Photographs are among the most personal items we own. They're snapshots of memories, preserving a single slice of time that will never happen again, regardless of whether it's the Eiffel Tower at a particular moment on a specific day or the smile on a partner's face during a party.
Services like Facebook and Flickr have exploded in no small part due to our desire to share these moments with the world, while others are used to make sure that our photos don't get lost or fall prey to system damage or personal disaster.
One of the first decisions to make when choosing a provider is how open you want to be. For example, Flickr works just as well as a private image collection as it does as a public one, and it lets you pick privacy settings on a photo-by-photo basis.
Typically, photo services offer three levels of protection: open to everyone, open to friends and family who've signed into the same service, and completely private.
Flickr leans more towards the public side of things due to its extensive online community, which includes features like groups, photo pools and commenting.
The more professionally-focused service Smugmug is geared towards creating smart-looking galleries to exhibit your work in. Users can leave comments, but they tend to be more into selling their own work than becoming part of a community.
However, the importance of the community side of these sites can't be overestimated. Whatever camera you use, whatever type of image you shoot, whatever trick you use, there'll be a Flickr group for it. This is useful for honing your photography skills through criticism of your images, but it's also satisfying just to have your work on display instead of being hidden away on your PC.
The downside is that the level of conversation attached to pictures can be extremely low, and sometimes extremely annoying. Even the most generic picture can get swamped by obsessives demanding you upload it to some irrelevant group or adding tags to say that you 'won' the Awesome Award For Excellence and would you now please find five more photos and share the love.
This isn't always the case of course, but you need to put in the effort to add friends and get active in the group system to get more out of the community than single digit views and drive-by comments.
Facebook vs Flickr
Interestingly, the biggest photo site out there isn't even devoted to photographs. We're talking about Facebook, of course, and while it's not renowned for featuring perfectly shot vistas, it doesn't have to be.
This is where you find off-the-cuff snaps taken with everything from mobile phones to point-and-shoot cameras, with the specific advantage of the site being that you're not only sharing the images with friends, you're also attaching shots to specific events and tagging them up with friends' names so that they (and others) can find images of themselves easily.
However, we don't recommend using Facebook as your primary storage site. It's fine to upload them there too, but a service like Flickr gives you considerably more control over your pictures and their access rights.
Access is one of the more controversial parts of putting your photos online. Even if you mark a picture as private, there's still scope for the security to break down. In at least one case, security researchers found a glitch in an online photo site that let them see... 'things' that only the photographer was meant to see, shall we say. In other cases, people simply don't think about the effect that a funny photograph might have on friends and family – or their careers.
Ironically, it's quite common for users of these sites to be out of sight (since it's their camera), with any self-portraits labelled as private, regardless of what images they've got of other people. As a basic rule of thumb, full names should be avoided to prevent anything unpleasant showing up in a Google search, and if anyone asks you to take a picture down or set it to private then it's good manners to do so.
The number of cameras flashing away at almost every event nowadays means that it's easier than ever to have your indiscretions broadcast to the world, and you never know who's looking. As ever, this tends to be more of a problem for women, especially given the number of 'Babes of Flickr' groups and websites out there – and double-especially if the image has been tagged with enticing keywords to scrounge up a bit more attention for the photographer.
The great escape
When choosing a photo host, the final key issue to watch for is how easy it is to get your photos out of the system. Big companies like Flickr and Smugmug aren't likely to vanish overnight, but it pays to keep your own copy of everything you upload, and you should only use services where you can retrieve your files on demand. This option is frequently overlooked, even by the likes of Flickr and Smugmug.
There's no official way to back up your photo gallery with either service, and while there are third-party applications that will let you, they tend to be flaky or prone to not quite doing what you want. True, you can order a set of discs containing your files, but that's an expensive proposition ($22 plus $5 per gigabyte for one of Smugmug's DVDs).
Despite the problems, online photo storage is a good idea. It lets you show off if you want to, or just get peace of mind that your snaps are safe if you don't. Just make sure that you do the research and decide exactly what you want before you start uploading your life.
First published in PC Plus Issue 283
Liked this? Then check out 10 easy ways to improve your photography skills
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