Start with a roll of shots of my 3-month-old son, Sam. Add the melee that results when you offer 150 journalists a freebie--I'd pay to develop their pictures in exchange for help in evaluating online picture services. You may call the result chaos. Me, I call it a column.
Online photography is a bona fide trend, because working with photos digitally is more fun than prints alone. Through sites such as Snapfish, AOL You've Got Pictures, Shutterfly, and Ofoto, people get film developed and their pictures posted in private areas online. Then they share their shots with friends through private e-mailed links. It's huge for new parents: My six siblings get instant, illustrated Sammy-Grams. God knows when I'd have mailed pictures to everyone. I know, too. Never.
All the services provide simple online software to crop or touch up digital images. Then you can order prints, or put pictures in a frame, on a coffee mug, or on a compact disk. They also let you directly zap pictures taken with a digital camera to their sites.
What separates top photo sites from the rest is how they price paper prints. Some, like Snapfish.com and AOL You've Got Pictures, offer both prints and online pictures for a relatively low price. Others, like Shutterfly.com and Ofoto, push you toward only posting pictures online. Their base price includes processing and online posting--but not prints. Yet every one of my colleagues wanted prints. At Ofoto and Shutterfly, they start at 49 cents each--or $13.23 for the 27-shot disposable camera I bought the Mother's Day morning Sam came along--on top of the base price.
The verdict? Snapfish has the best combination of price (including prints) and online features. The rundown:
AOL You've Got Pictures. This service left even an America Online fan ice cold. You take film to a local AOL partner such as a supermarket or drugstore, just as we've always dropped off film. Sam's shots went to a CVS pharmacy.
The good news: It's fast. The shots came online in a day, and prints hit CVS a day or two later. They also have the most tchotchkes, like frames and mugs.
The bad news: At $8.99 a roll, its basic price is the highest of the four sites. Also, cropping and editing photos using AOL is harder than it should be. Worst of all, AOL's price varies depending on which partner develops your film. CVS hit me for $15.98. I won't go back.
Ofoto. Ofoto charges $2.95 a roll, but for online posting only. Ofoto receives film by mail.
The good news: Its attractive interface is easy to use.
The bad news: It's slow for Easterners because your film goes to Berkeley, Calif.
Shutterfly. Shutterfly is a more refined Ofoto. You mail film in and the pictures are posted online for $4.79 a roll, also not including prints.
The good news: Editing instructions are even better than Ofoto's.
The bad news: Every roll of film must arrive in a separate envelope.
Snapfish. This site delivers prints and online posting for less than AOL. Its interface is better, too.
The good news: At $1.99 a roll, plus $1.99 for shipping, it's cheap. A West Virginia lab means fast online posting for Easterners. Sorry Westies.
The bad news: It has cards and CDs, but no mugs or other goodies.
With Microsoft Corp.'s Windows XP adding photo-sharing capabilities, the online photo business should reach more people and get more innovative. So, before long, Internet photography will really be a snap.