Photo Storage Services are More Than Just a Backup of Your Photos

I was considering writing a blog post to try and convince you to back up your photos and compare the various online services for backing up photos.  However I quickly realized that would be beating a dead horse.  If you take digital photos, you will irretrievably lose many of your photos in the next 5-10 years if you do not have them backed up, period.  The stats don’t lie and they are against you in whatever is keeping you from taking the short time to set up backup for your photos.

Now that the decision to actually back  them up is made, I want to talk about some of the not so obvious features to look for when choosing a backup solution for your photos.  Keeping in line with the Sepia theme, these are all features that in my opinion will help you enjoy your photos more with minimal or no extra work.

I can buy an external hard drive, hook it up to my computer, and run software to periodically backup my photos.  This doesn’t help me enjoy my photos more though.  There are countless online backup services to store your photos in the cloud, CrashPlan being my choice because it is actually unlimited backup.  This is nice, I get all my photos and other files on my computer backed up.  They even have an iOS app I can go in and access any file backed up there from my computer.  But you know what, I never use the iOS app.  Viewing photos on it is horrible.  What I want out of a photo backup solution is more than just having the safety net of my photos being duplicated and stored in another physical location.  I want a service that helps me enjoy my photos more.  So why do I even use CrashPlan?  I am paranoid and want yet another copy of my photos, and I have tons of other files on my computer to backup (documents, music, videos, etc.)

So how can a service help me enjoy my photos more?  Choose a service that isn’t solely a file backup service, such as ThisLifePictureLife, Facebook, Flickr, Google+, Smugmug, Phootime, or one of many others that exist.

Access from anywhere

My 100,000+ photos don’t fit on my phone, so when I’m out to dinner with friends and want to look at some pictures from our trip a few years ago, I need to be able to find them fast and have a great viewing experience.  Being able to look at any photo I have, any time, any place I want helps dramatically increase the enjoyment of my photos, I’m actually looking at them instead of them staying hidden on a computer somewhere. Every online photo storage service has apps for iOS and Android as well as web sites for viewing on your computer.

Automatic backup from all devices

Speaking of 100,000+ thousand photos not fitting on my phone, 5000 photos won’t even fit on my phone.  I don’t want to delete them! I can’t enjoy them when they are gone.  You need to do something with your photos taken with your phone to free up space so you can take more, and still find and enjoy the ones you took a few months ago.  Buying a phone with more storage capacity is only delaying the inevitable, save yourself $100 on the storage upgrade and invest in a scalable solution for the thousands of photos you are going to take over the years you own your phone.  Thankfully, if you use any of the main photo sites I’ve mentioned, their apps include a feature to automatically upload photos from your phone and your computer to your account with them.  Whichever service you choose, you want a solution that automatically gets photos off your phone and computer (or at least a copy) and stores elsewhere.  Trying to remember to download photos from your phone to a computer or the internet is only a chore, and thankfully one that software has eliminated for you now.

Find fast

One of my earlier posts talked about how to find photos quickly.  For the most part, the described method of organizing your photos works across most photo storage services.  One of the reasons to choose a purpose built photo service though, is for it to be aware of all the rich data embedded in your photos so you can find them more easily.  If you have a location on the photo, can you search your photos by location?  Same with who is tagged in the photo, what the caption is on it, and when the photo was taken.  Your mileage varies here depending on the service you choose.  The services that are primarily social networks, are better suited towards sharing photos you’ve recently taken,  actually finding old photos is a challenge (a future blog post to come on this topic.)  ThisLife and PictureLife for example allow you to much more easily find photos by the most comment attributes of a photo that you care about.  Think about how you find photos, and which services will maximize the use of the data associated with them to help you quickly find your photos.  For those who like a visual search, Facebook, PictureLife, and ThisLife allow you to find your photos by location by looking at a map using their web sites.

ThisLife Map View

ThisLife Map View

 

Automatic Tagging

You may be thinking, I don’t ever tag anyone in my photos, it is too time consuming.  This is where a photo service can really come in handy.  Google and Facebook primarily, have enormous resources for building high quality image recognition algorithms to help figure out who is in your photos, so you can then find them again more easily (and share them.)  Tagging faces is one thing I personally do spend a lot of time on because it is such a great way of finding old photos, perhaps for a birthday, wedding, anniversary, or reunion.  Beyond date/time and location, who is in a photo is the next most important piece of metadata I want on my photos.  One day in the not to distant future, my camera will tell me who it is in the frame before I even take the picture.  I can’t want!  I know this scares the crap out of a lot of people because of privacy concerns, however this blog post is not going to get into that can of worms.

Collage generated by Sepia for a friend's birthday

Collage generated by Sepia for a friend’s birthday

Automatically find the best photos

Back to those 100,000+ photos I have. I really don’t need that many, and for any one set of photos, there are probably ones I don’t need to see because they are blurry, duplicates, or just uninteresting.  A variety of services will now try to automatically use their secret sauce to filter down a set of photos from your trip to Paris with the ones it thinks most represents the set.  Google+ and PictureLife are examples of services that do this.  If you were trigger happy in Paris, and don’t want to do any work before looking at some photos from your trip or to share some with friends, this can be a huge time saver for you.

