The holidays are fast approaching and so is the pressure to send out your annual greeting cards to update family and friends about your fabulous life and beautiful children. We looked at five of the best, most user-friendly options that make it easy to design and send photo cards. Starting with the Apple programs you already have on your Mac or iOS device, and ending with sites you may not be familiar with, here's a walk through a veritable winter wonderland of photo card-making options.
If you already use iPhoto to manage all of your images, it might make the most sense for you to stick to this program. Start out by selecting a photo event with your desired shots. After you’ve found your favorites, click on the Create button located at the bottom right of the window, then select Card. This takes you to a carousel of cards, where you can choose from three different layouts—Letterpress, Folded, and Flat—and more than two dozen design themes. (Depending on your chosen theme, you can include between one and 13 photos on a single card.)
Once you pick out a layout and theme, you can add text, edit your photos within the frame, import new photos, and even add effects like Black & White, Sepia, and Antique to the photos. You can also edit the fonts and the layout of the text in your cards—choosing the paragraph alignment, and the spacing of the lines and letters. When you’re ready to go, just press “Buy Card” and choose how many cards you would like. iPhoto unfortunately does not offer a discount on bulk orders. They will send them to your address in standard or express shipping, after which you will have to label them and send them out yourself. For more information, check out this in-depth guide to making cards with iPhoto.
Pros: It’s the best option we looked at for creating long, story-centered cards with plenty of font options and well-designed layouts.
Cons: The iPhoto program doesn't have the large library of themes that website-based services offer. It also will not send the cards directly to the recipient, or offer discounts on bulk orders, making it much more expensive than other options.
Cost: Flat cards, $1; Folded cards, $1.50; Letterpress cards, $3; Shipping, from $2.50
Apple’s Cards app lets you create and send cards through your iOS device (as long it’s running iOS 5). If you don’t already have cards, you will need to go into the App Store to download it. Once you launch the app, you can choose a photo from your library or take a new picture from directly within the app. You then crop it, add text, and send it to your friends and family. At first glance, Cards seems like an extremely abbreviated version of iPhoto’s card sending option. Instead of offering the postcard and folded card options of iPhoto, Cards only offers Letterpress cards. It has a very small selection of holiday themes, which lacked in much holiday cheer. In fact, some had the exact same design as non-holiday cards, the only difference being a “Happy Holidays” greeting on the front.
If you use a photo that has people on the right side of the frame and you want to use the same holiday card theme in our example, you will need to use a three-finger swipe in the Move and Resize Photo mode to flip the image. This way, you can make sure that the main subject isn't hidden beneath a snowflake design. Once you’ve finished your holiday greeting masterpiece, you can send it to one recipient at a time. After you send the card, the app asks if you’d like to send your card to another recipient. Cards offers no bulk sending discounts, though, so you may not want to use it as your main card-creating and sending method. For more information on Cards, read our full review.
Pros: Convenient for sending a few thoughtful and well-made cards to select people, since Apple will ship directly to recipients.
Cons: Too expensive for your whole address book, and has a very limited library of themes and layouts that do not offer much customization.
Cost: $3 per card, including shipping (U.S.), $5 per card, including shipping (International)
If you already use Shutterfly for your photo printing needs, you don’t need us to tell you how wonderful it is for low-cost prints and quick delivery. For photo cards, Shutterfly has over 1000 holiday layout options ranging from the basic photo and pre-written holiday greeting to a Story card where you can write a few words about your many vacations, promotions, and animal adoptions in the past year. Once you’ve uploaded photos to your Shutterfly account, you can place them into the various layouts until they’re exactly what you want. From there, you can add text, choosing from dozens of fonts and colors.
The best part about Shutterfly’s service is its shipping options. You can send your photo cards directly to a list of recipients by importing addresses from your Mac’s Address Book, your iPhone, or an Excel spreadsheet. Any leftover cards can then be sent to your home address so you can give them out in person.
Pros: It’s incredibly easy to send batches of cards to different recipients, there are lots of themes, and you receive discounts when ordering in bulk
Cons: Not all theme layouts can be edited and you must have a Shutterfly account to use the service.
Cost: Cards, from $0.32 (not including shipping)
Pear Tree has great options for unique and affordable holiday cards. Some choices are mind-blowingly chic for the price—my personal favorite is the Colorful String of Lights (pictured above), which come in the shape of Christmas lights and string together to display a holiday message. You can import your photos onto Pear Tree from your computer or from Facebook. From there, you can crop and add filters like Black and White, Vibrance, Sharpen, and Soft Focus to your photos. Though Pear Tree has a few more photo editing options than other card makers, it doesn’t have as many layout options per theme as Shutterfly or Tiny Prints (see below).
You can edit the text of your card, though there aren’t as many font options as there are in iPhoto. The Colorful String of Lights card, for example, offers only six fonts, which were all cursive. When you are finished designing your card, you can add a personal return address to be printed on all of the envelopes. Unfortunately, Pear Tree can only send cards to you, not to individual recipients, so you will have to buy stamps, lick envelopes, and send cards out yourself.
Pros: It offers gorgeous, chic designs, bulk discounts, and return address printing on envelopes.
Cons: There aren’t many layout or font options and you cannot send cards to individual recipients.
Cost: Cards, from $0.55 (not including shipping)
Tiny Prints offers the best services from Pear Tree and Shutterfly. It has great designs and it will send your cards out to recipients for you. The layouts range from basic one-sided photo cards to elaborate paper ornaments and pop-up options. The “Narrow Your Search” bar helps you navigate through Tiny Print’s 460 different holiday cards. Within each theme, there are several different layouts featuring either single or multiple photo spaces, and horizontal and vertical orientation. You can also turn almost every theme into a round, ornament-like card—a simple yet unique design.
Once you have chosen the perfect layout, you can import photos from your computer, Shutterfly, Picasa, Flickr, Facebook, and SmugMug. If you haven’t already, you can edit your photos in Tiny Prints, rotating and sizing each, as well as adding effects like Sepia and Black and White. Tiny Prints, like Shutterfly, lets you send out your cards to different recipients in one simple step—you just have to pay for the stamps. You can import addresses from their downloadable spreadsheet template, or your Gmail, Yahoo, or Outlook contacts.
Pros: You can choose from a variety of unique, edgy designs, get bulk discounts, and send cards to different recipients from the site.
Cons: Not all text in the layouts is customizable, so if you like the shape of a "Merry Christmas" card, but want it to say "Happy Holidays," you're out of luck.
Cost: Cards, from $0.59 (not including shipping)
[Updated on 11/22/2011 to clarify how to design cards using Apple's iOS Cards app.]