'Flickr' is in an online photo class by itself

This week's review will include a larger than usual number of "and's," "also's," and "in-addition's," because this week's website pursues a single goal with an exceptionally thorough approach. While online photo sharing applications are commonplace on the web, and while Flickr, like the rest, will allow you to store a collection of photos onsite and link those images to offsite weblogs, it also does so much more that we might as well just designate a new category for this specific service. After all, the easiest way to be in a class by yourself is to invent the class.

Created by Ludicorp, an online research and development company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Flickr claims to be ("almost certainly") the best online photo sharing and organization application in the world, and it would be a difficult claim to dispute even without the qualification. While still in beta, the service has been getting the kind of raves that most software developers can only dream of (have a look at the Accolades page), and the knowledge that the final version is still under construction has one wondering what other features they can possibly add. For a complete description of Flickr's current capabilities, you'll have to drop by the site, but in the meantime we can cover most of the highlights available to members, as well as some functions of interest to casual browsers.

For those who choose to subscribe to the service and post their images online, Flickr offers free personal webpages with a 10 MB per month upload limit and a restricted feature set. (More features, more bandwidth, and a promise of ad-free browsing are some of the perks available for an annual fee.) The keystone of each subscriber's webpage is the "Photostream," which is simply a chronological collection of the most recently uploaded images running down the center of the page.

If desired, Flickr can display a collection of albums -or Photosets- organized by whatever criteria the author desires. ("Mary's Wedding," "Super Bowl," "Manhole Covers of Madison County," etc.) on the left side of the page. To the right are links to a personal Profile, a Calendar (showing on which days new images have been added), an album of Favorites collected from other members' pages, and an Archive.

There is also a keyword search window (because, like any self-respecting photo organization software, Flickr allows members to add cataloging Tag words to the images they store), and a link to your most common Tags. Thanks to Tags, if someone visits your Flickr home page specifically to see the photos of that new kid you've been going on and on about, but doesn't care about the dog wearing the Santa hat, they can simply choose the appropriate keyword(s) and go straight to the shots in question. (The Tag browser is itself a rather nice piece of design - arranging your most common labels alphabetically, but increasing font size in accordance with how many images are included in that particular set.)

And there's more. Individual images can accept visitor comments (like standard blog sites) as well as hold their own caption information in popup boxes - which provide a few extra details for the interested viewer - but don't interfere with the progress of the casual visitor.

Photosets also have the option of being viewed in a Slide Show format, which deserves its own share of praise for interface controls that disappear into the top of the frame until called for, and thumbnails that do the same at the bottom. For those inclined towards collaboration, "Group Pools" can be created, where multiple members' photos of a shared interest (for example, that Milli Vanilli Tribute Concert that everyone went to) can be gathered into a single set. And if you'd rather avoid having to send emails to your friends every time you add a few images, Flickr allows RSS feeds to each Photostream so your "devoted" fans can get automatic notification of any changes.

On the technical end, Flickr provides three methods for uploading images - email, webpage, and a proprietary application (Mac and PC) which can be installed into your computer. (The email option also allows subscribers to upload images directly from their cameraphones.) As for downloading, if you're concerned about misappropriation of your images, there is the option of restricting download permissions for your collection, in a range that stretches from "Only Me" to "Anyone." Viewing access to individual images can also be controlled - from the general public to designated groups of friends and family.

And, if you don't want -at least for the moment- to create your own account, but would like to poke around the site a little, Flickr can still provide some spectator-only entertainments.

From the homepage, visitors can choose from links embedded in a timely quotation (currently, "Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower") which lead to a few introductory tags. Having then loaded the Autumn images, for example, one can view the selected images, follow links off into related Tags, or click on Recent Photos for access to the site's latest additions and the 150 most popular Tag words.

Additionally, the keyword search allows you to pick any designation you like - how many shots are there of your home town? Are you a fan of sunsets? Architecture? Cookies? Having found a Tag of interest, that subject can also be added to your RSS feeds (so you'll immediately know if any new Elvis images have been posted).

At this point, articles of this kind frequently insert the phrase, "and this is only scratching the surface." Well, as a indication of just how extensive this -let's not forget- beta application's capabilities are, I'll simply point out that the FAQ page is over 9500 words in length. (There are also such additional aids as Flash videos demonstrating how to use "Organizr," an application that allows members to browse or search their collections, add Tags, adjust privacy settings, or create Photosets and Group Pools.)

Having personally used Photoshop for almost 10 years now, I've made peace with the fact that I will never be able to know all its capabilities. Flickr doesn't approach that level of complexity, but it's a safe bet that like Photoshop, most users will never even come close to using all of this application's potential.

But you can have a lot of fun trying.

Flickr can be found at http://www.flickr.com/.

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