Being able to see and share photos of your kids and grandkids with far-flung family and friends is one of the joys of life in the social media age.
But as awareness of and interest in online privacy grows, you may be having second thoughts about uploading personal photos to social media sites. After all, even before the latest hacking scandals, Facebook wasn’t exactly Fort Knox.
Instead, you may want to create a private online repository for your pictures, that you can update almost as easily as a social media site, and use to keep your photos organized. That’s no small matter when you can easily snap thousands of photos per year on your phone.
There are two primary strategies: You can opt for an app that makes it easy to upload, organize and share photos with the people of your choosing.
The big advantage of apps is they’re simple to use—even for technophobes—and they let you grant access to family and friends. Many are free or charge a minimal fee. On the downside, technical support can be hard to come by and users run the risk of glitches or even shutdowns. For that reason, it’s always a good idea to back up your photos in other secure places.
Alternatively, you can set up a private website—it’s not as hard as it sounds—that is invisible to the general public and accessible by invitation only.
Apps that really offer privacy
There are dozens of photo-sharing apps out there, but not all thoroughly address privacy concerns. The picks below are both easy to use and truly off limits to others.
23Snaps (free): Founded when a father-in-waiting wanted a secure way to document and privately share the early moments of his young family, 23Snaps says its mission is to “create truly secure and private ways to share photos and videos with the people you love.” The app, which you can access via phone, tablet, or Web browser, lets you organize your photos into collections or view them in a timeline, gallery or calendar view.
Cluster (free): First launched in 2013 and updated in 2015, the app is designed specifically for private group sharing—it doesn’t even offer a public access option. It also has many of the same features as Facebook or Instagram, including likes and alerts. Better yet, you can create specific groups for photo sharing, whether it’s one side of the family, a specific group of friends, or around a trip or an event.
SmugMug ($48 a year): For a small cost, this site has some advantages over the free offerings: a customizable website, unlimited photo uploads, and password protection for specific files or the entire site. You can also give access to other family members so they can upload and store their own photos—and convert digital images into photo albums and other items. If you upgrade to the Power level ($72 per year), you’ll get more personalization and the option to use your own domain name.
Your own domain
Another solution for staying connected with family and close friends is to buy your own internet domain (a.k.a. web address or URL), create a private website and keep unwanted eyeballs out.
This might sound complicated, but it’s not. First, pick a name (www.myawesomefamily.com), and see if it’s available. Domain registry services such as GoDaddy and NameCheap offer easy interfaces to search for and buy your proposed web address. Expect to pay between $10 and $30 to keep dibs on your domain.
Next, build your website. Sites like GoDaddy, Wix, Squarespace and WordPress offer pre-built, drag-and-drop templates that let you build a basic site, with virtually no graphic design or programming skills needed. Some of the templates are free: others charge a one-time fee of about $50.
Once you select a template, be sure it has an option to keep your site private, and not just hidden. A hidden website can be identified by web crawlers and show up in search results. A private site will not. Although WordPress is a little more cumbersome to set up, it allows you to make your site private with a few clicks; once you’ve selected private, you—as well as anyone you name as administrator—can add or restrict access to others.
Another advantage of creating a private website is that it will offer more editorial options than most apps. For example, if you want to carve out a spot on your site for news items, videos and commentary, you have the freedom to do so.
The drawback to this web-based approach to sharing is that it can be more cumbersome than an app and relies on one relatively savvy and dedicated administrator. Whereas many apps make it easy to uploading photos and videos in real time, publishing photos on a private site may take a little more effort.
Still your efforts will likely be rewarded—and you may find that building and curating a personal site offers as much satisfaction as ogling photos of your close family and friends on social media.