So what is Google Photos?
Google Photos was announced at the company's Google IO 2015 event in San Francisco, and it offers photographers free, unlimited storage (with file size restrictions – see below) and the ability to see, organize and edit their photos on any device, anywhere.
It's a standalone spin-off from the Google+ Photos service, so although the basic premise is similar, you no longer have to subscribe to Google's complex and unloved social networking platform to save, show and manage your photos.
There's a heavy tie-in with mobile Android devices and the whole Google ecosphere, but this is more than just a social tool for smartphone users. Regular camera users can use Google Photos to back up, share and edit their pictures too. The process is designed to be automated, so whether you shoot pictures on your phone or add them to folders on your computer, they still end up safe and sound on Google Photos without you having to lift a finger.
There is an important limitation. You only get unlimited storage if you let Google compress and resize your photos. This is the same system used by the old Google+ Photos service – the difference here is that Google+ restricted you to images 2048 pixels wide or high (somewhere around 2-4 megapixels), whereas Google Photos raises that to 16 megapixels.
This will be fine for smartphone photographers, but if you use a DSLR or compact system camera with a sensor larger than 16 megapixels, and especially if you shoot raw files rather than JPEGs, Google Photos is not going to be a proper backup system – it'll still be useful for sharing photos and checking them out on any device, but you'll need to archive your full-res originals and raw files elsewhere.
Actually, you can upload full resolution originals, but this will count against your Google Drive allowance – this is how Google+ Photos worked too. When your Google Drive fills up you can upgrade but you have to pay.
With that in mind, it's worth remembering that Google Photos is not the only game in town. It's new for Google, but that doesn't mean no-one's done it before. See our Google Photos alternatives at the end of this story.
How it works
If you've got a Google account you can start using Google Photos right now. If you're on your computer, go to the official About Google Photos page. When you've taken it all in, you can click on the 'Go to Google Photos' button top right. If you're already logged in to your Google account, you'll see all your photos so far. If not, you'll need to log in – and if you have more than one account, choose the one to log into. Each Google account has separate photo libraries.
If you're on your mobile device, download the Google Photos app (it's on both Android and iOS) and use it to log in to your Google account. Now sit back and wait – and then maybe wait some more – while your mobile device and your Google Photos account figure out what to synchronize and in which direction.
If you have a lot of photos on your mobile device, you could be in for a long haul – but this initial synchronization should be a once-only process; after this, it's only new photos which will need synchronizing.
If you like, you can watch what's happening in the mobile app. Image thumbnails with no badge have been synced, those which are waiting will have a circular sync badge in the bottom right corner, and those just synced with briefly show a tick in a cloud. Nice symbolism.
That 16-megapixel limitation
All this is fine if you use your mobile device for photography, but it also works if you shoot with a regular camera and copy images across to your computer. Google has uploader apps for both Windows and Mac and you'll find the links in the left sidebar menu on your Google Photos page. Once they're downloaded, look for the 'Google Photos Backup' app.
These are not like the Android or iOS mobile apps – they're simple uploaders that prompt you go choose specific folders on your computer, for example 'Pictures' or 'Desktop'. Any photos you add to these folders will now be synchronised with your Google Photos account.
Once it was running on a test Mac, the uploader minimised to a toolbar icon and a drop-down menu for program Preferences, including the folders you want to sync (if you change your mind), the Photo size (remember, high quality and free, or full res that counts against your quota). You can also use the drop-down menu to check sync progress and view your uploaded photos – though annoyingly this will link to your main/default Google account, not necessarily the one you want to upload your photos to.
So is 16 megapixels enough? Actually, for a lot of photographers it will be. We tried round-tripping a 16-megapixel JPEG image from a Fuji X-T1 (3,264 x 4,896) pixels by sending it to Google Photos via the uploader (choosing the unlimited storage option, not original size), then downloaded it from Google Photos and it arrived back at exactly the same dimensions – though the file size was 4.9MB compared to the original's 6.8MB, so Google Photos clearly added some compression, even though the image dimensions stayed the same.
Trying the same trick with a 24-megapixel file from a Nikon D3200 showed the resizing effect – the version stored on Google Photos was resized from 6,016 x 4,000 pixels down to 4,905 x 3,261 pixels (yup, 16 megapixels, as promised).
There is an option to upload raw files as well as JPEGs, but if you go for the unlimited storage option, Google Photos will not only resize them but convert them to JPEGs too.
For that reason, Google Photos could work well as a free, unlimited backup solution if you shoot 16-megapixel JPEGs or smaller. But even if you use higher end kit, it could still be useful as a solution for showcasing and sharing your photos with a wider audience. It's also a way of having your entire photo portfolio available on your mobile device.
Google Photos in action
Your organizing and editing experience varies slightly according to whether you're viewing Google Photos on your computer or a mobile device.
On a computer, you'll be looking at them in a browser window, so you don't get the same pinch/zoom/swipe navigation you get on the mobile apps. Broadly, though, the system is the same: Google Photos uses a mixture of image metadata (using the date information embedded by all digital cameras, plus location for pictures taken on a smart device) and some clever behind-the-scenes image analysis to group your photos into themed Collections.
You can select images and create your own Albums too, which sit alongside the Collections (Google needs to make these terms a bit more consistent, maybe). The website had a glitch where a new album name was displayed as 'Untitled' in the main view, even though we gave it a name – though the iOS app reported the name correctly. It's early days yet, though.
Interestingly, Google Photos also offers to make things with your photos, such as collages, from related photos, stylized photos (with image effects) and, on the iOS app, 'stories' made up from related photos again, but this time with a narrative timeline and caption boxes.
It looks as if Google may add to these 'Assistant' types in the future, so it's going to be interesting to see what comes.
There are editing tools too. Beginners can use simple auto enhancements, while more advanced users can push Light, Colour, Pop and Vignette sliders around. There's also a selection of effects filters named after planetary moons in our solar system, such as Phobos and Diemos, the two pint-sized moons of Mars.
These are a tiny bit disappointing, though, because they just shift the colors around. So why oh why (oh why) didn't Google link Google Photos to Google Snapseed, which already exists as a set of web tools and mobile apps? Snapseed is a fantastic image-editor and effects generator but now it's fallen into Google's hands it's being cruelly underused.
By now you may be noticing some similarities between Google Photos and Apple Photos. By 'similarities' we mean 'identicalities'. They're essentially the same thing, except that Apple Photos relies on paid storage upgrades to be of any use to anyone and is locked into the desktop Photos app, while Google Photos works on both iOS and Android and can sync any folders on your computer that you nominate.
Apple's editing tools are better and more sophisticated, but Google Photos fights back with some smart organizational tools.
Google Photos alternatives
Google Photos is a smart, fuss-free way to backup and share your photos online but it's designed primarily for casual photographers. Enthusiasts and pro photographers using higher-res cameras and shooting raw files may still find it useful, but it won't be a proper backup solution.
And there are some other very good online storage & sharing sites already out there. We've already mentioned Apple Photos, which isn't the best for keen photographers, but there are others which could fit the bill rather well.
Dropbox offers fairly basic photo organizing and viewing tools, but it's the perfect solution for no-frills online backup and sharing – as long as you don't mind paying for storage. The Dropbox Pro plan currently comes with 1Tb storage, and that's enough for a pretty big image library, even one containing lots of raw files.
And then there's SmugMug, another paid-for service which can organize and showcase unlimited JPEG images at their full resolution, with custom web page designs and controllable privacy options for different galleries. SmugMug is currently 'transitioning' its raw file support so it's not quite clear how this will pan out yet.
Or, if you've signed up for Adobe's Creative Cloud Photography Plan, you can synchronize Lightroom Collections with mobile Lightroom apps where you can also apply simple edits and ratings which are synced back to the desktop version. Online storage is limited, though, so currently this is a sharing/mobile editing tool rather than a large-scale backup solution.
Finally, don't forget Flickr. Although it's designed primarily for sharing and social interaction you can control the privacy settings and use it as an archiving/synchronizing tool for your own benefit. You get 1Tb of free storage, which is good, but although Flickr won't stop you trying to upload raw files, it will convert them to JPEGs.
It all depends on which photography 'ecosystem' looks like it might suit you best and which tools you use already.