Photo Printing Sites & Apps Are Focusing On The Wrong Thing

Higher Quantity, Lower Cost, and Pricing Games


Sample ad I saw for a crazy amount of free prints

For as long as I can remember, sites where you can get photos printed in books, 4×6 prints, cards, calendars, cups, etc. have seemingly been in constant discount mode so long as you know the secret code to get the discount.  This year things have taken a little bit of a shift and and competition has heated up.  Now the focus is on how many prints you can get for the least amount of money.  Groovebook is offering 100 prints in a book for $2.99, delivered.  This Labor Day Shutterfly had a promotion to get 101 prints for free.  PhotoAffections came out with an iOS app called Free Prints earlier this year, up to 1000 free* prints per year.   I barely have the time to choose 1 or 2 photos to print, let alone 101, or 1000!

Fast, Simple, Quality


Mosaic Book home page

What I think the vast majority of people want is simplicity and consistency.  I want simplicity in pricing, ease of choosing a product, easy of choosing photo(s) for the product(s) I want to purchase.  I love the Mosaic app for all of these reasons. $20, 20 photos, in a well design photo book, all the time, super simple, done.  Ease of use and shortest path to completing the purchase are key.  Sure, I could spend $2.99 and get 100 prints in a book from Groovebook.  However the book is junk compared to what Mosaic offers.  Also, who has time to choose 100 photos at once?  Sometimes I want 100 photos in a book, but that is rare, and in those cases I will need to spend more time to choose the photos, which I don’t have now.  I’m willing to pay more per photo for a quality, simple, fast purchasing experience.  It isn’t about the cheapest 4×6 print folks!  Parting with 13 cents for a 4×6 print isn’t what is keeping people away from buying more prints from you.

Postcard Back

Back of #SepiaMail postcard

Pricing games are not a way to gain faithful customers in the long run.  The price I am going to pay needs to be consistent day to day.  My time as a parent is limited enough, I don’t want to have to hunt for a discount code, wait for the window to open, then order my prints.  I need to strike while the iron is hot.  I’ve got my photo, I want it sent to to my parents and grandparents, I want to do it now, and I’m willing to pay X amount for it.  #SepiaMail, a new service from Sepia Life is another examples that is trying to give people what they really want from a photo printing service.  When I’m posting a photo to Facebook of my son or daughter riding their bike or climbing a tree, I want my family who isn’t on Facebook to see the photo as well.  With #SepiaMail I can just add #SepiaMail #grandparents #sister to the end of caption as I’m writing it for the post, and #SepiaMail will print the photo and send it as a 4×6 postcard to my grandparents and sister.  I didn’t need to spend the time doing an entirely separate photo selection and publish workflow to get the postcards sent in another app or site.  Just a few extra taps on my phone when I’m already posting a photo, and I’m done.

Other gotchas with pricing

Since I brought up the topic of pricing games and some examples, I thought I’d go into some of the nitty gritty details on the games that are played.  For the FreePrints app there are a variety of restrictions and upsells, but the primary way they cover costs, and most certainly make money is you always pay shipping, $1.99 minimum. I select all the photos in one of my Facebook albums, 68, and it was gong to charge me $8.99 for shipping.  So I’d be paying ~13 center per photo, not a bad deal, but not free.  For comparison, Shutterly charges 15 cents per 4×6 print, so the Free Prints app is competitive with that, but again not free.  Free Prints is simply a product built around marketing, taking advantage of people’s thirst for free goods, and many people’s lack of time/desire/etc to bother looking into whether or not they are getting a good deal or not.

Free Prints is really the app that has taken cost games to the extreme for photo prints, and represents one of the huge problems I see in photo printing.  I personally can’t stand pricing games such as the ones Free Prints, Shutterfly, and most photo printing sites use.  I don’t think I’m alone here either.  The sites are set up so that unless you pay attention and do more work, you are probably going to get screwed and pay way more than you really should for your photo print product.


Photo printing needs to evolve so it isn’t a chore.  It needs to adapt to fit into my lifestyle and the way in which I view and share photos.  #SepiaMail is just one simple way in which this can be done.  Digital photos online are great, but I’m convinced that physical prints are the best way to love your photos again, and again, and again…

Why Photo Sharing Is Still Broken

Every month of every year, I have the same problem. I got together with some friends or family, we all took photos, and I never get to see them all in a single unified view, and some not at all! This boggles my mind given that digital cameras have been around more than a decade and the internet has permeated almost every aspect of our lives.

With physical prints, getting a single album of photos from all people involved in an event was logistically challenging and expensive because it involved physical goods. When you got everyone together though, you could easily go through and view all the photos for an event in a comfortable and consistent manner. Sadly in the digital world, things are not much better, perhaps even worse, but for different reasons.


