Turn your photos into DVDs

Taking a look at three programs that can turn your photos into a DVD you can play in your living room.

Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.
Gordon Haff
4 min read

One of the side effects of HDTVs becoming prevalent is that you can now show a DVD-based video "slide show" on the TV with pretty good quality. It's not something I do a lot, but it's often just easier to burn a disk that can be popped into a standard consumer DVD player than it is to hook up a laptop or access photos through some other device attached to the TV.

Given that I recently built a new Windows Vista-based computer, I thought this would be a good opportunity to take a look at some of the options out there for putting photos onto DVDs. There are a lot of them so I certainly don't claim that this is a comprehensive survey--but these three programs cover a pretty wide range of capabilities.

Before getting into the programs, just a short level-setting interlude for readers who may not be familiar with making this sort of DVD. Normally, when you look at photos on your computer, you're looking at each digital image as a separate file--typically in a format called JPEG. However, the typical DVD player attached to a TV doesn't know anything about files. It only knows about video--and, specifically, video (along with associated audio) that has been laid down in a well-defined format. There's a lot more to it but, for our purposes here, if you want to use the DVD player in your living room to give a slide show, you have to essentially create a video using you photos as raw material; you can't just copy them to a DVD as data.

Programs designed for this purpose are often called "authoring" software; most can do at least some degree of editing and authoring of video files (such as from a camcorder) as well as still images. Which is logical considering that each still image is effectively converted to a short video clip as part of the process.

The first program I took a look at was the Windows DVD Maker that is included with Vista Home Premium and Ultimate editions. Like some of the other software included with Vista, it's pretty bare-bones. You import images (and videos), load some music tracks if you like, pick the length of time each slide will be displayed, choose from a few menu and transition options--and then burn it. Not a lot of options or control.

But that's not necessarily a knock. If all you want is to get some pictures on a DVD, the process is fast and intuitive. And, if you have the right Vista edition, it's free.

At the other end of the spectrum is Pinnacle Studio Plus version 12 ($100). (The company also sells $50 Studio and $130 Studio Ultimate editions.) Pinnacle is a division of Avid Technology, long known for its gear and software used by professional video editors and other broadcast professionals. Pinnacle was acquired by Avid in 2005.

Studio Plus is a powerful program that gives enormous control over timing, transitions, menus, output, and so forth. It includes video effects and color correction. It offers several different views of your editing job. If I wanted to get into some serious video editing, I would definitely consider giving Studio Plus a whirl. Although I'm not much of a video editor, it seemed to offer the most bells and whistles of these three programs.

But to create a fairly straightforward photo slide show? Not so much. I had to repeatedly consult the 320 page manual to figure out some of the basic tasks. And, even then, I found the whole process required a lot of manual operations. There may be a simple workflow buried in there somewhere, but it certainly wasn't obvious. My take is that, for most people, Studio Plus will just be too much if all they're interested in creating is a photo slide show.

Adobe Premiere Elements 4 ($100--also available as a bundle with Photoshop Elements for $150) is the "little brother" to Adobe's $800 Premiere Pro CS3. Over the past few years, this company, which was mostly known for pricey pro-oriented software, has evolved some very respectable programs that are primarily intended for consumers.

Premiere Elements is one of these. It's a nice compromise between power and usability and I found the user interface to be generally intuitive. That's not to say that creating a photo slide show was as wizard-driven drop dead simple as in the case of Windows DVD Maker. This is a video editing package after all; you are therefore exposed to the fact that you are "making a movie."

But it also lets you easily treat a bunch of images as a group with a common set of timing and transitions--so, effectively, you can treat your movie as having just one element--a grouped slide show. You can also tweak things considerably, if you like, but the program does a nice job of keeping a lot of the customization options and more advanced features (such as animations and audio mixing) out of the way until you want to use them.

These three programs strike me as a case of horses for courses. Have Vista Home Premium or Ultimate and want drop dead simple? Just use Windows DVD Maker. Want lots of power and control in a consumer-priced package? Take a look at Pinnacle Studio Plus or Studio Ultimate. Want solid video editing and authoring that goes well beyond simple slide shows but is still quite approachable for even casual users? Consider Adobe Premier Elements.