5 essential tips I learned from building digital picture frames


5 essential tips I learned from building digital picture frames 1

When digital picture frames were first introduced about 15 years ago, many people grew tired of them quickly. For others, they have become an indispensable source of daily joy.

Since 2005 I have spent countless hours researching the subject of digital picture frames. In this article, I will share with you five essential tips that will help you to distinguish between the great and the not so great ones.

#1 Super Size Me!

I remember a commercial in a Paris movie theater many years ago. It started with a grand scene from the epic drama film “The last emperor” by Bernardo Bertolucci. The child emperor was walking around in the Forbidden City in Beijing. The camera angle was very wide, and the dramatic soundtrack made the screen even wider.

Then, the screen started shrinking, the bass in the sound was reduced, and in the end, you would see the film playing on a small television in the middle of the big screen. The commercial was to demonstrate how much difference the screen size makes to the emotional experience of a movie.

The same can be observed when you look at images. Images that you have taken yourself with your mobile phone, professional pictures taken by a photographer, or pieces of art straight from a museum.

If you look at them in large, you will discover details, feel the emotion much more and spend more time looking at and enjoying it.

The market has been flooded with small digital picture frame units, and I would guess that most of them have been abandoned after a relatively short time. Their picture quality was lousy, setting up difficult and people didn’t update their images very often because it was cumbersome. Like background noise, the image frame became a background flicker and was eventually unplugged and put in the drawer.

So, when you think seriously about getting a digital picture frame, self-made or off-the-shelf, do yourself a favor and don’t go below 21 inches, or better get a 24 inches display. This is what I consider to be the minimum size for any decent digital picture frame.

With a size like this, the digital picture frame is bound to become a focal point in every home. You will talk about the images with your spouse, kids, and friends. It won’t be a background flicker but an enriching and essential contributor to your social setting.

#2 Lost in Transition

This is probably the best-kept secret in the world of digital picture frames. Allow me to introduce you to the art of picture frames! I am talking about image transitions.

Image transition refers to the way how the frame switches from one image to the other. In the simplest case, there is just a hard cut from picture to picture.

This causes quite a disturbance, especially with a larger screen. There may be a sudden change in brightness which is uncomfortable, something which distracts, something which doesn’t feel right especially in a social setting. And it is dead boring.

We have tested many types of transition effects for over 12 years now. For the first seven years, we had a random mix of about 20 transition effects including

  • crossfading
  • fading to black
  • fading of highlights
  • pixel stairs effects
  • image distortion
  • wobbling water fading
  • zooming in and out
  • rotation
  • cubes
  • straight lines
  • curved lines
  • decomposing bricks
  • blurred image transitions
  • the turning of pages
  • carousel
  • Ken Burns effect

and many many more.

Example of random transition effects

While each of them is fun to look at, the novelty wears off quickly, and it becomes more distracting than entertaining.

Of course, it’s a matter of personal taste but in my 12 years digital picture frame experience, there is only one effect which is great to look at every day, and that is soft crossfading with a transition time of 10 seconds.

When you set your transition time to 10 seconds, something significant happens. You multiply the number of your images on the frame by 100.

That is because slow crossfade can create incredibly exciting effects. It’s like layering in Photoshop where you can change an image entirely with the right textured background at a lower opacity.

The 10 seconds make the transition long enough that you can actively watch a new image being created from a mix of random photos. If you set the transition time faster than 10 seconds, you won’t be able to experience the new image that the crossfade may bring about. If the transition time is too long, the effect will become boring.

Example of 10 seconds crossfade transition effect

Not every slow crossfade will create a new masterpiece. But it does happen surprisingly often.

So when you buy a commercial picture frame, make sure that you can select the crossfading transition effect and that you can set the time to 10 seconds.

Should you choose to build your own, then follow the software instructions here on the blog and use the Pi3D software for marvelously rendered crossfades. You will discover new images every day.

#3 About Time

The third secret is about the question of how quickly the images should rotate. Are 90 seconds long enough? Should it be longer?

Though friends & family agree on the slow crossfading transitions effect as being the best long term setting, the personal taste seems to be more relevant when it comes to the delay between images.

This is again important because a rhythm that it too fast introduces nervousness, whereas a digital picture frame should portrait calm and serenity.

Our living room digital picture frame is set to a delay of 200 seconds. We have found this to be the right time to study an image without fear that it goes away quickly.

And quite a few times, we would call each other when an image is being displayed that we hadn’t seen yet. And if the image is gone in the 30 seconds, it takes the other person to come looking, and it can be a bit annoying for everyone.

My recommended setting is 200 seconds. You can’t go wrong with that.

#4 Look Ma, No Cables!

Why is Apple Inc. so successful? Because their designers pay attention to details that many people will never know that they exist. But very often they will feel it. Look at how scrolling on a smartphone has evolved. There used to be a hard stop to scrolling, but when the iPhone introduced the rubber band acting as an elastic end to scrolling, everybody adopted the same feedback in later software versions.

In our case, the one hardware detail that is of enormous importance and makes the difference between a strange object and an integrated piece of furniture in the living room is the issue of cables.

Digital picture frames require a power outlet, and that means cables.

But nothing will look worse than a cable running from your digital picture frame to the plug on the ground. It’s only a little cable, but it can make a lot of difference.

Digital wall frame vendors have recognized this and are trying to come up with all kinds of solutions.

I will post an article in the future on the various options that you have.

In short and depending on your living situation, you can either try to catch a power outlet designed for a lamp (most natural), run the cable inside the wall (didn’t you want to renovate anyway?), drill a hole in the wall (depending on what’s behind) or use very flat cables (not cheap and still visible) and ideally paint over them.

Putting the digital picture frame (too low) on a cupboard is also possible, but it won’t have the same effect as a frame on the wall.

5 essential tips I learned from building digital picture frames 2
No cables make all the difference

People notice when a wall frame has no cables, and I have often gotten the question “does your frame have a battery?” because there is no visible cable.

#5 Update your images often

Currently, there are 1,117 carefully selected images on our living room picture frame. This means that given our delay between images of 200 seconds, and a time of 16 hours a day in which it is turned on, images would only start repeating every four days. As you don’t constantly look at the frame anyway, that gives plenty of variety of images and lots of discoveries.

If you start with 200 images, that’s just fine. But you should try to update your image repository whenever you have great photos that are worth looking at on a larger screen. Also, delete those that you are tired of seeing quickly.

This is why it is very important to have a process that makes maintaining your image collection as simple as possible. It gets even more interesting when other people (like friends & family) can add images to your frame without you having to do anything. Or, you send an email with an image attachment to your (grand)parents and the photo is automatically added to their digital picture frame.

Adding and removing images must be a process that is dead easy and highly automated.

Because, if this is complicated like you have to take out the SD card from your digital frame and load up the images on your computer, you will be less likely to update them often.

But if your frame is linked to a Dropbox folder or an album of your Google Photos account, then updating is a breeze and you will quickly have a nice collection of hundreds of great images that you can discover and rediscover casually in your living room.

Conclusion

Any of these five tips will help greatly improve your digital picture frame experience. You may feel that some are for the die-hard picture lovers only, but once you have experienced it yourself, you will immediately understand and won’t go back.

We all love great images. Let’s use a digital picture frame to present them in a way that we forget that it’s just an LCD display on the wall, and indulge in remembering the moments when they were taken.

Wolfgang Männel

Photography has always been a passion of mine. Since 2005, I have looked at countless ideas on how to enjoy beautiful images digitally, making the experience entertaining, amusing, and stimulating. In my other life, I am an entrepreneur, consultant, and bicyclist based near Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

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