[Update: ZangZing was unable to stay in business; see "ZangZing and QOOP Closing Their Doors" (29 June 2012) for details. -Adam]
With the proliferation of digital cameras and cell phone cameras, some events may seem to have more photographers than participants. But with our imperfect memories, it’s hard to argue with the value of a photograph for helping to jog recollection of those special days. Plus, the low barriers to taking digital photos mean that parties, weekend outings, and sporting events can generate many hundreds of snapshots. Luckily, we have decent tools for managing oodles of photos on our own computers, and there are numerous online services to which we can upload photos and show them off to friends and family. As suggested to me by various friends, Flickr, Shutterfly, Picasa Web Albums, SmugMug, Posterous, and Facebook would all work for this, as would even Google+ and Dropbox.
But what I hadn’t found — until now — is a Web site that’s designed explicitly for group photo sharing, enabling multiple people to upload photos of a shared event for all to see, without needing a central administrator to manage usernames and passwords. I went looking for such a tool because a friend recently left my High Noon Athletic Club running group after 30 years, and his traditional last run was well documented by a number of people. At the end, one friend taking photos handed me his camera’s SD card and said, “Here, you take this, since you’ll get the photos up for everyone to see way sooner than I would.” Possibly true, but I’m equally at fault for sitting on event photos for months before uploading them, largely because the traditional sites feel like they’re missing the mark for me.
Here’s what I realized I wanted from a group photo sharing site:
Easy upload of photos. For me, that means uploading from iPhoto, but it should be equally easy to upload from any folder. If uploading is too hard, it simply won’t happen. Ideally, uploading photos shouldn’t even require an account, since that’s a significant hurdle for many people.
The capability for multiple people to upload to the same album. This should be the killer feature, since the entire goal is to collect photos from different photographers.
URL-based sharing of individual albums. I want to be able to share the album with people via email, often on mailing lists, so I want to be able to send it myself rather than relying on the service to do it for me.
Simple access controls for both viewing and uploading. Some events are completely public, like a major festival. Others are public, but the participants may behave (and thus be photographed) in ways they wouldn’t want just anyone seeing — consider a large Halloween party. And while posting compromising photos (“Our Trip to the Brothel!”) is clearly just dumb, it’s still conceivable that you might want to share photos with a small group and password-protect access to them.
The capability for anyone to edit a photo’s metadata. Here, I’m mostly thinking about the names of people in the photo — at many events, only some people will know who certain people are.
Social features, such as commenting. Many photos are improved with the context that can be provided by a brief description, and photos may also serve as launchpads for conversation.
Enter ZangZing -- After I posted on Google+ and read through the responses I got, I went looking for a site that would come closer to meeting my desires. Rather quickly, I ran across a new site inexplicably called ZangZing that comes extremely close to meeting all my needs. Founded by Kathryn Corro, Mauricio Alvarez, and Joseph Ansanelli (Joseph’s first company was bought by Apple/Claris as the basis for Claris Organizer and he went on to work on the Newton at Apple), ZangZing appeared in public beta only in April 2011. It received attention from the technology press at launch, but I haven’t seen significant mention of it in the intervening months.
ZangZing may be new, but it is for the most part exceptionally well thought-out and implemented, and using it is more like using a standalone app than nearly any other Web site I can think of. Most impressive is that it doesn’t rely on Flash, so it works surprisingly well on iOS devices despite not being optimized for smaller screens. I imagine even better mobile support is on ZangZing’s development list.
ZangZing’s interface is based around the concept of albums, presumably under the assumption that you would create an album per event, and indeed, most of what you’ll do in ZangZing involves albums (and more on that shortly). The main part of the interface is sandwiched by top and bottom toolbars, and the controls in each remain relatively consistent as you move through the different views. But before I explain the rest of the interface, let’s look at how you upload photos.
Uploading Photos -- To get started with ZangZing, you’ll want to set up an account, which is tremendously easy and just requires a quick email verification. It is worth putting some thought into your username, since it will appear in all the URLs to your shared albums.
Once you’re logged in, you create a new album by clicking the New button in the lower left corner of the interface, which starts a four-step process of creating a new album.
In the first screen, you select the source of your photos, which can be a folder on your computer, iPhoto, Picasa, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, Picasa Web, Shutterfly, Kodak Gallery, SmugMug, Photobucket, Dropbox, or even another ZangZing album.
In each case, ZangZing then lets you navigate within the source to select an album or individual photos; I’m quite impressed that they can look inside iPhoto from a Web browser, for instance. Once you can see the photos you want, you click an individual photo to add it, or an Add All Photos button to snag everything.
At this point, ZangZing will upload photos via your Web browser, which can be a lengthy process. If you don’t want to sit and wait, you can instead download the ZangZing Desktop Photo Uploader (for Mac OS X and Windows). Contrary to what you might expect, it does nothing but handle the uploading process in the background; you still initiate the upload from the ZangZing Web site. In Mac OS X, it puts a small icon in the menu bar; a pair of green chasing arrows indicates when it’s uploading, and you can click it to reveal a menu item that tells you how many it has left.
