What Is Photo Sharing?

“Photo sharing” is what social media mavens call it when you upload your digital photographs to a website equipped with tools for storing, organizing, and displaying them. You share your photos with others by giving them access to your displays. Those others might be your immediate family, fellow users of the website, or the whole world.

The websites are run by image-hosting services that offer their users a number of ways to share their photos, from online albums to slide shows. Memberships in most photo-sharing sites are open to the public, and most offer at least some level of free membership. And many support communities as vibrant as any social network.

Most photo-sharing and image-hosting services are designed with the needs of average shutterbugs in mind, but a few are aimed at professional photographers and others with an interest in selling the images they create. These sites offer fee-based features for marketing and selling a member's images, and some offer revenue-sharing deals. But the top photo-sharing sites prohibit this kind of commercial activity.

What's the difference between “photo sharing” and “image hosting?”

The terms are often used interchangeably, but there's a difference. Photo sharing is about the tools and services that allow you to publish your photos on the web so that your friends and family can see them. Image hosting is about the website where your photos are stored, backed up, and sometimes displayed. Communities have evolved around image-hosting services with photo-sharing capabilities.

Photo Finishers

The current crop of photo-sharing websites evolved from online photo-finishing services that began appearing in the late 1990s. Websites like Ofoto, Shutterfly, and Snapfish came on the scene within a few months of each other to offer customers a new way to order prints of their favorite digital photographs. You simply upload the files to the websites, and the photo finishers created the prints and sent them to you in the mail. Some of these websites also offer film-processing services, and Ofoto even had an online frame shop.

Photo finishing is still one of the services offered at many of today's image-hosting sites, and for some, the photo-sharing component seems to be little more than a means of generating print-buying customers. But the most popular photo-sharing sites are all about managing and displaying digital images on the web.

Online Archives

The early print-oriented services established a key component of photo sharing as we know it today: online file storage. Image-hosting sites provide users with space on their servers, not just to tweak and display their pix, but to store their photo files. Some services provide users with specialized desktop software through which they upload and manage their files; some are entirely web-based. But all provide offsite storage and centralized access to your photographs.

In theory at least, your uploaded photos live on secure, backed-up, professionally administered servers forever. No need to grab the family photo albums when the dam breaks or your flambé experiment gets away from you in the kitchen. They're all on the web, organized in one spot, and you can get to them from any web browser.

That said, you should never rely solely on any photo-sharing or image-hosting site to store your photos. Uploading directly from your camera, when that capability is supported, is fine, but be sure to keep copies on your computer, and back them up.

Pixels for Pay

Some photo-sharing sites are wholly subscription-based, while others offer enhanced services for a fee. And lots of them make money from advertising. But these services also benefit from additional revenue streams unique to their social media niche, including photo finishing; sales of photo-related merchandise, such as picture frames; and such subscription-only capabilities as turning photos into photo books, greeting cards, posters, and calendars.

In recent years, the social networks have been cutting into those revenue streams by snagging some of the photo-upload action — make that a lot of the action. In terms of sheer numbers of images uploaded, Facebook has pulled ahead of everybody. At one point, according to comScore, users of the world's leading social network were uploading photos to the website at the rate of 3 billion per month; in 2010 about 65 percent of online photo sharing was actually taking place on Facebook.

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