5 essen­tial tips I learned from build­ing dig­i­tal pic­ture frames

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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.

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.