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How to Use Google Photos in 7 Steps

Web interface

Web interface

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 aims to provide the best qualities of all of these sites, and the benefits of artificial intelligence, with 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 in a few easy steps.

Step 1: Install the Photos app on your devices

Google Photos provides free apps for smartphones in the Apple App Store and Google Play store; there's also a web-based version of Google Photos for uploading pictures and videos 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 storage won't be swamped if you have thousands of photos and videos on your home PC.

Web interface

Web interface

The first thing I noticed after downloading the Google Photos app was how many garbage images I had on my iPhone, including failed shots like a close-up of my finger and reminder snaps I'd take of a sign. 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 a 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 data cap, the mobile app can be set to upload only over Wi-Fi. To confirm that setting (or change it), press the menu icon (three parallel lines) on the upper left of the app. Then click the gear icon in the upper right to get to the Settings screen 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.

Mobile app

Mobile app

Step 2: Select the quality level for uploads

Google Photos is free — if you agree to let it store compressed copies of your media. If the pictures are larger than 16 megapixels, Google Photos will downsize them to that size. (The originals on your computer or mobile device 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 least expensive way to store originals. Flickr, for example, provides 1 TB of storage for free, with ads, or ad-free storage for $50 per year. Dropbox Plus provides 1TB for $8.25 per month.

Mobile app

Mobile app

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.

Unaltered JPEG, cropped

Unaltered JPEG, cropped

Compressed JPEG, cropped

Compressed JPEG, cropped

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 view cropped portions displayed 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 opens in the Photos view, which organizes images and videos by date, with the newest ones at the top. 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. In the web interface, you can click on a timeline that runs down the right side of the page.

Web interface

Web interface

Tapping the Albums icon at the bottom of the mobile app or the left of the web interface brings up a new view, organized by People, Places, Things, Videos, Collages, Animations and Videos. (We'll discuss actual album creation later on.) 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.

Clicking on the People category brings up portrait photos, and clicking each portrait brings up all the pictures that Google thinks are of the same person. If a photo doesn't belong, press down on it for a moment in the app until a blue checkmark appears on the picture and a blue menu bar appears at the top of the screen. Tap the three-dot "…" icon on the far right, and then tap "Remove results."

You can name the person in the photos by tapping "Add a name" under their main profile picture. If you do that for your own photo, Google associates your account with the pictures. Your contacts in Google Photos or in your Gmail address book will be alerted if you appear in a photo they take, and Photos will suggest that they share the picture with you. If you find this degree of personalization creepy, don't label your group of faces. If you already have and want to undo it, tap the three dots in the upper right of the screen, and select "Remove name label." You can shut off face recognition completely by going to Settings (from the main screen), selecting Group similar faces, and clicking the switch off.

MORE: How Many Megapixels Do You Really Need?

In Things, Google uses its image-search technology to identify the subject of the photo. My initial batch of test photos yielded Things in both broad categories, such as Food, Sky, Selfies and Cars, and more specific ones, such as Stained glass and Fog (both of which I did photograph). 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 Cars category was pretty funny but less accurate, featuring a car and a truck, but also a video of someone on a subway train and an accidental snap of my finger.

Web interface

Web interface

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 good 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) and Pop (which adds more contrast). Photos includes a separate Blue color slider to adjust the look of sky and water.Tapping an arrow to the right of the Light and Colour sliders displays fine-grained adjustments, such as Exposure, Contrast and Highlights under Light; and Saturation, Warmth and Skin Tone under Colour.Finally, there are the obligatory Colour Filters. The first, called Auto, applies the adjustments that would make most any photo look better. The 12 others have vague names like Palma and Ollie that don't indicate what they do. "West," for instance, cranks up the whites in images, and Vista is a high-contrast black-and-white effect. 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.

Editing video clips (possible only in the app) is limited to trimming from the beginning or end of a clip or rotating the video if the orientation came out wrong (such as upside down) when you shot it. (Later on, we'll show how you can combine multiple clips into a movie.)

Step 5: Use the Assistant to get auto-generated projects

Clicking the Assistant button (an icon of a star in a box) at the bottom of the app or to the left in the web version brings up a set of tools for making more of your photos: Album, Photo book, Collage, Animation and Movie (the final item is only in the mobile app). You can create them manually, by selecting photos or videos to combine. Assistant also auto-generates some suggested creations. Animations, for instance, combine several similar photos, such as ones shot in a burst, into a kind of stop-motion video that you can share as an animated GIF. All these creations appear in cards. To reject a card, swipe right; to keep it, tap Save at the bottom left of the card. 

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Step 6: Create albums, photo books, collages and movies

Along with selecting creations that Assistant has generated, you can also make your own. Albums, Photo books and Collages are all created the same way: by reviewing your photos and selecting the ones you want to include. You can then add, delete or rearrange images to your liking. 

No matter which kind of project you create, you can always convert it to another type. Images you amass for a collage, for instance, can also be rendered as an online album or as a photo book, which you receive in print form (starting at $9.99 and going up based on the number of photos). 

Movie creation is available only in the mobile app, since it relies on the touch screen for making quick edits. First select multiple clips or photos (up to 50). You can drag and drop clips to set the order they play in and slide your finger across each clip to select its start and endpoint. You can also replace the recorded audio with another sound file.

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, Collages 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 options depend, in part, on which apps you have installed on your phone. (If you have a Gmail account, you also see thumbnails of suggested contacts to email directly.) 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.

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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; then tap photos one by one to select them. Alternately, just drag your finger across a whole bunch to photos (without first pressing down) to get them all at once

Conclusion: A good starting point

Google Photos is very efficient for uploading, storing and syncing your photos and videos. Its automated tools, such as Animations or the Things search, have come a long way since the service launched. 

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 to easily share 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.

And if your main desire is to quickly share snapshots from your trove of cellphone pics, Google Photos is a very handy tool indeed.

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