Flickr vs. SmugMug – a comparison of the picture services

As every other web developer on Earth, I initially clung on to Flickr for my photos, but recently I did a little evaluation round, and instead fell for SmugMug. Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to write down a comparison of those two services. The idea is to take a number of areas and compare them to each other, so you can be judge of which service you think suits your needs best.

Pricing

A picture of the Flickr start page Both services have understood that the only reasonable way to go is to offer a flat rate for unlimited storage and bandwidth, and this goes for both images and videos. Flickr offers free accounts where there's a monthly upload limit of 100 MB per month, and one type of billed account, which costs US$24.95 per year. A picture of the SmugMug start page SmugMug doesn't have any free accounts, but instead offer a 14 day free trial, which doesn't demand any credit card or other sensitive information. Besides from that, SmugMug offers three types of accounts:
  • Standard US$39.95/year
  • Power US$59.95/year
  • Pro US$149.95/year

Video support

The two of them do have time restrictions for videos, where the limit is 90 seconds for Flickr, and SmugMug offers no video for the Standard account, DVD-quality (usually 640x480) for Power accounts with a time limit of 2.5 minutes, and HD-video quality (not full HD, mind you, but normally 1280x720) for Pro accounts, with a time restriction of 5 minutes (or 10 for DVD-quality). Personally, I think both services are ok for sharing video clips, but neither is probably your first choice if video sharing is the only thing you're interested in.

Uploading

There are a vast number of uploading tools for both Flickr and SmugMug, stand-alone apps as well as integrated plugins. Looking at the official tools, you have the Flickr Uploadr and MacDaddy for Mac users (impossible to get a link to Windows version if I'm on a Mac... :-( ).

Uploading performance

I have compared Flickr to SmugMug intensively for about three months now, and uploading to SmugMug is consistently and considerably faster. Also, Flickr uploads seems to sometimes time out, and either the official Flickr Uploadr is extremely shaky or the uploading service is just not stable (ironically, while writing this, I was uploading to Flickr in the background, and it performed like never before :-) ).

Uploading options

What I do like about SmugMug is that they, out of the box, offer integrated uploads and instructions for Photoshop, Picasa, Adobe CS Bridge etc. Additionally, as opposed to Flickr where you have to pay for an iPhoto plugin, the official SmugMug Mac uploader has this functionality built-in; a little treat for you iPhoto fans (although, sorry, I'm not one of you :-) ).

My choice: Lightroom plugins

Jeffref Friedl has put together two great plugins for Adobe Lightroom, my application for image control, and those are the only ones I use:

Downloading

For me, using these services are as much for backup purposes as being able to present my pictures to friends and family. Therefore, one very important part to me is what possibilities I have to download my images again, in their established albums, tagged data etc. What amazes me here is that none of the services has any good and proper support for this! In this area, there are tons of third-party options for Flickr, while I haven't really found anything good for SmugMug. For Flickr, I use FlickrBackup, and with SmugMug, I've tried their SmugDAV solution, but it was incredibly slow and unstable. I would really like to call for an official shape-up here.

Sharing: public and private

When it comes to sharing, or, better put, protecting and controlling who sees your images, the companies have taken two very different routes, and both have pros and cons.

Security with Flickr

Flickr has a model where you can set for images whether they should be seen by anyone, people marked as your friends, considered your family or completely protected. This check is done through the help of accounts, where your friends or family have to have accounts to be put into one of those categories. The upside is that you can have a photo set with some pictures available for the public, some more in the same set for your friends etc. The downside is that for images with any sort of protection, this demands of the viewer to have a Yahoo! account. So, basically, this is making it harder to use, but more secure.

Security with SmugMug

SmugMug has chosen a path where your image albums should be unlisted or not, meaning that if they're unlisted, no one can find them through the SmugMug web site or Google. That is, unless they know the URL to it. There was a controversy a little while ago that you could guess the SmugMug URLs and find pictures which were never meant to be shared, but since then they've applied GUID-like URLs for new albums (the problem persists with old album links, though). The upside of this is that I can have my hidden images, for instance, pictures of my daughters only meant for family and friends to see, and just give them a URL to navigate into; less hassle for them. I can also password-protect a specific album with a password of my choosing. Another option is to bundle a number of albums into a so-called Sharegoup with a hidden URL, but the problem there is that I can't have the Sharegroup automatically get new content from new albums, nor make already existing albums or groupings into a Sharegroup. The downsides are that these security settings only apply on an album level, which makes me having to use two albums for the same event, if I want some people to see a few more pictures from it. Also, it's always a safety risk where you can find hidden pictures by merely getting a hold of a certain URL.

Communities, and being found

Looking at my statistics for my pictures on Flickr and SmugMug, and looking at people contacting me, Flickr seems by far a better way to have your images found and made popular by people you don't know. I've had a number of people contacting me about using my pictures in web sites, children magazines and one for making a drawing through Flickr. Through SmugMug, nothing. Personally, I also think groups seem to work much better with Flickr.

