jAlbum 24 is here!

jAlbum 24 is here, reading and writing new, better image formats than JPEG and delivering images that fits the client's screen better than ever. We're also bundling jAlbum with two major skin updates and some other improvements. It's been a long time since we released a major version, but I hope you'll find these improvements worth the wait.

Offering choices to the browser

 
 
"Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants, so long as it is black."
- Henry Ford
 
 
This quote pretty well tells how images have been delivered over the web. The same image type and resolution have been delivered to the browser no matter its capabilities or the screen's capabilities. This is about to change...
 
 
A few years back the HTML specification standardized on a a way for the browser and server to negotiate on the image type and resolution that best fits that client. The server can offer a list of image variants of various types and resolutions and let the browser pick the one that it prefers.
Image credit: Jason Leung - Unsplash.com
 
Choice is a good thing, isn't it? In jAlbum, we call this Variants (See Settings->Images).
The model has multiple advantages:
  • Provides the ability to introduce newer image formats while keeping JPEG as fallback for 100% browser compatibility
  • Allows the browser to pick a higher resolution image for high resolution displays while serving smaller and faster versions to other devices
  • Allows the browser to pick better compressed variants for supported browsers while serving ordinary JPEG images as fallback
New image formats
As I mentioned, we can now introduce better image formats without breaking compatibility with old browsers. JPEG has been around since 1992 and has become of age. 

WebP (read and write)
The first new image format to accompany JPEG for image generation in jAlbum is WebP. WebP provides several advantages over JPEG:
  • Lossy or lossless compression
  • Compresses better than JPEG
  • Supports alpha (transparencies)
  • Supports animation
  • Lossless variant compresses 26% better than PNG
WebP is supported by most browsers today, among those Chrome and Firefox. However, older Safari browsers don't support WebP, so to keep 100% compatibility, jAlbum can serve a JPEG as fallback for browsers that don't support WebP.
The following two galleries demonstrates showing transparent images the old way (PNG images) vs the new way (lossless WebP with JPEG fallback). Even though we add JPEG images as fallback, the 2:nd gallery is less than 1/3 the size of the original gallery!
 
 
HEIC/HEIF (read)
jAlbum 24 now reads this new format, commonly used by iOS devices. The format has several advantages over JPEG, among these 50% better compression and support for image sequences, lossless reversible editing, alpha and depth information.

AVIF and others (future)
This latest format isn't supported by jAlbum yet but we'll plan to support it as soon as we can. What's exiting about it is that it, apart from offering the advantages WebP has over JPEG, it compresses even better and offers 10- and 12 bit color depth and wider color gamut. It's supported by Chrome today meaning it works for a majority of viewers already. We'll likely see more formats emerging now that the brower can choose.

Variants in jAlbum
Our take on this new browser choice is called Variants. Under Settings->Images->Variants you can now specify any number of additional image sizes and formats to be generated. These are specified as a size multiple of a typical thumbnail or closeup image. If you simply want to cater for HiDPI screens without imposing a 4x size and bandwidth penalty on all other devices, add a set of 2x variants. To reduce the additional disk space, choose WebP instead of JPEG. To cater for those having large screens and offer crisp zooming, add 3x or even 4x size variants. The choice is yours, and eventually the browser's.
You can watch this video or play with this sample gallery to see how the browser loads different image sizes depending on the browser window size.

Skin support
Skins need to be adapted to support Variants. We currently bundle jAlbum with updated versions of Tiger and Minimal that have this support added. You will also see updated skins from our user community.

Minimal 8
Apart from Variant support, Minimal 8 offers a new mixed color style and responsive closeup images. These images will fill as much of the browser window as possible. Navigation buttons and text are superimposed onto the images to maximize the images, and they are hidden after 5 seconds of inactivity, showing ONLY your beautiful image. Minimal has become even more minimalistic.
 
This demo demonstrates the use of 2x and 3x sized variants. Resize the browser window to see how the browser chooses the best suiting variant!
(The image sizes are printed on each variant for demonstration purpose)
 

Tiger 3.0

Our default Tiger skin is reborn too. Not only to support Variants, but its underlying structure has also been renewed for a better responsive (a.k.a “flex”) layout. Here’s a short list of changes:

  •  Image variants support
  • Instant preview for some 50 settings on the User Interface
  • Continuous zoom (zoom slider)
  • Masonry thumbnail layout
  • 2 icons sets: fat and thin
  • Sticky (always on-screen) Shopping cart, Feedback and Filtering boxes
Read more about the changes and on how you can play safe with upgrades in our Tiger blog post.
 
