From Facebook and Flickr to Instagram and Dropbox, many sites are vying to be the home for all of your photos and videos. They all have strong and weak points. Flickr stores top-quality images, but it's no longer popular for sharing; Facebook shrinks and compresses photos, though more people will see them.
Google hopes to provide the best qualities of all of these sites by introducing the new Google Photos, a cloud repository that backs up and syncs images across devices. The service uses Google's image-analysis technology to organize photos and videos, making them easier to search, share and even edit. Google Photos provides unlimited storage for free, and offers paid options for people who want to store higher-quality versions of their media.
Here's how to get up and running with Google Photos.
Step 1: Install the Photos app on your devices
Google provides free mobile versions of its Photos service for Android and iOS devices; there's also a Web-based version of Google Photos for uploading photos from PCs and Macs. But instead of downloading full copies of your photos from other devices, the apps simply provide online previews of what you've stored in Google's cloud. As a result, your smartphone's 16GB of storage won't be swamped if you have thousands of photos and videos on your home PC. You can find the apps for computers on the Google Photos site and the apps for smartphones in the Apple App Store and Google Play store.The first thing I noticed after downloading the Google Photos app was how many garbage images I had on my iPhone 5, including failed shots like a close-up of my finger and reminder snaps I'd take of a sign or a box. At least using Google Photos gave me an opportunity to weed out the junk, which I could do either in the mobile app or in the Web interface on my computer. In the app, simply hold your finger on the photo for about a second until a blue bar appears at the top of the screen, displaying, among other things, a trash can button you press to delete an image. In the Web version, click on a photo to bring it up in a new window, and click on the trash-can icon displayed on the upper right.
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To prevent photo and video uploads from blowing through your mobile data cap, you can set the app to upload only over Wi-Fi. Press the menu icon (three parallel lines) on the upper left of the app, select Settings and select Back Up & Sync. Make sure the two switches at the bottom of the screen, "Photos back up using cellular data" and "Videos back up using cellular data," are turned off.
Step 2: Select the quality level for uploads
Google Photos is free — if you agree to let it store compressed copies of your photos. If the pictures are larger than 16 megapixels, Google Photos will downsize them to that size. (The originals on your computer or mobile are not altered.) Videos are capped at 1080p resolution. You can save unaltered originals, including RAW image files, using the Original setting in the app, and store them in your Google Drive account, which includes 15GB of free storage. (That storage is shared among all Google services, such as your Gmail or Google Docs account.) If you need more space for your unaltered originals, you can upgrade to 100GB for $1.99 per month or 1TB for $9.99 per month.
This is far from the cheapest way to store originals. Flickr, for example, provides 1 terabyte of storage for free, with ads, or unlimited, ad-free storage for $25 per year.
Unless you're extremely fussy, the free option is fine. I uploaded copies of the same photo of my boss Mark, shot with a pro-grade Canon 5D Mark II DSLR, using both the High Quality and Original settings. No one in our office — including the photographer who took the photo — saw a clear difference. (I cropped the original 21.1-MP photo to get it to less than 16 MP, so I could make a straight comparison between the two versions.)
That's especially impressive because the unaltered JPEG version was 4.5MB, whereas the other JPEG was just 0.85MB. You can see for yourself by clicking on the two images below to see cropped portions at 100 percent.
With many new cameras shooting 20-MP and larger images, you may lose some resolution with the free option, but even a 16-MP image is larger than you can display at full size online and big enough for at least a 12 x 14-inch print.
Step 3: Navigate your images
By default, Google Photos organizes images and videos by date, showing the year and then the months within each year, in a central panel of the app called Library. On the mobile app, you can spread your fingers over the screen to zoom in and view the photos by month, then day and then individual photos. Then, you can pinch to zoom back out.
Tapping the magnifying-glass icon in the mobile app or clicking in the search bar online brings up a new view, organized by People, Places and Things. The first category uses face-recognition technology to group photos of the same person. This is a common feature in most photo-organizing apps, as is organizing photos by place, if they were taken on a smartphone or GPS-enabled camera that records location data.
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In Things, Google uses its image-search technology to identify the subject of the photo. My initial batch of test photos yielded the Things collections Flower, Food, Cars and Sky. Food worked perfectly — showing snaps of sushi, pizza, a supermarket cart and even an ad for hummus and a packet of hot-chocolate mix. The Flowers collection was nearly perfect, though some fruit made its way into the collection. The Cars category was pretty funny, featuring one shot of a bumper sticker and two of a motorcycle, but it included mostly photos of menu screens on a few cameras I had been reviewing.
