I’ve had the idea of revamping my photography management setup for months. I’ve never really been in love with what I had been using, but didn’t have time to toy around with it until now.
Back in the early days of my digital life, I kept all of my photos in iPhoto, importing images from my digital camera, iPhone, and then eventually importing all of my wife’s pictures into the same library as well — who was my girlfriend at the time.
From that point forward, we maintained a single photo library that was stored in iPhoto. We transitioned to Apple Photos when it was released and continued as we always had. Over time, though, physically plugging in our devices in order to import became a tedious task and we would go longer and longer in between. That’s not a good trend, as it put us at risk of losing our photos if anything ever happened to our devices.
Apple introduced iCloud Photo Library to help alleviate the stress of physically importing your photos and ensured that your photos were backed up to the cloud at all times. But there was one key issue that’s still yet to be addressed — family photo libraries, or a single library that my wife and I could both contribute to. Setting up a shared iCloud photo album helps to a certain degree, but you have to manually share the photos and the resolution of the images themselves is restricted to 2048px wide and videos max out at 720p .
That’s not too bad if you’re using the feature to casually share photos with friends and family, which we do quite frequently. Our immediate family and a few friends have been maintaining shared iCloud albums for years. But I don’t want my wife and I to only have access to lower resolution images and videos from each other’s library. If one of us wants to order prints or create a photo book, we shouldn’t have to care who took the photo and then be forced to track down the higher resolution version, I just want our setup to work the way we want it to.
Up until recently, we were using Google Photos on all of our devices logged in to a single account. When we initially set this up, there wasn’t an option for sharing libraries, so we worked with what we had. But we were just using the “High Quality” option for uploading in order to make use of the unlimited free storage. I guess we weren’t quite ready to go all-in yet. But with this setup, the photos in the cloud weren’t full resolution, which is the same problem I had with Apple’s shared albums.
But it gave us the ability to access all of our photos from all of our devices, regardless of who took the photo. And there was no need to manually share the photos, they were backed up automatically using the Google Photos app. We also had Plex setup to automatically upload our photos to our Mac Mini home server and I would periodically import those images into Apple Photos on that machine.
This setup served us well for quite some time and gave us most of what we wanted. But that extra step of manually importing images and video into Photos on the Mac Mini was a bit more tedious than I would have preferred. It also meant that the full resolution images and video were stored on our Mac Mini, which didn’t make it too easy to work with the full quality versions — we’d have to VNC into the machine with Screens and work from there.
This resulted in us mostly working with the versions that were stored in Google Photos instead. It was just so much more convenient than accessing the full resolution files. But that’s no good. We should be able to work with the full quality files from all of our devices without having to worry about who took the photo or video. And we should be able to maintain a setup like this that also keeps everything backed up automatically.
Last week, I briefly experimented with using Adobe Lightroom for this. It was $10 a month, gave us 1TB of storage, we could use a single login on all of our devices so that we both have access to everything, and it gave us access to a real desktop app. However, in practice, this was a bit of a mess.
Lightroom wouldn’t upload all of the photos in a burst photo — only the primary image — I ran into issues with album syncing, and the performance of the apps themselves left a lot to be desired. It has some incredible tools for editing, but it’s not a great for storing your entire photo library.
I’ve since gone back to the drawing board and decided to move back to Google Photos. Although with a slightly improved setup to address some of the complaints I had about it.
Instead of both my wife and I using a single login for Google Photos, I setup the app with our primary Google accounts. I upgraded to the 2TB plan for $10 per month and invited her to share the storage. We probably would have been fine with the 200GB plan, but I figured I’d choose the higher option now instead of having to worry about bumping up against the limit unexpectedly.
Then I went about uploading all of the photos on each of our devices and all the photos stored on the Mac Mini using Google’s Backup and Sync app. We have a bit over 100GB of photos and videos, so that process took a few days to complete.
I ran into some snags along the way, though. I made the mistake of simply pointing the desktop backup app at my Apple Photos library file, which also contains a bunch of thumbnails for caching. That increased the amount of time the upload took to complete and I ended up with some files uploaded to my Google Drive instead of the Google Photos service.
I also had some errors during the upload and, unfortunately, the Backup and Sync app doesn’t do a very good job of explaining why that is. It just adds a file path to the log and moves on. I ended up copying all of those photos to a folder on the desktop and uploading them manually to the Google Photos website.
I wish I knew more about why these issues took place, but as I mentioned, the Backup and Sync app isn’t descriptive in its error messages. In the end, I exported the originals from my Apple Photos library then pointed the Backup and Sync app there. It intelligently skipped all the duplicates and uploaded only the original files of those that it missed the first time around. This is what I should have done from the beginning. If you decide to move from Apple Photos to Google Photos, I suggest doing the same.
The good thing is that I only have to use the Backup and a Sync app for the initial upload. Since my wife and I shoot all of our photos and videos on our iPhones, we can use the iOS app’s upload feature, which works very reliably.
Once everything was uploaded, I setup our accounts to share libraries with one another through the Partner Sharing feature. This lets each of us see the contents of the other’s library in the Sharing tab, but we took it a step further and configured the feature to automatically import all new photos the other person takes.
It’s a bit ambiguous when you first set this up. You can choose what date you’d like to start sharing from, but there isn’t any indication as to whether the auto-import will only occur for newly added photos or all photos retroactively. But I can confirm that it automatically imports every single photo from the other library within the date range selected. So now we both have access to every photo and video we’ve ever taken from within the main photos tab in the Google Photos app.
Since one of the primary reasons for setting up a unified photo library is the ability to order prints, create photo books, and other projects, I’m very happy to see that Google Photos has this functionality built right into the app. The print services allow you to order standard prints for the photos you want and then pick them up at your local, participating Walmart or CVS. And you can also purchase photo books or canvases and have them delivered to your door.
It’s a really nice touch to have this functionality built in. I was a huge fan of the photo book printing that Apple offered through the Photos app and was sorely disappointed when it was discontinued. Apple really should have ported that functionality to iOS instead of retiring it altogether. I guess I’m just glad that Google understands the value of physical copies of these priceless keepsakes.
And Google Photos does an excellent job at surfacing the types of photos you might want to print as well. A few days after we finished uploading, the People, Places, and Things albums were populated with content. I now have a single place I can go to find all the photos of my wife, Josh, photos taken at specific locations, and more.
Then there are the Memories, which surfaces photos and videos from previous years and the For You Tab, which suggests albums, generated videos, collages, and so on. I find myself jumping into these sections every few days and I almost always find one or two items that catch my eye and are worthy of sharing or adding to our library.
Google Photo’s isn’t all a bed of roses, though. There are certainly some aspects of the setup that I’d prefer to see improved. Take for instance the fact that there is no desktop app for Google Photos, only the Backup and Sync app, which does nothing more than what it says on the tin. So if you want to view your library from a Mac or PC, your only option is to open a web browser. While I’m glad an option exists, I would prefer a true desktop app with all of the benefits that come from that.
I have setup an instance of Fluid on my MacBook Air that loads Google Photos, it’s not the same as having a real desktop app, but it’s closer than opening the website in my main browser. I can have an icon in my dock and I even wrote a little bit of CSS that automatically loads and hides the Google Apps switcher elemental that appears at the top of the webpage.
Another major pain point is that there isn’t any way to automatically store local copies of my photos on a hard drive that I control. Somewhere that allows me to make my own backups for safe keeping. I would love to see Google implement this. But until then, I guess I’ll continue to occasionally import photos manually into Apple Photos on our Mac Mini. It’s time consuming and feels so outdated, but I guess since we’re saving full resolution copies in the cloud now, I don’t have to worry about losing any photos or videos if something happens to our devices — I can always download them from Google Photos.
There are some other notable annoyances that I’d like to see addressed:
- There is no way to select photos from Google Photos when using the standard iOS photo picker. The only workaround is to select the images in the Google Photos app, save them to your camera roll, then select them in the photo picker from there. This is something that Apple would need to fix on their end, by offering an API that third-party apps could hook into. But I’m not holding my breath. It doesn’t seem like the type of feature Apple would ever want to release.
- When editing a photo in the Apple Photos app, it’s uploaded to Google Photos as a unique image. It doesn’t know well enough to combine the two copies and save the new version as edits to the original. If they could find a way to build something like this, it would undoubtedly be an engineering marvel, though. And if anyone is able to pull it off, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was Google.
- Speaking of edits, the built-in image editing tools in Google Photos just aren’t quite as good as Apple’s. When I edit a photo in Apple Photos, I tap the magic wand, adjust the brightness, saturation, and crop as necessary. I get excellent results every single time — I’m sure there are more finicky workflows that would yield even better results, but I’m okay with it. In Google Photos, though, the magic wand equivalent — the auto filter — never gives me a good starting point and I have a terrible time getting anything that looks reasonable. I guess for now I’ll simply edit all of my photos from the Apple Photos app and deal with the duplicates in Google Photos.
- This last complaint could certainly be an issue with iOS or Day One, but sharing from Google Photos to Day One is spotty at best. Especially for videos. Sometimes the Day One quick compose pane never shows at all and other times it crashes when attempting to save. I avoid sharing from Google Photos now and save the selected images to Apple Photos and share from there instead.
If Apple introduced automatic partner sharing or a real family photo library feature, I’d likely drop Google Photos in a heartbeat, but only because juggling multiple apps and dealing with the inadequacies noted above are such a hassle. With the current state of Apple Photos, Google Photos is worth it, though. Having all of our photos and video in one place and automatically backing up to the cloud is just too important to us.
The photos and videos that we’re taking of Josh are things that we will look back on for decades. And I want to give us every opportunity to create physical mementos that we can hang on our wall, set on a bookshelf, or send with friends and family. I don’t want there to be any barrier to entry to those projects, which might prevent us from creating them at all. The inability to automatically share our libraries with family members is a massive barrier that Apple needs to remove. Because until then, I’m sticking with Google Photos.