A peek under the hood
Without getting too technical about this, here's a short html code snippet that shows how WebP images are presented to browsers that support WebP while older browsers will choose the JPEG fallback:
 
<picture>
  <source type="image/webp" srcset="img-1600w.webp 1600w,img-800w.webp 800w"/>
  <source type="image/jpeg" srcset="img.jpg 800w"/>
    <img src="img.jpg" width="800" height="600" alt="My garden">
</picture>


Modern browsers will look through the source elements, picking the first one with a supported image type. It will then select the most suitable size variation. Older browsers simply ignore the picture and source elements and read the img element.
 
For a basic jAlbum skin to support variants, all that is needed is for the img element to be wrapped in a ja:picture element, like this (Minimal skin's slide.htt file):
 
<ja:picture>
  <img src="${imagePath}" width="${imageWidth}" height="${imageHeight}" alt="${title}">
</ja:picture>
 
 
 
See the full list of enhancements in our release notes. I hope you're really excited to run jAlbum 24 now. Just head to our download page.

Tiger skin reborn

Most of you have probably met Tiger skin. Meanwhile, new web design techniques appeared in other skins often quite early, I was afraid of rushing to introduce them in our most frequently used skin, Tiger. This way it got gradually left behind in terms of design and also made it harder to maintain code shared across my skins (Animatics, Lucid, Photoblogger, Projector, Story, Tiger). Finally, I bit the bullet and started to rewrite Tiger. The most important change was eliminating the previous Zurb framework, and replacing it with vanilla HTML5/CSS3 flex layout.

What are those “layouts”?

In the early days of web design, pages were created using the so-called “table” layout. You can imagine this like an Excel table. Complex graphics had to be chopped into small pieces. It was a nightmare to maintain, I can tell. Every time you wanted to change a small piece, you had to change the code in several (distant) places and the smallest error had lead to blowing up the whole layout. This meant the end of Chameleon skin, for example.

Then came the age of frameworks. Bootstrap, Zurb - they were all based on a “float” layout, implementing a column system, which was able to adapt to smaller screens by specifying different column widths to elements based on screen width. These layouts, however, required a lot of external code and were not as flexible as web designers would wish.

Finally, browser makers caught up with designer wishes. “Flex” and “Grid” layouts were implemented - first in Chrome and Firefox, later in all browsers. Probably this transition has lead to Internet Explorer and Opera browser’s death. Today, besides Firefox, all browsers are based on Chrome’s rendering motor: “WebKit” - yes, even MS Edge. Flex layout is capable of adapting to the available space both ways: horizontally and vertically. You can imagine this layout as a sack of marshmallows. In today’s web design image sizes are not carved into stone anymore. This is why many skins calculate the best thumbnail size automatically, as Tiger does too.

Tiger, for example, has started on Bootstrap (1.x), later it utilized Zurb (2.x), and finally, it has received flex layout with the latest version.

Instant preview

Quite a few other skins have already received the so-called “instant preview” feature. With the help of this users can immediately view the effect of dozens of settings. Both the index page and the lightbox panel show such a preview now.

Instant preview for the index page

Instant preview for the lightbox page

Variants support

In jAlbum 24 we have introduced image variants. These variants provide the visitors’ browsers with multiple image sizes, so they can pick the best resolution for the given device / screen resolution. This not only means different sizes, but also different image formats. For example, jAlbum can generate WEBP format too, besides the ages-old JPG files. WEBP has the advantage also of being better compressed (i.e. smaller files) and has opacity and animation support. You can read more about this new feature here.

Further news

New masonry thumbnail layout (variable width, horizontal)

New optional folder thumbnail layout: the text placed beside the image (like in Turtle)

2 icon styles: fat (legacy) and thin

“Sticky sections” - Filtering and Sort, Shopping cart, and Feedback can be made fixed to viewport

Continuous zoom - which not only plays with variants, but it’s also capable of showing the full-resolution originals (if included).

Playing safe with skin updates

Although I tried to make the skin upgrade from 2.x to 3.x as smooth as possible, the devil never sleeps, as they say. Tiger skin saves the old settings file in the Project folder (Ctrl-Shift-I) as jalbum-settings-old.jap. Still, I’d suggest playing around with the new version first on a small test album. You can import the settings from your production album with File → Import → Settings from project.

It's also advisable to keep backups of your precious albums with File → Duplicate project.

