Cameras

Hands-on with Google Photos

Are your photos of family and friends important to you? Of course, they are. But organizing them can be torturous.

If you’re like me, you’ve shot photos and video with lots of devices. You have images and video stored on a variety of smartphones, tablets, cameras and probably computer hard drives, too. And that means you never have them all in one place to look at, sort, edit, or share. I’m continually asking myself: Did I shoot those photos on my phone or SLR? Did I back them up on my computer? And where the heck is that precious shot I took of my kids last year?

This is the problem Google has tried to fix with Google Photos, a recently introduced web service and mobile app (for iOS and Android). It's an online photo organization and backup tool that offers free unlimited storage, along with a unique act of digital magic: The service scans your photos, IDs people and places, and groups everything accordingly. Then it will even create its own animations and collages using your material. I've spent the past few weeks testing Google Photos. Overall I have seen a lot to like, but I've also uncovered a couple of privacy concerns—and a few glitches.

Google Photos vs. the competition

To test the site, I uploaded a relatively small batch of photos and videos from my phone—about 1100 photos and 45 HD videos. I also uploaded a bunch of pictures from my computer. The process was easy, but it did take a long time—about 24 hours—to complete.

You've got two options for backup and storage when you set up a Google Drive account. You can get unlimited storage of photos up to 16 megapixels and HD videos (up to 1080); or you can choose 15 GB of storage for image and video files of any size. If you choose the limited option you'll actually be tapping into your Google Drive storage allotment; Google offers paid options if you go beyond 15 GB.

I chose the unlimited option, and 16 megapixels is plenty for the majority of shooters. However, it may not be a good choice for serious photographers. If you're shooting with the 50-megapixel Canon EOS 5D S, your super-detailed photos will be downsized to 16-megapixel shots. And if you shoot 4K ultra-high-definition movies your videos will be downsized.  

So, how does Google Photos compare to its competitors? There are a number of them out there, but none offer free unlimited storage. The one that comes closest is Flickr, which offers users a massive 1 terabyte for free. One major advantage of that service is that Flickr stores photos uncompressed and doesn't scale them down. Your pictures from that Canon EOS 5D S won't lose anything when they arrive on Flickr's servers. (Additionally, Flickr has more comprehensive editing tools.)

The other photo storage services offer far less storage space. For instance, Apple's iCloud Photo Library offers just 5GB of free storage. If you need more, you'll pay a monthly fee: 20 GB (about $1), 200 GB (about $4), 500 GB (about $10) and 1 TB (about $20). There's also Amazon Prime, which offers a "free" unlimited photo plan—provided you have a $99 yearly subscription.

Interface

One thing I like about the Google Photos app and service is its clean and consistent interface; it looks very much the same across platforms—that's not true for some of its competitors. Whether you’re using iOS or Android, or any browser on either a Mac or PC, you can get access to your photos using the tools, positioned in the same spots on the screen. (There are some features available on the app that aren’t available on the web browser.) 

In general, I was impressed with the help and tutorial features on Google Photos. For example, I loved the introductory “cards” that you scroll through, which run through the process of uploading and organizing your photos and videos.

More comprehensive help features are found in the app’s Assistant section: It provides quick step-by-steps on how to accomplish various tasks, such as removing an incorrect photo or video. It also suggests groups of photos that may make a great animated GIF. (It will often pick out groups of photos taken in a burst.) And it gives you access to a help forum, where you might be able to find information from others who have experienced the same problem.  

Importing and searching photos

One of the biggest problems people face in the age of unlimited photo-shooting is that it's getting harder and harder to find any one image. Google Photo tries to solve that by applying facial recognition (plus Disney, skiing, beach, and Vegas recognition) to every photo that gets uploaded. This was the feature I was most interested in exploring.

Once my images and videos were imported, I tried searching through them. When I typed in “baseball” in the search bar, I came up with several photos of my son at Yankee Stadium and from Little League. Google also added another layer of automatic search and categorization to this app. Once your uploads are complete, hit the magnifying glass (either on the app or web version), and photos are divided into People, Places and Things.  

How well did Google Photos categorize my images? For the four members of my immediate family, including myself, the app did a decent job of grouping shots from the past several years. However, there were some mistakes and glitches with this automation. The service didn’t group baby shots of my son together with photos taken when he was older. However, it did succeed in doing that for with my daughter's baby shots—perhaps because she has red hair, which may be an easily identifiable characteristic.

