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Google Photos: How to back up photos from your phone, tablet or computer

back up photos
(Image credit: Google)

While it’s easy to rack up thousands of photos between your smartphone and digital camera, it’s hard to imagine losing a single one. Every photo represents a memory that can’t easily be replaced or recreated. So, it’s important to make sure that every image you capture is safe, no matter what happens to your devices.

For that, there’s no better option than backing up your photos with cloud storage. Whereas a physical hard drive can fail or become corrupted by malware, cloud storage servers are incredibly well maintained and kept safe from malicious attackers. Cloud storage is also cheap and scalable—most services allow you to upgrade instantly if you need more storage space. Best of all, when your photos are stored in the cloud, you can access them from any device anytime you want to look back on your memories.

Google Photos is one of the best cloud photo backup services you can use to safeguard your photos. It comes preloaded onto most Google and Android devices, but you can also use it from any other type of device. Have an iPhone or a Windows computer? You can easily install Google Photos and use the cloud service just like you would on a Google device. Plus, Google Photos includes a range of features for organizing your photos so that you can easily find a specific image when you want it.

To help you get started with Google Photos, we’ll walk you through the process for uploading images to the service from your smartphone, tablet, and computer. Plus, we’ll explain how to make a backup of your Google Photos library—you can never have too many backups, just in case—and how to sort your images within Google’s cloud for easy retrieval later. 

Google Photos: Storage options and upload limits

Before you start backing up your images to Google Photos, it’s important to understand the difference between High quality and Original quality backups.

When you select a High quality backup, Google will compress your images slightly before transferring them to Google Photos. If you’re uploading photos from a smartphone, you likely won’t notice any drop in image quality when choosing the High quality setting. Google’s compression is very efficient, especially for JPG image files.

The advantage of choosing this option for uploads is that High quality backups are completely free. They don’t count towards the 15 GB of free cloud storage that you get with your Google account, so you can store as many images as you want. Note that Google Photos also accepts videos. High quality uploads are stored in 1080p, which is already the maximum resolution at which many video cameras are capable of recording.

If you’re shooting with a DSLR or thinking about printing your photos, though, you might not want any compression at all. In that case, you can select Original quality for your transfer to Google Photos. This will send the original, full-size image file to the cloud. Keep in mind that you can back up RAW image files from a DSLR camera using this option, but check Google’s support documentation to see what types of RAW files are supported.

Importantly, Original quality photos and videos do count against your storage limitations. If you need more than 15 GB, you can get more Google Cloud storage by signing up for a Google One subscription. Plans start at $1.99 per month for 100 GB and you’ll find options ranging up to 30 TB. A 2 TB plan, which is more than enough for most budding photographers, costs $9.99 per month. 

back up photos

Pricing for Google One (Image credit: Google)

Google Photos: How to back up photos from a phone or tablet 

Uploading images from an iOS or Android smartphone or tablet to Google Photos is incredibly easy. To get started, just download the Google Photos app from Google Play or the Apple App Store. Once it’s installed on your device, log in to the app with your Google account.

When you first sign in, you can decide whether to back up Original or High quality images as well as whether to enable uploads when your device isn’t connected to Wi-Fi. We recommend only allowing uploads on WiFi, since uploading even High quality photos can quickly chew through your mobile data plan.

If you want to edit all of the available settings, open the menu and select Settings. The most notable option here is Backup and Sync. If you enable this option, your device’s camera roll will automatically be backed up to Google Cloud (when connected to Wi-Fi, unless you chose otherwise).

back up photos

Use the Google Photos apps for iOS and Android to upload photos from mobile devices. (Image credit: Google)

Notably, Android devices have a few additional options since this operating system is built by Google. On Android, you can select specific image folders on your smartphone or tablet that you want to backup. This is especially useful if you only want to sync your camera roll and not, say, screenshots.

One of the best things about Google Photos is that you can use it to help free up space on your device. In Settings, select Manage device storage. The Free up space option will automatically delete any photos from your device that Google Photos has already backed up to the cloud. Don’t worry—you can still see your photos on your device using the Google Photos app.

Google Photos: How to back up to photos from a PC or Mac

Google Photos also enables you to store photos from your desktop or an external hard drive. The easiest way to do this for one-time transfers is to use the Google Photos browser interface at photos.google.com. Sign into your Google account, select Upload, and then choose what photos you want to copy to the cloud. 

back up photos

To upload photos, click the Upload button in the upper right-hand corner. (Image credit: Google)

If you want automatic backups to ensure that all photos on your computer are synced to the cloud, you’ll need Google’s Backup & Sync desktop app. Install the software and then select which folders you want to sync to Google Cloud. If you want to upload files from an external hard drive or SD card, that drive will need to be connected to your computer to select it for backup within the app.

The Backup & Sync app isn’t limited to uploading photos, but any image and video files will automatically be sent to Google Photos. Going forward, the Backup & Sync app will run in the background and initiate uploads anytime you add new files to your synced folders.

Google Photos: How to upload photos from Google Drive 

Until mid-2019, there was no distinction between Google Photos and Google Drive. If you uploaded photos to one service, they were automatically copied over to the other. However, that joint management system has been modified to prevent users from accidentally deleting photos from the cloud.

Now, photos that are uploaded to Drive won’t automatically show up in Google Photos and vice versa. If you want to copy images from Drive over to Photos, you’ll need to do it manually.