The Things feature is similar to Flickr's Magic View, which organizes images on a very granular level, such as animal: cat, animal: dog, architecture: bridge, and architecture: door.
Step 4: Edit your pictures
Google Photos offers a basic assortment of editing tools. You might start with Crop and Rotate to trim the photo and tilt it if the shot was crooked.
Basic Adjustments includes tools for Light (brightness), Color (spelled "Colour" in the Web version), Pop (which adds more contrast) and Vignette (which darkens the edges of the photo). There's also an Auto button that applied changes very similar to the ones I made when manually tweaking the photo. Google says these editing tools adapt to the content of an image. For example, the color slider would add more blue to a photo of the ocean than to a portrait.
Finally, there are the obligatory Colour Filters — 14 effects named for planets, moons and other heavenly bodies. Mars, for example, pumps up the reds and the contrast, and Pluto is a black-and-white effect. I particularly liked the faded-color-photo look of Ceres. Each filter has a slider that lets you adjust the intensity of the effect.
You can save a copy with your effects, and you always have the Revert to Original option to undo all changes.
Step 5: Use the "Assistant" to create collages, animations and stylized photos
Swiping left in the app (or clicking the star-in-a-box icon to the left in the Web version) brings up the Assistant, which auto-generates various projects, including Stylized Photos (with editing effects applied), Collages and Animations. Collages are made up of similar photos, like different shots of a friend at the same place. Animations combine several similar photos into a kind of stop-motion video. All these creations appear in Cards, which you can swipe right to reject. If you like an item, tap Save To Library at the bottom of the card, which places it alongside the photos from which it was created in the Library view.
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The animations can be a bit creepy, but also funny. For example, they might show the changing facial expressions of someone you took several photos of. You can save these creations as animated GIFs for easy online posting.
Step 6: Create albums, movies and stories
But wait, there's more! Google Photos also creates three kinds of Collections, which you get to by swiping left from the main Library page in the mobile app or by clicking the third-from-the-top icon to the left in the Web interface. Albums are what they sound like: collections of similar photos, typically taken at the same time and place. Google suggests names, which can be funny: Pictures of my niece and nephew on the beach in L.A. got the title "Al Fresco Happy Hour." Fortunately, you can edit the title or select photos to delete. To add any photo, tap on it in Library view, and select the three-dot icon on the top right of the screen.
Stories are like fancy albums: Google Photos does a "Ken Burns effect" of panning around and zooming in or out of the cover image. From there, you can swipe left to scroll through additional photos organized by time and/or place. The service looks for patterns, such as the same people in the same place, to figure out what an event is and how long the event lasted.
Movies may be the most useful of the Collections. It takes clips shot around the same time and place, and combines them into short films, with music. Here's what Google Photos created out of video clips from my coverage of a 3D-printing conference.
Step 7: Share your stuff
Sharing is a big part of Google Photos. By default, all of your photos and videos (and anything you create using them) are private. You can share a single photo or video by tapping on it and selecting the upload icon on the lower left of the screen. On iOS devices, the icon is a box with an arrow coming out of it, and on an Android devices, it's a "<" icon. (Sharing Albums, Animations and other creations works similarly.)
The Share button brings up the standard options for your iOS or Android phone, such as email, Facebook, Twitter or text message. These share options depend, in part, on which apps you have installed on your phone. You can also click the Get Link button to generate a unique URL for your selections that you can paste into an email, text or other message. That URL isn't tied to the person you send it to; anyone with the URL can view the photos associated with it. You can, however, revoke a URL to cut off views at any time.
You can also select multiple pictures by pressing down on one of them for a few seconds until a circle appears in the upper left of each image. You can tap photos one by one to select them, or just drag your finger across a whole bunch to get them all at once.
Conclusion: A good start
Google Photos is a rich service already. It's very efficient for uploading, storing and syncing your photos and videos. The automated tools, such as Animations or the Things search, are generally pretty rough, but they may get better the more Google learns — i.e., the more people upload.
If you are a professional or even amateur photographer, the heavy compression of images (despite how good they look) will likely be a deal breaker. You are better off with a site such as Flickr that stores full-quality versions for a lot less money. But even then, there's no harm in using Google Photos as a second repository for easily sharing samples of your images.
You aren't giving up any rights to your creations, and Google (at least for now) has no plans to "monetize" the content. Google spokesman Evan Barbour told me by email, "Google Photos will not use images or videos uploaded onto Google Photos commercially for any promotional purposes, unless we ask for the user's explicit permission."
And if your main desire is to quickly share snapshots from your trove of cellphone pics, Google Photos is a very handy tool.
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