My photo gallery has been neglected for over two years now and it’s time to do something about it: I’m going to kill it. I’ve decided to abandon hosting my own gallery and move to using an external site. I’m looking for something that will let me share albums of photos with friends and family, showcase a collection of really good photos and link to them from my blog and photography forums. My main areas of concern are: easy photo uploading, a pleasant experience for people browsing and simple access control/user management. The choice is between Flickr, Smugmug and Picasaweb.
As the grand-daddy of decent photo sharing sites, Flickr is the obvious and popular choice. It has a clean look, plenty of sociable features (like friends, groups, keeping track of your favourite photos, etc.) and a simple but effective upload client. It’s popularity also means that there are lots of widgets and services available which exploit the Flickr API. However, it doesn’t really have albums (preferring to call them “sets”) and the interface terminology can be quite confusing to non-technical users.
Smugmug is a fairly recent newcomer but it’s a independent, profitable company with lots of enthusiastic users and a more traditional/professional approach compared to Flickr’s sociability. One of the best features of Smugmug is the ability to password-protect an album and to supply a password hint. I’ve long wanted the ability to protect an album with a “shared secret”, like the name of my mother’s dog, which most friends and family would know but strangers wouldn’t and this provides the perfect mechanism. There’s no special links to follow or sign-up process for guests to go through. Smugmug also seems a little nicer in operation: it has traditional style albums, AJAX-implemented effects and a selection of nicely presented themes. The biggest downside is the upload support: a simple Java applet (which uses the default L&F!), an Internet Explorer version (no thanks!), a third-party uploader for Windows that doesn’t let you select the photos by thumbnail and a standard “Browse to find” upload form. This aspect needs some serious work!
Picasaweb is Google’s online companion to the excellent Picasa photo application, which I use to manage/preview most of my photos (I also use Photoshop Elements for editing/cataloguing). Google really have to whole uploading thing down to perfection: just select the photos you want in Picasa, click the Web Album button and the images are uploaded efficiently with any corrections applied (rotation, red eye, etc). You can’t password-protect albums but you can make them invisible and just provide a secret URL, and you can now also link to your photos in blogs and forums (which you couldn’t previously). Also, the albums aren’t terribly customisable
Below is a work-in-progress comparison (full version here) between the 3 sites across a number of features (not all of which are important to me):
Summary: Picasaweb is great for uploading, Flickr is great for sharing with strangers and Smugmug is the easiest for friends/family to use.
None of the sites provide physical prints for non-U.S. customers (i.e., most of the world) and I suppose I can only dream that they’d let my visitors directly order prints through Photobox. I’m fully intending to pay for a subscription and the prices range from $25 -50 annually, which seems reasonable. Both Flickr and Smugmug offer unlimited storage which is one less thing to worry about. I also got a good response from Smugmug customer service when I asked about auto-rotation of photos, even though the answer is currently negative.
So far there’s no clear winner but the look of Smugmug and the password-hint feature are really big points in it’s favour, although the upload process needs to get much, much better. I’ve got about another 10 days to figure out if Smugmug is the right place for my photos…
12/06/07: I’ve updated the spreadsheet after some feedback from Smugmug — they do sell prints worldwide but they’re shipped from the US, so local UK/Irish services like Photobox still work out cheaper.
I’d emailed Smugmug to let them know about this post and got a very sincere reply agreeing with some of my criticisms and pointing out other areas where Smugmug excels that I hadn’t considered (no bandwidth limitations and they store your unprocessed originals). I’d heard that Smugmug are proud of their customer service and it was nice to experience it.
Why didn’t I email Flickr and Picasaweb? Well, perhaps because I felt that they were too big to care or perhaps I only emailed Smugmug because they’d made such a big deal about being there for their customers. Plus, I’ll admit that have a natural affinity for the underdog so I’d like to think that Smugmug could make it against the big boys (Yahoo & Google).