It is difficult to know these days whether the Internet is re-inventing photography or vice versa. The convergence of cheap digital cameras, affordable computers and low-cost access to the Internet has made photography vastly more popular than it has ever been and transformed it from a personal to a community experience.
People can now post snaps on the internet so that any web-enabled person in the world can share the experience and often build a new relationship around a shared interest.
This new world is dominated by North American giants such as Yahoo/Flickr, Google, Photobucket, MSN and MySpace, which host hundreds of millions of photographs. But there is still room for smaller niche players. A good example is the UK site geograph.org.uk, which allows people to submit photographs and text for every square kilometre of Great Britain and Ireland. So far an impressive 58% of all the grid squares (each 1km2) in Great Britain have been filled with photos and 7% in Ireland.
In the past week alone almost 3,500 fresh photos were uploaded. It is quite easy to use. If you have a postcode to hand, a search box will translate it into a grid reference. You can browse for photos on your desktop and upload them either as a geograph (if it is an original and relevant photo for that square) or as a "supplemental" if others are already there.
The result is a growing photographic record of the British Isles and a good instance of one of the ongoing delights of the web: returning to places that don't get much publicity when they are launched but just go on getting better. If the exercise could be repeated every five years we would have an enduring record of the changing face of Britain.
A new Dutch site, woophy.com, tries to do something similar for the whole world by encouraging amateurs anywhere to upload high-quality images to fulfil its modest ambition "to ultimately cover every inch of our world map with images that represent the world's beauty". Woophy (it stands for WOrld Of PHotographY) presents you with a map of the world studded with photos from enthusiasts everywhere.
It is only a minnow at the moment with barely 184,000 photos, but it does show that there may still be room for niche players in a world dominated by giants. And who knows, one might eventually displace them.
Zooomr.com (three 'o's, not two) is a fascinating American startup with big ambitions, now run by the photographer Thomas Hawk. It has fewer than 100,000 photos so far but does have interesting features including an easy way to fix an exact location (geotag) to your pictures, an option to view others nearby, plus the ability to see pictures through light boxes, not to mention trackbacks so you can find out why a photo of yours gets a lot of views. You upload an image and click on a button to the right marked "Geotag it now". You then zoom in from a map of the world to the exact place you want to locate your photo. This part of it was a bit moody, doubtless due to problems one expects will be solved by the time it comes out of beta mode.
The emergence of truly huge banks of photographs has spawned a new industry. Companies such as istockphoto.com in the US and the much smaller fotolibra.com in the UK (not to mention Flickr) are undermining the business models of companies such as Getty Images and Corbis by offering high-quality images on practically any subject at a tiny fraction of the price charged by the big boys.
This may help to explain why Getty Images recently bought istockphoto. Video uploading sites such as YouTube grab most of the headlines, but in many ways they are less sophisticated and much less successful than their stills rivals in generating real communities. Photo sites are also largely free of pirated material. They are the web's true monument to user-generated content.
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