Facebook. Flickr. Picasa. Photobucket. Even those who still consider the Internet the work of demons and wizards know the names. And chances are virtually everyone in your posse has used at least one or more of these giants to host and share their personal photos.
But this is no longer the dawn of the digital camera era, and online photo hosting is no longer limited to just a few key players. Today, you can't swing a 500mm lens without hitting a business that wants nothing more than to store your pics.
The question is: Do you dare stray from the familiar entities? We can't give you that answer, but we can tell you that truly excellent sites, perhaps just right for you, do indeed exist in other corners of the Web. And it's our intention here to point you in some of those directions.
Image courtesy ca-phillips.blogspot.com
But first, a few generalizations. For starters, anyone who's truly obsessed with the hobby to the point they have paid customers should at least consider steering clear of ready-made services altogether and instead buying a domain name and firing up their own blog. This'll take a ton more work of course, but the level of customization and independence is unparalleled.
Secondly, like a lot of things, you do seem to get what you pay for. Long gone are the days when you were forced to withstand oodles of flashing icons and brash advertisements strewn across a crudely constructed interface. Today, refinement is not uncommon. But it will cost you.
Finally, our selections are by no means defining. We didn't, for example, include top-notch services such as Exposure Manager or Photo Shelter. Not because they're problematic, but because they're clearly aimed at money-making pros.
We did, however, include a couple of popular mainstream sites that don't particularly thrill us. Why? So you have a chance to compare old-school cheese with new-school sophistication. They'll all handle the basics and most will likely do most of the stuff most of their customers require. Mostly. But some offer so much more.
Don't forget—no matter which service you ultimately select, check around for coupons and promo codes before you sign up. They're everywhere.
The Numbers: 6 million total visits; 3 million unique visitors; 200,000 members; founded in 2003, independently owned.
The Lowdown: It may have been founded in 2003, but Canadian-based 500px, newly redesigned for 2011, is only recently getting the attention it deserves. Sure, you can share photos and sell photos – the latter by upgrading to the service's "Awesome Account" – but the focus here is on the display of your work.
The problem? So many top-notch photographers use 500PX and so many of them submit so many top-notch shots, that yours may well sink into the curator-monitored mix pretty quickly. According to cofounder Ian Sobolev, "Photographers will post hundreds of photos on Flickr and then choose the top ten to post on 500px.” Looking through 500px's offerings, this certainly seems to be the case.
Truly, this is not the ideal spot to post hundreds of your latest high school basketball pics. But if stunning landscapes, rare insects glistening in the rain, or even tasteful semi-nudes are your thing, 500px offers an elegant and certainly unobtrusive environment in which to show them off, full size if you want.
Though basic 500px membership includes unlimited uploads, full access to the site's community, and a blog, most will want to opt for the paid Awesome Account and the theme upgrades, custom domains, and other benefits it brings.
Cost and Highlights: Just two choices here, free and "Awesome." Basic plan: Free; Awesome Account (adds custom domains, full site customization): $50/year.
Best suited for: Established, seasoned photographers brandishing stunning examples of their excellence; Joe Average photographers with a creative side.
The Numbers: 13 million registered members; 35 million unique visitors per month; founded in 2000; independently owned.
The Lowdown: Why would anyone gravitate to a place where members are called "deviants" and submissions "deviations"? We can't say, yet that's precisely the case at deviantART, an image hosting and sharing website that's certainly distinct from our other selections.
deviantART, you see, is designed primarily for the artist rather than the photographer. (That said, it works just fine for us shutterbugs too.) More than that though, the site is known for its, um…freedom of expression. Here, you will occasionally see depictions of nudity and/or violence. Outright pornography is strictly prohibited and the site labels even questionable material "mature content," but it's nevertheless not a place for the kiddies.
It is, however, a great spot for social interaction with other users. Comments are encouraged, discussions and polls are wide-ranging, and community spirit is evident just about everywhere you go. deviantART also features the usual amenities of a standard photo hosting site and a "Prints Shop" where submissions are bought and sold.
Cost and Highlights: Free to sign up as a "Basic" member, though you will be asked your age at time of registration. Basic membership: Free; Premium membership (no advertisements, improved browsing, and numerous other benefits): $4.95/month or $29.95/year.
Best suited for: Anyone with an open mind; creative individuals; those seeking community involvement.
The Numbers: More than 10 million photos and videos hosted; founded in 2005; independently owned.