If you can’t make friends with the new version you can still revert to v2, but keep Tiger 3 for later experiments:

  1. Open skin directory (go one level up to “skins”) and quit jAlbum
  2. Rename “Tiger” to “Tiger3” for example
  3. Install the latest major version from here (left column below): 2.14.5 Mar 24, 2021 (previous main version)

This way both versions will remain.


Comments are welcome as usual,
Laza

Albums are now faster when hosted at jalbum.net

A few weeks ago we enabled HTTP/2 for all albums hosted here that are using https. This is done automatically, so there is no need to upload your albums again. Just make sure you access your albums using https.

Using HTTP/2 makes the albums load much faster, especially over long distances. We have checked what HTTP/2 makes to the load times of an album with 500 images in a folder. The album in this example had to travel across the globe (between Stockholm and Australia) and using HTTP/2 clearly makes a difference:

A looping video when fetching the same album from half across the globe using HTTP/1.1 vs HTTP/2.

Previously HTTP/1.1 was used which has been around since 1997. The new version called HTTP/2 makes better use of the TCP connections between the browser and server so multiple resources can be fetched simultaneously by each connection instead of only one at a time which HTTP/1.1 could do. The browser could open multiple connections when using HTTP/1.1 to load resources more efficiently, but having to handle multiple connections puts a strain on all the network resources from the client computer, via routers to the web server, so browsers usually open at the most just a few connections to each domain. Tricks to spread the resources on a web page to different domains can be used. But this can't be done for albums, since all the resources (except maybe JavaScript libraries and fonts) have to be loaded from the one domain the album is hosted on.

When using HTTP/2 this is no longer an issue, since each connection can be shared among many resources. This also means that HTTP/2 lowers the effect of high latency ("long ping times"). The jAlbum servers are located in Sweden, so within Europe the latency is quite low (usually less than 40ms). But when viewing an album from another continent, the latency can be several 100ms. As seen in the example above HTTP/2 minimizes the effect of this so albums fetched over long distances are a lot faster. This is important for our users in America and Asia. Tests run by users in the US have shown that load times for a typical album went from 4.5 seconds to 2.4 seconds. A dramatic difference!

So, all you have to do is to make sure the URLs you use for your albums hosted here start with https, and then your albums will be quicker too. If you are using an old account profile in the jAlbum desktop software at Tools->Upload/Manage... it might say that the "Web address" starts with http. Then just Remove that account profile and Add it again.

Which jAlbum skin?

While jAlbum comes with 8 preinstalled skins, you can find dozens more in our skins section. As shown on the chart below, most users simply stick with the default skin, or whatever the default was when they first installed jAlbum. Turtle still holds second place, even though we retired it years ago and released Tiger to replace it. And then there’s Chameleon, which was deprecated over 10 years ago – an eon in web design – but still sits peculiarly in 4th place. We’d like to encourage you to try out other skins; hence this blog post.


What’s wrong with old skins?

I know it’s a pain changing the skin when you are building a large gallery and want to add new albums every now and then. It looks odd when the older albums use a different skin. However, times are changing, new devices appear with different screens and different capabilities, there are new standards, new browsers emerge, and those old albums become almost unusable on these new devices. The single most important change of the past decade in web design is the rapid spread of mobile devices. Today more than 50 percent of site visitors use a mobile device. These not only have smaller screens, but also don’t have a pointing device (i.e., a mouse), which might render old albums a pain to navigate. That’s why all new skins are based on responsive web design, which allows the album to adapt to the visitor’s device. This is what sets Turtle apart from Tiger, for example.

Using a modern skin is not only important for the visitors’ sake, but Google and other search engines give a higher rank to web pages that embrace modern standards.

Historically, there were also some Flash-based skins in our skin repository, like the once very popular Fotoplayer skin. But Flash no longer works in any current browser, so we’ve removed all of the Flash skins.

Naturally, if you don’t care about mobile visitors, there’s nothing wrong with old skins. But even on desktops and laptops, you might have problems with integrations. PayPal, Google Maps, and Facebook might no longer work; these external services retire their old interfaces (API’s) regularly. This happened with Google Maps in 2017, for example, and with Facebook sharing after the 2016 US election.

Desktop Mobile

Once a skin gets to the point where its underlying technology gets hopelessly dated, we can either choose to rewrite the skin from the ground up, or to bring out a new skin that mimics the old one. Tiger inherited most of the features, styles, and layout from Turtle. Development of the hugely popular Chameleon skin was halted a decade ago with no descendant. I know this disappointed quite a few users. The good news is that we are planning on renewing Chameleon this year.


Which skin is good for me?

