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 ThisLife, PictureLife, 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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.