Few sites have had as much impact on digital photo sharing as Flickr.
Before Flickr came along, sharing photos meant a laborious and sometimes not very user-friendly process of creating albums, uploading them, and devising a means for people to navigate between them.
Indeed, the whole concept of posting photos to the web was still based on the idea that they should come in a set, a collection called an "album." Digital photography doesn't work like that; we no longer process rolls of film, nor do we have to file away groups of images in album-sized collections.
Posting photos online needed a new approach, and the team at Flickr worked out what it should be.
At Flickr (for anyone who has never visited the site), the single image is the basic unit of photo sharing. Sure, images can be grouped together (into "sets" rather than "albums") and viewed as a group in a slideshow, but there's no need to do that. Rather, images can be added as and when they are taken. If you've just taken one good shot today, you only need upload that. If you've taken 30, you can upload them all. It doesn't matter.
Flickr's database structure means that every image is associated with its creator or owner first, then with any groups or sets it might have been added to, then with any free-text tags that might have been assigned to it, and finally with the electronic metadata that the camera added to the original snapshot.
Flickr is one of those ideas that depends on interconnectivity. Your pictures are of interest to your contacts; your weather pictures are of interest to other users of the weather photos group. Your "weather" tag shows up in the RSS readers of others with the same interest. While you forgot to add the "weather" tag to that great shot of a cloud you took the other day, you did remember to add "cloud," which means the image shows up alongside other clouds. Some passing stranger helps you out by adding the "weather" tag for you anyway.
In the rest of this article, we shall be exploring some of the ways you can make the most of Flickr from the comfort of your Mac OS X computer.
There are some great tools, plugins and add-ons for OS X that make interacting and browsing Flickr much easier (and more fun) than simply using your web browser. We shall describe some of them here, and talk to one of the most high profile and enthusiastic of Mac-owning Flickr users, Fraser Speirs, about his motivation for building links between Macs and Flickr's database.
There's one thing you do need to use your browser for, and that's getting a Flickr account in the first place. The basic-level account is free, so you've got little to lose.
The essential building block of Flickr is individual photos, and the first thing you will want to do is create your own "photostream." This is the term used to describe your own pictures, as they are uploaded. Like a weblog page, the photostream has the most recent images at the top of the first page. Older pictures are shown below, and on further pages if need be.
Flickr took a different approach to offering free accounts. In the past, photo sharing sites restricted the amount of storage space a person could use before they had to pay up for an account. The Flickr team recognized that storage was dirt cheap; it's bandwidth that costs money. So they devised a system whereby you can post as many pictures as you like to a free account, as long as you don't exceed a predetermined bandwidth limit during a given time period (currently, 20MB per month).
Even if you do, you won't get kicked off the site or have your pictures deleted. You'll just have to wait a while until the timer resets, and you can start again.
Another restriction on the free account is that only the most recent 200 pictures in your photostream will be displayed. That doesn't mean that older ones are deleted, they're just not visible.
So it's in your interests, if you're trying out Flickr and are not sure if you want a Pro account, to try not to post huge multi-megapixel images. The larger the pictures you post, the sooner you'll eat up your bandwidth allocation. Since the main aim is to share via the web, professional image quality need not be high on your priority list, especially if you still have backups of the original images as they came out of the camera. (You do backup your original photos, right?) Posting pictures at about 800x600 size should be fine, at least for testing purposes.
Make a note of your account details (most importantly, your password); you'll need them later to activate some of the software tools we're going to use.
Your photos are shown in your photostream, which will be at flickr.com/photos/username (where "username" is the identity you've chosen). Here's mine.
You can also maintain a profile page, to tell other Flickr users about yourself. This is at flickr.com/people/username. You can go wild and tell the world everything about yourself; or you can keep things strictly anonymous. Here's mine.
Every other Flickr user is potentially one of your Contacts. Photos from your Contacts are automatically aggregated on to a page customized just for you (it's at flickr.com/photos/username/friends). This is a quick and easy way to keep track of new additions to Flickr from a large number of people. To add someone to your contacts list, just hover your pointer over their Buddy Icon, the little square image that appears next to their username. Buddy Icons appear everywhere in Flickr; they're a great way of noticing people and remembering who's who.
Every photo in Flickr can have notes (like annotations) and tags (words descriptive of the content or style) added to them, by the person who uploaded them and by anyone else. Your photos remain your own, but other people can add metadata to them. This is a very important part of the service, because it's one way that the social aspect of Flickr starts to shine.
Any photo can be added to a group as well. Groups exist to cover all kinds of crazy photographic ideas and much more besides: the squared circle group is hugely popular; perhaps you'd like to tell the world what's in your bag or even what's really in your bag; JPG Magazine's 1 photo a day - no borders please is a constantly engaging place to hang out; readers of Mac DevCenter will probably enjoy the Macintosh group; and for something really unusual, how about piles of books or boring photos?
You can join a group, or create your own. Adding a photo to a group effectively adds metadata to it. The image remains in your photostream (and adding to a group does not affect your bandwidth quota on free accounts) and still has the same tags and notes you've added; but now it also appears in the group's photostream (known as a "pool") as well.
Most views you see in Flickr (your photostream, your contacts, group pools) have their own syndication feed in RSS and Atom formats. This creates yet another way to view photos, using any compatible feed aggregator such as NetNewsWire or Bloglines.
The basic Flickr upload page has the kind of upload interface you'd expect to see in a browser.
