How Flickr's overhaul kept me from fleeing

Yahoo's photo-sharing site lost momentum after a long period of relative neglect, but new improvements are enough to persuade CNET's Stephen Shankland to stick around.

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

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

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 1,600 or 2,048 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.
This is the way your photos look on a big screen and without the lightbox view: tiny and lame. screenshot by 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. There, 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 favorite. 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 photostream, 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 favorites and contacts' photos.
Another recent change at Flickr was to add this "justified" view to fill the screen with photos. It only works now when looking at favorites and contacts' photos. screenshot by 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 Web site, mine 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 cruft that gets in the way. And how come the Flickr Android app isn't available for my Asus Transformer Prime Android app?

And as long as I'm on the subject of Flickr's to-do list, how about a customizable profile page so Flickr users can show off what they want -- say, a top photo picks set -- rather than just the most recent photostream 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 feature into their apps or Web sites. For me, it's worth the $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 Web site 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 pixelated the text is and how photo has been upsampled from a lower resolution rather than drawing on a high-resolution version.
Using Flickr's Web site 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 pixelated the text is and how photo has been upsampled from a lower resolution rather than drawing on a high-resolution version. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET
About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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