Photos have a tendency to end up scattered across multiple services. We upload holiday snaps to Facebook and Instagram, while more arty shots may end up on Flickr or SmugMug.
There’s little point in having your photo collection strewn across different services, ploughing through them all to find that snap. If you can consolidate copies of all your photos into one place, it’ll be much easier to find specific pictures when you want them – and to ensure you never lose access to your photo archive.
Step one: Retrieve all your images
If you already have all your important photos sitting on a phone or hard disk, then you’re ahead of the game and can skip to the next section. In many cases, though, you may need to download copies of your images.
For Flickr users this used to be a chore, involving unofficial tools and web services, but a site update last year has made it very easy. When you view one of your own albums on the Flickr website, you’ll now see a Download icon just below the title, which you can click to download the entire album as a ZIP archive of full-resolution JPEGs.
It’s just as easy for Facebook: simply go to the General Account settings page for your account and click the “Download a copy” link at the bottom. This will generate a ZIP archive containing all your photos, along with posts, conversations and so forth. Note, however, that the downloaded images will be shrunk to a resolution of 720 x 480, which means detail will almost certainly have been lost, so better if you can find the originals.
Backing up your Instagram images is trickier, as the creators don’t offer an official download feature. You’ll need to use a third-party service such as instagrabbr.com, which presents your Instagram snaps in a web browser with a handy “Save image” button.
Step two: Organise your photo collection
Once you have all your images in one place, your next job is to organise them. Depending on how assiduous you want to be, this can be a major task. We suggest you don’t worry too much about sorting photos into folders: as we’ll discuss below, our recommendation is to upload all of these images to Google Photos, which pays no heed to folders anyway.
What about all those pictures you simply don’t need any more, such as images of where you parked your car, or a photo of a menu that you took to send to a friend who was running late? Sadly, there’s no software that can look at photos like these and weed out the ones that are no longer important, and doing it by hand can be a real pain. We suggest you don’t even attempt it: just keep them for now. You can easily clear out such images later if they’re annoying you.
What you might want to do, however, is eliminate duplicates. Perhaps you have both high- and low-resolution copies of certain images. Or perhaps you’re the sort of person who takes a dozen exposures of everything, to ensure you get a good shot. You don’t need all these duplicates clogging up your photo library. Take a look at a free tool called VisiPics (visipics.info), which scans your hard disk for duplicate and near-duplicate images and helps you choose which image to keep.
Another consideration is EXIF data. EXIF stands for “exchangeable image file”, which sounds fairly meaningless, but allows useful information to be embedded into your images, such as the time and date when they were shot, the camera settings that were used, and – if available – the location where the photo was taken. This can be very useful when it comes to browsing images or hunting down specific pictures. Unfortunately, this information is stripped out of images downloaded from Facebook, and if you’re using a compact camera or DSLR, then geographic information is unlikely to be available in the first place. You can set or correct any missing dates easily in Google Photos, as we’ll explain below. But there’s currently no way to tag images with locations after they’ve been uploaded, so if you want to do any geotagging, now’s the time. The best tool we’ve found for adding GPS co-ordinates to sets of images is Adobe Lightroom, which uses a friendly Google Maps-based interface (in addition to an extensive set of photo-editing and -management tools). You can download a free 30-day trial from creative.adobe.com, which should give you enough time to work through your albums.
Step three: Google Photos
When it comes to storing a large library of images safely in one place, there is no perfect solution. Your picture library is likely too big to keep in a regular cloud service such as Dropbox; and while Flickr offers a generous terabyte of free storage, it’s geared up for showing off a few choice images rather than bulk archival.
The best choice we’ve found is Google Photos, which took over from the old Google+ and Picasa photo albums last year. It offers automatic uploads from your Android or iOS device, so once you’ve installed it, you can forget about image archival. You can even set it to automatically delete images locally once they’ve been uploaded, to free up valuable space. Best of all, it offers unlimited storage for free. You can upload videos too.
What’s the catch? Well, there are two things to consider. The first is that once your images are up in the cloud, you no longer have direct control over them. Google does have a history of changing or discontinuing services that people have come to rely on, so we’d suggest you always keep a backup of your photos on a local drive. At any time you can freshen the local copy of your picture archive by downloading new albums – or all of them – from takeout.google.com.
It’s a good idea to keep local copies anyway, as our second caveat about Google Photos is that storage is free only for images of up to 16 megapixels. This is sufficient for most purposes – it represents more detail than can be displayed on a 4K screen (to be precise it works out to 4,920 x 3,264 pixels at a 4:3 ratio). But if you upload a larger image then it will be automatically downsized. This also applies to videos, which are limited to 1080p. You can choose to have media stored at its original size, but the space your files take up is then counted against your Google Drive quota. It’s a better idea to let Google make smaller online copies, and keep local copies of the originals in case you ever want to blow up a picture, or print it at a size larger than A3.
There are several ways to upload your images to Google Photos: we suggest you install the app on your smartphone, and use the desktop tool to upload images from your local hard disk (see photos.google.com/apps). Once your pictures are in Google Photos, they’ll be automatically analysed and sorted into albums based on what Google thinks they contain, and where they were taken. It’s spookily good at this, and you can use the Search bar at the top of the screen interface to search by keyword. You can also create new albums using the Assistant tool, which appears towards the top left of the web interface.
To edit a photo’s settings or see more information about it, click in the top left of the thumbnail (in a web browser) – or hold your finger down on it on a smartphone or tablet – and you’ll see options to share, delete, download and edit. To select a series of photos, you can Shift-click in a desktop browser, or swipe across multiple images on a mobile device.