Thursday, August 29, 2013

The best photo apps to help your keep your memories safe in the cloud

Inspired by two friends of mine and a situation that started out really bad but ended happily...

The internet was always supposed to give us a hassle-free way to store and manage our stuff — but in practice, even storing photos and videos has remained a massive headache. Just as services like Apple’s Photo Stream have popularized the power of cloud storage, they have also revealed its limitations. Huge RAW image sizes, duplicate photos, 1080p videos, and years of library database bloat were all good reasons to just leave the photos sitting on your hard drive — and pray the drive didn’t stop working before you backed it all up.

But as the price of storage has fallen, and broadband access has become more pervasive, more and more companies are competing to make the cloud the default place to store your memories. For a few dollars a month and a few hours of upload time, you get features unavailable on most free desktop photo-editing software — and the peace of mind that comes with a cloud backup. These aren’t just for pros lugging around DSLRs, either: many of these services are fantastic options for even the most casual photographers looking to back up the photos from your phone. And they’re all better than Facebook for organizing, managing, and even just storing all your shots. So which app is the best for storing and accessing all your media from any device?

I would like to help take you through 10 top services, from household names like Dropbox to newcomers like Everpix, highlighting each service’s best features while calling out any deal-breakers along the way. All of these services “work,” but depending on what you’re looking for (e.g. RAW support, a search bar, and even adaptive mobile video streaming) one option might be best for you. But don’t worry, I'll list my favorites, as well as a chart at the bottom of the page for breakdowns of key features and details, compared app by app.


Apple’s Photo Stream feature is, like most software made by Apple, built for the average person to use. It’s also built for iLifers — people who own iPads, iPhones, and Macs and prefer apps to websites. If you’re one of these people, Photo Stream offers a seamless but limited solution to photo storage and syncing.


Photo Stream takes the photos on your iPhone, iPad, and Mac and syncs them across all three platforms. Photo Stream effectively delivers an always-up-to-date timeline of your 1,000 most recent photos, no matter which device you’re using. You can share photos using Shared Photo Stream to friends with iOS devices, or create a web-based photo gallery anyone can look at. It accepts RAW images, which pros will appreciate, but it doesn’t support video.

While Photo Stream only syncs the most recent 1,000 photos between your devices, iPhoto for Mac, which is tied to Photo Stream, holds on to every photo you ever take on your iPhone. It’s a quick way to automatically back up the photos on your iPhone, but is far from a cloud-storage service for your stuff. Since iOS doesn’t (yet) allow background syncing for third-party apps, Photo Stream is the only way to instantly upload your photos in the background without having to remember to do so.

Photo Stream works well, but unlike every other competitor listed here, there’s no “cloud” photo backup, no way to view all your photos except on your personal Mac, no video support, and no apps for non-Apple platforms — including the web. It’s more of a photo “syncing” tool than a full-blown storage solution.


After acquiring web photo-service Snapjoy back in December, Dropbox rolled out a new “photos tab” that acts as a timeline of every single photo you’ve uploaded. It’s a great way to visualize all the photos you’ve already stored on Dropbox, and for the first time it’s made the service look like a real solution for our photo storage woes. You can create albums, share them with friends, and view everything in “Windows Explorer” view if you’d rather drill down into folders.


Where an app like Loom focuses most on its mobile experience, Dropbox was built first on desktops and its mobile photos experience can be dreadfully slow — especially on older devices — and doesn’t offer much in terms of options. Additionally, Dropbox loads all your photos in full resolution, which means they’re slow to open and take up much more space if you do decide to save any. While you can share a selection of photos from your phone, there’s no album support, no “save for offline” if you want to use Dropbox instead of your Camera Roll, and no photo editing. Finally, Dropbox only lets you stream the first 15 minutes of any video you’ve uploaded, which could be a turnoff for some potential users.

If you’re already a Dropbox diehard, it’s the easy winner here. The company seems dead-set on crafting an excellent photo storage service, and unlike your average startup, Dropbox isn’t going anywhere, which offers some serious peace of mind. Plus it offers automatic image backup on your devices with Camera Upload. Yet for those who want a dedicated photo-storage service with a team of employees working solely on photos, it’s worth trying out some other options.


Everpix has the fastest, sleekest interface of any app we tried. It embraces the inherent structure of your photo library, automatically grouping items into events by date, time, and even by the content of your photos (think “animals”).


Free users can see every photo they’ve taken for the past year, and for $4.99 a month or $49 a year, you can upload every photo you’ve ever taken onto Everpix’s servers. (You can get some free upgrades easily by connecting your web and iOS accounts, for example, and by uploading photos from your computer.) Photos can be viewed on the web or on the iOS app; Everpix has also released a limited Android app for automatically uploading photos, with a more fully featured app on the way. Like Loom, Everpix generates smaller versions of each photo for each device you’re using, which means you can save a ton of local storage space.

