It's easy to be image-conscious

Photo-editing software has made albums of perfect pictures a pushover

My youth is captured for posterity by a series of blurred close-ups depicting me and my best friend in various locations in northern France, squinting into the sun as we attempt to point a Boots disposable camera at ourselves in the style of Thelma and Louise.

Inevitably, half of one of our faces is always out of shot. But things have come a long way since then. With digital photography, long gone are the days of walking into people as you left the chemist's, flicking through the 30 overexposed, or pitch-black, photos in order to locate the six half-decent album candidates.

It seems unfair that someone as terrible at taking photos as I am can now produce shots as striking as the ones that decorated those envelopes my Nineties holiday snaps used to come in. Of course, partly this is because I've upgraded from a camera made of cardboard. I now use a Sony Cyber-shot, bought in New York when the pound was at its height against the dollar. It's sold as the ultimate "soccer mom" accessory, said typical user having merely to point the thing and click for adorable, high-contrast images to be captured instantly.

But the real revolution is in what you can do after you've taken the picture. All the hallmarks of the amateur - from wonky horizons to red eye - can be fixed in an instant with photo-editing tools. And the touch-ups need not stop there: you can crop an image to improve the composition, or pump up the light saturation and "warmify" the colours to make the weather look better than it was.

Photo-editing software used to mean Adobe Photoshop, and was strictly for the initiated. But there are now some really good options for the helpless amateur. Smug Mac users have had Apple's iPhoto software bundled with their computers for several years. Now Windows and Linux users can download similar packages, such as Google's Picasa (Windows and Linux) or digiKam (Linux only), for free. Both offer a wide range of touch-up options with really intuitive interfaces, designed with the holiday snapper in mind.

The third pillar of the revolution is the web album. No longer need you wait for friends to come over to start boring them with your shots from Sardinia - now you can create slideshows online and email the link. Picasa lets you upload your favourite photos with one click, or, for better privacy settings and a bit more of a community feel, try Yahoo's Flickr service.

One by-product is that the web is starting to fill up with amateur snaps of the world's tourist hot spots. Last year, Microsoft demoed a technology it is developing with the University of Washington, called Photosynth, which uses everyone's holiday photos to create 3-D pictures of the world. Taking a copy of every photo on Flickr labelled Notre Dame, they used geospatial data to reconstruct the cathedral in three dimensions. You can see a video of the mind-bending result at

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession