Building Your Own Digital Photo Frame

by Marc Rochkind; Updated 8-July-2016

(For information on SmugMugBrowser, scroll down.)

If you have a lot of images you want to display and don't want to print them, or don't have enough wall space to show the prints you do have, a digital photo frame might be the way to go. If you assemble one yourself, the cost is surprisingly low and the results are excellent.

There are lots of digital photo frame devices available at 15 inches and under, for not much money. For example, there's a NIX 15-inch photo frame that Amazon sells for $140. But that's only the size of a 9x12 print, which is probably much smaller than a print you'd hang on your wall.

What if you want something larger, say, the size that you usually print photos? Then the choices get slimmer, and prices go way up. One vendor (Google "big digital photo frame" to find it) sells photo frames starting at 22 inches and going all the way to 42 inches, with or without WiFi. (I haven't seen any of them.) Prices range from $400 for a 22-inch frame to $1400 for a 42-inch frame, and WiFi is about $160 more. Interestingly, they implement their WiFi feature by including Apple TV, which costs $100 from Apple.

Looking at this vendor's lineup gave me an idea: Why not just connect a media player to an inexpensive computer monitor? I was happy to discover that this works very well and it's a lot cheaper. For example, I ordered a 24-inch monitor from Amazon for $180, which, including the media player, a wall-mounting bracket, and an HDMI cable, brings the price to about $280. The vendor wants $598 for a 24-inch frame with Apple TV, more than twice as much. It's possible, of course, that the vendor's monitor is of higher quality, but I have no way to test that. It doesn't have more pixels, however; both are 1920x1080, which corresponds to 1080p HDTV.

In the next few paragraphs I'll go into the various choices you can make if you want to assemble your own inexpensive large photo frame.

Choosing the Media Player

In this article, I'm going to completely ignore video, web browsing, and every other feature that a photo frame doesn't use. I'm only interested in a slideshow of still photos. I tested two media players: Apple TV (ATV) and Western Digital WD TV Live (WDTV).

ATV is easy to set up, but it does have some limitations when used for running a photo frame:

WDTV has these advantages over ATV:

There are two WDTV apps for showing photos from Picasa: Services and Photos. With Services (Flickr is also supported), photos don't show full-screen. With Photos, you can't select the album; all the photos show, in all albums. These limitations made an online service unusable for me; it was unsuitable on ATV because I didn't want my photos to be public.

I decided to go with WDTV with the photos on a USB stick, set up to autoplay. I like it that my photo frame is independent of internet access and my computer, and that it restarts itself when powered up. I also wanted a slide interval longer than 20 seconds.

WDTV draws three times the power of ATV: 6 watts vs. 2 watts. However, 6 watts running continuously costs only about 30 cents a month in my area. If you use a timer (my monitor draws about 26 watts), you can put WDTV on the timer, since it will automatically restart the slideshow.

WDTV can also allegedly access photos on a networked computer, but I was unable to get this to work with either a Mac or a Windows PC. (I have about 25 years of experience with networking and a degree in Computer Science, so if I couldn't do it, you might not be able to do it, either.)

There are other media player choices, some even cheaper than the $90 I paid for WDTV, but I didn't test any of them. Reminder: As I said at the beginning, my choice of a media player here is based only on how well suited it is to showing photos.

Choosing the Monitor

No media player supports anything greater than 1920x1080, so there's no point in getting a monitor with more pixels than that. Besides, digital frames are typically viewed from fairly far away, so more pixels wouldn't make a noticeable difference. If you size your photos so the width is less than or equal to 1920 and the height is less than or equal to 1080, and the monitor is exactly 1920x1080, you'll have perfect pixel alignment, which results in an extremely sharp image.

The monitor has to have a DVI or HDMI port, which most new monitors do. If the monitor has only DVI, you can either buy an adapter for a few dollars or get a cable with HDMI on one end and DVI on the other. Many monitors have a standard VESA mounting, which allows you to mount the monitor to the wall using a wide variety of mounts. I used a simple flat mount that cost $10.

Other than these criteria, you might want a high-quality monitor, but it's almost impossible to find any comparative information that would help you decide. Getting a monitor good enough for critical computer work seems to me to be a waste of money for a digital photo frame and defeats the purpose of trying to assemble an inexpensive one.

Given the above, you still have a choice of physical size. You can go all the way up to 50 inches or more. More realistically, probably under 40 inches makes more sense for a digital photo frame. (A 20x35 print has a 40-inch diagonal.) A quick check of prices on the web shows several 42-inch monitors for around $800. I found a 32-inch monitor for $580.

If you've shopped for a large monitor, you might be scratching your head at these prices. For photographic work, as the screen size gets bigger, you want more pixels, so, for example, a 30-inch NEC monitor for photographic work costs about $2300 and has 2560x1600 pixels. That's overkill for a photo frame, which can't use more than 1920x1080. On the other hand, a 30-inch monitor that's only 1920x1080 would make a terrible choice for computer work, although it's ideal for a digital photo frame.

