Reconnect with Friends for their Birthday with Personalized Sepia Life Birthday Cards

facebook_wish_happy_birthday The all too familiar message from Facebook, reminding us to wish our friend a happy birthday, and send them a gift as well.  That followed by a Facebook wall filled with ‘Happy Birthday Todd!”   Facebook has succeeded in training us humans to respond with what could be an automated response to wish our friend a happy birthday.

How meaningful are these happy birthday messages?  Personally, it doesn’t mean a whole lot.  The people who care about me show me in much more personal and meaningful ways than how dozens of other not-so-close friends do with their ‘Happy Birthday’ post on my wall.

Giving a friend a gift on their birthday is great, if it is something you want to do. I doubt that it requires birthday_card_emailFacebook prompting you to do that though before you go through with it for a friend you really care about.  Often we may not send a gift, but a birthday card is nice.   There are countless sites online for finding and sending birthday cards to friends.  Many are sincere, some are funny, make jokes about getting old, but just about all of them lack a visual personal touch.

Sepia Life just launched a new service for sending a friend a birthday card in the mail. The front of the card is a photo or collage of photos of you and your friend. Two weeks before your friend’s birthday, Sepia Life will send you an email with a collage of photos and a selection of photos of the times you and your friend spent together.  Choose the collage or one of the photos to send on the birthday card to your friend, with a personal message on the back.  Its personal, its easy, and it brings back memories of the good times you’ve had with your friend.  Cards are free while this service is in beta.  So learn more and sign up for Sepia Life now to give it a try the next time one of your friends has a birthday.


How Much Are You Really Paying For Your 4×6 Prints?

You know what they say, “nothing comes for free,” even your 4×6 prints from FreePrints.   A while ago I did a blog post on the pricing games photo printing apps use to make your prints sound less expensive than they really are, with FreePrints taking the cake for claiming your prints are free.  I thought I’d follow up on that one with a brief post on a look at some of the raw data on prices for a few different popular apps for getting 4×6 prints made.   I looked at Shutterly, FreePrints, and Mail Pix Photo Prints.

The Raw DataCost Comparison


Everyone starts off at about $2 for a print.  Much past there, and Shutterfly is the most expensive, and FreePrints, while not at all free, is definitely the best deal

The Games


Despite the seemingly simple pricing model in the above chart, Shutterfly has one dirty game they play.  Prints are listed a $0.15 per print.  However for each print you order, the shipping cost goes up by $0.05.  This is an effective 33% price increase!  The old bait and switch with low price high shipping cost is one of the oldest tricks in the book for buying a product online, and I hate it.  If they are going to always charge %0.05 for shipping for a print, it should be included in the listed price, making for fewer surprises at checkout.

As with most printing sites, Shutterfly very often has deals on 4×6 prints, recently having 100 prints free.


FreePrints has two games that will get you to spend more than you might think you will spend per print, never mind the ultimate bait and switch hiding 100% of the product cost in the shipping cost.  FreePrints has cost cliffs every 10 photos or so.  So 1 print will cost you $1.99.  But did you know you can also get 10 prints for $1.99 as well!?  If you want that 11th print, it’ll cost you an extra buck though, total order for 11 prints, $2.99.  This pattern continues somewhat consistently up to the 85 so called free prints you get per month.  After which point each additional print is a simple $0.09 and occasional increases in shipping costs to cover the additional prints.

The second game FreePrints plays is again with shipping.  Default shipping is 1-2 weeks.  I am highly doubtful that they are so busy they are 1 week out on being able to print your order sooner.  You can pay an extra $1 to get your order in about a week.  This is an increasingly common tactic, have intentionally slow service/shipping that you will pay more money just to speed it back up to a normally expected timeframe.

