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Why online albums are the way to go

If you're taking pictures on your digital camera and just leaving them on your computer, you're missing out on a great new internet trends: picture sharing. Instead of keeping albums on your hard disk, you send them to a website where family, friends and even the world can see your shots.

There are a few excellent sites, and the big players are all in evidence. Hewlett Packard has its own site, Snapfish and last year Yahoo bought Flickr. This month, Etribes, a British weblog and personal website company, is launching a photo album website. "We have identified a potential market of 5 million users in the UK by 2008," says its founder, Simon Grice.

"Photosharing is the tip of the iceberg and we think in the next two to three years the majority of internet users will have a personal website. But for now it's all about simplifying that idea -we've spent more time stripping out unnecessary features rather than putting stuff in." You can sign up now for the service, which starts on 19 July.

There are a swathe of benefits from getting involved with photo sharing sites; for instance, security. Ten years ago, if your house was burgled, you could be sure that the thief wouldn't weigh himself down with the photo albums that were priceless to you, but worthless to him. Now, though, if digital snaps are saved on your laptop's hard drive, you can bet they're vulnerable. Sending your pictures to a website's servers solves this problem. Be warned, though: some sites eventually delete these pictures, or at least the accounts that access them, if you don't visit frequently enough, so it's worth keeping a backup on CDs as well.

As for convenience, if you're tired of having to drag pictures of your newborn into countless e-mails, clogging inboxes everywhere, how much simpler it is to set up a album online and just paste the address into one mass message. Relatives who prefer actual photos can often order prints directly from the site. Should you choose to let anyone see your pictures, you become part of an online community who can give you feedback, like an amateur photography club.

And if you think some of your pictures are worthy of publication, put it to the test by sending them to one of the sites that offer to sell them for you, and give you a share of the cash. Sites like www. scoopt.com, for instance, ask you to send in photos so they can be sold to print media. If they get a sale, you get half the cash. Other sites to help you make money from your David Bailey skills include www.foto libra.com and www.istockphoto.com, which claims to be "the world's largest collection of member-generated royalty-free images at the world's best prices".

Photo sharing sites have another function, too. A year ago, in the hours after the 7 July bombings, many people turned to such web pages to get their first images of the day. If you've taken an image of something topical, it's a way of getting it out there quickly.

Bear in mind though, that space is never infinite so if you the site you opt for has limits it may be worth resizing the images. The highest-resolution shots can take up 2MB of space or more, but if you're not planning to print from the images on site, you're safe reducing them using the site's software to a much smaller size - onscreen the difference won't be noticed.

If you need one final incentive, you could enter Flickr's Blink of an Eye competition - five winners will have their photographs exhibited in a New York gallery next month. But you'll have to hurry - the competition ends today.