Flickr pulled a Gmail last week, relaunching with a boundary-shattering 1 terabyte of online storage for your photos. That makes Flickr the cheapest and largest option for storing all your digital photos, by far, and arguably the most photo-centric. But is Flickr actually good at backing up and organizing your photos, without asking you to lose an entire weekend to clicking, scrolling, and dragging?
The big tech firms know how many photos we're all taking, and they all want to be the attic where we store those images. Some make it rather easy to do this; some even want to help with the sorting. Here's a primer on what kind of experience you can have.
Note: If you don't have time to think about what kind of photo backup "type" you are, here's what I recommend--Android users should back up their raw photo stream to Google+, while iPhone owners should get Dropbox and enable Camera Upload. And everyone should occasionally make full backups onto an external drive somewhere in their home. Flickr's terabyte is nice and huge, but you have to be the one to get everything up there, and you and your hard drive are just too fallible. Right?
Flickr has always been a photo-forward space, one with a lot of respect for professional and semi-pro shooters and the details they sweat. But Flickr doesn't make its own phone, laptop, tablet, or other device, so the onus is on you to move your photos over to them.
On the surface, that looks like heading to Flickr's site and spending a lot of time picking files in a browser. But there are quite a few apps for uploading from various devices. Still, you have to get your photos over to Flickr, and depending on your bandwidth and Yahoo's server loads, that can take some time.
Once your photos are in, you have Flickr's photo organizer to manage them. For the 159 photos I have hand-picked and sent to Flickr, the organizer works just fine. If you have hundreds upon hundreds of photos, and they're roughly organized into events, you can do some sorting, searching, and set-making to get your stuff together. But you're still the one naming the folders, setting them into the online filing cabinet, and deciding which photos are worth saving, and which are just extras.
And yet: One terabyte gives you a lot of space, away from your house and your tech mistakes, for full-size, original-resolution photos, which is the most future-proof means of backing up your photos. Future-proof, that is, depending on Yahoo's long-term prospects, but they are more than likely to give everyone a chance to grab their stuff back if the worst comes to pass.
Google now offers 15 GB of space for full-size photos uploaded to Google+ (shared with your Gmail and Google Drive space. That's the middle range in free offerings (although photos under a certain size don't count against your space), though the tiers for upgrading are fairly reasonable.
How do you get your photos into Google? A few ways, most fairly automated. If you have an Android phone, you can activate "Auto Backup" (formerly dubbed "Instant Upload") in the Google+ app. You can also tap a button to upload everything on your phone, which is convenient, and choose whether you're uploading full-size or otherwise. On the desktop, your best bet is to install Picasa on Mac or Windows and use it to find and upload all your photos: on your computer, on external drives and DVDs, or wherever.
As for organizing, Google does some of it for you. Looking at your photos in Google+, they are broken up into broad date and location categories, so that the 50 photos you took at one beach outing are together, as are the slow trickle of personal shots snapped over 5- or 10-day periods. Each photo is auto-enhanced, and the effect is generally positive, especially for low-light and off-color smartphone shots (but you can turn off the auto-enhancement). Perhaps most importantly, all the photos you "Auto Backup" to Google are stored privately by default, and you don't have to use Google+ in any fashion to store, view, or download your images.
In Other Words, Use Google+ For: Auto-organizing huge sets of vacation photos and Android backup convenience.
iCloud gives you 5 gigabytes of storage for all your iCloud things: documents, non-iTunes-purchased music, tiny calendar/contact things, and photos. It's $20 per year for another 10 GB, and up to $100 pear year for 50 GB. That's not bad pricing, but what really sells iCloud is the theoretically seamless synchronization between your MacBook, your iPad, your iPhone, your Apple TV. Shoot a photo on your phone, and it's visible in the Photo Stream on all your devices, and backed up from your Camera Roll. The best tool for organizing all those photos is iPhoto.
If you'd rather separate your photos from Apple's cloud, or save your free 5 GB for your device backups, you can back up your photos to Dropbox. The iPhone and iPad app offers an automatic Camera Upload option that's remarkably simple and easy to use, and it's even polite--it scales itself back when you're getting close to your data limit.
There is not magical photo managing software with iCloud's Photo Stream or Dropbox, nor any helper apps. You manage it yourself, using iPhoto, Picasa, Aperture, or whatever you like best. Then again, there's nothing to say you can't use these as a secondary backup, if they're going to go ahead and just give you the space for free.
In Other Words, Use iCloud/Dropbox For: Sheer peace of mind about photo storage, and easy iPhone backup.
Whatever huge online space you use for free, always keep a local copy--that is, something on an external hard drive at your house. Computers get coffee in them, big companies occasionally close services and kill features, and your memory of where everything is can be faulty. Online and auto-organized photo collections are convenient, but don't pretend your grandchildren will have easy access to your Google account.
In Other Words: Always back up your own stuff at your own house. You will certainly outlast a few of these big data companies.
Use any services or products not named here? Tell us all about them, please.
[Image: Flickr user U.S. Army]