People have their photos locked up on their phone/computer. Or if they do put them online, they post things to their account on their service of choice. So not only are my friends’ photos not in a single album ‘Friends Camping Trip 2014’, they are in a different account and possibly even different site. It is unrealistic to expect everyone to use the same photo service as there are so many with different capabilities.

Coordinate Beforehand

Up front planning is even difficult to wrangle people into combining photos in the same location, except for the more devoted photographers. Of the dozens to hundreds of people I overlap with in a given year in terms of photos that I’d like to see in common albums, they photos are likely stored across dozens of different online services. There are features within services such as Facebook and Google+ (perhaps others as well) that make it relatively easy to share photos with a specific group on a specific event. Facebook for example has Events. You invite people to the event and have an entire social experience built around that within Facebook, including sharing photos for the event. Seems simple enough, if you could just get everyone to use Facebook AND post their photos to that event. Problem is, not only do people want to share the photos with that group of people in the event, they also want to share some of the photos with their friends and family who weren’t there, so they know what they are up to.

What does the future look like?

I’m convinced photos logically associated with a given album/event from multiple people will be physically/digitally stored across many different services. That is just the way things are going to be. Facebook has little incentive to integrate with Flickr, just as much as Flickr has little incentive to integrate with Facebook for photos. This seems silly even though some sort of integration to allow seamless viewing of related photos for an event/album is what people want and need.

Sites like Flickr, ThisLife, PictureLife, and the list goes on and on, exist to store your photos, let you annotate them in various was, and share them out via various social media outlets.  I’ll call this the fan out scenario, allow whoever I want on the internet to view the photos I choose through the services I choose.

Possible Solution

What we need is the funnel scenario.  All my family, friends, and other photos that I want to see in a logical group, brought together in a seamless photo viewing experience.  In its most basic form, the logical group could be the party we were all at, the weekend we spent together, or anyone who was at the hockey game last night.  All that matters is that the group of photos is meaningful to you.

There are services out there that pretend to do this. Pixable is one example.  Really though, all Pixable does it let you connect your various accounts where your photos and friends photos exist, and lets you view some fairly unintelligent sets of photos.  There is a wealth of metadata associated with photos these days.  A service could easily see that I tagged John in a photo at lunch time on Saturday.  John also posted a photo at lunch time on Facebook Saturday.  Basic logic tells me that I would like to see both of these photos as part of a logical group, “Lunch with John.”  Location is another excellent data point to help associated photos together.

Google+ Stories actually try to do a lot of these things, but with my own photos.  Why not extend this to my friends’ photos as well?

The next untapped innovation in helping me enjoy the photos of my life more, is unifying the experience of viewing the logical groups of photos that are important to me, regardless of where those photos are stored.  With mixed quality, developers APIs exist, the data is improving, and the time is ripe for someone to solve this problem.

Never Forget The Last Time You Were Here

Just last week Facebook quietly rolled out a new feature showing photos of a person and their significant other on their anniversary.   It is great to see Facebook finally start to leverage the vast amounts of data about people to help them enjoy their photos more.  Around the same time I started seeing a new experience on my iPhone after posting a photo.  First it was public photos at the same location I just posted a photo at.  Then yesterday I posted a photo while out to dinner and I was shown a photo from the last time all the people I was at dinner with (which I tagged in my photo post) were tagged in a post.  I was also shown the last time I checked in at the restaurant and who I was with.

Previous posts with people or location


This is a great way to help you spend a small amount of time to remember the past.  Facebook is barely even scratching the surface of what could be done to combine all they know about you and your friends to surface interesting set of photos at times you are likely to enjoy seeing them.  Another example of what cuold be done is your friend’s birthday. Instead of an advertisement to send them a gift, I would much prefer to see photos of me and my friend.  Sepia is a great service for that.  I get a collage of photos of me and my friend on their birthday that I can then share with them if I want.

Collage generated by Sepia for a friend's birthday

Collage generated by Sepia for a friend’s birthday


Amazon Cloud Drive – The 21st century’s version of photos in a shoebox you never open

Today Amazon made its announcement about the anticipated Amazon Fire Phone.  One of the top features being touted is unlimited storage for your photos.  That may sound great, but will you really be happy with your overall photo experience using Amazon?  I’d bet big that the answer is no.  Easy backup and lots of cheap/free space is only a small fraction of what you need to enjoy your photos.  How do you ultimately use the photos you take?  I know a lot sit on your phone, but you also share many of them through a wide variety of services (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Flickr, etc.)

