasa, you can move to GeoSetter and be in an overall better place. Picasa has given me metadata problems as well and is not up to speed in opinion.

I don’t think Paint.NET has anything to do with metadata and GPS, so you can probably carry on there safely.

You can read more by searching this site for WLPG.

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