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The best way to manage your photos online in 2015
By Casey Newton
In August 2013, we reviewed the best services for storing your photos in the cloud. Nearly two years later, much has changed. Everpix, our pick for average users, went out of business. Picturelife, our choice for power users, sold itself to StreamNation. And Google+ remains a worthy free choice, even if Google’s plans for photos are very much up in the air. In the meantime, the pace of innovation has slowed to a crawl. Giants like Apple and Amazon have improved their services and lowered prices. But they’ve barely invested anything in resurfacing old photos, or helping you enjoy them. It’s fair to question whether photo storage even makes sense as a dedicated service in 2015.
The thing is, photos are some of the most important files you’ll ever create. We’re taking more photos than ever — an estimated 900 billion photos will be uploaded to the web this year. And billions more live on our camera rolls, waiting for us to back them up, erase them, or — amazingly — simply discard them when we give up and buy a new phone. I’m losing count of the people who tell me that they can’t take any more photos because their smartphones are out of storage space. And yet I can’t fault them — every time I start explaining an "easy" way to back up their photos and free up some space again, I realize it still isn’t easy enough.
But there’s real value in using dedicated photo services. Because auto-uploading features are now standard, I can be confident that whenever I snap a photo, it’s quickly backed up to the cloud. Because photos are a uniquely visual file format, good services have designed apps that are fun to browse and easy to search. (No more rummaging through file folders with arcane names like 1999-Oct-41.) And because photos are a powerful source of nostalgia, some of these apps regularly send me push notifications leading me to favorite old photos I might never have thought to look for again. Most importantly, they allow me to stop using my phone’s camera roll as a default back-up solution, letting me delete photos as needed to free up space.
So which service should you pick? We’ve winnowed out our list of services to consider to a manageable eight, looking for a storage system that best balances power, ease of use, and value. Completists will also want to check out indies like Everalbum, Joomeo, and Shoebox, but my experience with short-lived predecessors like Everpix and Loom has made me wary of recommending them to the masses. As for the more established Adobe Revel — it’s an aggressively meh product and didn’t make the cut.
Amazon is a newcomer to the online photo game, having introduced free, unlimited picture storage as part of Amazon Prime in November. (The service is an extension of Amazon Cloud Drive, which offers a la carte photo-storage service to non-Prime members for $12 a year.) It’s less intuitive than some of its peers, and like many included-as-part-of-Prime services, it feels more "good enough" than "great." (This is one service that won’t let you import photos from social networks, even though millions of people in its target audience likely store their photos on Facebook.) But if you’re already paying $99 for Prime, there’s little harm in trying it.
Apple now offers two main photo services, and deciding which to use can be confusing. There’s iCloud Photo Stream, where you can store your last 1,000 photos (or 30 days worth of photos) in the cloud for free. And then there’s the iCloud Photo Library, which syncs your iOS devices to Apple’s new Photos app for Mac. If you’re a committed Apple user, Photo Library is a good, reasonably cheap option starting at a buck a month for 20 GB of storage. You can also tweak the settings to store lower-resolution copies of your photos on your phone to free up storage — something that would help a lot of people. The downside to Apple’s photo solution, as with Amazon’s, is how cloistered it feels: there’s no easy way to import your photos from social networks.
Dropbox’s entry into full-featured photo storage is Carousel, an app for backing up your photos automatically and displaying them in a zippy little timeline you scroll with your thumb. Carousel hasn’t gotten much traction — it has fewer than 5 million downloads on Android — but it works fine, and if you’re backing up your photos to Dropbox already, it’s a good tool for browsing them. Carousel also has my favorite sharing tool of these apps: it organizes your shared photos into conversations based on the people you’re sharing with, in a kind of hybrid of iMessage and Apple’s shared photo streams. But it only works as intended if everyone has Carousel installed, and the download charts would suggest that’s not the case.
Dropbox’s other big, consumer-friendly move in the past two years has been to lower its prices dramatically: 1 TB of storage for $10 a month, or $100 a year. It’s still not the cheapest option, but it’s a much better value than it’s been in the past. And Dropbox’s file storage and syncing are still best in class.
Two years ago, Flickr appeared to be making a comeback. Fresh off a redesign and an offer of 1 TB in free storage, Yahoo’s venerable photo solution had fresh appeal for both amateur and serious photographers. Since then, progress has slowed to a crawl. Its mobile app never quite evolved into the Instagram competitor that Yahoo was clearly aiming for, and Flickr.com has become a confusing mess.
It’s also ugly: most photos shared by my friends there are in the popular square format, but Flickr is designed for full-bleed images — and so it puts ugly black bars on either side of every photo, giving the entire page a letterboxed effect. Flickr still does plenty of things right, and longtime users can be reasonably confident their pictures are safe there. But it’s giving new users fewer and fewer reasons to check it out.
Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s buried inside Google’s all-but-abandoned social network, but Google’s take on photos is still easy to recommend. It offers you unlimited free uploads at a size of 2048 pixels, and it applies some really fun effects to your photos: turning bursts of pictures into looping GIFs, and automatically creating slick vacation photo albums whenever you spend a few days away from home. By default Google shows you highlights of your photos rather than your entire timeline, giving you a pleasing high-level view of your collection. And its web-based editing tools are superb.
Because it comes from a selfish internet giant, Google+ won’t let you import from your other social networks. But for easily backing up all the photos you’re taking on your phone, Google+ is easy and often even fun.
Microsoft’s total storage solution was called SkyDrive last time we checked in. Now it’s OneDrive, and it’s much more generous: 30 GB of free storage, as long as you enable auto-upload on the mobile app. Like many services built to store all your files rather than just photos, OneDrive’s approach to photos is fairly basic. Its most intriguing feature is tags: it uses machine vision to group your photos automatically in a wild variety of categories. (Mine include photos of buffets, cars, cities, crowds, and performances, among others.) But like Amazon, Microsoft’s effort suffers from a general sense that it’s just okay-ish. Photos just don’t seem to be OneDrive’s top priority.
Picturelife’s independence from a big platform like Apple or Google makes it a more democratic solution than the giants’. With a few clicks, you can connect it with Flickr, Foursquare, Google, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter, among other networks, ensuring that everything you share to social media gets backed up to a single place. Picturelife also gives you a daily dose of nostalgia pushed to your mobile devices, telling you what you were up to on that day in previous years. Overall, the service does a superior job in creating a single online home for your photos, and organizes them into a nice-enough interface with lots of options for browsing and sharing.
There’s a wrinkle with Picturelife, though: it has a new owner. In February, the original founder sold the business to digital media hub StreamNation, and most of its employees left. StreamNation founder Jonathan Benassaya has indicated the services will merge over time, letting users store a wider variety of personal media for one price. It remains to be seen whether Picturelife’s unique appeal will survive the transition.
Now 13 years old, SmugMug has remained independent by embracing a positively quaint strategy: charging its users for storage, even at the lowest levels. After a two-week trial, you’ll have to pay to use the service, starting at $60 a year for a basic plan with unlimited photo storage. (SmugMug is the only service here to have actually raised its prices since the last time we checked in.)
In return, you get a service well suited to professional and semi-pro photographers: SmugMug assumes you’ll use it as an online portfolio, and offers more customization options for your personal site than any service we reviewed. It also has the most options for turning your photos into merchandise and putting them up for sale. SmugMug isn’t for most people, but it’s a solid offering for professionals and anyone else who owns a fancy camera.
Since the last time we checked, thanks to features like auto-upload, these services have roughly achieved feature parity. Annoyingly, though, the features usually only work when the apps are running in the background, so you have to open them every few weeks while you’re on Wi-Fi and let them do their work. There are still differences in the services at the edges, though, notably around which services will import your photos from social networks.
Because photo storage services have evolved to become so similar, it’s arguably less important than ever which one you pick. And the free options of these services are so good, you should feel free to hedge your bets by doubling or tripling up. (I have auto-upload turned on for five of the above services, and I only pay for Picturelife.) Making a decision around photo storage these days likely has more to do with which giant ecosystem you prefer than which service is best designed for hosting your photos. But however you proceed, you should back up your camera roll to a cloud service, if only so you can free up space on your phone.
Google+ remains my favorite free option, because most photos look great at 2048 pixels and Google will let you store as many of those pictures as you want with them. Its automated GIFs and photo albums remain unique years after their launch, and they make browsing old photos fun in a way most services can’t match. Best of all, there are rumors that Google will finally spin photos back off into a separate product this year — and the foundation the company has laid with Google+ should make it a great solution.
For a paid option, I cautiously recommend Picturelife. Incredibly, it’s the only one of the services here that reliably imports photos from the many social networks I post to, giving me a single inbox for my pictures. Internet giants want to pretend that no other companies exist, but as long as I’m being randomly tagged in friends’ photos on Facebook and posting strange screenshots to Twitter, I need a place that organizes it. And I’m happy to pay Picturelife to do it.
It’s a strange time for photo storage. It’s never been more important, and yet even the biggest consumer internet companies barely seem to be paying attention. On one hand, I can hardly blame them — it’s a proposition that has proven singularly unprofitable. And yet I still can’t believe there isn’t a billion-dollar business to be built out of our collective need to remember.
So yes, this is all a bit harder than it should be. And no one wants to pay for a service they’re getting for free — even if that service is just a camera roll rapidly chewing through the storage on your phone. But odds are you’ll take more photos this year than you ever have before. And you ought to take those photos seriously, even if most big internet companies won’t.
Development by Aidan Feay
Edited by Michael Zelenko