Better Photo Sharing
I live far away from my parents, which has always meant sizable phone bills and frequent vacations to Ohio instead of, say, Hawaii or Switzerland. In between the phone calls and visits, we send each other digital pictures to show off everything from new haircuts to that cute thing the dog did the other day.
However, taking pictures has always been easier than sharing them. E-mailing takes forever, and sometimes my parents can't even open the attachments. Luckily, today's photo-sharing services make showing pictures to friends and family fast and easy.
I reviewed four services that go beyond traditional photo sharing: HeyPix, Flickr, OurPictures, and Google's Hello (which works in tandem with its photo organizer, Picasa). All of them provide at least some advanced features, such as blog support, instant messaging, chat, and camera-phone sharing. With almost every one, I found a unique feature or two that I really liked. And one service proved to be even more captivating than a TBS movie marathon.
It Takes a Community
I've always been told it's not what you know, but who you know, and the truth in this statement became apparent when I tried out two photo-sharing sites that had some cool blogging features.
Look at www.photoblogs.org for a listing of the Web's most popular picture-based blogs, and you'll soon see why so many photo-sharing services are incorporating blog support. Unlike me, there are some really good photographers around. Still, I figure I'll have children someday and will need to put up a baby blog or risk getting hauled away for child neglect.
I started out by trying the new HeyPix service. Using HeyPix's free Organizer app, I transferred all of my pictures to "Shoeboxes" on my PC and then stored them in "Albums" (also on my PC) that I could use to share photos on a HeyPix Web page, through e-mail, or on my own blog. It's bad enough for a computer slob like me to organize my photos once, but to have to do it twice before I could begin sharing photos was a pain.
The HeyPix Organizer also skimps on editing features, providing only rudimentary tools for cleaning up images. Although it supplies the same basic editing tools you can find in other free programs--red-eye removal, image cropping, RGB adjustments, and so on--the tools just don't offer enough control.
The service does, however, let you receive images directly from your camera phone (by sending pics from your phone to a specific e-mail address) and upload photos to blogs created with a variety of popular blogging tools (including Blogger, LiveJournal, Movable Type, and TypePad). I was able to upload puppy pictures to my doggie devotional on Blogger with far less trouble than I had figuring out how to set up Organizer to receive pictures from my camera phone. (Hint to frustrated users: Select an Album and then click Set Permissions.)
The custom URL (www.yourname.heypix.com) you get when signing up for your free account provides a nicely designed photo page to show to friends. I was able to set permissions to let friends comment on my pictures and display photos of their own on my site, which would have been fun if any of my friends had posted any pictures. As I said, it's not what you know...
You may want to monitor your site's content. While I was writing this article, the HeyPix home page showed a selection of the latest member pictures, and the top shot was one of a rather large man in a plaid shirt baring his, uh, rear. Children, cover your eyes!
HeyPix includes 50MB of storage and 200MB of photo transfers per month for free. Anything above that costs at least $5 a month, which gets you 1GB of storage and 2GB per month of transfers.
Cool: Easy blog support, plus it lets friends share their photos alongside yours.
Not cool: The Organizer application (shown at left) should be more intuitive.
Pricing: Free for 50MB of storage and 200MB monthly transfer; $5/month for Standard (1GB of storage, 2GB monthly transfer); $8/month for Pro (3GB of storage, 5GB monthly transfer)
A Flickr of Hope
While HeyPix tries to build community by letting users share pictures on each other's sites, Flickr has a totally new approach that has made it one of the most popular photo-sharing sites on the Web--and it's still in beta.
When I uploaded my pictures to Flickr's server and signed up for my free account, I was asked such personal questions that I felt as if I were joining an online dating service. Who's your favorite author? What are your hobbies? What's your favorite movie? Based on the answers to these questions, you can find other Flickr users with common interests.
A quick look at my profile will reveal that I'm a David Sedaris fan. Within a week I was chatting and sharing pictures with new friends in Texas, Colorado, India, and Brazil. We started out discussing books, which led to the embarrassing revelation that a few of us are fantasy geeks. Someone told me that a Trekkie group exists, but it's in decline--not that I'm a Trekkie. Because I'm not.
When you join Flickr, you upload images to a Web page that displays all of your pictures. You can invite others to look at all photos you mark as public. You can also share pictures using the Flickr chat software, FlickrLive, just by dragging a picture from your gallery into the chat window.
When I wasn't busy chatting, I was checking my photo collection to see if anyone had commented on my pictures or bookmarked them as Favorites. I also used Flickr to upload photos to my Blogger-hosted blog (Flickr supports LiveJournal, Moveable Type, and TypePad, as well). If your friends and family subscribe to RSS feeds, they can view all of your latest photos the instant that you post them.
Flickr also offers every level of camera-phone support. I e-mailed amusing pictures of my friend Stephanie sporting fake facial hair (don't ask) from my phone to my Flickr account, and the photos went live within minutes--much to her embarrassment. Later, I was able to call up all of my Flickr photos through my mobile phone's Web browser.
After just over a week of using Flickr, I'm hooked. I've gone from checking my e-mail account every 2 minutes to checking my Flickr account instead. Free accounts limit you to 10MB of monthly uploads and three Photosets (albums)--and they store only smaller, resized versions of your photos. A Pro account, which costs $60 a year, gives you 1GB of monthly uploads plus unlimited storage, bandwidth, and Photosets. It also allows you to archive high-resolution images and will soon let you browse sans advertisements.
