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):

Wal-Mart example.

Wal-Mart Total price paid: $35.14 This book has the worst of Wal-Mart—poor quality, tepid service—without the low prices. First, the software isn't Mac-compatible, and on a Windows-based PC, the book-production program was difficult to manage. After I finished the album and placed it in the online shopping cart, for instance, I couldn't go back and edit it. I had to start again from scratch. And after I finished, Wal-Mart took nearly two weeks to ship the book; they promised five to six days. Worst of all? The glossy silver cover looks like a reprint of a 1987 high-school yearbook, and inside, some of the pictures have a dark, reddish tint. Spend your $35 elsewhere.

Print quality: 6
Cover quality: 2
Ease of use: 5
Service: 4
Total: 17 (out of 40 possible)

Snapfish example.

Snapfish Total price paid: $28.01 I know I'm biased, but my daughter is painfully cute. She has dark hair, a nubbin nose, and eyes so blue that you want to dive right in. Then why does she look like Winston Churchill in this album? Because the images are so drained and fuzzy that they make the Zapruder film look good. Look at this photo and note the blurry Snapfish picture on the left compared to the Kodak photo on the right. The photo glued onto the linen cover also gives the book a slapdash appearance. And finally, the site isn't Mac-compatible. There is some good news: Snapfish is one of the few services that allow you to return your personalized album at any time.

Print quality: 4
Cover quality: 4
Ease of use: 6
Service: 7
Total: 21

Sony example.

Sony ImageStation Total price paid: $39.11 Like many photo-sharing sites, Sony ImageStation has a policy that pictures "may not include nudity." I don't know about you, but I can't imagine a baby album without a little skin. How could I not include a picture of her tortured, screaming face as she took her first bath? Or skip a shot of her melonlike keister? To be sure, there isn't much of a Big Brother: I uploaded all the pictures of my daughter in her birthday suit and haven't heard any complaints.

What someone should complain about, however, is Sony's production software, which allows you to place your photos anywhere on the book's page. Like attempting dinner out with a newborn, or changing a diaper in the dark, this seems like a good idea, but it's not. If you move a picture once, it's nearly impossible to center it again. Suddenly, the page looks like an 8-year-old slapped on the photos with Elmer's Glue.

Print quality: 7
Cover quality: 6
Ease of use: 4
Service: 5
Total: 22

Kodak example.

Kodak EasyShare Total price paid: $30.77 This is the vanilla of the bunch. Worth your money but a little bland. While the book is easy to create—uploading photos was a cinch—the production software offers only seven layout options. (Kodak says they're rolling out more options soon.) The site also requires that each photo have a caption. That seemed fun in theory, but how many times can you write "What a cute baby!"? The cover was also of good quality—the elegant piece of translucent vellum covering the lead picture is a nice touch. In short, if you have little time and don't want to make a lot of choices, this might be best for you. Otherwise, keep looking.

On a related note, you can buy a lot more than an album on most photo-sharing sites, and Kodak offers one of the most impressive arrays of products. While I didn't test any of these items, Kodak will festoon everything from beer mugs to playing cards with the picture of your choice. Yes, playing cards. Can you imagine playing a game of Texas Hold 'Em with my baby's butt on the back? I'm a proud papa, but spare me.

Print quality: 7
Cover quality: 7
Ease of use: 5
Service: 6
Total: 25

Photoworks example.

Photoworks Total price paid: $30.95 (price includes a special $5.99 discount) Compiling this album requires an inner Martha Stewart. You need to make dozens of design decisions (should the cover be "amore red" or "coastal blue"?) and have the patience of a breast-feeding mother (the software is bearishly slow). But for the most part, the site rewards your effort. Made from high-quality linen, the book looks Audrey Hepburn-elegant. Indeed, if I was judging the books solely by their covers, this would take the gold.

The quality of the pictures is also impressive. While the photos are a touch grainier than Kodak's or Shutterfly's, they're vivid and clean. Best of all, however, are the layout options. The site allows you to make a double-page spread of full-page, borderless pictures  as well as collages of 12 snapshots. In fact, my wife thought the album looked so good that it could be published as a children's book. Move over, Maurice Sendak, and give these parents some space on the bookshelf. This site almost took first-place. But because it required a weekend's worth of work, I preferred another site that offered a better overall experience.

Print quality: 6

Cover quality: 8

Ease of use: 5

Service: 7

Total: 26

Shutterfly example.

Shutterfly Total price: $39.98 The photos in this book are almost National Geographic quality: bright, clear, and crisp. The book-production software was also easy to use and had lots of options, from photo collages to . My only gripe is the cover—the white leather looks straight out of Carmela Soprano's closet. Still, as a package, Shutterfly is my choice: It produced a book I'll proudly give my daughter when she's all grown up.

Print quality: 8

Cover quality: 5

Ease of use: 7

Service: 8

Total: 27

Ulrich Boser is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of The Leap: The Science of Trust and Why It Matters.

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