Google, Flickr, Or Dropbox: Who Should You Trust With Your Photos?

Silicon Valley is straight up giving away online space for all your precious pics. But how do you upload your stuff and make it easy to organize? And could an external drive simply be the best option? Answering these and other photo-saving questions that often crop up.

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: The Huge, Stylish, Offsite Gallery Space Where You Haul Things

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.

In Other Words, Use Flickr For: The destination of your keeper photos—after you've sorted them out in iPhoto, Picasa, or other photo-sorting software.

Google+/Picasa: "Our Datacenter Is Your Darkroom"

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 and Dropbox: For Just Simply Backing It All Up (and for Apple Die-Hards)

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.

Your Own Photo Software and Hard Drives: The Mandatory Option You Don't Appreciate Enough

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]

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27 Comments

  • If we compare all these services on cost basis, I guess Flickr is the best place to backup photos, but when it comes to backing up RAW files, it isn't a good option.

    I completely agree with that "Online and auto-organized photo collections are convenient, but don't pretend your grandchildren will have easy access to your Google account." In that case a local copy of your photos & videos is the best way to keep memory safe for your grandchildren.

  • Lisa Viscusi

    I don't think I've ever commented on anything other than a Facebook post, but I had to say thank you. Photo storage and management has been frustrating me for at least two years now and I will occasionally throw myself into trying to figure it out, but never seem to get anywhere. This has helped me tremendously - you are concise, straightforward, and thorough. Thank you so much!!!!!

  • Alex

    Just use Bitcasa, unlimited storage for 10$/month or 100$/year, no restrictions (file size or bandwidth limit, nothing) and you have a seamlessly sync between all your devices! everything from iOS, Windows and Android. Works like a charm. I have the free plan, with 10 GB and I'm thinking on going to the paid plan :) This one is just like you have a external drive connected, literally!
    Flickr it's ok, lots of storage, but with some small knowledge about PC's you can have a trusted backup solution for your beloved photos :D

  • Warcraft Wordpress

    I am kind of surprised this almost never comes up in comparisons but I have to mention iDriveSync . the company has been around for years I believe longer then dropbox and many other sync companies.

    1. They grant you 10GB of space + you can earn more inviting friends etc.
    2. PC installation allows you to sync folders outside the default structured folder.
    3. iphone app allows auto uploads from camera roll like dropbox.
    4. The synced files can be encrypted by your own made up key (free option)
    5. all files including camera roll synced across all devices automatically
    6. sharing images folders or separate files in pretty much all methods.
    7. you can create designated "work folders" where you can invite others to submit images or files.

    Their obvious advantage is for security concerned folks, your own encryption key so nobody not even iDrive company can unlock your files.

  • Nyxeka

    I Think it is also worth noting that Google Drive does not count space for photos whose resolution is smaller than 2048x2048, most if not all of my photos fall below this, therefore Drive offers me more storage potential then Flickr

  • Sleahcim

    How about Everpix? Uploads from all of your sources (phone, desktop, tablet) and after the upload it generates various sizes. Maintains EXIF data. All uploads are private unless you explicity say so. You can provide a url for a photo to share and share on social media. It's free and automagic. [I just signed up last week and love the service]

  • konnaktiv

    We use smugmug. A clearly arranged, easy to use online tool for backing up and/or presenting your pics.

  • keith

    What about Photobucket? I feel it's not as reliable as it was before, but the "bad" is worth mentioning to compare to the "good."

  • John Revay

    I was thinking about / looking at the Amazon Cloud Drive - nice cross platform apps!

  • Duviking

    Hello Kevin?  Not sure how extensive your research could have been---how did you neglect mentioning Shutterfly? FREE, unlimited (no size limits forever) storage has ALWAYS been offered by Shutterfly, so Flickr's 1 TB announcement made me yawn. And I trust Shutterfly with my photos far more than I'll ever trust Google, Facebook or Yahoo! combined

  • Alex

    That sounds great! I wonder if there is no loss in the quality of the files when you download them back to your local drive. Are they recompressed when they are uploaded? can you download them back at their original resolutions, doesn't matter how big it is? Cause it might be a niiiice solution then :D

  • Lisa Whelpley

    I've had terrible results when I try to get things OUT of Snapfish. I switched to Flickr for that reason, then load my photos from Flickr to Snapfish for printing. However, I've grown tired of Snapfish's inability to keep photos in the order I've sorted them in Flickr. It's a jumble when they get to Snapfish. And then, when the prints come in the mail, they are jumbled from THAT jumble. What I'd give for a packet of photo prints to come in the mail and be in chronological order!!

  • 2shoko

    For those who still don't use Copy, I highly recommend you to start! Just like Dropbox only looks better and if you'll click on the link below you'll get 20GB for FREE, that's 4 times more than Dropbox! https://copy.com/?r=OHzuYP

  • Me

    iPhoto is terrible at managing massive quantities of photos, but it's a great checkpoint on the way to Flickr. Few applications can gather all the iPhone shots from your family's devices in one place so seamlessly (photo stream) and allow you to crop, do simple adjustments, and make selects so quickly. And Flickr is already integrated, so it's a couple clicks and they're in the cloud, ready for sharing.

  • robertjberger

    I just did this and as far as I can tell Flickr insists that photos in Photostream, Sets and collection that date order is alway newest First as if I was living Memento. It DOES NOT follow the order of my iPhoto set I upload other than in reverse order of the upload order (newest first). Who tells a story in reverse time order?

    They say they are ONLY a Photo BLOG. The only way to change the order is to manually move them around in the organizer ONE PHOTO AT A TIME.

    All they need to do is have a date order with a toggle of the direction. I don't care about the Photostream they can insist is newest first. But it should be a trivial action to reverse the date or upload order. Looking on the Flicker Forums and help site, people have been asking for a simple toggle of date order since at least 2006!

    If someone knows a way to do this other than via one photo at a time actions, please reply.

  • robertjberger

    Well, I just went to the seemingly brand new beta version of Flickr and the new Organizer and it has all the features and more for batch editing the order of a set!