Photo Sharing Sites
This advice document looks at the most common features offered by a number of photo sharing sites, highlights the pros and cons of using such sites, and offers some practical tips for both finding images and organising your own images.
- What is a photo sharing site?
- Main features of photo sharing sites
- Examples of photo sharing sites
- Finding and using images
- Managing and organising your images
- Further related resources
Photo sharing has become increasingly popular in recent years as a means for individuals or organisations to publish or distribute their digital images online.
As a result, some of the photo sharing sites that host these images have become useful sources of free or low-cost images. Many of these sites also include enough features to be seen as practical tools for managing and organising your own collection of images.
Those working in education can use photo sharing sites to support their own work and their institutions' strategic objectives for learning, teaching and research and business and community engagement (BCE).
A photo sharing site is one which provides the means for a user to upload their digital images (usually photos from a digital camera, but technically any file saved in a common image format such as JPEG, GIF or PNG) to a third party online server, where they are stored and hosted for public or private access and display.
Photo by jimg944 on Flickr - used under a Creative Commons licence
What distinguishes a photo sharing site from an individual's or institution's own online image collection is the fact that once uploaded, the content is in the hands of a third party and often sits alongside other users' content. If you are looking for other means of managing your images, you should also read JISC Digital Media's Systems for Managing Digital Media Collections.
A search on 'photo sharing' or a look at Wikipedia's entry on the subject will throw up dozens of links (see also Wikipedia's comparison of photo sharing websites) - the number of providers has increased dramatically in a very short space of time. What they have in common can be summarised by our broad definition above, but it's important to note that what they offer in terms of specific features varies considerably. Many now support video and audio formats too, but this document's main focus is on still images.
One of the most well known photo sharing sites is Flickr and JISC Digital Media has produced separate advice documents on Flickr: Finding Images on Flickr and Using Flickr to Organise a Collection of Images.
- Image hosting solution - all photo sharing sites can be used for online storage or backup of image files. Note that some sites will limit the number or size of images that can be stored, and may even remove files under certain conditions, so should not be used as a sole form of backup.
- Registration/access control - while most sites with publicly searchable images will let anyone search and browse the images, all but the most basic image hosting sites will require users to register before uploading their first images. Registered users can usually control who can access the images and organise them into albums or sets.
- Cost - nearly all sites with publicly searchable images are free to browse, though a few provide 'premium' content for registered users. If you are using the sites to organise your own images, you will find that many are free or have a free version. These will usually be supported by advertising (in some cases lots of advertising!) Other sites require subscription to get rid of the ads and to open up more advanced features, or gain more storage space. The sites that concentrate on printing are usually free as the user is expected to be paying for prints, but there will usually be limits on storage space.
- Browse/search - the range of search options can vary considerably between sites. Some offer a fairly basic browse by broad category, while others include advanced search options, such as search by date, map searching, search according to license.
- Tagging - being able to add 'tags' (or keywords) to your images is an important aspect of photo sharing. Images are much more likely to be discovered if they have been well described. Some services allow tagging of other users' images - this can be particularly useful if you want to 'crowd source' additional metadata/user-generated content from the community, but be aware that if you allow anyone and everyone to tag your images you will need to keep a close eye on what's being added
- Geotagging - marking on a map where an image was created, or adding latitude and longitude coordinates as metadata.
- EXIF data - this is the data a digital camera embeds in an image, with camera setting information, such as camera model, date/time taken and shutter speed. Nearly all photo sharing sites let users display and view this information.
- Categorisation - to aid retrieval users can often organise their photos into albums or sets, or add them to group categories.
- Personalisation - registered users can mark images as favourites, add other users as contacts, join groups, comment on other users' photos.
- Commenting - while many comments will be of the 'Nice photo' variety or personal remarks from friends of the photographer, others will point you to similar photos taken by other users. Comments can also provide useful feedback on your own images.
- Filtering content - users can choose 'safety level' of content to filter offensive material.
- Rating/ranking images - images are given either a specific rating by users, or their popularity is worked out by an algorithm based on various factors such as the number of times it has been viewed, commented on, or added as a favourite.
- Sorting images - it's incredibly useful if a site lets you determine how thousands of search results are sorted. This might be by date photo taken, by date uploaded, by location, or by popularity/rating.
- Printing - as mentioned above, many sites are geared towards delivering prints or 'photo gifts' of users' digital images. Increasingly, other sites now offer some form of print service usually via a third party, but often limited to specific geographical locations.
- Bulk upload - tools for batch processing large numbers of images.
- Integration with other social software- the ability to 'push' and 'pull' photos to/from/between blogs and other social networking sites.
In order to simplify things, we have divided our list of photo sharing sites into four broad categories by their principal function, but note that the dividing lines are not firmly set and some sites will fall into more than one category:
- Image hosting service aimed at those wanting to integrate images into other websites (e.g. generating code to easily embed images into blogs, social networking sites); images are usually publicly searchable.