I recently wrote about all the things I think you should consider when deciding where to store your photos online.  When I evaluate Amazon against the various criteria, the only thing it has going for it is cheap storage, free.  It isn’t even made clear if your full resolution photos will be stored in Amazon Cloud Drive or if it will be a low resolution version.  I’d be shocked if they weren’t full resolution, that would be a real sting to the cleanliness of their advertisement that it is unlimited storage for all your photos. That said, Google’s is unlimited free for low resolution and you have to pay for higher resolution photo storage.

Once your photos are stored in Amazon Cloud Drive, your experience is only as good as Amazon makes it.  Since Amazon makes $0 off of storing your photos, guess how much they are going to invest in making the experience awesome!?  Not a lot I bet.

Amazon’s web site and iOS app for viewing photos in your Cloud Drive is pretty minimalistic.  There is basic sorting by date, and thats about it.  No photo editing, no albums, no tagging, no searching, no sharing, and no developer APIs.  You might as well put your photos on a thumb drive and toss it in the closet with your 3×5 printed photos from the last century.



Desktop Web Experience

Desktop Web Experience

The bottom line is, don’t let Amazon suck you into their phone because of unlimited photo storage.  Don’t even let it be a factor in your decision process.  I’m not saying don’t buy the Amazon Fire phone, I am sure it has other redeeming qualities, just don’t buy it for the storage space.  Storage space, while not free in most places, is very inexpensive.   It is becoming a commodity very quickly.  If you take enough photos that you care about free space, you probably care a lot about your entire photo experience.  Look at the big picture when choosing a phone, not just storage space.  In my experience with Amazon, they will invest heavily in the experiences that result in purchases of products on Amazon.  Photos is not one of them, though I can think of many ways it could be.  Apple, Google, dozens of other smaller companies, and yes, Microsoft care a lot more about photos than Amazon as demonstrated by the products they build.  The Amazon Fire phone is a full cost phone on par with iPhones and other high end phones.  I guarantee you it is very poor at many of the experiences you put a high value on.  Do your homework before you buy.


Why Facebook Is Not Serious About Photos – The Development Platform

In part 1 I talked about the end user experience on Facebook and why I don’t believe they are doing a very good job and offering a great photo experience to users.  In this post I want to focus on Facebook as a development platform for people like me to build apps leveraging the data within Facebook.

Ah, where to start.  How about I start with the Facebook f8 developers conference I went to in April.  In the words of Mark Zuckerberg, the APIs Facebook makes available to developers are the same APIs used to power Facebook.  He says this with such enthusiasm and conviction that if these APIs are good enough for Facebook, they are good enough for me to build my app.  The problem is, I am not trying to build Facebook, I am trying to build something using the data within Facebook.  Any developer knows that to build a product of the scale that Facebook is at requires serious tradeoffs and optimizations.  Over the past 6 months I’ve become intimately familiar with the Facebook APIs.  It is clear that they are there to meet the needs of the Facebook product, with little olive branches here and there to demonstrate they aren’t completely ignoring the needs of developers.

Rich API

To be fair to Facebook, they are trying a little bit harder to make developers live’s easier.  The APIs are now versioned and will last for two years. Well, almost.  The 2 year guarantee only applies to core properties.  When looking at the documentation, very few properties are core.  Even if 99% of the properties were core, there could be one property that is critical to my app, and Facebook could remove it, change it, or do something else to the property that could make it impossible for my app to function the way intended, it could kill my business.

For the past 2 years or so, Facebook has had two different APIs for accessing data, FQL and the newer Graph API.  At the f8 conference, Facebook announced they would be deprecating the FQL API in 2 years.  In my opinion, the FQL is the richer of the two APIs.  I have my gripes about FQL, but it certainly provided a richer way to query information.  So Facebook is removing capabilities from the developer and shifting more of the heavy lifting from Facebook to the developer.  It is rare that a modern development platform makes a wholesale cut in functionality resulting in a net reduction in capabilities of the platform.  Sure, APIs come and go, tweaks here and there, but this is big.  This is the exact opposite of a WOW feature that opens the door to a whole new world of possibilities of what I could build.

What is perhaps most frustrating is that with what few fields I can filter on, depending on what the value I use for the filter, I might not get results, even if I know there are matching results.  I believe this has to do with the Facebook internal 5000 row limit.  I can’t tell you how many forum posts I’ve seen on Facebook app developers getting tripped up on the internal behavior garbage Facebook makes its developers deal with.  Yes, they explain what is going on and how to deal with it for some situations, but is it really even necessary to expose this dirty internal laundry to your development community?  And for the scenarios that have no pattern for reliably getting results, it makes any filtering with the API completely worthless.