As you can see from the photo, there are annoying reflections from my monitor's shiny bezel, but all the monitors I looked at have shiny bezels. I've thought of building a wood frame to go around it, and might do that someday.

Installing the Monitor

Computer monitors all come with stands, but you'll probably want to remove the stand and mount the monitor on the wall, like a print. Make sure your monitor is VESA compatible, so you can attach it with an inexpensive VESA mount. I used a flat mount that puts it close to the wall ($10), but there are also swivel mounts and swing-arm mounts you can get.

My biggest problem wasn't the mount itself, but the cable attachment. You'll have two cables: HDMI (or DVI) and power. My monitor has sockets pointing horizontally out from the back, which meant that the cables stick out the back. This prevented me from sliding the monitor into the mount. (A swing-arm mount wouldn't have this problem.) I eventually solved the problem by hanging the mount from two screws in such a way that I could pivot it out to attach the cables.

A better choice, if you can find it, is to get a monitor that has the sockets pointed down, which means that the cables point down. You still want to be able to wrap them so that they're hidden behind the monitor.

Don't buy a high-end HDMI cable, as it will be too thick to allow you to easily hide it behind the monitor. A cheaper cable (mine was $5) is the right choice.

You can easily tuck the media player behind the monitor. If the electrical outlets are behind the monitor as well (I was lucky), all the cables are hidden and all you see is the monitor, as in the photo.

Preparing the Photos

While media players can show most any JPEG, I always export the ones I want in the slideshow explicitly from Lightroom with an export preset. I resize them to match the screen, so they're either 1920 pixels wide or 1080 pixels high or both. If the image isn't big enough to fill either dimension, I leave it alone. It makes more sense to do the reduction in Lightroom (or whatever application you use) than it does to send a big file to the media player and have the reduction made there. (1920x1080 isn't much for a modern camera—even my iPhone takes 3264x2448.)

File names and EXIF data don't matter, as you won't see them on the screen anyway.

Calibration and Colorspace

No media players provide for monitor calibration, and low-priced monitors don't have built-in calibration, so you'll have to adjust the color settings manually to what you think looks best. You could attach the monitor to your computer and calibrate it, but the resulting settings won't work if the monitor is used standalone, because they're stored on the computer and used by the computer's display system, which works only when the monitor is attached to the computer.

As for colorspace, you might as well use sRGB, just as you would for the web, and for the same reason: The media player probably doesn't do any color management and the inexpensive display probably can't handle a wider gamut.

Synchronization

When you update the slideshow, whether on an online service, on your computer, or on a USB device on the media player, you have to get the media player to recognize the changes.

Here's how to do this with ATV:

If your photos are on Flickr, after updating the set you have to use the ATV remote to leave the Flickr app and go back to it, forcing it to check the website again.

If the photos are on your computer in a folder, you have to choose the "Choose Photos to Share" menu item on the "Advanced" menu in iTunes to force ATV to refresh itself. Once the choosing dialog box comes up, you can dismiss it; you don't have to make any changes, unless you want to change the folder itself. Then you just have to stop and restart the slideshow with the ATV remote, which takes only two clicks.

If the photos are in an iPhoto album (this may be true of Aperture as well), I'm not sure what it takes to get the photos synchronized with ATV. In one experiment, I had to quit iPhoto before it updated its database, but then ATV got the message as soon as I brought iTunes to the front. But I'm not sure this behavior was consistent. Inasmuch as I don't use iPhoto or Aperture, I can't say exactly what it takes, so you'll have to figure things out for yourself.

With WDTV, I didn't experiment much with Picasa, since it's unsuitable for a photo frame, for the reasons I listed earlier. With the photos on a USB stick, I saw WDTV synchronize itself one time, but on subsequent revisions it didn't. So, my recommendation is that you use the remote to stop the slideshow and restart it, or, if you have autoplay set up, just power down and reboot the device.

Conclusion

There are a lot of choices, but here's the combination I used to get a 24-inch digital photo frame of very high quality for $280:

SmugMugBrowser

In July 2016 I came up with a better way to run a slideshow: Off of the web with SmugMug. I replaced the WD TV Live with an ASUS Chromebit, and then installed the Chrome App SmugMugBrowser. I can show any gallery on SmugMug, so I'm no longer limited to what's on a USB stick. In SmugMugBrowser, once you navigate to a gallery you click the Slidshow button at the upper left of the window, and that starts a full-screen slideshow. The interval of about 10 seconds is fixed, as is the transition. (And there's no music.)

You end a slideshow by clicking anywhere on the screen. (Typing escape or any other key doesn't work.)

I like to control the order of photos in a gallery by preceding the caption with a sequence number, like this:

023 - Hiking to Cub Lake

When showing a slideshow, SmugMugBrowser omits a leading 2-to-10 digit sequence number, followed by an optional space, followed by a colon or hypen, followed by optional spaces. So, in the above example, all that would show would be "Hiking to Cub Lake".


©2012, 2016 Marc J. Rochkind. All rights reserved.