Cool: People with similar interests can make comments on your photo page (shown at left).
Not cool: Free account is limiting, and extras cost.
Pricing: Free for 10MB monthly uploads, three-album limit; $60 for Pro (includes 1GB monthly uploads, unlimited albums, and storage of high-resolution images)
Send It to Me Straight
Though sites like HeyPix and Flickr force you to upload your pics to their servers before they let you display the photos online, services like AllPeers, Electric Shoebox, FotoSwap, Hello, OurPictures, and others use peer-to-peer file sharing to allow you to trade photos directly with friends--no uploading them to a server or sending them as e-mail attachments.
As nauseatingly banal as its tagline, "Digital photos, simple as a smile," may be, OurPictures does actually provide a simple solution for sharing images.
After importing my photos to albums in the OurPictures organizer on my PC, I clicked the ones I wanted to share and then typed in my dad's e-mail address and a short message. OurPictures sent an e-mail containing a direct link to a page on its Web site that displayed them all.
My dad received the message almost instantly and was able to view and save the photos. He typed in his zip code, and up popped a list of online photo processors and local retailers that support OurPictures (including Ritz Camera and Wolf Camera stores). This is a great service--if you're like me, you're too impatient to wait for prints to arrive in the mail and too lazy to print photos yourself.
On the downside, I found OurPictures' editing tools meager, with just a couple of buttons and a slider to rotate, adjust brightness, fix red-eye, crop, and write captions. The service doesn't support blogs or offer any kind of cool chat features, either.
Transferring pictures from a camera phone to OurPictures was a cinch. Just send the pictures to the e-mail address the service provides, and the images automatically appear in the organizer on your PC. Unlike with other sites, though, I had to pay for the privilege by buying the Deluxe package, which costs $3 a month or $30 annually. The Deluxe package also lets you share more than 25 pictures a month (the limit with the free version) and includes OurPictures TV (see Pictures Without the PC), which is set to launch in the first half of this year.
Cool: You can send photos to a local photo processor, as well as e-mail pictures from a camera phone to your OurPictures album (shown at right).
Not cool: The service has no support for photo blogs.
Pricing: Free (25-picture sharing limit, no camera-phone support); $30/year for Deluxe (unlimited picture sharing and camera-phone support)
Picture Pizzazz With Picasa
Don't want to spend a dime? Then Google's newly updated Picasa 2 will have you at Hello.
Hello (a peer-to-peer photo-sharing and chat application) and Picasa 2 (a PC-based photo organizer) work as a unified team. The two are so nicely designed and integrated that I never had to search for a feature or struggle to learn how to use any tool.
I downloaded Picasa 2 and was amazed at how quickly it rifled through my hard drive, tracked down every picture, and stored them all in neat albums organized by date. I imagined myself as Samantha from Bewitched organizing my sloppy hard drive with a twitch of my nose and watching the files fly magically into place.
The latest version provides lots of new features such as the ability to drag and drop images within and between albums--making it the easiest to use of the programs I tested for this story. The new editing tools are, surprisingly, quite useful: In addition to functions for removing red-eye and adjusting lighting and color, you get 12 extra effects, including sharpening. I batch-sharpened my entire album, and all the photos looked better instantly. (For more about Picasa 2, read the in-depth review.)
After tweaking my pictures, I clicked the Hello button at the bottom of the Picasa screen and tried to instant-message my dad some pictures. Unfortunately, he's a Mac user and Hello is for PC users only, so I clicked the Blogger button (another new feature) at the bottom of the screen and posted a picture to my blog instead (Hello supports only Blogger and not other blogging tools).
The only things missing are the abilities to send shots from your camera phone directly to Picasa and to transfer photos from Picasa to your phone. All the other photo-sharing sites allow it. But if you don't use a camera phone regularly, you'll find Picasa and Hello to be an easy and enjoyable way to quickly share your photos.
Picasa 2 and Hello
Cool: The Picasa 2 photo organizer has a well-designed interface, and is friendly and easy to use. It offers extensive new editing tools (left) and works seamlessly with Hello and Blogger to let you share photos via e-mail, through instant messaging, or on your blog.
The Hello chat program (right) allows you to instant-message multiple photos simultaneously with a click of a button. Plus, you can't complain about the price: This combo doesn't cost a thing.
Not cool: The service supports only blogs hosted on Blogger. Also, Picasa 2 is unable to receive pictures sent from a camera phone.
Pictures Without the PC
These days you don't need a PC to enjoy digital pictures. The following are products that let you bypass the computer altogether for viewing and sharing your digital photos.
Ceiva 2 Digital Photo Receiver. Plug your Ceiva 2 LCD picture frame into your phone line, and the frame will dial a free, secure phone number in the middle of the night to download as many as 30 new pictures. You, your family, and friends e-mail the photos you want to share to the Ceiva service--you can even send images via camera phone. ($150, plus monthly service starting at $7 for a three-year plan)
MSN TV 2 Internet & Media Player This set-top box lets you store up to 100 pictures and view them on your TV. Download pictures directly from your camera's memory card, or send them via your MSN TV e-mail account. You can also print from your MSN TV 2 box and set photos to serve as screen savers for when you finally get sick of watching Donald Trump fire people. ($200)
OurPictures TV OurPictures Deluxe users will soon (in the first half of the year) be able to view their pictures on a TV using the Roku HD 1000 digital media player ($299). You will even be able to use your TV to send images to a local 1-hour photo retailer for printing. ($30 annually)