You've Got Pictures!

Going digital: Online imaging can make life easier for the shutterbug of the family.

February 07, 2000|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,Sun Staff

The Photographer always bears the burden at family gatherings.

First, The Photographer takes the pictures. Then he gets the prints from the photo shop. The Photographer pays for reprints and -- depending upon how many relatives want photos -- he may have to spring for $10 in stamps.

If you're The Photographer in your family, take heart. A group of Web developers, imaging experts and photofinishers wants you to lay down your burden. Display your pictures on the Internet, they say, and let your family and friends get their own prints.

A year ago, a handful of online imaging services were vying for photographers' attention with combination deals on conventional film developing and online photo sharing. Today, more than 100 Web sites offer online photo albums, as their developers race to get a jump on the burgeoning digital image industry.

Proponents are beginning to argue that the trend is more about revolution than evolution.

"I'm a little hesitant to say that the photo counter will disappear, but it might eventually," says Chuck Davenport, a senior analyst with the Boston-based Lyra Research Inc. "If you think about it, in a world where cameras are increasingly digital, there will be no need to take anything to the counter."

Andrew Wei, president and co-founder of the popular Club Photo Web site, makes a bolder prediction: "We are going to redefine the way people deal with photography."

Online photo pioneers such as Kodak and Seattle FilmWorks have been joined in the past year by newcomers Zing, PhotoIsland and even Wal-Mart, which launched its online imaging center Jan. 1.

Many of these services cater to both film photographers and digital camera owners. They provide personalized Web sites designed as photo albums that allow users to share their pictures with friends, family or the entire world. Visitors can buy reprints of the photos they see, or have them printed on coffee mugs, T-shirts and other gifts.

All of these sites hope to make money -- the question is who pays and how.

For example, industry giants Kodak and America Online have partnered to create a service called You've Got Pictures. If you're an AOL subscriber, you can check off a box on the envelope you use to drop off your film for Kodak processing. For an additional $6, Kodak will develop the roll and post scanned images online. When they're ready, you'll be notified that "You've got pictures" the same way you learn that "You've got mail."

Most others don't charge The Photographer upfront. Davenport credits Wei's Club Photo with creating the most popular model for online photo sharing when it launched in December 1998.

"His idea at the time was to put the pictures on the Web site for free," Davenport recalled. "A lot of people thought he was out of his mind."

Most sites still allow users to upload and store existing digital images, from digital cameras or scanners, free of charge. For those without digital cameras, photofinishers have created their own Web sites and offer to process your first roll of film free and display it online at no cost. They hope to make money when you and your family order prints and other photo trinkets.

"Charging customers for prints is where the money will be -- it won't be in film processing," says Davenport, who co-authored a report on the impact of digital photography for Lyra.

Cost comparisons are difficult because some photofinishers, such as Kodak, require that you buy a full set of prints, while other Web-connected photofinishers will charge you only for the prints you order online. They're betting you'll stick with them because you won't want prints of a whole roll -- only the five to 10 shots that are focused and don't have your thumb in the corner.

The mechanics of photo sharing are simple. Wal-Mart's bare bones operation is typical. When you drop off film and order prints on a CD or 3.5-inch disk, Wal-Mart will post your images on the Web free of charge. If you just want prints, you can order the upload for $3.76. When you pick up your photos, you'll receive a small card with a roll ID number and password.

Once you've registered with Wal-Mart's site, you enter your password and roll ID number to see your photos. To share them with others, you can create an online album with its own Web address and invite visitors by e-mail.

Although only 5 percent of photographers have digital cameras that bypass film altogether, most online photo sites such as Club Photo and Zing make it easy for them to upload images and create albums.

Several sites, including Shutterfly, handle no film at all.

"We did a lot of focus groups with consumers using digital cameras," said Julie Herendeen, vice president for marketing at Shutterfly. "They thought they were great and liked the immediacy, but what they didn't like was that they couldn't get a high-quality film print.They said if they could do that, then the digital camera would be the only one they would use."

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