Which photo Web sites create the best albums?

How to be the best consumer you can be.
June 6 2006 6:45 AM

Picture Perfect

Which Web sites create the best photo albums?

I have never been much of a picture taker, but after my daughter was born two months ago, I started snapping photos at every sniff, yawn, and burp. Soon after I entered this Richard Avedon phase, however, I discovered the Catch-22 of digital photography: The more pictures you take, the harder they are to share. Gather everyone around your computer monitor? Boring. E-mail your online slide show? Grandma complains she can't log in.

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Then I came across the self-published photo album. Almost every photo-sharing Web site, like Kodak.com and Shutterfly, offers the service, allowing you to publish your digital photos in a hardcover photo book. The cost ranges from $20 to over $100, depending on the size of the album and the options that you choose, and the albums are delivered within days.

But are the books worthy of my beautiful baby? To find out, I ordered a 20-page book of snapshots from six prominent photo-sharing sites. Although some offer albums of various sizes, I chose a standard size—about seven inches by five inches—for each book and evaluated the products using the following methodology:

Print quality (10 possible points): Are the images crisp? Grainy? I uploaded a variety of photographs, from close-ups to wide-angle outdoor shots. I also used different cameras: I took most with my 5-megapixel Sony, but I snapped some with a low-quality, old, 2-megapixel Kodak.

Cover quality (10 possible points): Is it pretty to look at it? Is it made from high-quality material? I designed the books to look like baby albums, choosing white covers over black and linen over leather when available.

Web site/software (10 possible points): All the Web sites promised that the books were easy to make. They lied. The simplest site required two hours of pointing and clicking. Some books took as long as four hours to create. So, I rated the services on ease of use. Can you upload multiple photos? Or does each picture have to be transferred individually? I also rated the sites on their production software. Some allow users to place photos anywhere on the page while others require captions or have restrictive templates. I also penalized sites that were not Mac-compatible.

Service (10 possible points):Did the book arrive on time? Could I call someone if I had problems? Could I return it?

Before I detail the results, a few introductory notes on the ways and means of photo-booking. First, you have to upload each picture in the exact condition that you want it to appear in the album—the Web sites don't allow you to do much more than photo-cropping (and some don't offer that) once you've uploaded them into the book-production software. For instance, you must remove red-eye before you transfer the picture to the site.

There are significant differences among the photo-sharing sites. Some will delete your pictures if you don't order any prints for a year, and recently Kodak was accused of damaging photos by compressing them in order to save space on the company's servers (the company denies the allegations). To be clear, I focused only on photo books; I did not evaluate the sites' photo-sharing competence or capabilities.

The results (from worst to best):

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