Create something new, automatically

On the flip side of 100,000+ being too many photos, Google+ just found a clever way to make use of the 30 photos of my kids swinging as I struggled to find the one or two photos that I should share.  AutoAwesome is a feature in Google+ that automatically does a number of different things with your photos such as collages, mini animations, making sure everyone is smiling, and adding snow effects.  While the snow feature is a bust in my opinion, I love the mini animations.  The concept of automatically creating something out of my photos is very powerful.  It opens a door to whole new realm of creative ways I can enjoy my photos without any additional work.  This idea is something which is a key part of Sepia, which will make a collage of photos of you and your friend on their birthday, or a collage of photos of your mother on Mother’s day.

Swinging

Building upon many of these features, Google recently announced Google Stories.  Google+ will automatically choose the best photos from a set and put together an interactive Story the user can share.  If you took some or all of the photos with a camera that does not have GPS in it, Google will try and figure out where the photos were taken.  This is possible because Google has access to enormous amounts of data it has collected from building its mapping features, all the other photos users have uploaded with location information on the, and likely others.  Compare your photos to these others and presto, Google now knows where you took the photo.  How well this works probably depends a lot of variables, but for many situations such as unique landmarks I imagine it could work great. Google Stories makes it even easier to do nothing and enjoy your photos more.

Google Stories

 

Photo Quality

Since nothing else I’ve talked about really matters unless you have a good quality photo to look at, I need to point out a couple things about photo quality.  100% of phones and compact digital cameras these days take photos in the JPG format.  Higher end compact cameras and SLRs also support RAW format.  The bottom line is, you must have a backup of your original and highest quality photos.  Not every service supports backing up RAW photos.  Some services don’t even let you download the exact file you uploaded to them, e.g. Facebook.  When you upload a photo to Facebook, it will resize the photo down to 2048×2048, which is approximately 4.2MP, lower resolution than the 5MP iPhone 4, and half that of the modern day iPhone 5s 8MP camera.  Don’t kill your photos by relying on Facebook as your primary photo backup.  Choose a service that supports RAW files if you have them and supports recovering the exact file you uploaded to the service when the day comes that you lost some photos on your home computer, or your dog ate your phone.

Share with friends and family

Perhaps not so obvious, but finding a service that helps you share your photos with who you want, and engage with those people in the context of your photos is critical to pretty much every person’s overall photo experience.  Using a social network site isn’t required to get these capabilities, but can possibly increase the likelihood of your friends and family looking at and commenting on your photos.  Some sites will make it easy to share on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.  While others are self contained networks on their own, such as Flickr or the new Drobox Carousel application.  Photos are more fun with friends, so make sure you haven’t chosen a service that traps your photos so only you can see, or so that the entire world can see when you didn’t expect.

 

While this may seem like a lot to digest, purpose built photo storage services can offer a lot to help you enjoy your photos more.  Technology is advancing quickly and you can instantly benefit from new features that come out.  Don’t just save your photos from disaster, spend more time looking at them.

Photo Night on the TV

A lot of families have a movie night once a week, typically on Fridays, so everyone can take a break from the busy week.  Our kids love movies, so this is definitely a nice break for us.  They also love looking at photos too, yet we rarely sit down as a family and look at our photos together.  Then one day an simple obvious solution occurred to me.  Before movie night, we will have photo night.  The kids can choose one set of photos from a past trip or event and we will all look at them together.  Aligning photo night with movie night significantly increases the chances that we will actually do photo night as it doesn’t feel like a new activity to schedule into our busy week.  The kids are already going to be sitting on the sofa with eyes glued to the TV.

Viewing photos on your TV is hands down the best experience at home when you have family and maybe friends over as well.  We have a modest 42″ TV in this modern age of TVs that are starting to be measured in feet instead of inches.  So how do we get our photos on the TV?  These days there are a lot of options.  We have an Apple TV and I have an iPhone.  Apple products have a proprietary technology in them called AirPlay.  This allows me to view what is on my iPhone screen on my TV via the Apple TV.   On my iPhone, I have a variety of apps that let me access my photos in the various locations I have them, and then AirPlay them to the TV.

We also have a Roku which I’ve played with a lot.  It has a Picasa Web Albums channel (app) which I was interested in because I store all my photos on Picasa (which is now part of Google+.)  The Picasa app is unfortunately very disappointing.  Looking back through hundreds or  thousands of albums is essentially impossible.  It is just not possible to look at any photos except the most recent ones.  My main other gripe with it is that I can only see my photos.  I can’t look at photos from any of my friends.  So if you want to enjoy your photos from the past, Roku with Picasa Web Albums is not a good solution, especially if you don’t even store your photos on Picasa!  If you want more details on the Picasa experience in Roku, I found this blog post review that is quite comprehensive.

