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Private family photo sharing services: multi-generational options that don’t use social media

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Family photo collage

Today I’ll talk about some ways to solve the problem of how to share pics of your kids with the extended family directly from your phone in a way that works for all generations. Yes, without requiring great-grandma to be on Facebook, Instagram, etc.

Private family photo sharing

The good news is that now more than ever, you have a ton of options.

In case anyone needs quick clarification, private family photo sharing is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a way to share photos with just people YOU invite, without anyone having to have a profile on a social media site. That way you can share your children’s pics with everyone at once - and without random weirdos seeing these pics. The best analogy would be a type of Instagram-world just for YOU and the family members that you choose to invite to join.

“Why not just use Instagram with my pics set to private?” you may ask. (Or Facebook, or other social media, for that matter). Actually this does work for some families, but the problem with Instagram and other sites is that profiles are still public: people can still find you on there even if your pics are set to private. That may not bother you at all, but it might bother your mom or your granddad, since they’d have to actually create a profile on the social media site to follow your pics.

Private family photo sharing options

Just search for “private family photo sharing” in your app store. Most of the ones listed above are free; some are not. I'll explain a little more about that below. My favorite free one is Cluster (more about that below); my favorite paid one is SmugMug (more about that below too).

Features to consider when selecting your service

Availability on all devices: Android, iPhone, desktop browser

This is more important than you might think, even if everyone has a cellphone. Example: I assumed my MIL would want to access the pics via her cellphone so I asked if she wanted her invite via text. But no! she said she wanted it by email because she wanted to look at the pics on the computer because of the larger screen. So it’s important to have coverage on all devices.

Ease of user signup process such that it doesn’t scare off older generations...

...nor should it ask for much if any personal information. To determine this, after you pick a service I’d recommend sending off an invite from within the app to your significant other and watching while they go through signup, to see if it would be easy enough for everyone else to manage. I’d also recommend using this time as a “tryout period” and loading on a few pics first and waiting a day or two to make sure it’s working out well for your needs before inviting everyone else. I had to try out and discard a few services on my own before picking the one we ultimately went with.

Consider whether you want to allow the people in your family group to share pics too or not

Most services allow you to have control of this, but only in an “all-or-nothing” manner, meaning either you pick that everyone in the group can put up pics or else only you can. I personally found it helpful to allow others to share pics too – most won’t anyway, especially if you title it something like “Anna and George’s photo album”, but it’s helpful to allow it because then your spouse can share pics of the kids from their phone on occasions where they’re the one taking the photos.

Ability to create albums vs simple ‘feed’

On the one hand, multiple albums are wonderful, but on the other hand the more features something has, the harder it can be for older generations to use. It’s not an easy debate, and most services operate only via one or the other method.

Whether or not it requires you to put in info about each child

Some services are designed just for one child and ask you to put in birthdate etc (which pretty much rules it out if you have more than one kid); others are designed to have separate profile & albums for each kid, which sounds neat in theory but could involve extra work assigning each photo you put up, plus kid albums might all look too similar if your family does most things together. The majority of services do not require anything like that and allow you to just put up the family pics without needing to assign them to a kid. Still, it’s something you’ll want to decide.

What I use

I use Cluster for our private family photo sharing. It’s free, no ads, and it works beautifully for us on all devices. We had all generations on board pretty easily and quickly. We even have a great-grandparent in their late 80’s regularly commenting on the pics! It’s wonderful to see our whole extended family across the miles getting on board with viewing pics. Plus it’s so easy for me to share pics direct from my phone in 1 tap with my whole family.

However, if you like the idea of albums or extra features, you might want to look into some of the other services. Cluster is beautiful, but is a simple feed, you can’t create a bunch of separate albums. Helpfully, there is also a “big picture” view you can switch to (thumbnails of all pics that you can then tap/click on) in case users want to go back to an old pic without having to scroll forever. We purposely went with the Cluster trade-off of the simplest possible user experience even if it doesn’t have a ton of extra features. This was because we had several people who weren’t really confident with technology and extra buttons etc. This turned out to be an advantage for me: it’s super-fast to post my pics without having to assign it to a specific child or album. I can actually share a pic to Cluster quicker than I can send it by text!

Users are also able to create and admin their very own completely separate groups on Cluster. This is a handy advantage because for example your brother could create his own group on Cluster for his children’s pics and then when grandma logs in, she can see both groups (assuming of course that grandma was invited to both groups!). You are the only owner of your group; your brother is the only owner of his. Each owner can invite whoever he/she wants to their own group, regardless of who is in the other group. Therefore, you could own your own group on Cluster and also belong as a member to your brother’s group, and you can see both groups separately in your home screen when you open the app.

Honorable mention: SmugMug

One limitation that many of the free services have is that photos are usually not stored at full resolution on the service. That means that if you upload an image on a free service and grandma uses that photo to make prints, those prints will come out poorly. SmugMug solves that problem by storing all photos at full resolution.

SmugMug is a paid service, but you only need their cheapest plan level (the Basic) to achieve this, and the price is quite reasonable - about a cup of coffee a month - for all the features it delivers. You can check out their Basic plan here for pricing and other details. One thing about the Basic plan that I absolutely love is the ability for family and friends to order prints and gifts direct from your SmugMug site; no need for grandma to transfer the images to another device to order prints.

And of course you can share images easily via private share groups, and you can password-protect your site if you wish to. SmugMug is quite a different animal from other photo sharing services because it creates for you your own customizable website, so it's a slick, professional-looking result that you get. If you like to have things looking great yet you want to preserve your privacy, this could be the ideal option for you.

They're also offering a discount for new customers at the moment, in case you want to take a look: Save 15% off any new SmugMug account when you click this link.

Each family’s needs are very different, and you ultimately need to go with what works for you. Take a look at a few different services and see what you think.

And finally…

Whatever service you decide on, it’s helpful if you send your family a group email just before invites go out, to let them know to expect it and so they don’t think it’s spam. That’ll help your whole family get onboard smoothly and quickly. Have fun!

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