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Photo Illustration by Simon Wan

Picture Yourself Online
Sharing photographs with family and friends around the world is easy. Just create an online photo album

Your cousin lives in California, your daughter attends college in Australia and your siblings are scattered to the four winds. You are the very model of a modern extended family. But are you fully harnessing the power of the Internet to bring your kin closer together? No. You're just sending each other e-mail. Bor-ing.

You would do anything for your family, so do something better than just giving up licking stamps. Create a virtual family album and share photos with far-flung relatives on the Web. You don't need your own homepage or any technical expertise. Here's how to get started.

First you'll need some pictures. It's no use trying to slide your prints into your PC's floppy drive. You're going to have to buy a scanner to turn your snaps into digital files that can be viewed on your PC. A few years ago, scanners were expensive and complicated pieces of machinery. Today you can pick one up for under $100, and some models are as easy to use as a photocopier. When choosing a scanner, one figure matters more than the price: the "dpi" (dots-per-inch) number that denotes image quality. If posting small pictures on the Web is all you want it for, a cheap 300 dpi scanner will serve you fine. But with good quality hardware available for around $200, a 600 dpi model is well worth the extra money. Look for one with a color depth rate of 24-bits or higher for extra sparkle. If price is no object, specialist photo scanners also exist that can pluck images from your negatives and slides, too.

You can bypass using film and prints completely. Digital cameras offer an easier way of getting your pictures on screen. Just point, click and upload. Again, a bottom-of-the-line $100-$200 snapper will suffice for Web shots. In fact, the lower resolution will produce smaller files that are ideal for posting online. But if you want to be able to make good quality prints from your images, look for a model that claims at least a charged couple device (or CCD, the part of the camera that captures the image) with a resolution of at least two megapixels. Prices start at around $600, but are falling fast. If both scanners and digital cameras are too intimidating, either financially or technically, check to see if your local film processor can do the technical work for you. Many labs are now equipped with an arsenal of digital imaging equipment.

Where to go to share your photos:

Once you have pictures, you're ready to create an album. There are a number of websites that allow you to do this, and all of them are free. For a quick and dirty solution, sign up for an album at a portal site like Yahoo! or MSN, the Microsoft Network. There are few frills, but the Spartan layout keeps things easy and intuitive. I managed to create an album, add several photos and invite a friend to take a look within minutes, no instructions required. Uploading a photo (you can store up to 32 megabytes on msn and 15 with Yahoo!) is as easy as finding it on your computer.

If you would prefer an album with more refined presentation, you could try PhotoLoft, ClubPhoto or Photo Island. Each site has its own particular look and selling point, including the ability to retouch your pictures, add special effects or order a coffee mug with your mugshot on it. You can even download albums to view on a Palm IIIc color handheld. All three sites allow the curious pleasure of flipping through other people's albums. (Don't worry, you can choose to keep yours private.)

But the luxurious, leather-bound album of the bunch is undoubtedly ActiveShare, from software-maker Adobe. This slick program (a large but free download) lets you create your photo album on your desktop, editing and modifying pictures as you go. You can zoom, crop and rotate, eliminate redeye and even create slide shows. If you want more, ActiveShare integrates seamlessly with Adobe's $49 PhotoDeluxe editing software -- a well-regarded package that actually comes bundled with some scanners and digital cameras.

When you're ready to share your work, a single click sends your album to the Web, where it becomes part of an eCircle, a stylish community site where your family post photos of their own. Sharing pictures is just the start. With eCircles you also get a group calendar and bulletin board to keep track of family business, and chat rooms for talking or playing games. There is even a Wish List section to let your family know your heart's desire. After all, now that you're in constant communication, there's no way your overseas offspring will miss your birthday -- or your birthday photos.

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