This story has been updated. It was originally featured in the February 2005 issue of Popular Science magazine and involves outdated technologies and services. For current advice, check our regularly updated story about how to share digital photos.
What happened to all those digital pictures you took over the holidays? Maybe you printed a few frame-worthy shots and emailed some low-res files to relatives, but the rest are most likely languishing on your hard drive, no different than the Polaroids stuffed into dusty albums in the closet.
- Dept: Geek Guide
- Tech: online photo sharing
- Cost: free to $100
- Best: Snapfish, Smugmug, Hello
- Difficulty: beta | | | | | final (Editor’s note: 4/5)
It doesn’t have to be this way. Using any of the new crop of photo-sharing services, you can shoot your daughter’s birthday party, and 15 minutes later, across the country, Grandma can browse an online slide show, order prints of the photos she likes best (on archival paper up to poster size), or, if Granny is especially tech-savvy, even download a high-res version to edit on her computer.
A number of free sites provide all these capabilities and more, as long as you keep your account active by occasionally ordering prints or other photo-adorned swag (T-shirts, books, key chains, calendars). For a monthly or annual fee, other sites will give you unlimited storage that never expires, more-powerful editing software and highly customizable albums. Advanced users who want to trade a lot of high-res shots can check out the handful of new peer-to-peer sharing services that skip the web altogether and let you authorize other people to download photos directly from your computer.
Ofoto pioneered online photo sharing five years ago and is still the juggernaut, but a number of scrappy upstarts (and a few Goliath chain stores) are proving worthy competitors. Read on to see our favorites, then get an account and show the world what you’ve shot.
Two ways to show off your digital portfolio
Today’s photo sites are so simple and powerful, you’ll feel guilty using them free of charge. Just sign up for an account and start uploading photos, either in small batches through a web page or with free software that lets you organize and edit shots on your desktop and add entire albums at once. Where they differ is in what you can do next.
Ofoto is competent in every respect, but its one frustrating aspect is that recipients of your shared albums can’t download a high-res copy of a photo; they can only send it to a home printer. With Snapfish, on the other hand, you can authorize someone to download a high-res image or restrict them to viewing alone. Snapfish also offers glossy, matte or heavyweight paper for prints; Ofoto is glossy only. Shutterfly lets you write a short message on the back of ordered prints and has editing software for Mac and Linux as well as Windows. Walmart‘s sole standout feature is the ability to order one-hour prints online. Most sites offer photo books, but PhotoWorks has the most options, from $10 paperbacks to $100 foil-embossed tomes.
The downside? Free sites make their money when you buy stuff, so they blanket every album page with ads and order buttons. And they’ll shut down your account if you don’t buy something at least once a year. Photosite, Smugmug and Clubphoto have paid plans from $15 to $100 a year that include permanent storage, larger onscreen images, dozens of album templates you can customize, and unique web addresses for your photos (i.e., yoursite.smugmug.com).
Online services are great for showing off your photos, but if someone really wants to work with them—color-correcting the full-resolution RAW or TIFF file in Photoshop, for instance—the new peer-to-peer services make more sense. Just download the software, which looks like a file-management tool with “picture preview” turned on. To send photos, just drag and drop them into albums and hit share. If your recipients have the same software, the pictures will arrive on their desktop, no web surfing required; if not, they’ll receive an email invitation to download the software.
All services provide a basic means of organizing your photos into albums. For more robust organization, PhotoPeer also works with iPhoto and Hello with Picasa. Pixpo will scan your computer and automatically generate albums for you. The true peer-to-peer services, Hello and Pixpo, require you to leave your computer on for others to fetch your photos. Mediated peer-to-peer services such as ShareALot, OurPictures, and PhotoPeer retain a low-res copy of your photos on their server. You connect to the other user only to retrieve high-res copies.
The peer-to-peer services are all free—to a point. For unlimited sharing, OurPictures charges $3 a month and Pixpo a one-time fee of $30. Right now, Hello, ShareALot and PhotoPeer have no strings attached.
A few more ways to share
- Photoblogs: Typically more spartan than albums from sharing services, photoblogs are a more artistic way to show off your work. See photoblogs.org for examples, and get your own at fotolog.net or Blogger.
- Flickr: Somewhere between a photoblog and a sharing site, Flickr doesn’t do prints and lets you share only 100 images free, but your collection can be made “public” so that anyone can browse it.
- Digital frames: Instead of buying Aunt Em a computer just to share pics, give her a digital photo frame, such as the Ceiva Digital Photo Receiver ($150, plus $8 a month). When plugged into a phone line, it automatically dials in to download new images you’ve placed on the Ceiva Web site.
- File-storage services: Free Yahoo accounts come with 30 megabytes of storage. At Xdrive.com, $10 a month buys you 5GB. Use it to trade a few high-res pics and save backup copies.