But there's also a handy bookmarklet which works with most Mac browsers. From any web page, you can click the bookmarklet and it will refresh with a simple display of all the images it found. Click the one you wish to add to your photostream, and it's done.
Flickr's own Uploadr software is available for OS X. It's free and very simple to use. After downloading the disk image (a Flickr account is required for entry), expanding it, and dragging the application to your hard disk, all you have to do is enter your user details in the Prefs panel, drag in some pics, and click "Upload." As they say round here, it does what it says on the tin.
Once you've clicked Upload, you'll be shown a sheet where you can pick the privacy setting for this image, and add some tags to it.
What the Uploadr doesn't offer is anything in the way of image-editing tools; you can't rotate, resize, or make any other changes to the image itself. It's not an editr, it's an uploadr.
1001 is a third-part uploading tool for OS X, which takes things one step further than the official Uploadr.
As well as offering all the upload functionality in the Uploadr, 1001 also helps you to keep a watchful eye on the photostreams you've added as contacts, and the groups you have joined.
New pictures from these subscriptions are automatically displayed by 1001 in a neat little alert window which you can leave open all the time. Optionally, you can use 1001's Dock icon space to display new images too.
Both the Uploadr and 1001 are currently in beta, which means we can expect more from each of them in future. Both are perfectly usable and stable despite the beta status, and are excellent ways of getting a photo online when you're in a hurry.
Provided free as part of the iLife package on all new Macs, iPhoto has become something of a standard photo-management tool among OS X users.
The recent 5.0.3 update finally fixed an editing problem that had vexed many users, where the colors of edited images were changed after the user had clicked "Done" in the adjustment panel.
That fix in place, iPhoto becomes an appealing option for anyone who wanted to manage and edit photos while using Flickr, mainly thanks to the efforts of one British programmer, Fraser Speirs.
As a Mac user and keen photographer, Fraser Speirs saw the potential for Flickr early on. But he was frustrated by having to switch to his browser to add pictures to his photostream.
So he created FlickrExport, a plugin that makes it simple to select one or more images in any iPhoto view, and export them straight to Flickr, complete with tags and even the option to turn the new additions into a set.
The FlickrExport interface covers pretty much every eventuality. You can add tags to an image, and copy identical tags to multiple images. The same goes for image titles, and privacy settings (Flickr lets you nominate other Flickr users as "Family" or "Friend"; when you make an image private, it will only be shown to one or both of those groups).
Speirs's initial activity in creating Flickr Export wasn't enough for him, though. So inspired was he by the openness and hackability of the site, that he started coding more little Flickr hacks:
"I started FlickrExport because I had been a Gallery user for a couple of years and there was a cool iPhotoToGallery plugin by a developer called Zach Wily that I used all the time. When I decided to switch from Gallery to Flickr, there was no way I was going back to a web-based upload form.
"I recently had an email from a FlickrExport user saying that I had, in his words, helped keep his family together across the distances by making it so easy for them all to share their pictures. That's the kind of feedback that I live for."
Why Flickr? What's the attraction of writing code for it? Speirs's answer to this is firm:
"The attraction is, ultimately, that it's hackable. It's literally a platform on which to build new toys. The Flickr API is very complete. You could almost build a desktop application that let you do everything you can do on Flickr without ever opening your web browser. For me, APIs--and complete APIs at that--are the big distinguishing factor in what's commonly called "Web 2.0" applications. Full APIs are what make applications like Delicious Library possible.
"People say that applications like Google Maps will make the desktop application irrelevant, but I disagree. The distinction has always been that the rich experience is on the desktop, but the cool content is on the web. The revolution in web services means that desktop apps are no longer excluded from playing where the cool kids are. If anything, we're entering a new golden age of desktop application development."
Fans of Speirs's software will be pleased to know that he's working on FlickrExport 1.3, addressing recent changes in the Flickr API, and an Objective-C framework called FlickrKit that will be released under an open source license.
Until they are released, and if you're not an iPhoto user, you might be interested in yet another of his Flickr-related hacks: an Automator action for manipulating photos as part of larger workflows. This is also a work in progress, as Speirs says ("It's very much 0.1-quality right now.") but look out for future updates.
Flickr toys are by no means restricted to the computer desktop. As Speirs pointed out, the API turns Flickr into a platform for building toys, and plenty of people have been busy building great stuff you can play with it in your browser.
The Flickr Hacks group knows a thing or two about playing with Flickr; they seem to pick up on all the cool stuff and start playing before anyone else sees it. Among their recent discoveries are Flickr Mosaic Maker (shouldn't that be Makr?) which turns any combination of photostreams or individual pictures into a very smart looking mosaic image (guess what, there's a group) and the Google Earth hack that grabs geotagged images from Flickr based on your current view of the world.
The Visual Dictionary lets you spell words with pictures of letters; Spell with Flickr does the same thing. Has anyone proposed marriage with one of these yet?
There are a number of Greasemonkey scripts that do clever things to Flickr pages if you're using Firefox to browse the site. (At the time of writing, Greasemonkey is in a spot of bother with security problems; upgrade to version 0.3.5 before trying any of these.)
Flidget is an OS X Dashboard widget for uploading photos.
Next time you're at some geek conference and plan to post pics of the event to Flickr, you might like to hand out some cards.
My favorite web-based Flickr toy is the Postcard browser, which offers a really cool, fun way to browse through images with a specific tag. I won't try to describe it; just go try it for yourself, and I think you'll see what I mean.
Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer and editor. He has been writing on and about the Internet since 1997. He has a web site at http://gilest.org.
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