Everpix tries to hook you with nostalgia, borrowing a page from Timehop. Each day, the service will send you a “flashback” of photos from a year ago. You can also trade photos inside the service using “photo mail,” which will add specific pictures to a friend’s Everpix collection automatically. Its website loads incredibly quickly, and offers several views for browsing your photos, including a gorgeous timeline that loads photos in reverse chronological order as you scroll, and a view that only shows photos it has imported from Instagram or Facebook. Yet, there’s no way to create albums online — you can only view photos by date, by source (folders you’ve synced from your computer) or using Highlights, a collection of photos that Everpix thinks are your best.

Everpix is barely two years old, and it shows in the feature set: there’s no editing, no video, and no powerful browsing capabilities. But while the service remains under construction, the features it has built so far are rock-solid and a delight to use. Everpix might not have the name recognition that some of its peers do — yet — but it’s beautifully designed and loaded with potential.


Picturelife is a comprehensive and speedy service for uploading all the photos and videos on your Mac and iOS devices to the cloud. It pulls in both from your various devices, and even services like Facebook and Instagram, making them accessible via mobile apps and a web interface.

While it’s not the most elegant or simple service of the bunch, it might have the most complete feature set, and it even syncs seamlessly with your existing iPhoto library. It lets you view everything you’ve uploaded in one timeline, create albums, tag faces in your photos, see a map filled with photos you’ve taken, and more, but there’s oddly no way to view photos from one source. Whereas other services let you easily see which photos came from your iPhone and which photos came from your Mac, Picturelife forces you to see it all.


Fortunately, Picturelife’s search functionality is excellent, providing at least an indirect route toward separating different sources. You can search for “pictures taken by an iPhone 5,” “pictures from 2008 taken with people,” “pictures tagged as ‘Family,’” and even “Pictures in New York in Winter.” It doesn’t always work as expected, but the feature is still miles ahead of most other services’ search functionality. Picturelife is powerful — perhaps the best approximation of a desktop photo library — but it’s not always logical.


Loom is an app for Mac and iOS built to store all your photos and sync them between every device you own. The service bills itself as the “infinite camera roll,” an online storage solution that’s part Dropbox, part Photo Stream. It aims to replicate your photo library on the web, without adding too many additional bells and whistles.


Uploaded photos are instantly accessible from the web, as well as from the company’s iOS app. On Mac, you can choose specific “sources” to upload, or you can just drop photos in a Loom folder. Like with Dropbox, photos you upload show up immediately on your other devices. Perhaps Loom’s most useful feature is that it frees up storage on your mobile devices by creating different versions of your photos for each screen size you’ll be using. Then, Loom caches photos you frequently view on your device so you can browse them even while you’re flying or on the subway. In grand total, Loom can free up more than 90 percent of the storage previously reserved for photos and videos on your iPhone or iPad, according to company founder Jan Senderek, while acting a lot like the default iOS Photos app.

Loom works great as a Photo Stream replacement and as an online storage site for the photos on your Mac, but it offers very few additional features, like any form of search or editing. Sharing options are also incredibly rudimentary, and since streaming video is a lot more complicated than compressing photos, Loom won’t support viewing video for another few weeks, at least.


When Marissa Mayer took over as Yahoo’s CEO, the internet responded with a plea: make Flickr awesome again. Ten months later, Mayer responded with a redesigned site, full-width photos, and a whopping 1TB of free storage. It came on the heels of a well-received update to the iOS app that combined excellent filters and a redesigned photo feed to make the mobile experience more like Instagram. A more recent update to the app gives you the ability to customize your filters, and adds a new suite of pro editing tools.


Flickr remains a top-notch experience for serious photographers. It stores images at multiple resolutions, offers fine-grained privacy controls, and has a public API that integrates the service into dozens of third-party apps. It’s even begun attracting back some of the users who abandoned it in recent years as the service fell into neglect; those users are helping to recapture some of the social experience that made Flickr an early leader in photo sharing. Tap the globe icon inside the app, for example, and Flickr will show you popular photos both around the world and taken close to your location — a smart and delightful way of using Flickr’s huge photo library for the benefit of its users.

There are still some gaps: Flickr’s user interface feels sluggish and dated compared to some of its competitors, and the company’s app for uploading photos from the desktop hasn’t been updated since 2009. There’s also the fact that video uploads are capped at 1GB. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Flickr is making a comeback.


Microsoft’s SkyDrive is kind of like Windows Explorer, but on the web. It offers a solid 7GB of free storage for all files, photos included. Pictures can be sorted into albums, played as a slideshow, or even embedded on third-party websites. Individual photos get a beautiful lightbox display — key metadata is shown in an elegant sidebar complete with people tags, sharing options, and a Bing map showing where the picture was taken. In another nice touch, album covers are animated, slowly cycling through their contents to help you pick the right album a little more easily. Microsoft has released no-frills but functional apps for Android and iOS; if you have a Windows Phone, the SkyDrive app will let you auto-upload your pictures. SkyDrive also offers desktop apps for Windows and Mac.


SkyDrive’s biggest drawback compared to its competitors is that it feels like it’s built for storingfiles, not photos. You can’t so much as crop a picture using SkyDrive, never mind adding a filter or a whimsical sticker or caption. For basic photo storage, SkyDrive is a great, free option — but for anything else, you’ll likely want to look elsewhere.