The Lowdown: We include Dropshots because, like many other second-tier sites, it proves why the Flickrs and Photobuckets have the user base they do. Sure, old school mainstream services such as Shutterfly and Snapfish have that "budget" feel (convoluted interfaces, lots of ads and marketing tricks), but Dropshots is perhaps more disappointing because it claims it's "Next Generation" when it doesn't appear to be.
Dropshots is not a terrible site. Album creation is positively painless—the site neatly arranges your pics in chronologic order – as is sharing. And its little downloadable "Dropbox" utility allows you to drag and drop photos directly from Windows Explorer. Couldn't be easier.
But a "Next Generation" assertion would seem to indicate a certain visual refinement that simply isn't there. Indeed, the interfaces are noticeably generic and generally quite busy. Worse still, our photos, when enlarged, looked clearly more indistinct here than anywhere else we auditioned. We tried to find an editing utility to perhaps re-sharpen them a bit, but editing is not part of the package.
In the end, we realized we'd need to upgrade from Dropshots' freebie account if we wanted to view our photos seen in all their high-resolution glory (and if we wanted to upload more than 500 of them).
Cost and Highlights: Two levels here, the paid annual alternative being as expensive as that of some high-level sites. Dropshots does, however, offer a unique lifetime option that'll save big bucks over the long haul. Basic: Free. Premium (add unlimited uploads, improved imaging, password protection) $59.95/year, $99/lifetime.
Best Suited For: Entry-level photographers too uninspired to seek out superior services.
The Numbers: Independently owned, founded in March of 2010.
The Lowdown: "It has to be fast. It has to be easy. It has to connect you. It is your content." With those stated goals, Razzi, a definite rookie in the photo hosting world, launched in 2010. And for sheer photo loading and organizing convenience, few services can top it. We'd uploaded our first shots within minutes of first surfing to the site and were dragging and dropping photos seconds later. Compared to some sites, Razzi is a breeze.
However, it's certainly no full-meal-deal solution. You can't, for example, edit your online pics, order prints, or develop a fully customized page. Nor can you abolish advertisements. But you probably wouldn't want to. You see, Razzi features a YouTube-like perk wherein users make money—via Google's AdSense program—when viewers load their ad-supported pages. This is a nifty concept that, if implemented correctly, should help keep Razzi hot for some time to come.
Yet even without the AdSense connection, Razzi is likeable. It's easy to use (as we've described above), and it offers desirable amenities such as unlimited uploads, right-click photo protection, friend activity streams, and even an iPhone app.
Costs and Highlights: Razzi offers two levels of service. Users of both the free and paid accounts share in Google AdSense revenue. Standard Account (Unlimited uploads, 50% ad revenue): Free; Pro Account (add original resolution access, 100% ad revenue): $6.95/month.
Best Suited For: Those seeking a simple, easy to use photo-hosting solution; enterprising individuals who believe their photos are truly click-worthy.
The Numbers: 1.5 billion photos; 91 employees; founded in 2002; independently owned.
The Lowdown: Exceedingly popular with professional photographers who often decide between high-end services such as this and custom-designed personal websites, SmugMug is perhaps most notable for its ultra-attentive customer support where emailed questions are often, as we can verify, answered in minutes. Its galleries are clean and its esthetics are distinctly upscale, its prints rank favorably, and its user forum, Digital Grin, is chock full of helpful tips to take your online presence beyond the norm.
However, this is not the ideal spot for photo sharing. Though the site certainly supports it, SmugMug photo sharing isn't nearly the important cog it is at sites such as Flickr. Nor is the service inexpensive. None of its levels are freebies, and the top rung, in which customers can utilize their own domain names, runs a hefty $150 per year.
Still, we like SmugMug a lot, particularly for its super-tight, super-convenient integration with capable photo editing/organization applications such as Adobe's Lightroom. We found we could fill our SmugMug galleries without ever having to leave Lightroom. Anything that saves a step is fine by us.
Cost and Highlights: At SmugMug, there are three levels of service and none are free. Basic plan (unlimited storage, no advertising): $5/month or $40/year; Power plan (add video support, site customization, photo protection): $8/month or $60/year; Pro plan (add professional e-commerce features): $20/month or $150/year.
Best suited for: Heavily engrossed camera bugs and professional photographers who aren't looking for peer approval or social interaction as much as sales and sophistication.
The Numbers: 90 million members in over 20 countries; 2 billion stored photos; founded in 2000; owned by Hewlett-Packard.
The Lowdown: One of the true veterans in the photo hosting world, Snapfish is also one of the busiest. But we've opted to include it anyway because its old school approach may keep it under the radar of those who aren't already familiar with it.