At f8, Facebook did announce some new ways of querying data.  However they were very narrowly focused.  Being able to make queries with more filter conditions and get consistent results would be a huge improvement.

Rich Data

Let me go back to the scenario I mentioned in my previous post about finding photos from my anniversary and look at it from the developers point of view.  In Sepia, I have been going through different scenarios such as friends’ birthdays, mother’s day, father’s day, anniversaries, etc to try and automatically find relevant/interesting photos from Facebook.  Since Sepia is an application I am developing, I am not restricted by the user interface provided by Facebook.  I am primarily constrained by the quality of the data within Facebook and the APIs offered by Facebook to access that data.  Remember what I said about Facebook nuking all metadata from photos when I upload them?  Well, there goes a ton of interesting information I could have used to build new ways of enjoying your photos.  My friends who uploaded photos days or weeks after the wedding were not easily found with a search on our anniversary date.  So with what little data I have left to work with, it may not even be an accurate representation of reality that allows me to find relevant photos from our wedding.

Unlike the Facebook app and web site, I can use the Graph to search for photos by a date range, or if me or someone else is tagged in the photo.  Beyond that, I can’t do much more. I can’t search by location, description, comments, or more complex queries including multiple dates or date ranges, or multiple people tagged.  A location search for example requires me to download all photos that could potentially be relevant, and then implement my own filtering to narrow down the results.  This isn’t rocket science, but it is more work for me, doesn’t scale very well, and is something relatively basic that one might want to do with photos.  A company serious about building a developer platform to work with photos should have this.

Data Beyond Photos

One of the reasons I started building Sepia on Facebook rather than another platform with photos such as Flickr or Google+ is because of the rich data set available beyond the data primarily associated with photos.  This additional data would allow me to provide much more context and meaning to the photos of my life.  For example I wanted to be able to send a couple a collage of photos from their wedding on their anniversary.  Unfortunately their anniversary is not exposed to developers.  I know this is more of a bonus feature, but it is the kind of information that can allow developers to completely transform how we relive the moments of our life through photos.

Privacy Settings

Many users don’t let apps their friends use access their photos.  Having this setting makes sense, but I am doubtful many people are aware of it and what setting it has.  If your friends do have this set, it is not explicitly noted to the friends of the user who has prevented access to photos.  As a user of an app, I may think the app is broken if I don’t see John’s photos.  Privacy is an inherently complicated problem, and Facebook needs to do more to educate people about the settings available and to help people choose the settings that make the most sense in the context of scenarios in which those settings apply.  This is no different than Facebook’s own strong advice to app developers to ask users for permissions to user’s data in the context of why they need it.  So why isn’t Facebook following the same best practices it encourages others to follow?  I realize this in many cases will require collaboration with app developers, but in the end, it would result in richer apps and a better end user experience.

Facebook App Sharing Settings for Friends

Facebook App Sharing Settings for Friends

With Facebook’s new versioned Graph API, one of the new aspects of it is that I can’t access any friends data from an app unless that friend is also using the app.  This pretty much trumps the privacy issues I just described thus far.  I don’t blame Facebook for this change though. Users need to own and control their data, and this theoretically should allow them to do that more easily.   For developers, our challenge is now even greater to figure out how to get more users on board.  With a significantly reduced set of data to access when I sign up for an app like Sepia, the experience will be much more limited that it otherwise would be if all my friends were using it as well.  I believe Facebook needs to work with developers to find ways of encouraging people to sign up for apps that enhance the Facebook experience.  Without a rich app ecosystem, Facebook will be limited by their own resources and ideas, leaving the door open for competing social networks to attract users away from Facebook.  Microsoft and Apple (iOS more specifically) are only what they are today because of the armies of developers out there who built on the rich developer platforms those companies provided.  Facebook is far from accomplishing a similar feat.


The features Facebook offers for your photos are squarely targeted at sharing new photos for people to see now.  The lack of rich metadata on photos unless added by Facebook users, and the week development APIs doesn’t foster a rich community of photo applications on Facebook.  Yes, simple compelling scenarios can be implemented as Sepia has demonstrated with the This Day in History emails.  Some more interesting scenarios can be implemented with significant development effort, but are limited to the quality of the data within Facebook.  For Facebook to be serious about photos for end users and developers, they need to support the rich metadata people expect from photos and enhance their APIs to make it even easier to build compelling applications with photos on Facebook.


