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For most photographers, capturing the image is only part of the fun. Sharing your photos is at the heart of your enjoyment—and if you're a professional—your business. There is no lack of photo-sharing services of all sizes and shapes. And as an early advocate of digital photography and inveterate technology, I've used quite a few of them over the last 10 years. But I've finally found a system that works really well for me, and solves the problems I've found with the others. I wanted to share with you some of what I've found comparing online services, and hopefully give you some ideas for ways you can share and sell your images online more effectively…
First and foremost, you need to decide what you want from a photo-sharing service. If your goal is simply to post some images that your friends can view, the solution is as simple as uploading them to Facebook, and letting your friends know in a quick post. Facebook has almost overnight become the world's largest repository of digital images, and now that they support high-resolution images, they are a great resource for simple photo sharing.
But if you'd like a solution that gives you a little more control over the organization, viewing and editing of your images, then a service designed for photographs may be what you're looking for. Flickr (owned by Yahoo!) and Picasa (owned by Google) are two of the most popular and full-featured. Flickr has a Pro version for $30 per year which I've used for years as an inexpensive way to showcase images from my photo safaris. Flickr provides a simple way to get links to slideshows and individual images, or even embed slideshows in web pages. Picasa makes money by selling storage by the gigabyte, after the incredibly tiny 1 gigabyte of free storage they provide. Picasa also has the most powerful desktop client (for Windows users at least) for image organizing and editing.
Where these services fall short for me is customization and 'commercialization.' They don't give you a way to create your own look and feel, or to present your own creative vision, other than by organizing your images into collections and keywording them. And they don't have any back end system for allowing you to make money from your images, if that's one of your goals.
Other photo-sharing sites of particular interest include the sharing options at photo-printing companies like Snapfish (now owned by HP) and Shutterfly. These are great consumer photo sharing sites. But since they are owned by photo-printing companies, you're limited to using their labs for printing, and you're essentially captive to their future business directions. Phanfare got out early with the best support for photos and videos, and I'm still a loyal user for many of my projects (albums.cardinalphoto.com). But again, they have little in the way of customization offerings, and only a few business tools. They've also raised their prices for unlimited storage of your full-resolution images to $99/year.
My Flickr Pro homepage. My galleries are nicely organized,
but I don't have any control over the overall organization.
My home pages on Phanfare and Picasa. Phanfare's is clearly
much more attractive, and can be themed, but offers limited
additional customizaiton options, and Picasa offers very few at all.
One reason I've been a huge supporter of Phanfare is their slideshows. They are head and shoulders above those offered by other sharing services. They provide a simple way, with a few clicks, to create a show with music (yours or theirs) that really brings image collections to life. But the limits on customization and business features made it lacking as a complete solution for me. To get the equivalent quality presentation of my images without Phanfare, I needed to build a slideshow on my desktop PC using my favorite tool—Proshow Producer—and then upload it as a video to a sharing service (NOTE: I've been a fan of Photodex Proshow for years, and they've recently become a sponsor of my Nikon Digital website).
All of the above is the long way of telling you why I was so excited about the partnership between SmugMug and Proshow's Web Slideshow service. SmugMug is a storybook photo-sharing startup. Founded by a father-and-son team, self-funded, and manically passionate about photo sharing and their customers, they have steadily built up a loyal following. They've been adding both extensive customization capabilities and features for professionals who want to go beyond sharing, to do serious online selling.
An example slide show built from one of my SmugMug Galleries of Africa images
with a single click in ProShow/Web, and published back to SmugMug
The only limits I've found to this solution are: the size of the resulting video—SmugMug only allows 10-minute videos, which is a shame—and that you need to make sure you have JPEGs for upload to SmugMug since it doesn't work with TIFFs or Raw files. ProShow Web offers quite a variety of transitions and has its own music options, or you can upload your own. However the text handling is fairly limited, so if you want more flexibility you may find yourself deciding to download the show to their desktop version of ProShow for further work, and then re-uploading.
While many of my readers and clients have been happy clients of SmugMug for years, it was the partnership with ProShow that first got me serious about evaluating SmugMug as an option for my own work. But the more I dug in, the more impressed I was. I set up an account and spent a few hours seeing how it might fit my needs. The interface is all web-based, which is great for portability, although—like with most web interfaces—it can be a little more work to click through than a native client for your desktop. But that seems to be the future for all these offerings, except perhaps for Picasa, which has continued to pour resources into its own client software.
But all the features were there and pretty easy to find—tagging, organizing, re-arranging, captioning, rotating—really just about anything needed to set up a good-looking gallery. Plenty of sharing tools are also provided, linking to Facebook and other social networks, as well as simple-to-use email notifications and links that can be shared. A simple couple of clicks was all I needed to change the color scheme to match my website, and a couple more to set up my custom domain name.
