Flickr - almost good

UPDATE: read Take-Two here.

Most people with a digital camera will collect hundreds and hundreds of photos each year. And with 10MP+ snappers becoming the norm, each pic is usually over 5MB big. We're all faced with the same two problems:
  1. Where do you store all these photos?
  2. How do you share certain photos with certain people?
Storage may seem easy. Just buy a cheap portable hard-drive and throw everything on it. But what if the drive dies or gets stolen? You need at least two copies for peace of mind. So buy two hard-drives, and find a way to keep them synchronized. But how do you do that? If you keep them next to each other connected to the same home computer, what if a power surge hits and kills both at the same time? Or what if there's a fire or someone breaks in and steals them? The two copies should be geographically dispersed. So maybe you can keep one at home, one at a friend's house. But then you have to go over to visit your friend every time you want to update your collection. And do you really trust your friend with all your photos? Maybe you need to encrypt the hard-drive as well... the more you think about it, the more complicated it gets.

As for sharing, well, there's email, but that's not very convenient for more than 5 or 6 shots. And you need to resample the images yourself, don't want to be sending out the full 5MP originals for fear of hitting attachment size restrictions. Then there's online social networks like Facebook. That works, although you need a Facebook account, and you can't exactly create different groups of people that can view different albums (I think, I don't use FB anymore).

Flickr is a dedicated online photo sharing service that comes close to solving both these issues. $25 a year will buy you a premium account in which you can upload unlimited pictures (in their full original size), sort them into groups, add tags, put them into albums, share them with the world, or friends, etc.

$25 a year is actually cheap when you think about the gigabytes of photos most people have. A portable HD would cost you $75 or more anyway. Two would cost you over $150. So you'd need to use those two for 6 years before the initial cost would be lower than the Flickr subscription. You may need to upgrade during that time though. With Flickr you don't really need to worry about any of that. It's owned by Yahoo, so your data should be fairly safe. Their backup procedures are bound to be a little more sophisticated then running to your friend's house with the spare drive.

On the sharing side of things, Flickr seems to have been originally designed for public, all-eyes photo collaboration. That is, you can go to Flickr and browse through photos that random people have uploaded. You can search by topic area, filter by tags, filter by camera make and model, etc. In that respect it seems very good. But if you want to use it as a private album gallery instead, it requires a bit more fiddling. As it's owned by Yahoo, you need to create a Yahoo email account to use it. You then have a Yahoo contact list with other Yahoo users. You can categorize these contacts into three groups: family, friends, and the rest. You're then able to set privacy options on all your pictures to either private (only you), family, friends, or public (everyone in the world).

This sort of works, but it's not very fine grained, or very convenient. For one, you need to get all your contacts to create Yahoo accounts. Nobody wants yet another email if they don't already use Yahoo (but you can't really blame Yahoo for this, Google and Microsoft do the same thing, although I believe with Microsoft you can use your existing email to create a Live account?). Anyhow, assuming your contacts go to the trouble of creating Yahoo accounts, you still need a way to specifically select which groups of people can view which albums. To do this you can create Flickr Groups, to which you invite members. Make the group private so non-members can't view, then send all your photos to this Group. Again, it kinda works, but there's a lot of steps involved. And you need to go through the Group moderation settings to explicitly lock it down and tick what all the different rolls can do. I couldn't find a way for only administrators to be able to post pictures, it's either all members, or no one. So I think you need to allow all members, then post your pictures, then go back to the group and lock it down. It's not convenient at all.

Even so, Flickr can be bent to your needs after jumping through a few hoops. But what really kills it for me is the interface. It's so 2006. It's very plain, very ugly, and very hard to navigate. The Organizr tool is nifty, allowing you to batch edit photos, etc. But the navigation between groups, navigation of albums and navigation of photos is extremely dated. It's just not fun. The site needs a total redesign from scratch with some fancy Ajax to make everything flow.

In the end, Flickr is an affordable way to store your gigabytes of photos. But the sharing aspects, and the user interface leave a lot to be desired. So much so, that I'd rather use a different service even if it means I had to pay a little more.

UPDATE: Seems I jumped the gun a little and missed out on a few interesting features. You can create private (you only) sets which are not shared with anyone. When you navigate to your set, you can click the Share This button at the top, click on Grab Link, and click to enable a Guest Pass. For the Guest Pass, tick the private (you only) pictures. This just generates a unique URL that you can give guests so they can view your photos, even without a Flickr account. You can tweak the Guest Pass to show combinations of family/friends/private. If you don't have any contacts associated to these rolls, it's an easy method to have three different groups of users that don't require Flickr/Yahoo accounts. There's also a Slideshow option which loads up a full Flash browser that's a little easier on the eyes. The overall package now looks a little better... I could probably get used to this (although I still think the general interface is ugly).

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