3 Photo Tools for Power Users

These days, a serious photography enthusiast can spend more time in front of a computer screen than behind the lens. Besides the significant tasks of going through a multigigabyte storage card to find the best shots and then editing them so they look even better, there's also the task of sharing photos with others.

In the days of film, that meant heading to the darkroom to make prints. In the digital world, your first impulse may be to fire off an e-mail -- but because of the size of the files, that can mean very slow uploads and downloads (or complete rejection of the attachment). It's often a lot more convenient to post your photos online for viewing by family, friends or colleagues. In other cases, you still might want to turn your photos into prints or gifts, and that usually means uploading files to a site that does this for you.

I've yet to find a perfect digital workflow for sharing, any more than I've found a lens that's ideal for everything from macro close-ups to wide-angle panoramas. However, I have discovered three tools that make the process easier. Maybe they'll streamline your workflow, too.

An Eye-Fi card offers SD storage plus Wi-Fi transmission.
Eye-Fi: Getting photos out of the camera

Unless you want to pass your camera around, you've got to move your files somewhere before you can share them. Of course you know how to get photos out of your camera (unlike some technophobic friends or relatives you could probably name). But that doesn't mean you actually do it in any kind of timely manner. Those summer vacation photos should be online any day now, right?

Solution: Consider an Eye-Fi card, which offers SD storage plus Wi-Fi transmission. Once you set it up to work with your home network, an Eye-Fi card can automatically upload files from camera to computer and/or the Web.

Eye-Fi cards, which are available in four different models ranging from $50 to $150, will send files to a Web location of your choice, including social sites like Flickr, Picasa and Facebook, as well as printing-oriented spots such as Kodak Gallery and Shutterfly. You can choose to keep your destination albums private until you make them public, or set the card to upload only the images you've chosen in your camera.

The cards automatically connect to AT&T hot spots and let you set them up to connect with your own existing accounts from providers such as T-Mobile and Vodafone. In addition, all except the basic Connect X2 card will geocode your photos according to where you took them. (Note, however, that I've learned not to depend on this when traveling outside the U.S., since the card relies on finding already mapped Wi-Fi networks around the globe, and Eye-Fi partner Skyhook Wireless doesn't have the same kind of coverage a GPS system would.) Serious photographers who shoot photos in RAW format instead of using JPGs can use the Pro X2 card (at $150, the priciest of the bunch).

You can manually set an Eye-Fi card to connect to multiple Wi-Fi networks. This is handy if you want the card to work when you're someplace you visit frequently. However, I've found that it can be more trouble than it's worth when traveling somewhere new for a few days, since initial setup requires a computer and card reader. By the time I've put an Eye-Fi card in my laptop to enable a new network, I might as well have just dragged and dropped my files from the card to my laptop. (And I can tell you from experience that attempting to use the Eye-Fi on a small inn's slow, limited network is often frustrating.)

Still, it's nice to come back from visiting family or friends and have my photos online before I even walk through my door.

No, it's not that big a deal to connect a cable to your camera and computer, or pop your card into a card reader to drag and drop files. But it's not so tough to get up off the couch to turn on the TV set, either, yet most of us would rather use a remote.

Pixelpipe: Uploading to multiple sites

Gone are the days when I could upload my photos to a single Web site and be done.

Pixelpipe supports one-stop upload to dozens of print-ordering, social networking and blogging sites.
I've got Facebook for casual sharing with family and friends, SmugMug for serious image display, Flickr if I want my images to be found by others, plus various commercial sites where I like to order prints and gifts. The number of sites to which I need to upload any one file can top half a dozen.

Doing that manually gets irritating quickly, even with bulk uploader applications.

Solution: I've yet to find an ideal answer, since there doesn't seem to be one tool that connects to all the sites I use. However, Pixelpipe comes close, supporting one-stop upload to dozens of print-ordering, social networking and blogging sites. It even has an FTP setting to upload to your own server.

Pixelpipe has several platform options, including uploading via the Pixelpipe.com Web site, desktop software plug-ins and stand-alone mobile apps (for iPhones, Android phones, various Nokia devices and webOS phones; there's also a more generic e-mail/MMS app).

Truly serious photographers might be interested in the plug-in for the $299 Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. Unfortunately, there's no similar support for Adobe's Elements Organizer, part of the less expensive Adobe Photoshop Elements (currently $79.99 after a $20 rebate).

To use Pixelpipe, you first create a free account at Pixelpipe.com, choose "add pipes" and then select a service from a rather long list. Each pipe corresponds to a service such as Kodak Gallery or Facebook. Authorize Pixelpipe to access an existing account (the steps vary by service), and then choose the display name for this pipe in your account, whether the default for this pipe is to get everything that's sent, and what "routing tag" you'll use to send a photo to that pipe if it's not in your defaults.

You can usually pick the destination album or folder for your pipes, which is helpful -- although if you use Pixelpipe frequently to upload to a lot of sites, changing the destination for each pipe for each upload is somewhat tiresome. For instance, if your last batch upload went to "Fall Foliage" albums on all your sites, you'd have to go in and change each pipe's setting manually if you wanted the next batch to go to albums called "Halloween Party." It's a pity the service doesn't offer a global "create new album named" option for each batch of uploads.