SmugMug offers more customization options than any other service I've looked at, if you sign-up for their Premium ($60/year) or Professional ($150/year) offering. They make it pretty easy to upload your own logo to use for watermarking, and to point-and-click-select what items you want on your custom home page. Like many of the services, you can also create your own custom domain name (you can see mine here) instead of using theirs (Note that this requires you to register a domain name, and to understand how to create a DNS record pointing to the photo sharing service.)
With a little more work you can use CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) the HTML standard technology for changing site appearance to create a look that is all your own. I'm not a CSS guru, so Kathy Wehunt of NVDesertDesign helped me customize my SmugMug site to match the theme and menus of my main cardinalphoto.com site. SmugMug has a sizeable community of third party design consultants who can work with their members to tweak their sites to be just the way they want.
My customized SmugMug homepage showing a custom color scheme,
layout and menu items across the top.
Watermarking is becoming a vital tool for anyone who wants to protect their images on the web. With most images being used on iPhone or similar small-sized screens, even the low-resolution versions of images on the web need to be protected if you ever hope to make any money from them, or control their use. I've become a lot more vocal on this topic recently, as you can read about in my recent blog post on Protecting Your Images. SmugMug and Phanfare both offer watermarking solutions which I compare in the article.
Depending on how serious you are about selling your images, there is an entire range of services available to you. Ranging from dedicated-event and wedding-photographer sites, down to links to micro-stock services like that offered through Snapfish, you can put as much or as little effort into it as you want.
The most basic offering allows you to specify a mark-up (essentially your profit) for prints, and then have the website take the order, ship the print, and send you most of the profit (with them keeping a piece of course). Phanfare and SmugMug offer this as part of their Pro services. SmugMug also gives you the ability to fulfill your own orders, or choose either a consumer-oriented lab (EZprints) or a higher-quality, higher-cost, pro-oriented lab (Bay Photo). I actually found the array of pricing options SmugMug offered me for my prints almost overwhelming. I could set whether to offer—and how much to charge—for over a dozen print sizes on several different materials like canvas and metallic, in addition to standard glossy prints. All that can be set per album or by your own album templates.
A small sample of the many pricing and fulfillment options
SmugMug provides to its Pro users
If selling your images and creating a custom presence is your top priority, and you expect to make some good money from it, you might also want to look at the Pro offering from ZenFolio. At $250/year it is the most expensive of the sharing sites we're looking at here, but it is a very complete solution for serious professionals. ZenFolio actually allows you to build an entire custom site in their offering, including Guestbook, Comment, and other pages to suit your needs.
All of these sites are also rushing to allow customers to order everything from mouse pads to coffee mugs with photos printed on them. And of course photo books. The sites with Pro offerings will normally let you set a price on these also, which lets you make some money on each sale. However if you're really serious about selling photo-related products you may want to consider also working with a site that makes that its first priority, like CafePress, or the one that I use from time to time, Zazzle. Similarly, for photo books I have found the offerings from blurb.com to be far superior to the limited book options that are part of general photo sharing sites.
With digital cameras offering staggeringly high resolutions, the storage of Raw files has become a real issue for both photographers and photo-sharing sites. If you don't shoot Raw, consider yourself lucky to have avoided this issue, and feel free to skip to the next section. But if you do, read on for some thoughts on managing the issue.
There are a couple of limits to what you can do with SmugMug. The major ones that I've found are that it does not store TIFFs or Raw Files (although the added-fee SmugVault service will archive whatever you want) and there is a 10-minute limit on videos, including slideshows. Personally, I'm going to lobby them to increase this to at least match the 20-minute limit of Phanfare.
Shopping Tip: SmugMug does store your full-resolution uploaded JPEGs, while some other services do not. So if you want to use your online service as any type of backup or archive, make sure and check the specifics of the service and pricing plan you choose.
One thing that stands out from comparing the variety of photo-sharing sites is the multitude of different business models. Sites with captive photo labs like Snapfish, Shutterfly and CostCo can provide you with a large array of services and storage for free (at least for now) because they expect to make money any time you print your images. Sites like Picasa and Flickr hope to monetize your presence there through advertising (whether you like it or not). Alternatively, paid-subscription sites like Phanfare and SmugMug really cater to you as the photographer—as it is your subscription revenue that provides them with their profit. So like with many of the services we choose, it is important to decide whether you want to spend a little money to get an ad-free solution focused specifically on your needs as a subscriber, or get a free service that uses your images as a means to an end.
That isn't to take anything away from the free services. Flickr, in particular, has an incredibly dedicated team of developers who continually push the envelope in tagging and organization, and a zealous third-party developer community responsible for hundreds of plug-ins and uploaders. But at the end of the day they are driving to sell advertising as part of the Yahoo! Family, just like Picasa is for Google.
A full review of all the available services and their features would take an entire book, but I'll pass along some other features that may be important to you when picking a photo-sharing service that you'll want to check on: