Using Google Drive and Google+ To Manage Photos Adequately

A recent update which integrates Google+ with photos stored on Google Drive makes it a pretty good system for storing and managing photos in the cloud if you have particular requirements.

The workflow goes like this. First, you just upload your personal photo library to Google Drive. The advantage of storing photos in this way is that you maintain complete control over them–the original files just sit there, unmodified, ready to be exported to another service in the future as things change. This is not to say that services like Flickr, or regular-old Google+, don’t allow you to maintain full-resolution photos and export your data. But it’s harder for things to go wrong when you’re just dealing with files in folders and not handing your photos over to some weird, opaque photo library system.

Now that your photo library is just folders in Google Drive, as you take new photos it’s straightforward to upload them from your phone to Google Drive, directly from your Google Drive app. No more syncing your phone with a wire to a computer, and no more just keeping your camera roll full. Also, you can share particular folders with other Drive users, giving them full access (read+write or read-only) to your original photos. Google gives you 15 gigs for free shared across various Google services; I pay $5/month for 100 gigs which is really quite cheap.

Of course, the disadvantage of storing photos as just files in folders is that you do not have access to any fancy photo editing or organization tools like you get in systems like iPhoto or Flickr. This is where Google+ integration comes in. If you turn on Google+’s ability to see and manage photos that are stored on Google Drive, you get the best of both worlds. Your image folders show up as private albums in Google+, and you have all the usual photo management and editing tools your would have if you were just using Google+ the normal way. Your photos get auto-enhanced if you like, and the cool “auto-awesome” animations are created when possible. (Importantly, you can tell it to ignore extraneous folders–for example, I had a bunch of images from old Keynote presentations showing up. Also, the auto-awesome photos just show up as )

Now, if there is an individual photo you want to make public, or share with certain circles, Google+ gives you that ability. I don’t use it, though–any photos (or videos) I want to share with anyone I just copy (“copying” being an option on each Google+ photo, and a copied photo does not count against your storage quota) to a for-real Google+ photo album with the proper sharing settings set. This keeps sharing settings on a per-album and not a per-photo basis, which I prefer, and maintains a clean distinction between my private photo library and shared photos. I also just make the shared photo albums public, since the purpose is to send links to the album to people who are not actually Google+ users, which is to say, most people. This is not really a “social” way to share photos like Facebook.

Now, there are disadvantages to this arrangement. For example, there are a number of ways in which it falls short of where iPhoto was years ago. To name just two, its face detection will only tag people with Google+ accounts–it is implemented as a social feature, not as a photo organization and navigation feature. It’s bad and I don’t use it. For me, the purpose of face detection is to help my navigate my large library of mostly-not-public photos, not to notify people that they have been “tagged.” It also does not have a “map view” of your photos based on geotags. There are a few shortcomings relating to uploading photos to the system, as well. Vanilla Google+, Dropbox, and Flickr all have “auto upload” features; I have to choose which photos to upload to Drive–and then I have to go and delete them from my camera roll in a separate step. I would prefer that this were automated. Finally, it suffers from the same privacy and control issues as all cloud services–I am willing to make that tradeoff to avoid having to physically sync devices and worry about local data storage and corruption, but it is a tradeoff.

I should also mention that at the moment I am just using this system for sharing a small number of home movies and auto-awesome animations. Apple’s Photo Stream has a pretty big advantage in that it can just push new photos out onto the iOS devices of the people who own or subscribe to the Photo Stream, which is very convenient. (And Photo Streams are viewable on the web, albeit in a janky way.) I am considering using this system more extensively, however.

All things considered, Drive in conjunction with Plus allows me to deal with photos the way I want to–allowing me to maintain access to the original files and not locking up my photos inside some proprietary “library” scheme, while at the same time giving me the benefits of a modern cloud-based photo management and sharing system that is not tied to a particular computer.