Sharing your photos once meant gathering friends and family in the living room, pulling up the Da-Lite tripod screen, and enduring an endless progression of look-alike vacation pictures -- accompanied by the ker-chunk of the Carousel projector in the background. Today, more than likely, your vacation snapshots are stored somewhere on your home computer. The good ones might also be on an online service that lets you organize them, invite friends to browse through them, e-mail them as slide shows, and order them as prints, puzzles, and mugs.
To figure out which photo sites are the best, I test-drove a half-dozen of them, using a set of photos I had sitting on my hard drive. Generally, they're more alike than different: You upload your pictures over an Internet connection, and the sites give you the storage space and tools you need to organize and share them. Most of the sites also can accept your pictures by e-mail, handy if you use the camera built into your cell phone.
If you're mainly interested in what your friends see when they visit online, dotPhoto and Yahoo!'s () Flickr have the most advanced sharing features. If you care chiefly about the quality of prints you order, Snapfish (now owned by Hewlett-Packard ()) came out on top. For the easiest to use, try Shutterfly, which carefully walks you through projects such as laying out a hardcover album or designing photo greeting cards. I also looked at Eastman Kodak's () EasyShare Gallery (formerly Ofoto) and Walmart.com's Photo Center.
I'll start with prints, which are what draws most people to the online photo sites. I uploaded the same batch of photos to all the sites and enlisted a couple of pros from BusinessWeek Online's art department to help me evaluate them. We decided the Snapfish prints had the sharpest definition and among the brightest colors, but Kodak and dotPhoto were close behind. The worst? Shutterfly, whose prints were blurry and dark.
Prices for individual prints start at 12 cents at Snapfish and Walmart.com and range as high as 29 cents at Shutterfly -- the same as the 29 cents you'd pay at the corner Rite-Aid if you took your camera there for instant photos. (You can get cheaper rates at Shutterfly if you prepay for photos in bulk.) Usually, you get your prints in the mail in two or three business days. With some services, you can speed up the process by picking up your prints at a local drugstore: Kodak will do next-day in-store printing at any CVS (). For 19 cents apiece, Walmart.com will print your uploaded photos at a Wal-Mart () within an hour, and Snapfish will do the same at Walgreens ().
There are lots of options beyond 4x6 glossies. You can order your favorites professionally framed, on greeting cards and calendars, or printed as hard- or soft-cover photo books. I found Shutterfly the best for such projects. For holiday cards, for example, Shutterfly lets you pick different photos for different recipients and even add personalized messages in a variety of fonts. When you're finished, Shutterfly mails off the custom cards individually (and it lets you choose which U.S. postage stamp to use).
You can slap your photos on dozens of tchotchkes, too. Beyond the usual shopping-mall offering of photo calendars, mugs, and mousepads, a few of the sites offer some oddball products: Snapfish, for instance, will sell you boxer shorts or a dog leash decorated with the image of your choice, and dotPhoto will turn your album into a collection of edible chocolate business cards. The cards aren't cheap: 16 will run you $40.
If you need to edit your photos before you print them -- beyond simple cropping -- I concluded that you're better off doing it on your computer before you upload them. Even the basic photo-editing software that comes with most digital cameras will do a better job than the editing tools on these sites. Take red-eye correction: Wal-Mart's and dotPhoto's tools didn't seem to do anything, but Kodak's left a photo of my brother looking like a zombie, with big gray voids where his pupils once were.
Each site will also let you drop a digital album into a ready-made slide show template and send it out by e-mail. The end result was pretty similar at Snapfish, Shutterfly, and Kodak. Wal-Mart's slide shows, however, limit the image size to a measly 2.25 in. by 3.25 in., compared with 5 in. by 7 in. at Kodak, and 4 in. by 6 in. with most others. The Wal-Mart size is just too small to see on a computer monitor.
Both dotPhoto and Flickr take a more ambitious approach to sharing. With dotPhoto's Show Builder tool, you can drag and drop photos into a specific order; add captions, titles, and a special background; and top it all off with theme music or a voice recording of your own narration. It's pretty slick to put together and looks better than slide shows from the other sites. (For one thing, every page is not emblazoned with the company's logo.) But the backgrounds are corny, and the music, which has names like "sly robot" and "diva feva," is synthesized and repetitive. Luckily, as of Oct. 25, dotPhoto allows you to upload your own music files to accompany the show.
Flickr is the only site of the six that doesn't sell prints; its appeal lies solely in sharing. You can post snapshots and create your own photoblog with full-resolution photos open for public-viewing, critiquing, and downloading. You can tag your photos with keywords, such as "wedding" or "New York," so they show up with similar photos in searches of the entire Flickr site. Flickr's user community leans toward the artsy side, so many of the photos are offbeat, unexpected, and even strikingly beautiful. It's possible to sit for hours just clicking through hundreds of them.
Here's what I didn't like about using the sites:
>> You can't blow up the pictures to make them easier to see while you're looking at them on your computer monitor. The only exception is Flickr. The dotPhoto site lets you go to a full-screen view for its slide shows, but that just makes the same low-resolution image bigger and blurrier.
>> In most cases, you pretty much have to use Microsoft's () Internet Explorer to take advantage of even basic features of the Web sites, a problem for folks who own Macs or depend on such Web browsers as Mozilla Firefox or Opera. Uploading photos is far more tedious with other browsers, and basic editing commands such as cropping or rotating images sometimes don't work at all.
>> In most cases, visitors must become members even to see your pictures. Kudos to dotPhoto and Wal-Mart for sending them straight to your slide show or albums. The others make your invitees sign in, sign up, or navigate through pages of offers before they get to your snapshots. Yahoo's Flickr is by far the worst.
Despite the quibbles, these online photo sites still are the quickest and cheapest way to get your photos out of your personal hard drive and into the minds and hands of a wider audience. They sure beat doing it the old-fashioned way.
By Burt Helm