Why Facebook Is Not Serious About Photos – Part 1

When I look at all the different photos services out there, there are 4 main capabilities I want…

  • A great experience for viewing and sharing my new photos with friends and family.  I’m not really into sharing my photos for the world to see.
  • An easy way to find and enjoy photos from the past.
  • A backup of the photos I care about most.  I can get this elsewhere, but then that is another task I have to set up and manage.
  • A rich developer platform.  I am biased here because I am a developer.  However you should care about this even if you aren’t.  You will benefit from the creativity of the worldwide developer community finding new ways for you to enjoy your photos that your chosen photo service hasn’t though of, or perhaps hasn’t done a very good job at.

Sharing New Photos

So how about those new photos on Facebook?  How is it?  In my opinion it is the best at serving the purpose of sharing my photos with friends and family because it is where the highest concentration of those people come together on the internet.  Of course your audience may be on Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, or somewhere else.  What matters is that you put your photos where you audience is going to see them.  Beyond that, all sorts of shortcomings become visible.  The max resolution of photos on Facebook is a paltry 2048×2048.  I mentioned this in my blog post on choosing a photo service.  TVs and monitors are exceeding those dimensions far more often now.

It isn’t too uncommon for me or a friend to want to know which camera they used to take a photo.  On Facebook we have to ask the question because Facebook strips all metadata in the photo when you upload it.  All the nitty gritty details about the camera, lens, settings, etc is perhaps not a huge loss for family and friend photo sharing.  However for the more hard core photo communities of public photo sharing, these are essential pieces of information about a photo you expect to be able to see.

Google+ Photo With Location

Google+ Photo With Location

Personally, I like to share the location of my photos.  It is a richer experience for those viewing the photos and it is also nice for me when I want to look at old photos and perhaps I forgot where the photo was taken.  My phone has the location stored in the photo.  However when you upload the photo to Facebook, in order to make the location visible to everyone on Facebook, I have to set the location explicitly in the Facebook UI.  This is an unnecessary hurdle when eliminating as many clicks and taps as possible is essential to retain users attention.  Google+ on the other hand shows me a little map next to a photo (along with all the other metadata in my photo) and allows me to remove the location altogether, or to share the location for all the photos in the album.  I don’t have to search and select a location from another set of UI.

Facebook has a not too discoverable feature called shared photo albums.  The gist of it is a photo album, that you invite other people to add their photos to.  So for example, we spent a weekend with a few other families and I wanted to easily access all the photos from everyone that weekend.  I created a shared album and invited them to it.  One family added their photos, the other didn’t.  For the photos that were added, great!  The problem is, people are busy, miss things, can’t figure out how to use feature sometimes, etc.  The real opportunity here is not to create another feature where people have to actively manage their photos more.  Facebook knows who was there that weekend because we all either posted photos to Facebook or were tagged in photos posted by others there that weekend AND they all have location information in them.  A great photo experience would be something akin to Google Stories where Facebook sees that everyone is probably at the same event/activity and suggests to us that we have a combined view of all our photos that we can all see with one click.

fb shared album

Finding Photos

If you are tired of reading, know that in this area, Facebook gets an F-, 0%, complete failure in my opinion.

My anniversary was a couple months ago.  I wanted to go on Facebook and find photos from our wedding weekend posted by me and friends.  There are really 5 main variables at play here in this scenario to help me find the relevant photos.  Album, time, location, people’s photos, people tagged in photos.


Not everyone made an album of their photos from that weekend.  Most are just uploaded to the default Mobile Uploads or some other generic album.  Even if they all did put in an album, there is no way for me to search all my friends photo albums. I would need to go to each of their profile pages.  This is consistent across all aspects of photos, I can’t search for anything, it is all browsing.  Most of the browsing is not at all optimized to be efficient.  Lets say I was religious about creating albums and I uploaded all my photos to Facebook, there would be hundreds of them.  Browsing for a specific album  in their UI would be horrendously slow.


How about I go right to the date of the wedding.  I can use the Timeline for looking for photos by time.  However this requires me to scroll through an entire year’s worth of Facebook posts, not just photos.  There is no way for me to go to a specific date in just a few seconds. And then, at the end of all this I am only in one person’s timeline.  I wanted to see photos from  all my friends who posted photos from the wedding.  This brings me to the next big problem with finding photos or anything on Facebook.  You can’t combine variables when trying to find anything.  Of course this idea is already dead in the water because of the previous point that there are no searching capabilities at all, only browsing.

Ok, so lets say I am determined to browse for photos.  On the date of our wedding, there were not actually many photos posted relating to the wedding.  I found many photos from friends posted days, weeks, or even months past the actual wedding.  OK, I get it, you just want to enjoy the wedding festivities and worry about posting later, the way it should be.   Remember what I said about Facebook nuking all metadata associated with a photo when you upload it? That includes the date and time the photo was actually taken.  So now, rather than our wedding photos showing up as being taken on the date of our wedding, they are scattered across the multi-month timeframe in which people got around to uploading them to Facebook.  I find this very odd for Facebook to do.  They want every last detail of your life down to the minute practically on when it happened, yet when I post photos I have a history of when I added it to Facebook rather than when it the photo was actually taken.