It boils down to what type of content you usually create. For complex, multi-level albums it’s wise to choose a robust skin with strong navigation support and search. For single events it might be better to choose a lightbox-first skin that's built around the slideshow, although not as useful for navigating deeper folder structures.

If you’re after the simplest presentation, and the extra features are not important, you can choose a “minimalistic skin”, like Minimal or Atom. Athough they look similar, Atom features a fully-responsive layout, and has more options. These skins are also the easiest to tweak, or to use as a base for creating a new skin.

In the middle ground stands the Projector skin. It appears in the second table here because it’s a “lightbox first” skin, but it uses a database, which allows functions like Search and Tag cloud work. So, it also works well for large albums.

 

Index page first skins

  Fancybox Mars Tiger Photoblogger Pluto Story
Sample album
Created 2018 2019 2017 2014 2018 2020
Number of styles 7 15 26 12 11 10
Deep (collapsible) navigation menu    
Search within album      
Tag cloud (keywords)      
Thumbnail layout Masonry Grid, Masonry Grid Vertical, Grid, Masonry Grid, Masonry Masonry
(alternating size)
Background music    
Full screen
Slideshow  
Theme image support
Displays "New" tag    
Custom web pages    
Web locations
Plays video files
Audio files    
Other file types (e.g. PDF)    
Animated GIF's      
Swipe support
Displays map    
Panorama support    
360° panorama    
Displays metadata    
Face tags      
Shopping cart      
Feedback / Kiosk      
Social sharing    
 
 

Lightbox-first skins

  Animatics Comet Lucid Projector
Sample album
Created 2019 2018 2019 2018
Styles 7 1 9 27
Transition effect(s) Ken Burns, Cross-fade,
Zoom, Stack
Cross-fade Slider carousel Zoom, Ken Burns,
Stack, Slide, Swap,
Flip, Book, Cube
Slideshow
Swipe support  
Background music  
Search      
Tag cloud      
Displays metadata  
Displays map
Displays videos  
Social sharing  
Custom pages  

Special skins

 

Responsive is the only one which can create a whole album inside a web page on-the-fly by utilizing Javascript. This is useful when you just want to display a handful of pictures in an already-made web page.

 
 

Mercury is special because it is capable of displaying lengthy text around images, not just below.

 
 

Story is the first skin capable of playing with thumbnail sizes (thumbnail / wide / full), in order to create an intriguing blog-like experience. This skin was also the first that allowed embedding custom pages (or any custom content) into the index page, which strenghtens the blog-like experience even further.

 
 

Zigzag is another example of an unusual layout. It alternates the left/right positions of the pictures and their captions.


Embedding albums in other pages

Unfortunately, on mobile devices you can easily end up with an unusable album when you use the traditional “IFRAME” method. As the IFRAME element has to be a fixed pixel size, the album area often stretches beyond smaller screens, effectively making it impossible to scroll through the page, or to reach navigation elements. The “responsive embed code” utilized by a few skins still can only match the width of the screen. The album can still stretch beyond the screen when the mobile is held horizontally.

The only user-friendly way is to run the album in its own tab or window, i.e., linking to the album from your site instead of embedding it. I know this way your site’s menu or header is not included, but it’s still better than showing a broken page. Our skins are usually easy to tweak to match your site’s theme, and many provide ways to include custom elements (e.g. header, footer) in the album.

The other possibility for WordPress users is to use our jAlbum bridge component, which pulls images from an uploaded album, and displays them in a “projector” box within the post.

Finally, the Responsive skin – mentioned above – is also capable of creating a little album inside another web page by utilizing only Javascript. This skin generates a call code you have to insert in your page.


General advice using skins

If you’d like to experiment with different skins don’t do this on your production project! The skin settings usually do not survive switching back and forth between skins. Create a small sample album, and experiment on that. You can also create a duplicate of a project by choosing File → Duplicate project.

Before you run a skin update make sure to save the current project. It is rare for jAlbum to lose the settings during a skin update, but you might end up with zeroed settings (first option, false, empty, black color). If this happens, do not save the project! Simply close the project without saving it, then reopen it. You might lose the latest changes, but at least not all. It is safest to install a skin update without an open project.

To discover more skins follow this link to our Skins section. jAlbum’s skin chooser box also has a link at the bottom of the list; read “Download more skins...”, where you can find skins by features too.