Layout and layout control

When it comes to actually presenting your pictures, I believe this is one of the areas where SmugMug revels. SmugMug offers picture presentation in context, meaning one large image accompanied by thumbnails for the other images in that set/album (just the same thing I addressed with PictureSlides). What's so good about this is that you get a sense of where an image belong, and how it all connects together. Compare our pictures from China on Flickr and on SmugMug below: A picture of the set view in Flickr A picture of the album view in SmugMug After that, compare viewing the first picture in a large view, where Flickr almost completely loses its relations, but SmugMug stays just the same, since it shows the large picture together with accompanying thumbnails: A picture of the single picture view in Flickr A picture of the album view in SmugMug To me, this is one of the vital things it comes down to in the end: how easy is it to look at the images, and how good to I deem this approach to be when I want my pictures to be seen by friends, family and others? SmugMug blows Flickr away here, if you ask me. Or, to be more somewhat more nuanced: when there's no context or album, the single image page on Flickr is quite ok for viewing and commenting, but it's far from pleasing if it belongs to a set.

Keyboard shortcut support

SmugMug has the nice decency to allow a viewer to move back and forward between images with the arrow keys; an approach also implemented by Picasa Web Albums as well. When I wrote my Flickr pros and cons post, Stewart Butterfield (one of Flickr's co-founders) liked the idea of keyboard navigation, but nothing ever happened (and Stewart has, by the way, now left Flickr). As a bonus, SmugMug also offers the shortcut Shift + arrow keys to navigate between thumbnail pages.

Organizr and Control Panel

I'd say that both Flickr's Organizr and SmugMug's Control Panel are very competent tools offering you lots of settings and information control. What I like about SmugMug is that the sorting of images is superb; basically, any way you can think of, they support, making it extremely easy to control in what order your pictures is presented.

Domain name and customization

While Flickr only offers you a few options whether to present images, sets and collections in your user start page, with a SmugMug Power or Pro account, you have the control to write code and tweak your themes any way you want to. This means that with the power that SmugMug offers you for presenting images, at the same time you can give it any layout you want to! Another upside is that you can add your own code for statistics, such as Google Analytics or StatCounter, giving you the opportunity to completely follow up your visitor numbers and behaviors. And, to top it off, with a Power account you can also get a custom URL (given that you can play nice with your host provider) and properly set it up for use with your SmugMug pictures. For instance, my pictures can be found at http://pics.robertnyman.com.

Geotagging

In this day and age, naturally every picture has to have information attached where it was taken, right? And for those of us who don't have a super-new and/or expensive camera, this isn't automatically added to the images, meaning that you have to add this information manually to your images. In that respect, it's pretty easy to do that with Flickr as well as SmugMug. But, when it comes to presenting that information, it is always available when viewing an image with Flickr, while it can only be used in your start page to put markers on a map with SmugMug.

Badge in your web site

As some of you might be aware of, I'm a sucker for presenting badges in my web site for the services I use and like, and also want to drive traffic into. What I want out of a badge for an image service I use are these, seemingly, easy criteria:
  • Being able, in a single call, to get a specified of random images from my entire public collection.
  • Having those images linked to the sets they're in, with the clicked picture selected and shown.
  • Getting the data as JSON, so I can control it myself, instead of some dreadful page-stalling document.write-scripts.
Apparently, this is very hard to find and match. One of Flickr's official scripts offers this, more or less, except that there's no way I can get the data as JSON (it might be possible with an API key, but really, should that be necessary?). SmugMug is far behind in this area. They do have an API and JSON data retrieval, but getting random images out of all my images seem impossible. Then they have some solution where I can get a random image, but the call is done for each image, and the image in turn only links to the image's album, but not the image itself (which is naturally what anyone would want, and, more importantly, expect). SmugMug fans and staff seem very friendly, so I posted a message asking how I could get a JSON badge with random images. I was, to say the least, surprised when I didn't get any reply whatsoever.

Summarizing

To make it easy for you, I thought I'd list who I see as the winner in each of the above categories:
Pricing
Flickr.
Video support
Tie.
Uploading
SmugMug.
Downloading
Flickr.
Sharing: public and private
Tie.
Communities, and being found
Flickr.
Layout and layout control
SmugMug.
Organizr and Control Panel
Tie.
Domain name and customization
SmugMug.
Geotagging
Flickr.
Badge in your web site
Flickr.
Flickr: 5 wins, SmugMug: 3 wins, 3 ties. One would think that I'd prefer Flickr after this, but at the end of the day, SmugMug win in those categories which really matters to me: picture presentation and uploading performance and reliability.

I use both

But, as you might have seen by now, both service complement each other, sometimes a bit too well. Therefore, at the moment, I use both. This is for spreading the risk with backups, as well increasing the change of my pictures being seen. However, if I am to send over a link to a friend with pictures from an event, I use the SmugMug one, since I think it offers the best and most professional way to present photos. Take a look at my pictures and be the judge for yourself:

Moving from Flickr to SmugMug

If you're interested in trying out SmugMug, and you're already a Flickr user, there's an excellent Firefox extension called SmuggLr. It worked great for migrating almost 10 000 images from Flickr to SmugMug for me. Only thing to take into consideration when it's done, is to update possible security limitations and image sorting.
Posted in JavaScript,Reviews/tests,Technology |

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