Once your photos are uploaded, it’s time to name the album. The name is important, since it’s used in the URL to the album that you’ll share with others, and for the email address to which photos can also be sent to be uploaded. ZangZing automatically removes characters that aren’t appropriate for URLs and email addresses.
Although ZangZing lets you pick albums or individual photos and brings titles over from the originals, it’s not uncommon to want to upload all the photos in an album or event, except for one or two. And you might discover that some titles are missing or wrong. That’s what you can fix in Step 3, where you edit your album, changing titles, deleting unwanted photos, and rearranging the sort order manually. If everything is as desired, you can just move on to the next step quickly.
Lastly, you need to adjust privacy, sharing, and access control settings. Albums can be Public, at which point anyone who visits your account can see them; Hidden, such that no one will stumble across them without knowing the URL; or Invite Only, at which point you must set up and invite a group.
In terms of sharing, you can have a preset group receive email about new photos, and you can automatically share new photos on Facebook or Twitter. Frankly, those worry me a bit — I don’t want to post willy-nilly.
The access controls are next, and control who can add photos to your album (either Everyone or just people you’ve designated in the group as Contributors), and who can download full-resolution photos (Everyone, Contributors, or No One).
So far, I’ve made most of my albums hidden, since they fall into the category of pictures from a Halloween party. They’re from Ithaca school cross-country races (and hence include pictures of children), or other running events I’ve participated in (some involving costumes), and so on. However, for the purposes of this article, I posted a public album of photos I took at Macworld Expo 2008; if anyone wants to add a few photos from that year to test the experience, feel free, since I’ve set the access controls so anyone can add.
The only worry I have is that, because this is a public album and anyone can upload, it’s conceivable I could end up with spam photos (photos of spam?). I can delete those, but obviously, if it gets out of hand, I’ll just restrict uploads. With my hidden albums, I’m not concerned about spam photos because only people involved in the event are likely to have access.
Once you’re done uploading photos, you can share the album (if it’s Public or Hidden) merely by copying the album’s URL and sending it to interested parties. Invite Only albums are accessible only to the group you create.
Viewing and Working with Photos -- Whenever you’re viewing an album or a photo, the top-left area provides a button to move back up the hierarchy to the photo’s album, or to the list of all your albums. On the top in the middle is an icon and the name of the person whose photos you’re viewing, and if it’s not you, there’s a button that lets you follow that person, such that you’ll be alerted to new public albums that person creates.
The top-right area provides a Help button that pops up an integrated Zendesk-based knowledgebase along with an Account button that’s actually a menu providing access to settings and the option to sign out. But most interesting in this top-right area is a segmented button that toggles the content of the main part of the window between photos, people, and activity. More on that shortly.
In the bottom-left area are one to three buttons, depending on context: New, Edit, and Add. Whenever you’re logged in, the New button starts the four-step album creation process. If you’re viewing an album you’ve already created, Edit brings up the same interface so you can modify an album’s settings or tweak its contents. Finally, Add appears if you’re viewing either one of your own albums or someone else’s album to which you’re allowed to add photos.
In the middle of the bottom toolbar is a graphical play button that starts a slideshow; if you’re viewing a single photo, it’s joined by forward and back buttons that move to the next and previous photos. In the bottom-right area are three or four buttons, again depending on context: Comment, Share, Like, and Buy. Comment appears only if you’re viewing an individual photo, and clicking it toggles the visibility of a pane where you can add a comment to the photo. The Share and Like buttons appear whenever you’re viewing an album or a photo, and let you share the album or photo via email, Facebook, or Twitter, or just note that you like it. “Liked” photos are called out in the activity stream for that album, and you can share the fact that you like the photo on Facebook or Twitter. If you click the Like button accidentally, you can click it again to undo. Lastly, the omnipresent Buy button does nothing now, but will shortly enable you to purchase prints in various forms.
The main part of the ZangZing window is reserved for content, which comes in three forms: albums and photos, people, and activity, switched via that segmented button I mentioned earlier. Albums and photos are quite obvious — at the top level you see all your albums, and albums you have either liked or public albums of people you are following. Click an album and you see the photos in it, click a photo and it takes up the entire window. Notice the strip of tiny thumbnails at the very bottom of the photo window!
When you’re viewing the photos in an album, hovering over a photo reveals photo-specific controls that let you share it, “like” it, comment on it, buy it (soon), like it on Facebook, or tweet it. These controls are self-explanatory because they duplicate features in the toolbars; the one that’s not is the little “i” button that displays a menu from which you can choose to download the photo (in full resolution, if the album is so enabled) and, if it’s in an album you own, rotate it, set it as the cover photo for the album, and delete it. One important tip: if you click the heart ♥ icon to “like” a photo (or an album, for that matter), and wish to take it back, just click the icon a second time.
