Katherine Boehret

Making Photo Collaboration More Inviting

Email invitations to view friends’ photos on a site like Shutterfly (SFLY), Snapfish or Kodak Gallery (EK) can often be as much a hassle as a pleasure. Some services require tedious steps to open an album. Others ask for forgotten passwords. And even those albums that are easy to open could be hard to get back to at another time if you can’t find the original email invitation. There has to be a better way.

Now Shutterfly, a leading online photo service, has integrated simple photo sharing into personalized Web sites, which serve as a more permanent and collaborative place to communicate. This new offering is appropriately called Shutterfly Share (www.shutterfly.com/learn/newshare.jsp), and the sites are free of charge and without advertisements, for now.

screenshot
Shutterfly Share offers condensed views of multiple photos; Compact View is shown.

Shutterfly created this souped-up arm of its company early this year after acquiring Nexo Systems Inc., a company that makes straightforward, clutter-free sharing sites. Shutterfly Share caters to groups, like families and softball teams, as well as to friends, who use the sites as home bases where photos and news can be posted.

Overall, this site-creating program does a nice job with minimal work on the user’s behalf, though it currently lacks a few useful features and its security-related member permissions when setting up the site can be a bit confusing.

One of Shutterfly Share’s best features is its emphasis on photos, particularly the ability to quickly see multiple images simultaneously on the site’s home page. Various other categories of information dot the page, like links to favorite sites, calendars or team rosters. But Shutterfly Share is still in its beta (testing) phase, and leaves room for improvements, some of which will be made upon its official release planned for Aug. 12. For example, a few features stuttered or didn’t work the first time around. One photo that I added to the top of my page froze when I tried to open it for editing, and embedded video links wouldn’t play during one test.

But some Shutterfly Share faults won’t be fixed by the launch. It doesn’t yet have the ability to upload personal videos; instead, users can only add links to videos already available on a public site like YouTube. Nor does Shutterfly Share have a way to show you when other people last signed on, a feature groups who share Web sites tend to like. The company hopes to fix these two issues by early next year.

I created a site on Shutterfly Share called “middleground” for the purpose of staying connected with a handful of friends in various cities around the country. Our site let us digitally catch up by sharing photos, gossip and general news about one another’s lives. I even added news feeds from my favorite sites at the bottom of the page.

Shutterfly obviously wants users to be able to quickly start a site, condensing this process to just a couple brief steps (the process is made faster if you’re already a Shutterfly member). I chose a category and style for my site; categories included Family, Photo Journal and Baby while styles ranged from yellow lattice to artistic black backgrounds.

Privacy is a priority, for good reason, and I protected my site with a password. But I mistakenly assigned each friend with limited permissions as “Contributors” instead of “Editors.” It turns out that Contributors can view, comment, add and edit their own content, but not that of others; the Editors can do so. After my grumbling friends alerted me to my error, we were in business. Still, too many security options can be confusing during setup.

Shutterfly Share tries to make posting photos to the site as easy as possible by offering various ways to do so — even by simply emailing attached photos to a special address, which could be helpful for relatives intimidated by the process of uploading photos. But every person who adds photos to the site, whether via upload or email, may do so only if he or she is a member of Shutterfly. Though many people already have Shutterfly accounts, this could deter some who just want to add photos without becoming a member of the service. Shutterfly says it will allow non-members to post to the site by early next year.

People who aren’t Shutterfly members but are invited to be members of a Shutterfly Share site (by the site’s owner) can post anything other than photos, including comments, calendar entries and polls.

photo
Film Strip View

Shutterfly Share organizes recent images on the site’s home page using one of seven display patterns, including a really great-looking Film Strip view and Compact view; the former shows a horizontally moving ribbon of photos flowing across the screen while the latter condenses multiple photos into thumbnails so many can be displayed at once.

Up to three large, artistically arranged photos can be shown at the top of each site; I added two shots of my friends (both members of the site) and another of the Washington Monument at sunset. This gave it a personalized and professional feel.

I missed having the ability to post my own videos, but searched for clips on YouTube, Google (GOOG) and Yahoo (YHOO) using a built-in tool that easily adds videos to the site. I posted a scene from the television series “Mad Men,” along with a “Saturday Night Live” skit; thumbnails representing each showed up on the site. I added a calendar on which I noted my birthday, to alert any forgetful friends, and in a Favorite Links section, I added a list of URLs that I like. Every item on the site can be dragged around and rearranged.

Daily emails update members on site activity, such as newly posted photos and comments, so as to keep each member in the loop on site happenings.

When Shutterfly Share is officially released, it will build contextual advertisements into the sites. But early next year, the company plans to offer a premium subscription version of Shutterfly Share that would remove all ads and allow access to special features.

The launch version of Shutterfly Share will also give users the ability to view and digitally page through coffee-table photo books that people have assembled using their digital photos. If you like someone else’s book, you can (with permission) order a copy for yourself.

Shutterfly Share is a step in the right direction for people who want photo sharing to be more long-term and user-friendly than email invitations. And Web sites built with Shutterfly Share deceivingly look like they took a long time to create. When Shutterfly cleans up its permissions and makes posting via email easier, this program will be even better.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

Write to Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com


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