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What are all these other pictures that appear when I view a picture from email?

When I open a picture attachment from an e-mail it opens the Windows
picture and fax viewer. It shows the attachment fine, but when I click
the navigation arrows within the viewer, there are always endless
images that it will scroll through. Some images are from web sites and
some appear to be other pictures, but ones that I do not recognize. Can
you tell me if these are images on my machine, or if they somehow came
embedded in the original e-mail that I received?

They are images on your machine.

Understanding why they’re there and how they got there requires a
short explanation of how your email program handles that request to
view a picture, and how that interacts with other programs on your
machine.

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Anything attached in an email is actually encoded into the email message itself as, believe it or not, plain text. Even that picture that you’re looking at was probably encoded as something that, were you to look at the raw email message, looks much like this:

Content-Type: image/jpg;
        name="image0018.jpg"
Content-Transfer-Encoding: base64
Content-Disposition: attachment;
        filename="image0018.jpg"
/9j/4AAQSkZJRgABAQEAYABgAAD/2wBDAAoHBwgHBgoICAgLCgoLDhgQDg0NDh0VFhEYIx8lJCIf
IiEmKzcvJik0KSEiMEExNDk7Pj4+JS5ESUM8SDc9Pjv/2wBDAQoLCw4NDhwQEBw7KCIoOzs7Ozs7
Ozs7Ozs7Ozs7Ozs7Ozs7Ozs7Ozs7Ozs7Ozs7Ozs7Ozs7Ozs7Ozs7Ozs7Ozv/wAARCAEyAr4DASIA
AhEBAxEB/8QAHwAAAQUBAQEBAQEAAAAAAAAAAAECAwQFBgcICQoL/8QAtRAAAgEDAwIEAwUFBAQA
AAF9AQIDAAQRBRIhMUEGE1FhByJxFDKBkaEII0KxwRVS0fAkM2JyggkKFhcYGRolJicoKSo0NTY3
ODk6Q0RFRkdISUpTVFVWV1hZWmNkZWZnaGlqc3R1dnd4eXqDhIWGh4iJipKTlJWWl5iZmqKjpKWm
...

Yes, that’s a picture; well, the first part of it anyway; the encoded portion goes on for over 800 more lines.

“The deep dark secret about email is that it can only handle text …”

The deep dark secret about email is that it can only handle text – anything else needs to be encoded into text in some way. When you view a picture, your email program has to decode that text mess and turn it back into a picture file – “image0018.jpg” in the example above.

The first question that your email program has to answer is “where do I put the decoded file?”.

There are two typical answers: the file is either placed in your Windows temporary files folder, or it’s placed into the Internet Explorer Cache folder. (Email programs can often be configured to place them elsewhere instead, but if you haven’t changed anything it’s likely one of those two.)

Using IE’s cache as the example choice, when you view the picture, your email program takes that mess of text, converts it back into its original image file format, and places it into the cache folder. For example:

c:\Documents and Settings\LeoN\Local Settings\Temporary Internet Files\image0018.jpg

Now it can tell Windows Picture and Fax Viewer (or whatever viewing program you might have installed) “here’s the image file to show” when you ask to view it.

So now, Windows Picture and Fax Viewer actually has two pieces of information: the image file to view is “image0018.jpg”, and the fact that it’s located in the folder “c:\Documents and Settings\LeoN\Local Settings\Temporary Internet Files”.

Here’s what you’re seeing: when you navigate within Windows Picture and Fax Viewer, it’s scrolling you through all the other images that might happen to be in that folder.

Your next question, of course, is where did they come from?

Internet Explorer. As you surf the web IE tries to download things only once. So if you visit a page that has a picture, and then a little while later you visit that same page, IE doesn’t have to download that picture again if it’s already in the cache. Which files can be kept in the cache, and for how long depends on several things, but the point is that there are likely lots of pictures in IE’s cache.

And if you end up browsing around that cache because you’re looking at a picture from your email that also happened to be placed there, you’ll see them.

Pictures you don’t recognize as having seen are often due to two reasons:

  • Graphical elements used in page design. The best example is that your browser actually has no way to “make” a rounded corner. Square boxes, no problem, but fancy web 2.0 style rounded corners on those boxes require more work. What typically happens is that four images of rounded corners are used to construct the box. Those images are just … images … and they get placed into the browser cache like any other image or picture. When you happen to be browsing the cache you’ll see them as individual elements. This actually happens on many, many graphically intensive websites.

  • Blocked popups. Your browser may be blocking popups, but it might not be doing so as quickly as you think. The popup might actually start to load its contents, including pictures, before the browser gets around to killing it. Those pictures, though never displayed, end up in the cache anyway. (This is also a common cause of history items appearing for pages you’ve never visited – they’re popups that were blocked after the history entry was created.)

Bottom line: it happens, and it’s nothing to worry about. It’s simply a side effect of what your email program needs to do in order for you to be able to see a picture.

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5 comments on “What are all these other pictures that appear when I view a picture from email?”

  1. Thank you Leo… I have wondered for years where all these pictures came from, when I navigate through the Win Pic and Fax… More importantly, how to get rid of them. I guess dumping the IE Cache files will do it….Also the Cache files in Foxfire…

    Reply
  2. But is there anyway to clean it up so that I can actually use my navigation arrow to scroll through my real photos? Can I prevent it from happening? If not, why do they even have the scroll arrows? Sorry to sound whiny 🙂 It was nice to read an actual explanation for this. Thanks!

    The proper(?) thing to do is to save-as pictures to a folder of your own choosing and view them there. That way you’ll see only the pictures in that folder.

    Leo
    03-Sep-2009

    Reply
  3. Piriform has a free utility that can be run at boot-up or on-demand which will clean-up these files. It’s CCleaner – I use it on my personal home computer to keep my hard drive cleared of these temp files which over time will cause a noticible reduction in system response and efficiency by fragmentation of the drive. The down side – if you don’t have a high-speed connection your browser will perform slower because it must download the files every time you visit. I do have a high-speed connection, but even if I didn’t it’s a small price to pay for keeping my system “cleaned” of clutter, including the cookies.

    Reply
  4. Leo, you keep reading my mind over and over again. Just today I was saving my e-mail pictures, and when I was viewing in the Windows picture and fax viewer, I was using the navigation arrows, and I kept getting downright goofy pictures, some tiny stamp-size, some just color bars, some that looked like calligraphy letters, some of famous actors, and I thought, “What the . . .”

    Reply

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