As most of you know, I've been interested in digital photography for a long time. I've looked at web gallery software, websites, special printing services, and more, writing up those that strike my fancy. A few weeks ago, I found one that seems to do everything right.
The website is Smugmug.com. You upload your pictures, arrange them into albums. Other people come look at the albums, get a closer look at the pictures that interest them, and either download those pictures or order prints. Very simple. So why hasn't anyone done this as well as smugmug?
First of all, this site was done by people who love digital pictures. You can feel it. They love taking them, they love looking at them, and so the site was designed to make both sides happy.
Second, they charge. Granted, all else being equal, free is better. But, they don't have to show lots of ads to pay for the site (your picture of your girlfriend won't appear on a page with a viagra ad), nor do they have to push the pay services like printing.
When you sign up for Smugmug, you pick a user name, and the URL is a simple one with your user name. My Smugmug gallery is at http://GadgetDon.smugmug.com (Much better than www.picsonline.com/users/usract.php?act=592384) I'm still in the process of deciding which of my pictures I want to upload, but feel free to look.
Pictures are added to albums through the browser. If you are using Internet Explorer on Windows, you can drag and drop into the browser window to select your pictures. For Macs, there is a java-based way of picking files to upload, but I found the standard interface easier. I'm told there will be a special program coming soon to easily upload from Macs running OS X, perhaps with some interface to iPhoto. Based on the quality of everything else at Smugmug, I'm confident this will be excellent. I'll follow up when it's ready.
Once the pictures are uploaded, you can rearrange them, add captions (very long captions), move from one album to another, even crop and rotate pictures online.
Give the URL of your gallery, and people can come view. This is the special part. Unless you lock galleries into specific views, the users can choose the format to see the pictures by, and which size. So, those with broadband can have great big pictures to view, those with dialup can view smaller pictures. This is a feature so blindingly obviously, only someone who has tried to get their pictures viewed by others could think of it.
Below every picture is an "order prints & gifts" button. You can order prints in a wide variety of sizes, from wallet sized wo 20x30 inch (depending on the resolution of your picture). Or, you can have the picture printed on T-shirts, mugs, aprons, puzzles, and more. This is great for family reunions or the like...take the pictures, upload them, and then those that want prints can just take care of it themselves. Smugmug does not do the printing themselves, they tested the various print services for quality and EZPrints came out on top, so the service is provided by EZ Prints.
There's also a share button below pictures. One option is sharing by email--enter an email address, a message goes out saying "So and so says you should look at this picture here->" Nicely done, but nothing special. What is special is that you can also get the URL to the picture for inserting into other webpages, forums, avatars, whatever. This is called image hosting, and very few services do it. You can choose between large, medium, small, thumbnail, and tiny versions of the picture. Here are some thumbnails, coming from my smugmug account.
Here's the code that displayed those images:
The bandwidth taken to view these does come out of your smugmug account, so it's not totally free, but it's very flexible.
Pricing is reasonable. The basic fee is $29.95 per year. For it, you can upload as many pictures as you like, add captions, organize them into albums, all of the various picture editing tools available on the site. Bandwidth is limited to 2 Gigabytes per month, which means that people can view about 30,000 pictures per month on your site. You can even see how much your pictures are being viewed.
For $49.95 you can move up to PowerUser. Here, you can also upload an unlimited number of MPEG-1 video clips, each clip being under 8 MB. (One of the few things I disagree with, they should support MPEG-4.) The bandwidth is doubled to 4 Gigabytes per month, or 60,000 picture views. You also can change the look of your homepage or the the album pages.
Finally, at $99.95, you can move up to professional. Bandwidth goes up to 8 Gigabytes, with the ability to buy more traffic. You can hook you own domain to your site, you can have watermarks added to your pictures when people download them, and you can even set prices for printouts and make money from pictures that people buy.
Smugmug is not a community site, like Spymac has. People can leave comments on your pictures, but only those you direct to your gallery. It does, however, have an associated forum about digital photography called Digital Grin. There are people who can help you pick a good camera, use it to its best advantage, and just show off your best stuff.
I like Smugmug. I like it a lot. But, it's not the only possible solution. Let's look at some others:
First, there are the free sharing/printing services like ofoto and shutterfly. These services earn their money by having people buy prints, so it is NOT oriented to having people just view them online. Still, they are free.
There are communities sites, such as Spymac's gallery. A big advantage is that you get a wider range of people looking at your pictures and commenting on them. A big disadvantage is that you can get a wider range of jerks looking at your pictures and commenting on them. You also have very little control on how they are displayed. For me, it's not an either-or, I'll continue to have pictures in both places.
You can get your own webhost and webdomain and have your pictures on your own website. You can use software that takes your pictures and writes HTML. Downside is that nobody can leave comments, and to add a picture requires either regenerating the code or modifying it by hand. There also is software that you can use on your own webhost like Gallery, I have a gallery on my web site. Downside to this is that you have to keep the software up to date (turns out I'm not) and the space to store the images comes out of your storage allocation.
By posting with Smugmug instead of doing it on your own web host, you do give up some control. On the other hand, they take all the responsibility of keeping the gallery running, of improving the interface for your viewers, and they'll store the images.
Important, important, important note. You should always have backups of all your images. Something could happen to Smugmug, something could happen to your webhost, you could find yourself without internet connectivity for an extended period. You should never have a picture online that you don't also have on a hard disk or CD-ROM.
That said, I am so impressed with the people behind Smugmug, I trust they'll be around for a long time. They sweat the small details, they've clearly spent a lot of time looking at it from both the photographer's viewpoint and the viewer's viewpoint. They are now my example of a web service done right. If you care about your pictures and want to show them to others on the Internet, Smugmug will make you happy and the people you want to show happy.
Special deal. In a special deal between Eamontales.com and smugmug, you can save $5 on your first year's fees. Just enter the coupon ID "WStGcD4AkE4ZE" or click here. OK, it's not really a special deal--everyone with a Smugmug account has a coupon ID. If someone signs up with that coupon, the person who signs up saves $5 and the person who owns the code gets $10. So, if you sign up and then send this review to someone, better give them your own code instead.
Smugmug gets a sold 10 out of 10 Oooos.