Comments are welcome,
Laza

Skin development news 2021/02

It seems whatever might happen around us, we never stop bringing new features to jAlbum and our bundled skins. :) Most of these ideas came from our helpful community which is a tremendous help for us, the development team. Here are a few new things added recently:

Continuous zoom, zooming into the original image

When you aim to show the finest details in a photo the web-optimized slide images are often too small. With this new continuous zoom tool the skin can load the high resolution version on the fly when the visitor zooms enough into an image. However, loading a sizeable image (e.g. a 64 MB panorama image) can be hard for both the graphics system and also regarding the load time. So you might want to optimize (downsize) such images beforehand you add them as “original”.

This function has been made available first in Story skin, but Photoblogger will follow soon. You can use Ctrl + mouse wheel and Numpad + / - buttons too, besides the slider handle below the zoom button:

Skip between levels with previous / next folder links

Originally my skins only jumped to the next folder of the same level. Consequently an automatic slideshow has always stopped at the first time when it didn’t find an adjacent folder. Now the “Skip folder levels” option allows jumping levels up and down. This happens also when you go beyond the last image in a folder (in the lightbox), this way the slideshow won’t stop at the middle of a complex album.

Ask permission to enter a folder

If you’d like to showcase photos not suitable for children, it’s good to have a popup that asks the visitor to confirm his/her age. To make this happen all you have to do is adding a variable, called askPersmission in Edit mode’s right side “Variables” panel. See below!

Select the folder → Edit mode → Variables panel

This is what pops up in the album. (default)

You can also customize these texts by adding value to the variable (right to the name). Format: TitleText::QuestionText::AllowButtonText::DisallowButtonText.

Of course kids can simply click “I’m over 18”, but this is at least a decent attempt to detour them. If you need to set up a strict policy, the only way to do this is by adding password protection to folders through the server’s Control panel. A web page cannot provide any such protection from inside, because anybody can read the folder's URL from the source code.

Better support for media files and practically any file format beyond JPG

As a starter I always design my skins for regular JPG’s – as that makes up 99% of the albums. However, jAlbum albums should be capable of handling videos, PDF’s, moving GIF’s and such, which not always work out-of-the-box, or at least doesn’t work optimally. To test different file formats, and different image types I have set up a test album – you can also peek into:

Related: Using THM files for media (as poster image)

THM files were invented at the early days of jAlbum to provide poster images for video files. Ever since jAlbum is capable of recoding videos and extracting thumbnails, this feature has diminished in importance. Unless you’d like to use an external image, like a real movie poster, or with audio files, which do not have visual representation otherwise. All you have to do is to add a JPG file renamed with the same base name as the media file, use the extension “thm” (e.g. sound.mp3 → sound.thm) and place this file into the Image directory’s appropriate folder. Note, if the media file is linked (i.e. not copied directly into the Image directory) you still have to use the Image directory (Ctrl-Shift-I) – due to historical reasons – otherwise jAlbum will not pick up the THM file.

Related: Using sound clips

Sound clip support is a special feature of some skins (Tiger, Story and Photoblogger for example) by which you can add sound to an otherwise silent photo or video. You should add the mp3 file named the same as the image or video but keep its original “mp3” extension. You need to place this file in the file’s original (linked) folder, otherwise if it’s placed in the Image directory jAlbum will add as separate sound file.

In case of videos sound clips play independently, although the skin tries to synchronize their start/stop events. Here’s an example of such a video enhanced with a sound clip.

In order to check out this sound clip you’ll have to start from the index page; go down the page bottom, and click the “expand” button on the video’s top right corner!

Many users ask why videos (or the background audio) won’t auto-start in their albums. The bad news is, this is by design. Browser makers started to block video auto-start (with sound) in 2019, in order to silence obstrusive ads. This means visitors have to click the “Start/Play” button the first time, even though the gallery author has asked the skin to start videos automatically. Once the visitor has started any video in the album, the next will auto-start, fortunately. The browser maintains the “engagement index” to know which sites the visitor trusts in this regard. You can read more about this “feature” here.

Hiding GPS location

Showing off GPS location publicly might raise security concerns. For instance I wanted to mask my flat’s location in the sample album. Unfortunately, mobile photos do almost always have this GPS data embedded, it’s not enough to trash it through the Edit mode’s Location panel alone. So there is a new setting in Story and Photoblogger skins in the “Image data” panel (above the mentioned Location panel) - called “Hide GPS location”. By using this you can avoid placing the GPS location of a photo on the album’s map.

... and one more thing

We are aware how popular our Chameleon was amongst our users. Unfortunately, Chameleon skin was based on the – since outdated – “table design”, which made the further development practically impossible. Now – due to massive demand :) – I decided to rewrite Chameleon from ground to make it modern and responsive. It’ll take a few months, but hope you’ll appreciate the effort.

Comments are welcome,

Laza