Mail Pix Photo Prints

Mail Pix doesn’t play any obvious games.  Prints are a straightforward $0.10 each, with shipping starting at $2.49.  How much your print actually costs does vary because shipping costs obviously need to go up as you add more prints.  The increase in cost isn’t a fixed amount with each photo.  There seem to be shipping cost jumps every 5-10 additional photos you add.  Given the inconsistencies in shipping costs, I’d like to believe that they are just trying to give customers the best shipping price they can, with the variability coming from the inherent variability in the USPS shipping rates.  Shipping can’t be free, so you need to pay for it somewhere.


This is admittedly a pretty nit picky criticism of the pricing games companies make when selling products.  It is something that really frustrates me because it makes for an awful user experience , and instils a sense of distrust for the company in me.  If they are obscuring the true cost of the products being sold, how can I trust they won’t change the games in such a way that I always lose unless I know the most recent version of the game and work it to my advantage?

All that said, 4×6 prints are commodity goods and pretty darn cheap.  If you buy one or just a couple prints, they are a lot more expensive.  If you buy a lot, the cost approaches $0.10 a print, a bargain!  If you are a real penny pincher, this post might be helpful.  If a few cents or a few dollars doesn’t bother you, just use whatever app you enjoy the most.  I’m personally not shy to pay more for a superior user experience as I’ve discussed before.  Also, if a photo is worth printing, it is worth much more than $0.10 to me to have printed.  It may even be worth a $1, or even more.  At the end of the day, 4×6 prints are an incredibly inexpensive way to enjoy your memories in print form.

Groovebook – The Recurring Groupon

For those who don’t know what Groovebook is, it is a subscription service that will send you a 4×6 photo book of up to 100 of your photos, every month, for $2.99.

You will forget to order your photo book, several times a year

I compare Groovebook to Groupon because if you actually use your subscription to the max every month,loose change then awesome, I think you are getting a pretty darn good deal. If you aren’t, then Groovebook is just taking your money to the bank. Groovebook knows, just like Groupon, that people are busy, and choosing 100 photos is time consuming! My napkin math tells me that Groovebook’s business model assumes 25-50% of books will never be ordered. I would not be surprised at all if this is what is actually happening.

Bad attitude towards customers

This sort of approach in a business model isn’t new, and I don’f feel like there is anything inherently wrong with it.  If that is what makes a business viable, and consumers still come and make it thrive, great, so long as everyone is happy.   What really rubs me the wrong way is that Groovebook has taken some fairly common tactics to make the bad deal (not ordering every book) even worse than it needs to be.  For one, you can just not order a book one month, but you still pay $2.99.  Umm, really?  And this is what the Groovebook FAQ says about it “No problem, we will still keep your account active. The fee of $2.99 is a subscription cost, so it will still be charged if you decide not to receive a book one month. We hope this is such a small fee that you will not choose to cancel GrooveBook.”  Let me translate this last sentence to what Groovebook is thinking “we know people are busy and you will never get around to canceling anyway, so we will just keep taking your money even if we don’t offer you any value.”

No self service ‘cancel my subscription’ from the app or website

Wait, it gets better.  If you do want to cancel your subscription, you need to email them.  There is no self service ‘cancel my account’ on their web site or app.  This sort of tactic is used by cable companies, phone companies, gym memberships, etc because they want to make it hard for you to stop wasting your money and them pocketing it.  I’m a firm believer in giving customers control and an awesome user experience.   Always make them feel like you are giving them the best overall experience ever and it is worth every penny they spend on it.  The Groovebook FAQ is like giving you the middle finger, “hey it’s only $2.99, chump change, forget about it.” That is not the kind of attitude I want from a business I am considering purchasing a product from.

To this day, I haven’t ordered a Groovebook.  The primary reason was the 100 photos. I don’t have the time to find 100 photos, and I don’t really want 100 photos floating around every month.  Now, what is really keeping me from buying is the email required to cancel and their attitude about paying even when you don’t order a book one month.

So Groovebook, an awesome deal or a horrible deal, it’s up to you.  Are you the super diligent person who will take on this task every month?  You will get a nice book subsidized by all the people who for whatever reason never get around to ordering one.. Before signing up, really think about whether or not the way you will use it and if it will ultimately be worthwhile.

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.

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.