People Tagged in Photos

I know myself and others are tagged in photos, so I could use Facebook’s ability to see photos I’m tagged in, or photos me and a friend are tagged in.  However this alone is insufficient get photos from the 10s of people who were at our wedding and narrow it down to our actual wedding date rather than all the other times I’ve seen these people.


My last hope, location.  We were married in a church we never went to except for our wedding.  Hidden away on your profile page, there is a way for you to view a map of all your posts.   It is very clumsy to use compared with every other modern map out there.  Of course I can’t search it, because why would I want to search to jump right to a location?  And it is only my photos! I can go to a friend’s profile page and view their map, one by one, and it would take forever.  But then the real kicker in all this is what I mentioned earlier.  Facebook doesn’t leverage the location in your photos. You need to add the location in Facebook’s UI on your own.  So chances are people probably don’t even have the location on the photos.

Facebook Places Map

Facebook Places Map

This may seem like an exceptionally complicated scenario, however I don’t believe it is.  All the big events in life happen with other people, somewhere, sometime.  We remember some set of those variables, and naturally want to use them to find photos from our past.  We all have holidays, graduations, weddings, big birthdays, anniversaries, religious events, etc. and want to see photos from them again.

One last example that is completely different.  Lets say I want to see all the photos me and my friends have posted that have a baby or kid in them doing something cute.  In my experience people love to comment on these sorts of photos and I’d bet I’d do pretty well if I could search for all photos that have a comment with ‘cute’ in it.  Just like all the other pieces of data associated with photos, I can’t search comments either :(.


I already touched on this a bit for Facebook in my post on choosing a photo service.  This is really quite simple.  Facebook stores a low quality version of your photo with none of the metadata.  Do not rely on it as your primary backup of photos.  Maybe your 4th or 5th backup is ok, a low quality photo is better than no photo!

Developer Platform

This warrants its own blog post.  Stay tuned.


Facebook is a social network which many of us get a lot of benefit from.  From my point of view though, they are currently focused on getting as much information out of people as possible, so that information can be shown to friends, and encourage them to share even more information.   Facebook is a giant personal information vacuum, showing what it just sucked up.  This only helps me with new photos, and fails at just about every other photo scenario.  After 7 years as a user of Facebook, I am sorely disappointed.  I use Facebook to augment my experience with photos, sharing in particular, but beyond that Facebook has not demonstrated to me that it is serious enough about photos that I should consider it as the primary home for my photos online.

Photo Storage Services are More Than Just a Backup of Your Photos

I was considering writing a blog post to try and convince you to back up your photos and compare the various online services for backing up photos.  However I quickly realized that would be beating a dead horse.  If you take digital photos, you will irretrievably lose many of your photos in the next 5-10 years if you do not have them backed up, period.  The stats don’t lie and they are against you in whatever is keeping you from taking the short time to set up backup for your photos.

Now that the decision to actually back  them up is made, I want to talk about some of the not so obvious features to look for when choosing a backup solution for your photos.  Keeping in line with the Sepia theme, these are all features that in my opinion will help you enjoy your photos more with minimal or no extra work.

I can buy an external hard drive, hook it up to my computer, and run software to periodically backup my photos.  This doesn’t help me enjoy my photos more though.  There are countless online backup services to store your photos in the cloud, CrashPlan being my choice because it is actually unlimited backup.  This is nice, I get all my photos and other files on my computer backed up.  They even have an iOS app I can go in and access any file backed up there from my computer.  But you know what, I never use the iOS app.  Viewing photos on it is horrible.  What I want out of a photo backup solution is more than just having the safety net of my photos being duplicated and stored in another physical location.  I want a service that helps me enjoy my photos more.  So why do I even use CrashPlan?  I am paranoid and want yet another copy of my photos, and I have tons of other files on my computer to backup (documents, music, videos, etc.)

So how can a service help me enjoy my photos more?  Choose a service that isn’t solely a file backup service, such as ThisLifePictureLife, Facebook, Flickr, Google+, Smugmug, Phootime, or one of many others that exist.

Access from anywhere

My 100,000+ photos don’t fit on my phone, so when I’m out to dinner with friends and want to look at some pictures from our trip a few years ago, I need to be able to find them fast and have a great viewing experience.  Being able to look at any photo I have, any time, any place I want helps dramatically increase the enjoyment of my photos, I’m actually looking at them instead of them staying hidden on a computer somewhere. Every online photo storage service has apps for iOS and Android as well as web sites for viewing on your computer.

