How Flickr's overhaul kept me from fleeing

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I'm encouraged by the signs of change at Flickr — enough so, that I've decided my photos are staying put there.

Flickr's "lightbox" view of photos can now reach up to 2048 pixels wide for a more immersive experience, especially on large screens.
(Credit: Stephen Shankland/CNET)

After years of what amounts to neglect, it's now clear that management of Yahoo's photo-sharing site is aware of what it needs to do — and that it's doing it. Step by step, the site is building itself into something more competitive.

It's got a ways to go, and I don't see any easy way to tap into the power that Facebook has for photo sharing, but I still see grounds for optimism for the online photo pioneer.

Yesterday marked one important change: the ability to see photos much larger — specifically, resolutions as wide as 1600 or 2048 pixels. That means a more immersive experience; and it's crucial for making photos look their best. Photos can be shown larger, through interpolating data to make up new pixel data, but Flickr's approach shows the real photo.

There's a catch, though: it only works with the newer "lightbox" view that shows off photos against a black, uncluttered background. You can get that view by clicking on a photo (or tapping if you're using a tablet), or by typing "L" on your keyboard. Pro tip: as with any time you're looking at photos, it works better if you've put your browser into full-screen mode, usually by typing Ctrl-Shift-F on Windows and CMD-Shift-F on Mac OS X.

This is the way your photos look on a big screen, and without the lightbox view: tiny and lame.
(Credit: Stephen Shankland / CNET)

The fact that it's reserved for lightbox mode means that you won't see the lavish views by default when you go to look at photos in ordinary mode. In ordinary mode, you see Flickr features such as geotagging maps, comments, sharing controls and photo stream navigation, but if you're on a bigger monitor, you also see a shocking amount of white space for a photo site.

That's a shame, but I suspect that Flickr will redo the standard pages eventually to show photos as large as possible, even when the other Flickr features are visible. After all, that's what competitors such as Smugmug and Google's Picasa Web Albums do already. It's the table stakes, nowadays, for an online photo site.

Another encouraging sign is the arrival of "justified" view, when looking at your contacts' photos or at what you've marked as favourite. That fills the full browser width with photos in an enticing tiled view that cries out for exploration.

That view isn't an option for looking at your own photo stream, though — again, a shame, but something I suspect Flickr is moving to address. The site has promised big changes this year, after all.

Another recent change at Flickr was to add this "justified" view to fill the screen with photos. It only works now when looking at favourites and contacts' photos.
(Credit: Stephen Shankland / CNET)

These problems aren't as severe for people looking at photos on smaller laptop screens, to be sure. But even small screens can be important, as the third-generation iPad shows. When using the Flickr website, the iPad doesn't take advantage of the new pixel possibilities with the lightbox view, though.

And speaking of tablets, where's my Flickr iPad app? The web interface is OK, but there's a lot of browser-frame stuff that gets in the way. And how come the Flickr Android app isn't available for my Asus Transformer Prime Android tablet?

And, as long as I'm on the subject of Flickr's to-do list, how about a customisable profile page so Flickr users can show off what they want — say, a "top photo picks" set — rather than just the most recent photo stream shots? Also, I'd appreciate the impressive speed Google offers in flipping among photos online, through its services.

Flickr still has a lot of advantages for photo buffs, such as myself. It's got great shared-interest communities (called "groups"), persistent activity by photo enthusiasts, good features for managing privacy and geoprivacy (which blocks the location of geotagged photos), unbeatable collections of public-domain photos and a terrific API for programmers who want to build Flickr features into their apps or websites. For me, it's worth the US$25 annual pro subscription rate.

With Flickr's earlier stasis, I'd been wondering if I should move my photo collection (11,543 so far) to a different site that seemed more concerned with the future.

For now, though, I'm staying put. The new Flickr uploading tool, the new immersive views and the Android app, demonstrate that Flickr is on the right track.

Using Flickr's website on a third-generation iPad with a high-resolution display? The photos don't look as good as they could right now. Click to enlarge to see how pixellated the text is and how the photo has been upsampled from a lower resolution, rather than drawing on a high-resolution version.
(Credit: Stephen Shankland / CNET)


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