If you ever want to see just how much whining a million Interneters can produce, try giving them something wonderful at no charge.
Take Flickr, for example, the Web site that Yahoo bought in 2005. Its central concept was cool and useful: It’s an online gallery of everyone’s photographs that the whole world can search, annotate and admire. It’s a place to study photography, to applaud good work by fellow camera buffs, to back up all those precious JPEGs, and to post a photographic record of weddings, vacations and other achievements for friends and families to enjoy.
Flickr was disappointing, however, for two reasons. First, the free account permitted you to display only your 200 most recent photos. The $25-a-year Pro account offered unlimited space.
Second, Flickr was ugly, cramped and baffling. It seemed to display your pictures in only two sizes: tiny square thumbnails (which made no sense — how many photos are perfectly square?) and full size. It took a lot of clicking and experimenting to navigate. And good luck figuring out how to download a photo; the process was so nonintuitive and buried, it could have been a “Saturday Night Live” skit.
Last week, the new Flickr was born. First, the good news: Every free account holder gets one terabyte of storage. That is an insane, historic, vast amount of space. That’s enough room for about 600,000 typical photos, enough to last you the next couple of birthday parties, at least.
That’s 70 times the free space of the next closest competitor, Google Drive. And those are full resolution photos, too — the originals. Flickr doesn’t compress photos, degrading their quality, the way Facebook does.
Flickr, in other words, is no longer just a way to present photos to your admirers. (Indeed, it’s easy to keep them private, or share them only with family or friends.) It’s now an excellent way simply to back them up. An external drive for this purpose costs about $100 — and is worthless in case of fire or burglary. Yahoo is giving you that backup space for nothing.
(Most photo software, like iPhoto, Aperture and Lightroom, can send pictures directly to Flickr, or you can upload huge batches using various free Mac or Windows apps. If disaster ever strikes, you may be alarmed to discover that Flickr offers no way to download photos en masse — only one photo at a time. Fortunately, free programs and Web sites like Bulkr or flickandshare.com make bulk downloading from Flickr a piece of cake.)
And now the other good news: Flickr’s redesign is, on the whole, a gigantic improvement. The primary screens are wall-to-wall photos. Not weensy little thumbnails, but big, four-inch-wide representations, tiled to fill your entire browser window, scrolling down and down and down. Point to one to view its title, photographer, and the Favorite and Comment buttons.
This is an incredibly successful way to give you an overview of a set of pictures. They’re big enough to see clearly (unlike the old thumbnails), yet small enough to take in hundreds without having to click to another page. For a visitor who wants to see your shots of some place, person or event, these scrolling views offer a quick, satisfying way to get the (ahem) big picture.
This display is especially effective in displaying panoramic photos, of the sort that, for example, the iPhone and Sony cameras can create automatically. Finally, they get the full-screen-width treatment they deserve.
All right, so the new Flickr is generous and lovely. Then, why are longtime members screaming bloody murder?
Much of it is the usual “Who moved my cheese?” wailing that accompanies the redesign of anything — software, hardware, magazines, whatever. Many people, especially photographers, simply don’t like change (“it’s just too different,” one typical commenter wrote).
It’s hard to imagine that any objective observer would prefer the old, claustrophobic, one-inch-square thumbnails to the new, breathtaking, full-screen display, but photographers online are a notoriously cranky lot.
Much of the fuss, too, is simply confusion — for example, there is the new payment plans. That $25 Pro account, offering unlimited storage, is gone now — there’s no unlimited option at all. But if you already had one (and you’d chosen the automatic annual renewal option), you’re grandfathered in and can keep it.
There’s a new $50 a year option, but it does nothing but remove the unobtrusive advertisement that appears in a corner of your home screen, where Facebook-style updates appear from your contacts. (Ads never appear with photos, even with the free account.) There’s also two-terabyte option, doubling your space, for a mystifyingly steep $500 a year.
Many people, furthermore, are unhappy because they have recently signed up for Pro and now want the free version instead. Fortunately, Yahoo offers a prorated refund.
That’s not to say that all the complaints are simply from change-haters. Here and there, the complainers make some good points.
For instance, some bugs and clumsinesses remain. Yahoo has indicated that it’s listening to the complaints and will address them.
Vertically oriented photos don’t fare as well in the new tiled layout. They’re shrunken to match the height of the horizontal shots. (Of course, you can always click any photo to see it at a fuller size.)
There’s something weird going on with the “page numbers” that still appear at the bottom of heavily populated batches of photos. First, it takes a lot of scrolling to reach that navigational control; second, they don’t actually correspond to Web pages. One tall scrolling page of photos might be called page 15; the next one is called 17. (Yahoo says it will fix that shortly.)
Learning your way around is no picnic either. Some of the organization screens are cramped and clumsy. After 30 minutes of rooting around, I never did figure out how you can delete an album (what Flickr calls a set) and all its photos.
The most legitimate complaint, though, is that Flickr’s overall focus has changed. The redesign seems to tilt the site toward a mass market, and that really infuriates serious photographers. Exhibit A: The metadata for a photo —the photographic specs like shutter speed and aperture — no longer appear automatically. Now, you have to click a photo, scroll down and click “Additional info (show more)” to see it.
Exhibit B: The new, full-screen tiles of photos don’t appear at a satisfying rate unless you have a faster Internet connection. The older, uglier, tinier layout worked better on slower connections.
Exhibit C: There are now smooth, crossfading slide shows and one-click sharing to e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or Tumblr.
Exhibit D: At the news conference introducing the new Flickr, Yahoo’s chief executive, Marissa Mayer, said that these days, “there is no such thing really as professional photographers.” That widely quoted line was taken out of context — she seems to have meant that since everyone has a camera these days, everyone deserves professional online handling of the pictures — but it certainly didn’t endear the new Flickr to serious photographers.
On this point — Flickr’s shift in focus — the cranksters are correct. The whole point of making Flickr easier to use and more attractive, and the entire purpose of the new one-terabyte locker, is to attract a far wider audience — because the new business plan is to make money from advertisers instead of subscription fees. But is “easier, lovelier, more generous” really a bad thing?
With due respect to the crowd missing its cheese, the new Flickr is, overall, a tremendous improvement. It really is a much better service. The new, fluid, infinite-scroll display is far more graceful and efficient than the old Flickr “one click per photo” model.
And one terabyte of free online storage and backup is an unbelievable deal. Nobody else offers one terabyte of free storage online — not even close.
In fact, if you have pictures that aren’t backed up, why are you still reading the newspaper? Go start uploading them. Yahoo may be nuts to offer a deal like this, but you’d be nuts not to exploit it.