Automatic backup from all devices

Speaking of 100,000+ thousand photos not fitting on my phone, 5000 photos won’t even fit on my phone.  I don’t want to delete them! I can’t enjoy them when they are gone.  You need to do something with your photos taken with your phone to free up space so you can take more, and still find and enjoy the ones you took a few months ago.  Buying a phone with more storage capacity is only delaying the inevitable, save yourself $100 on the storage upgrade and invest in a scalable solution for the thousands of photos you are going to take over the years you own your phone.  Thankfully, if you use any of the main photo sites I’ve mentioned, their apps include a feature to automatically upload photos from your phone and your computer to your account with them.  Whichever service you choose, you want a solution that automatically gets photos off your phone and computer (or at least a copy) and stores elsewhere.  Trying to remember to download photos from your phone to a computer or the internet is only a chore, and thankfully one that software has eliminated for you now.

Find fast

One of my earlier posts talked about how to find photos quickly.  For the most part, the described method of organizing your photos works across most photo storage services.  One of the reasons to choose a purpose built photo service though, is for it to be aware of all the rich data embedded in your photos so you can find them more easily.  If you have a location on the photo, can you search your photos by location?  Same with who is tagged in the photo, what the caption is on it, and when the photo was taken.  Your mileage varies here depending on the service you choose.  The services that are primarily social networks, are better suited towards sharing photos you’ve recently taken,  actually finding old photos is a challenge (a future blog post to come on this topic.)  ThisLife and PictureLife for example allow you to much more easily find photos by the most comment attributes of a photo that you care about.  Think about how you find photos, and which services will maximize the use of the data associated with them to help you quickly find your photos.  For those who like a visual search, Facebook, PictureLife, and ThisLife allow you to find your photos by location by looking at a map using their web sites.

ThisLife Map View

ThisLife Map View


Automatic Tagging

You may be thinking, I don’t ever tag anyone in my photos, it is too time consuming.  This is where a photo service can really come in handy.  Google and Facebook primarily, have enormous resources for building high quality image recognition algorithms to help figure out who is in your photos, so you can then find them again more easily (and share them.)  Tagging faces is one thing I personally do spend a lot of time on because it is such a great way of finding old photos, perhaps for a birthday, wedding, anniversary, or reunion.  Beyond date/time and location, who is in a photo is the next most important piece of metadata I want on my photos.  One day in the not to distant future, my camera will tell me who it is in the frame before I even take the picture.  I can’t want!  I know this scares the crap out of a lot of people because of privacy concerns, however this blog post is not going to get into that can of worms.

Collage generated by Sepia for a friend's birthday

Collage generated by Sepia for a friend’s birthday

Automatically find the best photos

Back to those 100,000+ photos I have. I really don’t need that many, and for any one set of photos, there are probably ones I don’t need to see because they are blurry, duplicates, or just uninteresting.  A variety of services will now try to automatically use their secret sauce to filter down a set of photos from your trip to Paris with the ones it thinks most represents the set.  Google+ and PictureLife are examples of services that do this.  If you were trigger happy in Paris, and don’t want to do any work before looking at some photos from your trip or to share some with friends, this can be a huge time saver for you.

Create something new, automatically

On the flip side of 100,000+ being too many photos, Google+ just found a clever way to make use of the 30 photos of my kids swinging as I struggled to find the one or two photos that I should share.  AutoAwesome is a feature in Google+ that automatically does a number of different things with your photos such as collages, mini animations, making sure everyone is smiling, and adding snow effects.  While the snow feature is a bust in my opinion, I love the mini animations.  The concept of automatically creating something out of my photos is very powerful.  It opens a door to whole new realm of creative ways I can enjoy my photos without any additional work.  This idea is something which is a key part of Sepia, which will make a collage of photos of you and your friend on their birthday, or a collage of photos of your mother on Mother’s day.


Building upon many of these features, Google recently announced Google Stories.  Google+ will automatically choose the best photos from a set and put together an interactive Story the user can share.  If you took some or all of the photos with a camera that does not have GPS in it, Google will try and figure out where the photos were taken.  This is possible because Google has access to enormous amounts of data it has collected from building its mapping features, all the other photos users have uploaded with location information on the, and likely others.  Compare your photos to these others and presto, Google now knows where you took the photo.  How well this works probably depends a lot of variables, but for many situations such as unique landmarks I imagine it could work great. Google Stories makes it even easier to do nothing and enjoy your photos more.