Stream Nation

Stream Nation is a cloud storage and streaming service for photos and videos, with the emphasis on videos. Stream Nation has big potential and lots of features to boot, but it doesn’t have the design sense and open-mindedness to be your storage and streaming solution just yet.


When you first log in to Stream Nation, you have the option to import files from your computer, your mobile device, the web, your Dropbox, and in an interesting turn, from YouTube, Vimeo, and other video sites. Once some of your content is uploaded, the service transcodes it to various formats so you can access it on the go using an iOS device. Photos and videos download and stream quickly on mobile, while taking advantage of Netflix-esque adaptive streaming to ensure smooth playback. Features like the ability to tag content, check the resolution of a video you’re watching, and save content for offline viewing on mobile will please power users. Plus, all of your content is backed up not just to Stream Nation, but also to Amazon servers, which provides some welcome peace of mind.

Stream Nation has plenty of features, but feels more focused on videos than on photos, and only lets you share content with other Stream Nation users. The service shows a lot of potential, but for now feels only half-baked.

Google+ Photos

In an effort to jumpstart its nascent social network, Google has poured tons of resources into Google+ Photos. The company gives you 15GB of space for free, to be shared across Gmail, Drive, and Google+. That’s a lot of free storage, and if you choose to upload your photos at “standard size” (2,048 pixels wide) Google won’t count it against your total amount of available space. (You can easily take advantage of this feature by turning on the auto-upload feature on your Android or iOS device.) Unlike most of its peers, Google+ also accepts and displays RAW images. If you run out of free storage, Google will sell you up to 16TB more. (Prices start at $4.99 for 100GB a month and go up to $799.99 a month for 16TB.)


Google’s acquisition of Nik Software has resulted in a built-in photo-editing suite that lets you adjust colors, alter the exposure, sharpen the image, apply Instagram-like filters, or decorate your picture with googly eyes and tiaras. There’s also an “auto awesome” feature that performs a variety of tricks, the best of which makes a GIF out of related images. The results are sometimes inconsistent, but when it works, it’s delightful — and something no one else is doing.

The downside of using Google+ as a photo platform is that it’s built into Google+. It’s always a bit nerve-racking to upload all your personal photos to a social network, no matter how granular the privacy controls are. Google is more interested in you sharing your photos than simply storing them, and the network’s heavily promoted circles are still way more trouble to manage than the company will admit. Still, Google+ is one of the most robust cross-platform photo solutions available.


Long a favorite of professional and semi-pro photographers, SmugMug refreshed its look last month to remove visual clutter and allow photographers to customize their portfolios more easily. Photographers can now choose from 24 clean, elegant themes, and changing them up is as easy as clicking a button. Customization options don’t stop there, either — the company has created a set of powerful tools that let you do everything from inserting a custom logo to adjusting the margins of your page.

Unlike the other services reviewed here, SmugMug doesn’t have a free tier. After a 14-day trial, you’ll have to pay $40 a year for a basic plan and as much as $300 if you plan to sell your photos directly through the site. And if you want to upload files in RAW, or upload any file bigger than 50MB, you’ll need to purchase a separate SmugVault subscription to handle the storage. It’ll likely only cost you another few dollars a month, depending on how much storage you need, but it feels like a cheap move for a site that caters to professionals and the huge photos they take.


SmugMug has no official companion app, but it does have Camera Awesome: an app that comes with a variety of filters and editing tools, with some free and others paid. It’s iOS-only at the moment, but the company is working on an Android version. If SmugMug feels a bit less social than some of its peers, that’s by design: this is a site created by professionals, for professionals. But if the main thing you need is a great-looking way to showcase your photos on the web — and don’t mind paying for it — SmugMug is worth a look.


The Verdict


Are you a casual photographer looking for cheap, easy, infinite storage? Or are you more serious, seeking a professional-grade feature set for editing, displaying, and even selling your work? How you answer that question will help you decide which photo-storage solution is for you. Our favorites were a couple of relative newcomers: Picturelife, which boasts the most complete feature set of the services we looked at; and Everpix, which earned top marks for its design, ease of use, and emphasis on helping you actually enjoy all the photos you’ve taken. Both are relatively inexpensive; Everpix will basically give you a free two-year trial just for downloading the desktop app, uploading some photos, and linking it to your smartphone.


They’re not perfect: Picturelife’s design leaves much to be desired, and Everpix has some painful feature gaps, starting with its inability to display videos or RAW files. But they’re also young, and iterating at a rapid clip. Other photographers will want to closely evaluate Google+ and Flickr, which cater to those who want more fine-grained controls for editing photos, creating albums, and sharing them. But what you gain in features with those services you lose in speed and ease of use. There’s no all-encompassing photo and video storage service quite yet.

Ultimately, storing and managing a large photo library still takes way more work than it should. But while it’s not perfect, cloud storage is finally a reality. Backing up your photos will bring you real peace of mind, and your options are getting better all the time.

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