- Private sharing of photo albums between the user and other specified users or select groups (friends/family/colleagues); images are not publicly searchable.
- Online printing service primarily aimed at users who want high quality prints (or other 'photo gifts' such as calendars, mugs, t-shirts); sites also provide album sharing as a by-product of hosting the user's digital files; images are sometimes publicly searchable.
- Public/open photo sharing where images can be annotated, browsed and searched, commented on, added to group pools, or licensed for use.
Photo by jonrawlinson on Flickr - used under a Creative Commons licence
The following is an alphabetical (and non-definitive) list of photo sharing sites. The numbers in brackets indicate the main category they fit into as defined above, but as we said the line between each of these is often crossed and some sites sit happily in several categories.
- Atpic (4) Private and public photo sharing service in beta. Basic search, browse by tag, map, user - currently free, but "will probably need to ask for financial participation" in future. Also note: "the security is far from high. Atpic users should backup their own data."
- dotPhoto (3, 4) Print service, free unlimited storage dependent on account activity. Private and public sharing.
- DropShots (2) Private photo and video sharing. Not searchable. Free for up to 500 auto-resized photos, premium subscription gives unlimited storage for larger photos.
- Flickr (4) Private and public photo and video sharing, advanced search options (incl. Creative Commons search, map searching, date searching), free limited version or unlimited subscription-based premium version.
- Fotki (1, 3) Free image hosting, paid-for print service. Basic search. Code generation for blogs/social networking sites.
- ipernity (4) Private and public photo, video and audio sharing, advanced search options (incl. map searching), free limited version or subscription-based premium version - "still a young service, in a beta testing phase".
- Kodak Gallery (3) Print service, free unlimited storage dependent on yearly purchase. Private sharing. Not searchable.
- Ovi (4) Free Nokia-owned media sharing site. Code generation for blogs/social networking sites. Private or public photo and video sharing. Basic search.
- Phanfare (2) Subscription-based private and public photo and video sharing service aimed at "serious amateurs and pro photographers". Not searchable.
- PhotoBox (3) Print service, free unlimited storage for print orders. Private and public sharing - public photos can be browsed by category but not searched.
- Photobucket (1) Free image hosting, paid-for pro version available. Lots of camera phone snaps and animated GIFs. Basic search. Code generation for blogs/social networking sites.
- Picasa Web Albums (4) Google's private and public photo sharing site - basic search, browse by tag, user, map. Free limited version with option to upgrade for more space.
- Shutterfly (2, 3) Private photo sharing, free unlimited storage, paid-for print service. Not searchable.
- SmugMug (3, 4) Private and public sharing. Subscription-based, ad-free unlimited storage. Print service. Customisable gallery themes. Publicly searchable.
- Snapfish (3) Print service, free unlimited storage. Private sharing. Not searchable.
- 23 Photo Sharing (4) Private and public photo sharing service. Basic search, browse by tag, group, user. Free limited version or unlimited subscription-based premium version.
- Webshots (1) Free version, premium paid version without ads. Advanced search options including 'Pro Shots Only'. Code generation for blogs/social networking sites.
- Woophy (4) Free map-based public photo sharing, advanced search options (location, keywords, photographer). Images are auto-resized, but no limit on the amount uploaded as long as images are "in line with Woophy's policy and ambition to create a valuable photographic overview of our planet".
- Zooomr (4) Private and public photo sharing, basic search, browse by tag, map, user, free unlimited version with ads or subscription-based ad-free version.
We should also mention microstock image sites, which encourage amateur and professional photographers to upload their images to be licensed through the sites.
Most have technical standards that must be met and fairly strict criteria for the type of content that can be uploaded, with editors filtering and selecting which images make the grade.
While most microstock sites such as BigStockPhoto, Fotolia, and iStockphoto offer users very low-cost royalty-free images with photographers receiving a cut of the fee, others such as Stock.xchng, MorgueFile and ImageAfter provide free images.
Photo by Eadweard Muybridge from the George Eastman House collection on Flickr: The Commons - No known copyright restrictions (see rights statement)
We haven't included photoblogs here, mainly because JISC Digital Media has another paper that looks at these in much more depth: Using Blogs to Find and Organise Images. However, it's worth pointing out that the distinction between photoblogs and photo sharing sites is becoming harder to define: some photoblogs include photo sharing features, while many photo sharing sites integrate photoblogging functionality, or provide an easy means to integrate with blogs.
Photo sharing sites provide free access to vast numbers of images. Much of this 'user-generated content' can be licensed for little or no money at all, but it's important to be aware that many of the images you come across will be holiday snaps, wedding photos, pictures of family and friends... and not always of the best quality. You'll quickly discover which sites are useful sources of images, and which can be avoided.