Pixelpipe also falls a bit short in capturing existing file metadata such as tags and descriptions; entering data within Photoshop Elements or Windows 7 doesn't mean Pixelpipe will pick up that information. If it's important to me that all the caption information I've already entered gets carried over during my upload, I'm likely to use Elements Organizer first. Elements supports way fewer sites than Pixelpipe, although happily Version 9, announced in late September, finally adds Facebook to the list.

Also note that when a Pixelpipe app asks for "tags," it means routing tags for those services you want as destinations and not keywords you wish to add to your photo. The company really ought to a) reword that and b) add actual photo-tagging capabilities.

Finally, you do need to see how things like "title" and "description" correspond with the services you're sending to. For instance, I find that the Pixelpipe photo title field often ends up as the photo caption online, while the description field simply disappears. This is useful to know before you spend a lot of time writing captions.

As I said, this isn't a perfect solution. Perhaps Lightroom would be, but I'm not ready to shell out $299 for organizing software when I've already bought Elements. Maybe Adobe, which offers an affordable $99 price to students and teachers for Lightroom, will someday do what Microsoft did and extend that price for noncommercial use. Until then, I've got Elements Organizer to upload directly to a couple of sites where metadata is important to me; and Pixelpipe for most of the rest.

SmugMug: Showing photos at their best

Click to Zoom: SmugMug doesn't only display your photos, but offers elegant tools for resizing and creating galleries as well.
It's not enough to simply show off your photos -- not if you take any kind of real pride in your photography skills. You want all the images to look their best -- and for that, you don't want to simply depend on whatever shrink-it-down algorithm the free sites use. But the debate over which photo-sharing Web site is best for serious photographers can become as heated as the debate over who makes better digital SLRs.

Solution: I'm quite partial to SmugMug, and here's why: Its algorithms for displaying images at different sizes show photos at their best.

Yes, there are better sites for community, such as Flickr, Picasa or Photo.net, but SmugMug's chosen niche is actual photo display. That's what first attracted me to the site, back in the days when I was hand-coding my own photo album pages and manually resizing pictures for thumbnails and Web-friendly larger versions.

Resizing is an art -- certain settings will make a photo look better than others when its dimensions change. I'm impressed by the way various sizes of photos appear on SmugMug.

And I do mean various sizes: The site gives you links to eight different versions of each photo, and you can control the size of the picture you'd like visitors to see. "We even auto-adjust the image to fit the size of the visitors' monitor/Web browser window so they get the best experience with the largest images possible," one of SmugMug's support staff e-mailed in explanation.

SmugMug offers some elegant tools for sharing. The site automatically creates embed code for small, medium and large versions of each photo -- both HTML and BBCode (used for forum and blog comments) -- that you can easily copy and use elsewhere. There's also a wizard for generating RSS feed URLs.

You can send e-mail through SmugMug to tell friends and family about your latest uploads. In addition, you can track who opened your message and if they clicked on the link (assuming recipients don't have an e-mail client or browser privacy functionality that blocks such tracking). There are also plenty of stats available for how many times galleries and photos have been viewed.

SmugMug had power users in mind when it developed its tools for creating galleries (which SmugMug calls albums). In addition to a conventional gallery where you upload photos directly, you can create "smart galleries" that include or exclude photos based on rules. Those rules can include characteristics such as keyword tag, geography (SmugMug supports geotagging), date taken or date uploaded. Add another photo later that meets a gallery's criteria and it will automatically be included in that gallery, even if you manually sent it somewhere else; upload once, and a photo can appear in numerous other galleries automatically.

You can also "collect" photos from your friends' SmugMug galleries (or any photos that have been made publicly available) into a gallery of your own, where they'll display with the appropriate credits and links back to the originating galleries. (Account holders can turn off collecting capabilities on their own accounts.)

There are some community tools within SmugMug as well: voting images up or down, commenting and the now-obligatory Twitter and Facebook buttons.

Galleries can be made public, "unlisted" or password-protected. You can group a number of unlisted galleries together into a "sharegroup," so it's simple to send a single link to several private galleries.

There are also a fair number of user-created apps, such as plug-ins for Adobe Lightroom and Apple's iPhoto, and tool kits for a range of programming platforms such as Java, .Net, PHP, Python and Ruby. SmugMug encourages this work by offering a top-of-the-line Pro account free for a year if you code a public app using the SmugMug API.

All these features are available with SmugMug's Standard ($40/year) account. A Power account ($60/year) lets you also display HD video (although clips are limited to 10 minutes), as well as customize the look and feel of your albums with HTML, CSS and JavaScript (all accounts can choose from dozens of available themes). And the Pro account ($150/year) adds the ability to sell photos and photo gifts.

SmugMug's viewer interface isn't always easy for newcomers looking at photos for the first time -- for example, the slideshow button can be hard to spot at first glance. However, it's certainly no more difficult to figure out than Facebook.

If your No. 1 priority for photo sharing is finding and building community, SmugMug may not be your best option. Likewise if you're looking for the lowest prices on prints and photo gifts -- in that case, you might want to shop elsewhere. But if you're interested in showing photos off to their best advantage, SmugMug is definitely worth a look.

Have your own favorite photo-sharing tool or service for power users? Let us know in the comments below.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is smachlis@computerworld.com. You can follow her on Twitter @sharon000, on Facebook or by subscribing to her RSS feeds: articles | blogs.

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