Another option, one I have not yet tried because our current Apple TV solution is sufficient, is Google Chromecast.  This is a simple and inexpensive ($35) device that plugs into your TV via HDMI and allows you to stream content to your TV from other devices such as your Android phone or even iPhone, much like you can do with Apple AirPlay.  What is nice about Chromecast and AirPlay, is that they are platforms that work with the phones nearly everyone has in their pocket.  Armies of software developers are working on building applications to leverage their streaming capabilities.  This means that regardless of where you store your photos, or which phone you have, there is a good chance Chromcast or AppleTV will be an easy solution for you to view your photos on your TV.

If you have an XBox, and IF you store your photos on OneDrive, you can view your photos on the TV as well.

These devices are by no means the only solutions out there to view your photos on the TV.  There are countless other devices out there that plug into your TV, or even apps built into your TV, that allow you to view your photos on the TV.  What is most attractive to me about Chromecast and Apple TV is that they are both inexpensive devices and offer numerous ways for me to view my photos independent of where I have them stored.  Chances are one of these devices will work for you, and offer the most flexible experience going forward should you move your photos to another location or service.

Using some modern high tech devices, photo night can be a fun low tech way for you and your family to take a break and enjoy your photos again.

A new way of finding photos for throwback Thursday, Sepia

A few blog posts ago I talked about the Facebook page for viewing your relationship with a friend.  While that is a fun pivot and experience to look at old photos, it takes some initiative to decide you want to go there.  You probably aren’t going to do it unless you have a very specific reason to go there, beyond just wanting to feel nostalgic about the past.   For pretty much every photo solution out there, it requires you to take the initiative to search for what you to look for.

I love looking at my photos from the past.  I actually don’t even care which photos I see, so long as there are photos I care about.  As simple as it sounds, making a decision to spend some time to look at photos, figure out where they are stored, and search to find some photos requires too much brainpower and time.  That probably makes me sound lazy, but with 2 young kids, time is precious.  Spending even a couple minutes to find some photos to look at for just a minute or so, is a horrible ratio of work/enjoyment.   I want work to be 0, and enjoyment to be off the charts because I just spent a minute looking at a couple photos from the camping trip we did a few years ago, or the dinner we had with friends.  Throwback Thursday (TBT), which I blogged about a few weeks ago, is becoming increasingly popular.  For good reason too!  It is fun to look at old photos.  But again, finding these photos is a bit of a time consuming process.

Being a developer, I’ve though a lot about what could be built to help bring this work/enjoyment ratio to what I want it to be.  Over a decade ago my friend Tom and I built a photo web site we used for our photos and our friends photos.

autopictures

This is pre-Flickr days and pretty much every other photo web site that we know of today.  Perhaps we should have quit our day jobs and built a business out of our site given how much our friends and family loved it, but that is a whole different story.  One of the best features of our photo site, was receiving an email every day you or your friends had photos from that day in past years.  I get a great set of photos sent to me, and all I have to do is enjoy them, perfect!  Quite often, there would be a fun dialog back and forth with friends about the good times we had together.

Tom and I shut down our web site a number of years ago because our time was needed elsewhere.  Fast forward to today, I’ve been back on the hunt to solve this problem.  With a very different landscape from the early 2000s, the most natural place it seemed to start was with Facebook.  It is perhaps the largest, if not the largest photo repository on the internet.  There are enormous amounts of metadata associated with photos to aid in finding photos.  Facebook knows who your friends are, who your close friends are, and who your family members are.  The possibilities for the ways I could use this information to build great experiences for people to enjoy photos makes my mind run wild.  So I got to work on building Sepia. Essentially, Sepia is currently a modern version of the emails the photo site Tom and I made.  Sepia leverages all the great data to send you a selection of photos from you and your friends on this day in history.  You can share the photos with friends and reminisce about the past.  Sepia isn’t along in trying to help people enjoy their photos. The once very promising startup Everpix introduced flashback emails, one of their most popular features.

Sepia isn’t only aware of this day in history.  You know how Facebook asks you to wish your friends a happy birthday and to send them a gift?  Sepia will find all the photos of the times you and your friend spent together and send you a personalized collage on their birthday.

I’ve been working on Sepia for quite a few months now, getting feedback from early users.  While it is still in its early stages (beta), I want many more people to be able to enjoy what I’ve built.  So I’ve decided to open up Sepia for anyone to sign up.  Just go to www.sepialife.com to sign up.  After that, tell your friends.  Since Sepia is still in beta, I’m working hard and fast to improve it.  There may be glitches, but I’ll fix them fast.  If you have feedback good or bad, please send it to me.

As one of my friends put it, “These daily photo flashbacks make me so happy!”

The pace of life only seems to be getting faster and faster.  These moments of taking a step back and reflecting on the past are becoming more and more meaningful to me.  Give Sepia a try, and love your photos again for throwback thursday, or any day