Perhaps even more importantly, the true origin of the images may not be easy to establish - just because a user has uploaded the image, it does not mean they own the rights to that image: they could have obtained the image from anywhere and will not necessarily have any more right to use it than you.
So, while many sites provide the code required to easily integrate the images you find into your own blog or website, some don't make it easy to find out whether you have the owner's permission to do so.
However, a number of sites do include explicit copyright information with each image, or even explain how to go about using the image under a Creative Commons licence. For more on Creative Commons and your rights to use an image, see the section on using images in our Finding Images on Flickr advice document which has some advice applicable to all photo sharing sites.
A few other points to consider when using photo sharing sites to source images:
- With some sites, the number of adverts can be an issue: sites with flashing animations on every page can soon become tiresome when you have a large number of thumbnails to look through.
- Being able to add comments or notes to other users' images, and reading comments made by others can be a useful way of discovering new images. It also makes collaborative work with remote colleagues more interactive.
- Once you have found a useful site, you can usually subscribe to RSS feeds to alert you when new content has been made available by a particular contributor, or when images matching specific categories or keywords are uploaded.
For those using photo sharing sites to organise and/or distribute/publicise an image collection, they provide a free or low-cost alternative to buying or developing specific image management software. If you are looking for something more sophisticated, see our advice on Systems for Managing Digital Media Collections.
Photo by ant.photos on Flickr - used under a Creative Commons licence
- There are obvious disadvantages in passing over much of the control to a third party - while they may be responsible for the hardware, software, support and technology behind your content, be aware that they will usually control the presentation too. Your content may end up being displayed alongside inappropriate or intrusive advertising. If you choose to make your images publicly accessible, they may become associated with others' less suitable content, or users may rarely come across your images if the site has a large quantity of similar content already.
- This is also a good reason for choosing a site which will allow you to add and edit your own captions, descriptions, keywords/tags and dates - if your images are to be discovered, it is essential that they are well described.
- You may find that there are limits on the number or size of images a site is able to host for you, especially if you are using one of the free sites. If the site automatically resizes your images to fit their template, you may find the quality compromised (e.g. the image is too small to show the detail you expected).
- Once your images are with the photo sharing site, how easy is it to get them back? What about any metadata/tags you (or others) have added? What if the site ceases to exist? Some photo sharing sites are still in 'beta' - although this means they are continuing to develop the site, fix bugs and add new features, it can mean there are issues with stability.
- Although there are advantages in having your images accessible wherever there's an Internet connection, be aware that you will always have to be online in order to access them and that may not always be practical or convenient. The service provider's servers may go down occasionally or network connectivity could be slow.
- Having your images on a popular photo sharing site can certainly raise the profile of your collection, and you may find you are even able to make a little income from licensing their use or allowing users to buy prints.
- However, while some sites will let you mark your images "All rights reserved" or add a © copyright statement or a Creative Commons license explaining how your images may be used, other sites may only include a cursory "All images on this site are copyright of the individual photographers" on their 'About Us' page. Others have no clear statements at all. Although such statements and symbols are not required - copyright is automatic and does not need to be asserted in any way - many users who come across your images will assume they are automatically entitled to copy them because they are freely available on the web. This is a common assumption, and while a copyright statement next to your images will do little to deter the unscrupulous, it may dissuade others from using your images without contacting you first.
- One of the great advantages of using a photo sharing site is being able to easily 'push' your images to a blog or to integrate them with other social networking sites (e.g. Facebook). Some sites make their API (Application Programming Interface) available, which can be used by third parties to create different ways into the content. See for example this huge list of tools created using the Flickr API.
- The wide use of RSS feeds means people interested in your images can subscribe to your feed to automatically receive updates when you upload new content.
Photo sharing sites undoubtedly provide quick and easy access to billions of images from millions of contributors around the globe. While the quality of the content is not always immediately apparent, the diversity and sheer numbers make these sites worth investigating.
Given the numbers, it can sometimes prove tricky to track down the exact image you are looking for, but once you have found a reliable site you will soon discover the best way of using it, and the 'social', interactive and personalisation features (such as RSS feeds, contacts, comments and favourites) can help greatly.
As with any image you find online and want to use, you will need to consider carefully the quality of the images you have found and whether you can legally or ethically use them without seeking permission. If in any doubt you should always contact the photographer/owner - the social nature of these technologies will often support and reward a more personal approach.
If you are looking for a simple and immediate way to manage, organise and distribute your images, photo sharing sites offer an attractive alternative to the more traditional image management solutions. However there are some important factors to take into consideration as discussed, so - given the range of options available - you'll need to be very clear about your requirements and expectations, and carry out some careful investigation.
- Finding Images on Flickr
- Using Flickr to Organise a Collection of Images
- Using Blogs to Find and Organise Images
- Using Wikis to Find and Organise Images
- Systems for Managing Digital Media Collections
- Index of JISC Digital Media resources on finding and using images