I’ve spent the last several days doing the time consuming chore of reformatting and redirecting all the old images on my site that point to Flickr and my self hosted photos, to Smugmug. I mentioned this on Twitter and I’ve gotten a lot of questions as to why I’m leaving Flickr and my self hosted site for SmugMug. So I figured I’d explain everything in as much detail as I can. The more I investigated it, SmugMug really is a no-brainer for me. However, I also understand why it wouldn’t be for everyone.
Like most people, I began using Flickr as my photo hosting solution because it was free, easy to use, and well known. If you own a point and shoot camera and just take casual photos, Flickr is great. The 100mb limit for storage each month is more than enough for most people. In fact, since I’ve started using Flickr, Facebook has surpassed Flickr in the total number of photos stored. Facebook, like Flickr, is free and easy to use if you want to share photos with your friends.
Eventually I found it necessary to increase my storage limits on Flickr and I purchased a Pro account, which is $20/year. $20/year is honestly a great deal considering you get unlimited everything. The real power of Flickr however, is the huge community of people which use it. There are millions of members and thousands of groups. For a period of time I was submitting my photos to groups and getting tons of people to look at them. Eventually, participating in groups grew tiresome. Some groups have hundreds of photos submitted every day and most of the people who comment on your photos are only doing so because the group rules require you to comment on 2 or 3 photos for everyone you post. It was all sort of hollow and fake.
Nonetheless, even if you don’t participate in the Flickr groups you can still get value just hosting your images there. As I became a better photographer and had more images, however, there were several things about Flickr which began to bother me.
1) Flickr is the #1 place to steal images.
Tons of blogs and websites take images off of Flickr so they can use them. That doesn’t bother me so much, but when people link back they provide the links back to Flickr, not my website. In fact, Flickr is an incredibly closed system and they don’t like to link out or promote the websites of its members. You get one link in your profile which is usually well hidden. The search engine in Flickr makes the process of finding the images you want to steal almost trivial.
I don’t usually mind if people link to my stuff. If I post a video, I don’t care if everyone in the world embeds it in their site. It is pretty clear who made the video and I put my URL in every one. Even sites which steal my RSS feed don’t bother me so much because it is easy to prove I was the original author. Photos are different however. It is hard to trace ownership of a photo. I realize that if you put photos on the internet you sort of have to live with that to a certain extent, but there are things you can do to limit it.
Flickr has no option for restricting access to the original size files. It is all or nothing. Either you make every version of an image private or you make them all public. Also, they don’t have any watermarking capabilities built in. Many of the people who have become really big on Flickr, like Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir, have either left Flickr or seriously scaled back their involvement. If you want to have any sort of protection on your images, Flickr isn’t the place to be.
There are many blogs which survive on using the photography of other people. I think those sites are extremely lame. They usually ignore creative commons notices and treat everything on Flickr as being public domain. Moreover, even if you did want to put your images up with a creative commons license with attribution, almost all attribution ends up going to some Flickr nickname with links pointing back to Flickr. You have no control over how you get attributed.
SmugMug provides a great amount of control over your images and how you can protect them. You can put watermarks on images and you can block access to images above a certain size. In today’s internet world, the easiest thing to do to protect your images is just avoid Flickr because that is the one stop shop for people who want to take them.
2) Flickr has zero customization.
Your Flickr page is what they give you. For the most part, every Flickr user page looks the same. They don’t even offer themes you can use to change the background color of your page. In Flickr, you can’t easily provide links to your website and you can’t add links to other sites you might be on like Twitter or Facebook. Flickr is its own world and doesn’t want people leaving the reservation.
What I want is for people to visit my website and my photo hosting solution to be integrated into my site. Flickr does nothing to facilitate this. Smugmug goes way out of their way to do this. Not only can you customize your SmugMug page however you want, you can also map your own domain name to SmugMug to make the integration seamless. Once it is up and running, travel-photos.Everything-Everywhere.com will point to my SmugMug page and it will have the same basic design as my website.
3) SmugMug makes it very easy to sell prints
Eventually I’d like to try to bring in some money selling prints. SmugMug makes this very easy to do. There are a wide range of photo sizes and products you can buy and they also have multiple printers you can choose. Because it is so customizable you can design your store how you want. They handle all the processing and send you a check later. You can order prints from Flickr, but you can’t really set up a store.
4) SmugMug has great customer service and a great community
Almost everyone I’ve spoken to who uses SmugMug is a serious photographer and loves the company. The user base is only a fraction of the size of Flickr’s, but the quality is much higher. The company is active in the user forums and are very quick to respond to customer service questions. Flickr isn’t very innovative. The service hasn’t changed very much since they were purchased by Yahoo.
5) Smugmug allows for easy image resizing.
Most people might not list this as a big deal, but I really like it. I can take any image from Smugmug and re-size it to any size by just putting the size I want in the URL. It is that easy. In the future if I ever want to change the size of my daily photos to something larger, I just need to do a search and replace on everything and change …600×600.jpg to …1000×1000.jpg. That is pretty nice. Flickr only allows for images of a few defined sizes.
If you only own a point and shoot camera and just want a place to store images online to share with friends and family, I’d recommend uploading everything to Facebook. This is the best way to share with people you know and Facebook will store unlimited photos for free (as of now).
If you are a bit more advanced and want to talk with other photographers and share your work with them, then I’d give Flickr a try. Flickr’s biggest strength is its large user base. Facebook has overtaken it as the largest photo hosting site, but it is still pretty big. Every photographer should have some sort of presence on Flickr if only to take part in groups.
If you care deeply about how your images are displayed and you want maximum control over your portfolio, I’d go with Smugmug. It is more expensive, but it is worth it. If you are a photo blogger, I’d strongly recommend Smugmug.