As we move past one holiday, it's time to get ready for another. In my household, we tackle two projects involving digital images that we've gathered over the past year: holiday cards and photo calendars. In this article, I just wanted to give you a rundown of the products and tools at a few popular online photo services in the context of ordering holiday greeting cards. For this article, I'm going to stick with Shutterfly, Snapfish and the Kodak Gallery. There are other services out there, some that concentrate on printed items (dotphoto.com), and some that concentrate on sharing (Flickr), but the three that I'll cover are probably the most popular.
For all the sites, the procedure is pretty much the same: add pictures to the online album and then fix or enhance any images that need it. Once your images are all ready to go, all you have to do is browse through the store for the card design that you want to order. After choosing a card, you get a chance to customize it, by adding your picture(s) and the text that you want in the greeting card. Once the card is ready, choose your shipping options, add the order to your cart, and checkout like you would normally do on an e-commerce site. There are a couple minor variations when it comes to each site's tools and when you get to shipping options, which I'll mention below.
Shutterfly has several ways to upload images. The simplest is a "form upload" field, that lets you browse your computer for the file(s) to upload. By this method, you can upload up to 10 images at a time. Another option is to use the "Picture Upload Assistant" which is a browser plugin that provides a more robust interface to choose and upload images.
Shutterfly Picture Upload Assistant
Yet another option to upload images is to download and install Shutterfly Studio - a free stand-alone application that lets organize and edit the images on your computer. You can also use it to upload images to Shutterfly and to order Shutterfly products.
Once your image is uploaded, you can choose to fix or enhance your image. If you don't need to, then you can safely skip this paragraph. You can fix red-eye, crop, add effects (like b&w, soft focus), or add borders to your image. You can also do any rotating that you need to do.
Once your image is already to go, it's time to choose your greeting card! Use the "Shutterfly Store" tab along the top of the site to start browsing to the product that you want to use. There are quite a few card styles to choose from. Some can even handle up to 8 pictures. Take your time and have fun looking around. Once you've decided on a product, you can start customizing it. It's a very simple process to choose which image(s) you want on the card. The next step is to apply a greeting, which is also very self-explanatory.
At Shutterfly, you can have the cards send directly to you, or you can have them add postage and send out the cards directly to the people on your list. If you choose the latter, you're able to set a customized greeting for each individual. If you have a large list, not to worry, you can import your recipient list from Outlook, Outlook Express, Palm Desktop, Mac Address Book, or Entourage.
Once your recipients are in there, you can customize greetings, preview the final card, then add it to your cart and finish your transaction like a typical e-commerce site.
Shutterfly does a really good job with their site (in my opinion) and one can get into a lot of "trouble" with all of the items that you can get pictures printed on. There are photo books, calendars, clothing, mugs, and so on. It's pretty amazing to see the range of items that they can print images on.
When you upload pictures at Snapfish, the preferred method is to use their QuickUpload tool. The QuickUpload tool is a browser plugin that provides a nice interface to choose multiple images. If you want, you can upload images one at a time or you can actually email images to be added to your albums.
Snapfish QuickUpload tool
If your images need to be re-touched, you'll find a menu of options pretty similar to the one at Shutterfly:
Once you're set, head to the "store" (via a tab on the top of the site). Card customization is similar to what you've seen before, and Snapfish also has the options to import a recipient list. However, I didn't see a way to set a customized greeting for each individual. Snapfish does have an additional shipping option, however. You can have Snapfish stamp and address the envelopes, but send them to you, so you can add your handwritten greeting.
The Kodak Gallery also has their own upload tool. And again, you can use a simpler file upload form. This simpler form comes in handy if you're at a different computer than you normally are since nothing has to be installed. Kodak's Easy Upload does a nice job of showing upload progress, as you can see below. Their plugin uses the standard file choose dialog box from your computer, to add multiple files to a list. When you click "Start Upload", the selected images are uploaded one at a time.
If your images need to be re-touched, you'll find a menu of options pretty similar to the one at Shutterfly and Snapfish:
Once you're set, head to the "Shop" (via a tab on the top of the site). Kodak's card customization tool is actually pretty cool. It's a Flash-based customizer that lets you drag and drop images, enter text and do other customizations without "refreshing" the web page.
Kodak's drag and drop interface (view large image)
Text dialog box to customize card (view large image)
At the Kodak Gallery, you aren't able to send your holiday cards directly to the recipient. There is some flexilbility in shipping options though: you can ship to yourself or another recipient.
If you'ver never ordered holiday greeting cards online, I highly recommend that you try it out. The online services out there have lots of great features to make the process fun, easy, and very useful (like shipping directly to the card recipient). I don't have any loyalty to a particular site - I usually just pick the one that has the best price and has the "features" that I need. Using an online service also keeps you out of the holiday season crowds at the store, which, to me, is the single best feature of e-commerce.