Generally targeting the amateur rather than professional photographer (though its new "Stock Images" section does provide some level of e-commerce), Snapfish comes without some of the high-end accoutrements of the SmugMugs and Zenfolios. But that's just fine for the millions of users who patronize it.
Snapfish offers unlimited online storage and sharing of your photos, and it's also a "free" service – but with a catch. You must maintain "active participation" (in other words, you must order prints or gifts or merchandise at least once a year) or risk forfeiting your membership. From photo mugs to books, cards, calendars, and much more, there's no shortage of photo-customizable products from which to choose and no shortage of promotion designed to sell you a bit of everything.
Snapfish is arguably the Wal-Mart of photo hosting, and its money-maker—the printed product—is viewed by some as inconsistent. Still, the vast majority of its truly massive user base is apparently quite content.
Cost and highlights: It won't cost you a thing to sign-up or upload an unlimited number of photos. You will, however, need to reach for your wallet at least once each year to buy prints or merchandise. Membership: Free. Prints: $.09 each for four 4x6s; $2.99 each for four 8x10s. Photo Books: $11.99 to $44.99. Photo Mugs: $9.99 and up.
Best suited for: Cost-conscious consumers who prioritize storage; family/group sharing; and extended printing options over worldwide exposure and sophisticated amenities.
The Numbers: 7 million monthly visitors; 520 million photos; founded in 1995; owned by American Greetings.
The Lowdown: A true original, Webshots has been in the photo sharing/hosting game for more than a decade. In that time, it has built up a considerable user base and, of course, gazillions of photos.
Webshots is a workable but not spectacular service that's beginning to show its old school beginnings (oodles of ads, inelegant interface, questionable editing facilities). It's notable, however, for its highly customizable greeting cards—it is, after all, run by American Greetings—and the site's new "Project Exposure," in which member photos appear on greeting cards distributed at retail stores such as Target. We also like its new "Picture Shows" utility, in which you can produce nifty little videos that integrate your pics, music from the site, and captions. We completed our first Picture Show in a matter of minutes.
Webshots' default no-charge service will be welcomed by those on severe budgets yet is encumbered by limitations and advertisements. Its "Gold" level at just $19.99/year does away with most annoyances and its Platinum service (just ten dollars more) even lets you download and keep any Picture Shows you've created. The downside to all three levels? None of them offer unlimited storage.
Costs and Highlights: Three levels in total. The first is free, but even the two paid levels impose upload/storage limitations of 5,000 photos. Webshots Limited (1,000-upload maximum): Free. Webshots Gold (add member photo downloads, 5,000-upload max): $19.99. Webshots Platinum (add Picture Show downloads): $29.99.
Best suited for: Thrifty folks who have other ways to spend their hard-earned money; people who really, really want their images on greeting cards.
The Numbers: Founded in 2004; independently owned.
The Lowdown: Go to any serious photog discussion forum and you'll find likely find two hosting sites bandied about above all others—SmugMug and Zenfolio. But does that mean they're the best options for you? That depends where you are in your photographic journey.
If you own not one but two DSLRs and a thorough collection of lenses, and if you already see paid gigs in your future, you'll undoubtedly benefit from the Zen/Smug feature set. They're similar in many ways (no free account options, equally convoluted website setup schemes—they could both take lessons from Photobucket in these respects). And Zenfolio, aligned with veteran print house MPix, is lauded by many as delivering the slickest hardcopy in the business. Unlimited storage (available in all but Zenfolio's "Basic" plan) is another great perk for serious photographers, as are the fully customizable—and often downright gorgeous—galleries.
As is the case with SmugMug, sharing and social interaction are not Zenfolio's strong suits. Indeed, it prides itself on privacy and image protection—a smart idea when you consider its customer base.
Note: We found Zenfolio slow-moving, and noticed similar complaints from other users. Most complaints were recent, leading us to believe this is a temporary issue.
Cost and highlights: At Zenfolio, you pay to play. However, its $100/year "Premium" account is one of the least expensive full-blown photo e-commerce avenues you'll find. Basic Plan (2GB max storage, custom design): $25; Unlimited Plan (add unlimited storage, own domain names): $50; Premium Plan (add photo-marketing capabilities, multiple upgrades): $100; Premium Business plan (everything but the proverbial kitchen sink): $250/year.
Best suited for: Serious cameramen (and women). Zenfolio ideally fits no-nonsense types who know they're good and want a public presence to show off—and possibly sell—their wares. Probable overkill for vacation snap-shooters seeking comments.