One glitch was actually pretty fun: On my phone, I had images of my college friends. Google Photos grouped some images of one of my college friends together with a shot of my son and I standing next to a Yankees monument to Babe Ruth, which includes a relief sculpture of the Hall of Famer. I can only guess that Google Photos identified the smile of the Great Bambino with my college buddy’s grin!

While People and Places worked fairly well, I was disappointed in the Things section. I have tons of shots of guitars, but they didn’t automatically show up under Things.

One broad criticism I have of Google Photos is that it doesn't allow you to manually tag your photos, or change the automatically applied tags. Many photographers I know take a lot of time to set up tagging and keywords on their photos—none of that works in Photos.

Editing and creations

Two more important areas of the app are the editing and creations features. Unlike some photo apps, Google Photos has a minimalist approach to its editing features. You only have a handful to choose from: Light, Color, Pop (which provides a high-dynamic range type of effect), and a Vignette feature. You also have access to a number of Instagram-like filters and a cropping tool. Lastly, you can opt to use an Auto feature, which combines several of these editing features. As I noted earlier, I think Google Photos offers too few editing tools: In particular, the app needs more manual and granular editing functions if it wants to be competitive with services such as Flickr.

Google Photos also includes ways of creatively combining images. One is via its animations feature, which lets you quickly combine images into an animated GIF, which I found to be addictive and fun. Another way is to create a narrative segment in its Story feature (only available on the mobile app, not on the computer), which lets you combine the images or video with text to highlight an event or maybe a trip. For me, this feature wasn’t quite as intuitive as the GIF creation tool, but I think it has a lot of promise.

Google Photos will also build its own animations and collages using your photos. The app sends you text messages to let you know that the app has generated a new file, and you can then choose whether to save it. I found the suggestions to be hit or miss, but I did choose to save several of them.

Privacy concerns

There are some aspects of Google Photos that may raise privacy concerns. The most pressing is that when you want to share your photos, you can send a weblink, which generates a page displaying the number of photos you selected to send. The people you share the photos with can then download the photos they want from that webpage. The upside is that it's convenient to send lots of photos without clogging up someone’s email service. But there's a big downside: This link can be shared with anyone.

I asked Google about this security issue and got an email back from a product manager: “The links are secret, not indexed by web crawlers, and mathematically impossible to guess, so effectively the ‘password’ is baked into the link itself. If you give it to someone, they can access the photos. However, you have full control to revoke that link at any time.” But you won't know if someone has sent that link on to someone else and compromised your security.

Google says there’s no way for your photos or videos to accidentally appear in Google’s public search, unless you decide to share them and make them public.  

A larger concern may be how Google could eventually try to monetize the vast amounts of photo and video data its users will be uploading to the company's servers. After all, Google's business is based on providing free services and using the resulting data to sell ads. I wondered if Google planned use the metadata attached to users' photos for placing online ads. For example, would I start seeing advertisements for ski jackets because I post and back up a lot of skiing photos? According to the company, the answer is no—at least for now. In an email, a representative said: "Our first priority—as with most products that Google builds—is to get the user experience right. So we’re not focused on monetization right now. 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." We'll keep an eye on how this develops.

Highs, lows, and bottom line

Although I was impressed with most of what Google Photos has to offer, I did have issues with some aspects of it. For example, Google Photos should have a way to more securely share photos than just sending out a URL. At the least, I'd like to see it include an option for signing in to the webpage. (Consumer Reports has an extensive guide to protecting yourself online.)

In terms of features, photographers could benefit from stronger editing options, and a way to tag images manually. Most casual photographers will probably be okay with the 16 megapixels or 1080 HD video limits. But I do believe it will be an issue for more serious photographers, even with the ability to back up photos and video at original resolutions without downsizing them.

However, I was very impressed with the service's ability to quickly group like images via face recognition, geotagging and landmarks within photos. Even with the mistakes and glitches I found, the automation, at times, is downright miraculous. I also believe it’s just the first step for Google Photos. When I asked if there are plans to eventually add more customization and tagging features in to the app, the Google product team replied, “stay tuned.” So my guess is that this is just the start.

—Terry Sullivan

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