When you’re viewing an individual photo, clicking it moves you to the next one; you can also use the left and right arrow keys to navigate through the strip of photos. Or, if you prefer not to control the movement manually, you can click the triangular play button to start a slideshow that blacks out the window and displays just the photos. On computers, you can make the slideshow take over the entire screen; that button doesn’t appear on an iOS device. Graphical slideshow controls are provided, the Space bar pauses and restarts the slideshow, and both clicking and the left and right arrow keys continue to work as they do when viewing an individual photo. The only remaining option is that you can hide or show the photo’s title; this button is the same as the one used elsewhere for commenting, in an unusual lapse of interface consistency.
If you want to see who has uploaded which photos, click the silhouette button in the segmented button in the top toolbar to switch to people view. It lists the contributors to the album, and lets you see all the photos they’ve uploaded, at least in thumbnail view. One problem, and this is something ZangZing needs to address in general, is that if you click a thumbnail of another person’s photo and then navigate to subsequent photos, the sorting can be sufficiently random that there’s no guarantee you’ll see only that person’s photos. Similarly, in the album view, the photos sort seemingly randomly; in both cases, ZangZing is actually sorting by time, but people often fail to set the date and time in their cameras correctly. Ideally, you as the user would want to sort by contributor, by time, or by photo title.
The final view is activity view, accessed from the rightmost button in the segmented control. It lists activity in the album, such as people “liking” photos, adding photos, commenting on photos, and so on. If you’re the owner of an album, or in the group for an album, you’ll also receive email whenever these actions occur. Nonetheless, activity view is key, since without it, it can be difficult to determine which photos have comments, or which are most popular. I’d like to see ZangZing reveal some of that metadata in the album view without requiring the user to hover over a photo.
Speaking of email notifications, in the Settings screen accessible from the Account button, you can control which events — invitations, social actions, upload confirmations, news, and marketing messages — will send you email. You can also tweak your personal information here, and link your account with other photo and social networking services for uploading and posting of social activities.
Rough Edges -- I’ll be honest: I like ZangZing immensely. But it’s not surprising that such a new service would still be working through a few rough spots. Here are some I’ve encountered.
The Buy buttons that appear throughout the interface aren’t yet wired in. Once they are, you’ll be able to buy prints, framed prints, gallery-wrapped canvases, and framed poster prints of the photos you see. I wouldn’t be surprised to see ZangZing let you print on various other objects as well. This is part of ZangZing’s eventual business model.
Right now, ZangZing is free, and it will remain so. However, at some point, there will be limitations on how much you can upload with a free account, and a fee will be necessary to regain unlimited uploads. I don’t believe the fee has been decided on yet, but since Flickr and similar sites are in the $25 per year range, I’d expect something similar from ZangZing.
There’s no provision for a true group account, at the moment, which would be ideal for a club. For the Ithaca cross-country teams, I created a new account that I control with the expectation that I could give the password to someone else if they were going to take over the task of creating a new album for each race. That’s a fine workaround, but not entirely ideal; ZangZing is pondering the concept of a group account that would be linked to a personal account, but with additional access privileges.
Better sorting is essential. As noted previously, it’s chronological or manual at the moment, which can feel random, and thus disorienting in an album containing hundreds of photos.
Although you can see who uploaded a photo in the people and activity views, there’s no way when viewing an album or an individual photo to know who uploaded it (apart from the photo’s title, which often gives it away). It would be nice to have that as optional information displayed along with the photo title.
There aren’t any options for what metadata displays, so most uploaded photos just have the ugly camera default names associated with them, and there’s no way to hide them. Similarly, as I noted above, it would be nice in the album view to be able to see at a glance which photos had been liked or commented on.
Although the owner of an album can rotate and delete photos, and the contributor of an album’s photos can do the same to their photos after the fact, there’s no option for anyone who’s viewing the album to be able to rename photos. Album owners can rename photos in Step 3 of the Edit Album process. Ideally, anyone who has access (at least in Hidden and Invite Only albums) should be able to rename a photo directly from the album view.
Currently, even if you set an album to accept uploads from Everyone, people who want to upload via the Web still need to have an account. Not surprisingly, anyone can submit photos via email, regardless of whether or not they have an account. It would be ideal to allow Web uploads from people who don’t want accounts.
Videos aren’t supported right now, though ZangZing has told me that they’re on the list to be added.
As much as the ZangZing team has their work cut out for them, the service as it stands right now is extremely usable, and by far the best solution I’ve seen for group photo sharing. The Ithaca cross country teams previously used to trade photos around manually on USB flash drives, with the goal of getting everything on a DVD that could live in the library at the end of the season. Now parents can upload all their photos immediately after every race, parents and runners alike can view them, and the yearbook adviser is ecstatic about having such a collection to choose from. Everyone’s happy.