In the Google Photos web interface, find the Upload button in the upper right corner and select Upload from Google Drive. You can then choose which images you would like to copy from Google Drive to Google Photos and decide whether to upload them in Original or High quality. Since the photos are already in Google Cloud, the transfer is nearly instantaneous.

back up photos

Upload photos from Google Drive to Google Photos (Image credit: Google)

Once your images are copied over to Google Photos, you do have the option of deleting them in Drive to help free up storage space in your Google account. Note that this is true even for images that were uploaded prior to 2019—when Google separated Drive and Photos, it applied the management change to all images in your cloud account. Of course, it’s a good idea to double check that images are sitting safely in Google Photos before you delete copies from Drive. 

Google Photos: How to back up analogue prints 

If you have reams of old 4x6 prints sitting around your house, Google can help you digitize and then back them up with Google Photos. Download the Google PhotoScan app for iOS or Android to start scanning your photos one by one. 

back up photos

Upload prints to Google Photos using the PhotoScan app (Image credit: Google)

The nifty thing about the PhotoScan app is that it can eliminate the bright spots that normally appear when you try to take a photo of a glossy print. The app requests four scans of each photo from different angles, then stitches those scans together to give you a perfectly digitized rendering. Every photo you scan will be automatically uploaded to Google Photos for storage.

Of course, you can also use another photo scanning app or physical scanner to digitize your photos. If you go this route, you can upload your images to Google Photos from your smartphone or computer as described above.

Google Photos: How to manage and organise your photos 

After uploading images from all your devices and some of your old glossy prints to Google Photos, you likely now have a small mountain of images to sort through in the cloud. Thankfully, Google Photos offers plenty of options for organizing your photos.

The simplest thing you can do to sort your photos stored in the cloud is to create albums. Google makes it easy to select any number of images and group them into a new album or add them to an existing album. Navigate to the Albums section of the mobile app or web interface to create a new photo album, then select which images you want to add to it with just a tap or click.

It’s worth noting that you can’t create albums inside of albums, so think carefully about a naming scheme that will help you stay organized. You also can’t tag photos, although you can add individual descriptions. Any text in these descriptions is searched when you enter terms in the Google Photos search bar.

Once you have a photo album set up, you can easily share it with anyone. If your friends and family members have Google accounts, they can comment on your photos. You can also invite them to add their own images to an album, which is a great option for sharing everyone’s images from a big trip or event. Photos that others add to an album you shared don’t count against your cloud storage limits unless you save copies of those images to your Google Photos account.

Of course, this is a Google platform, so it involves some magic in the form of machine learning. Google’s algorithm automatically scans every image you upload to Google Photos and detects faces and objects (for better or worse, you give up some privacy when you use Google’s services). It won’t automatically connect a name to a face, even if the person has a Google account, but you can tag a person and Google Photos will do the legwork of applying that tag across all images where the same person appears. Then, if you search for a friend’s name or a specific object, Google Photos will automatically turn up all photos with that person or thing in them.

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Google automatically categorizes your photos (Image credit: Google)

Google will also use its machine learning capabilities to help categorize your images into albums. Your photo library is automatically sorted into People & Pets, Things, and Places, and then subsorted into hundreds of categories like Mountains, Cooking, Dogs, Boats, and more. It’s uncanny how good Google is at doing this, and it can be pretty neat to explore these categories since they bring together photos from different times in your life. You can also improve Google’s image categorization by giving feedback on whether your images were identified correctly. 

Google Photos: How to edit your photos 

One of the only major features that Google Photos is missing is a capable image editor. Whether using the Google Photos app or the browser interface, you can only make basic touch-ups and crops.

Within Google Photos, open any image and click or tap the sliders icon. You’ll see a few options for adjusting the lighting, color, and pop of your image, as well as a simple pen tool for marking up images. You can also choose to apply any of around a dozen filters or use the Auto function to have Google automatically adjust your image for you. These options are far from comprehensive, but they’re good for making quick improvements to your images on the go.

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Google Photos includes filters to stylize your photos. (Image credit: Google)

Another thing Google Photos includes is the For you tab, where you’ll find already edited and stylized versions of some of your recent photos. If you like the edits that Google’s algorithm made, you can keep the changes or even order prints right from Google Photos. 

How to back up your Google Photos library to a hard drive 

Google Photos is a highly secure option for storing your photos in the cloud. But with files that are impossible to replace, it’s a good idea to keep at least two complete backups of your photo library. Google Photos serves as one of these backups, and creating a hard copy of your Google Photos library on a physical hard drive can serve as another.

Before we dive into how to create a backup of your Google Photos library, it’s important to understand one major catch: there’s no simple way to keep your physical backup automatically synced with your Google Photos library. That means it’s important to occasionally add all the photos you’ve uploaded to Google Photos since your last backup to your physical drive.

To download some or all of the images in your Google Photos library, you’ll need to use Google Takeout. You can access this directly or navigate within Google Photos to Settings > Manage your data and personalization > Download your data. Click Deselect all (unless you want to back up other data from your Google Cloud account, not just photos) and then select Google Photos.

back up photos

Use Google Takeout to export your photo library. (Image credit: Google)

This will automatically export your entire photo library. But, if you only need to back up a subset of your library, uncheck the All Photo Albums Included box and then deselect any albums you don’t want to download.

Before your download begins, you’ll need to decide on a couple options. You can send your photos directly to another cloud service or get a download link by email. You can also modify the compression settings and choose the maximum size for each download. If your library is larger than the maximum size you select, you will receive multiple download links.

Note that Google also lets you schedule automatic, recurring data exports. But, if you choose this option, you won’t only get download links for the new photos you’ve added to your library in the meantime—Google will export your entire photo library each time.

Once you begin the export, Google Takeout will create a downloadable copy of all the files you selected. If you have a large photo library, it may be several hours or more before you receive a download link in your email. Download the files to your hard drive or an external drive to keep as a spare physical backup.