Google Stories


Photo Quality

Since nothing else I’ve talked about really matters unless you have a good quality photo to look at, I need to point out a couple things about photo quality.  100% of phones and compact digital cameras these days take photos in the JPG format.  Higher end compact cameras and SLRs also support RAW format.  The bottom line is, you must have a backup of your original and highest quality photos.  Not every service supports backing up RAW photos.  Some services don’t even let you download the exact file you uploaded to them, e.g. Facebook.  When you upload a photo to Facebook, it will resize the photo down to 2048×2048, which is approximately 4.2MP, lower resolution than the 5MP iPhone 4, and half that of the modern day iPhone 5s 8MP camera.  Don’t kill your photos by relying on Facebook as your primary photo backup.  Choose a service that supports RAW files if you have them and supports recovering the exact file you uploaded to the service when the day comes that you lost some photos on your home computer, or your dog ate your phone.

Share with friends and family

Perhaps not so obvious, but finding a service that helps you share your photos with who you want, and engage with those people in the context of your photos is critical to pretty much every person’s overall photo experience.  Using a social network site isn’t required to get these capabilities, but can possibly increase the likelihood of your friends and family looking at and commenting on your photos.  Some sites will make it easy to share on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.  While others are self contained networks on their own, such as Flickr or the new Drobox Carousel application.  Photos are more fun with friends, so make sure you haven’t chosen a service that traps your photos so only you can see, or so that the entire world can see when you didn’t expect.


While this may seem like a lot to digest, purpose built photo storage services can offer a lot to help you enjoy your photos more.  Technology is advancing quickly and you can instantly benefit from new features that come out.  Don’t just save your photos from disaster, spend more time looking at them.

Photo Night on the TV

A lot of families have a movie night once a week, typically on Fridays, so everyone can take a break from the busy week.  Our kids love movies, so this is definitely a nice break for us.  They also love looking at photos too, yet we rarely sit down as a family and look at our photos together.  Then one day an simple obvious solution occurred to me.  Before movie night, we will have photo night.  The kids can choose one set of photos from a past trip or event and we will all look at them together.  Aligning photo night with movie night significantly increases the chances that we will actually do photo night as it doesn’t feel like a new activity to schedule into our busy week.  The kids are already going to be sitting on the sofa with eyes glued to the TV.

Viewing photos on your TV is hands down the best experience at home when you have family and maybe friends over as well.  We have a modest 42″ TV in this modern age of TVs that are starting to be measured in feet instead of inches.  So how do we get our photos on the TV?  These days there are a lot of options.  We have an Apple TV and I have an iPhone.  Apple products have a proprietary technology in them called AirPlay.  This allows me to view what is on my iPhone screen on my TV via the Apple TV.   On my iPhone, I have a variety of apps that let me access my photos in the various locations I have them, and then AirPlay them to the TV.

We also have a Roku which I’ve played with a lot.  It has a Picasa Web Albums channel (app) which I was interested in because I store all my photos on Picasa (which is now part of Google+.)  The Picasa app is unfortunately very disappointing.  Looking back through hundreds or  thousands of albums is essentially impossible.  It is just not possible to look at any photos except the most recent ones.  My main other gripe with it is that I can only see my photos.  I can’t look at photos from any of my friends.  So if you want to enjoy your photos from the past, Roku with Picasa Web Albums is not a good solution, especially if you don’t even store your photos on Picasa!  If you want more details on the Picasa experience in Roku, I found this blog post review that is quite comprehensive.

Another option, one I have not yet tried because our current Apple TV solution is sufficient, is Google Chromecast.  This is a simple and inexpensive ($35) device that plugs into your TV via HDMI and allows you to stream content to your TV from other devices such as your Android phone or even iPhone, much like you can do with Apple AirPlay.  What is nice about Chromecast and AirPlay, is that they are platforms that work with the phones nearly everyone has in their pocket.  Armies of software developers are working on building applications to leverage their streaming capabilities.  This means that regardless of where you store your photos, or which phone you have, there is a good chance Chromcast or AppleTV will be an easy solution for you to view your photos on your TV.

If you have an XBox, and IF you store your photos on OneDrive, you can view your photos on the TV as well.

These devices are by no means the only solutions out there to view your photos on the TV.  There are countless other devices out there that plug into your TV, or even apps built into your TV, that allow you to view your photos on the TV.  What is most attractive to me about Chromecast and Apple TV is that they are both inexpensive devices and offer numerous ways for me to view my photos independent of where I have them stored.  Chances are one of these devices will work for you, and offer the most flexible experience going forward should you move your photos to another location or service.

Using some modern high tech devices, photo night can be a fun low tech way for you and your family to take a break and enjoy your photos again.