It's a fair bet that if you own a digital camera, the pictures you've taken with it are the most valuable and least replaceable documents on your PC. Photo-management programs such as Google's Picasa and Photoshop Elements recognise their value; just about every one I've reviewed recently makes it easy to archive your image library to CD or DVD (see Figure 1).
But your photos aren't on your computer just so that you can archive them. The beauty of digital photography is the ability to share your pictures with others. Increasingly, that means displaying them on a Web site where friends and family can swoon over your photography skills.
That brings up an awkward situation: surely backing up locally is an unnecessary duplication of effort when you can upload photos to a Web site where they can be both archived safely and viewed?
Previously, this was a luxury only available to those with their own Web site, and who were prepared to pay an Internet Service Provider for the privilege. Alternatively, you could use an online photo printing service with a photo album feature (like www.fujicolor.com.au) to host a limited number of snaps for free and share them with your friends that way - though they usually have to sign up as members to view your album. Worthwhile, if you intend to use the service to eventually print your snaps, but not a lot of fun.
Flickr (www.flickr.com) is different. This online photo sharing service makes uploading pictures a joy. It not only lets you back up as many photos as you want, but simultaneously offers an intuitive way to display them to family, friends or the wider world.
The secret of Flickr's success - more than 20 million photos are currently stored on its servers - is its thriving online community. Flickr is structured around tags, or keywords attached to photos, letting viewers browse by subjects they are interested in.
You can choose who sees your pics - restricting viewers to friends and family, for example - and you can even decide who can download and print them. But for me, the best community feature is the way anyone viewing a Flickr photo can, by clicking a button and dragging a box over the photo, add a note to it (see Figure 2), which can be seen by subsequent viewers. It's a great way of explaining and enjoying photos.
It's easy to set up a free account with Flickr, although it comes with a few limitations. You can see only the last 200 of your uploaded photos, and you can upload only 20MB of images each calendar month. This is a bandwidth rather than a storage limitation, so deleting photos you have previously uploaded doesn't free space. You can see how much you've uploaded in the current month on Flickr's Web upload page (www.flickr.com/photos/upload).
If your desire to share your photos online goes beyond this bandwidth, you can always upgrade to a Pro account (at an annual cost of $US25), which provides a 2GB monthly upload limit and unlimited storage.
The more cost-effective (read: cheapskate) method I use is to resize my photos before uploading so they're smaller and consume less bandwidth. Only two things to remember here: first, don't resize the original image, only the copy you're exporting, and if you're making a backup of your photo library, rather than just sharing files, shrinking your images might not be such a good idea. But otherwise it's a sensible approach.