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Preston Gralla is filling in for Laura Blackwell, who is on maternity leave.

Got plenty of photos and other media on your PC? Then you know that the graphics tools built into Windows won't exactly knock your socks off. And looking at the price tags on some add-in photo and media programs might send you into sticker shock.

But you don't need to pay a bundle for solid media tools--in fact, you don't need to spend a penny. We've rounded up four freebies that do a great job of helping you master your media.

StudioLine PhotoBasic

The StudioLine PhotoBasic image managing and editing program.
The StudioLine PhotoBasic image managing and editing program.
Don't be fooled by StudioLine Photo Basic's name: This image managing and editing program is anything but basic. It's a kind of jack-of-all-trades for handling digital photographs.

The program bills itself as a photo archiving tool, and while it does a good job of that, it does a lot more. It has all the archiving tools you'd expect; you can use it to browse and reorganize your photo and image collection, including organizing your photos into albums.

A particularly useful feature is its ability to create what it calls "Web galleries." These are HTML-coded Web pages, complete with navigation links to your photos, that you can publish on your own Web page, or to a CD or DVD. And there are plenty of other archiving tools as well.

The program also includes a surprisingly robust set of editing tools. You'll find the common standbys for red-eye removal, cropping and rotating, changing the color balance, hue, saturation, and tone, and so on. But there are surprisingly sophisticated ones as well, such as a very useful "Despeckle" tool that removes speckles and spots from old photographs. You can also add a wide variety of special effects, including embossing and adding sepia tones.

In fact, there's so much packed into this program that your greatest problem will be finding it all: The interface is not the most intuitive. Still, this is a surprisingly powerful program that just may be the only photo management and editing tool you'll need.

Microsoft Photo Info

Microsoft's Photo Info application.
Microsoft's Photo Info application.
One of digital photography's many benefits is that it enables you to embed metadata into each digital photograph--information such as the time and date the picture was taken, the camera model number, the exposure time, the ISO speed, keywords, a category, and a description.

Unfortunately all that metadata is difficult to attach to the photo. By default, most cameras embed only very basic metadata, such as camera model number, exposure time, and ISO speed. There's no easy way to include more-descriptive information such as category, keywords, and the location where the photo was taken.

Microsoft Photo Info fills this need--and it integrates directly into Windows Explorer. Right-click any photo, choose Photo Info from the resulting context menu, and you'll see a preview of the photo, along with multiple tabs for inputting metadata. Simply type in the data, click OK, and you're done. Many applications, including Windows Search (you can search by metadata) and photo organizers such as Media Purveyor 3 (see below), can use the metadata to help you find, sort, and organize your photos.

FastStone MaxView

The FastStone MaxView viewer.
The FastStone MaxView viewer.
Sometimes you don't want a graphics or photo program with lots of fancy-pants extras; you just want to view a file quickly. For those times, try FastStone MaxView. This small viewer loads quickly and can handle 19 different graphics file types, including .jpg, .gif, .png, .pcx, and .tif.

Though it's small and fast, MaxView does more than just let you view and print files. Its panoply of photo manipulation tools includes software for rotating, flipping, resizing, blurring, and changing the saturation of your image.

You can also use MaxView to convert graphics files to different formats: Simply open the file and save it in the desired format.

If you're looking for a full-blown image editor, this isn't the program you want. But for fast and easy file viewing, with a few extras thrown in, it's an admirable package.

Media Purveyor 3

The Media Purveyor 3 media browser.
The Media Purveyor 3 media browser.
Looking to organize and browse a big media collection, including music, videos, photographs, and other graphic images? Give Media Purveyor a whirl. This all-in-one tool lets you do everything from organizing and sorting media to searching for, displaying, playing, and editing it. Like Microsoft Photo Info, it's a metadata editor as well.

The program gives you multiple ways to organize your media, including via a traditional folder structure, as bookmarks, and as albums (which the program calls collections). Media Purveyor's image-editing tools are surprisingly powerful for a free program. In addition to providing 43 editing effects, the software supports special effects that you can add to your photos.

Questions? Send e-mail to Preston Gralla.

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