How to Choose a Cloud Service for Your Mobile Photography

Now that most people — even those who are serious about photography — are using smartphones for many or most of their photos, it’s a good time to look past the quality of those images to a robust workflow that includes not just editing, but organizing and storing them reliably. Stories of laptops getting stolen or destroyed and taking all of a person’s photos with them are quickly being replaced by sad tales of lost or crushed phones. Organizing and storage solutions span the gamut from simple to complex, with a variety of pros and cons. We’ll take you through some of the options and the tradeoffs.

Google Photos: The Roach Motel of Cloud Photo Storage

Perhaps the most popular solution to both processing and storing smartphone images is Google Photos. It can automatically sync images your phone to Google’s servers, where you can get at them from anywhere. This useful capability has some issues, though. First, unless you pay for storage, or have a newish Pixel, your images aren’t stored in their full resolution. If you think of Google Photos as your lifetime archive of images, that is a high price to pay.

Second, it is hard to control where your images actually live. Google is forever offering to remove them from your phone (only downloading them as needed for viewing), leaving you completely dependent on the Googleplex. Third, it has become a roach motel. It is difficult to download images, or even to guarantee an album is available offline. And the really useful feature that used to allow you to view your images under Google Drive — which you could then sync to a local server or NAS using WebDAV — was unceremoniously dumped. I’ve been unable to find a replacement approach to keep an archive of my Google Photos images, and Google hasn’t been able to suggest any.

Google desperately wants to be your one stop shop for your mobile photography. It offers a lot for free, but with strings.

Google desperately wants to be your one-stop-shop for your mobile photography. It offers a lot for free, but with strings.

So, if convenience is your primary value, then Google Photos provides it. But it shouldn’t be the only place anyone serious about their photo library keeps it stored. So let’s look at some other options.

Adobe Creative Cloud Is Very Cool, If You Can Afford It

Adobe offers a storage solution that operates a lot like I wish Google Photos would. Once you install Lightroom Mobile on your phone(s), it can automatically sync those photos to your Adobe Cloud, and then, in turn, down to your desktop copy of Lightroom. And you can even do the reverse, so you can work on your images (possibly using smart previews) on your mobile device, even if they were originally on your desktop. By default, only photos you take with Lightroom’s camera or add to Lightroom Mobile are synced, but you can enable an option to add all your phone’s photos.

Adobe provides a powerful web interface for your mobile images and those you have chosen to sync from your desktop

Adobe provides a powerful web interface for your mobile images and those you have chosen to sync from your desktop

Other than the overhead of setting it up, the biggest drawback to using Adobe for all your photos is cost. First, you need an Adobe Photography plan for about $10 per month. Then you’re on the hook for about $100 per terabyte per year in storage fees. If you’re just using this system for your mobile photos, the 20GB you get “for free” with your plan may be enough, at least for now. But if you want a unified system for all your photos, and their processed versions, you’re going to have to pay up.

Microsoft OneDrive Can Pick Up Some of the Slack

Until a colleague suggested it, I never thought about using OneDrive as a replacement for Google Photos as a place to store my images after Google canceled Drive integration. But since Office 365 users get a terabyte of storage with their plan, and OneDrive offers automatic photo uploading from your mobile device, it seemed like a good fit. I quickly enabled it and have been very pleased that images sync automatically to OneDrive.

From there, I can run Cloud Sync on a Synology NAS over WebDAV to bring a copy of all the images down. (I’m using a 5-bay Synology 1019+ for this article, but if you want to process images directly from your NAS, a 10Gbps model can provide better performance.) Having a local copy isn’t important to me just for archival purposes. It also makes it so I can catalog all my images and work on them in local photo editing tools, without having to look one place for my DSLR and Drone photos and a different place for my phone photos.

The only downside I’ve found with using OneDrive this way — aside from needing an Office subscription — is that the images aren’t as nicely organized as with Adobe or Google. They are just thrown into one (large and growing) folder. As long as you have a folder-agnostic cataloging system like Lightroom, that isn’t too painful, but if you’re looking to browse images by folder, it’s quickly hopeless. Whichever mobile app you use for syncing your images, remember to ensure it will find all your photos. If you only use your phone’s default camera app, it should work automatically. But if you also capture Raw files or use a third-party camera application, you might need to manually add the folder or folders where those images are stored.

Commercial Photo Sharing Services Like SmugMug Are Also an Option

SmugMug allows users to automatically sync all their mobile photos to a dedicated gallery, which can be downloaded at any timeAdobe and Microsoft aren’t alone in offering a way to automatically upload your mobile images, of course. It’s become a popular feature for other photo-sharing services, but not all of them offer good tools for downloading or syncing your library once it is on their service. One that I’ve used with success is SmugMug. The company offers a free app that allows its users ($5.99 per month and up) to automatically upload their mobile images to a gallery of their choice. You can download galleries or even sync them with Lightroom via SmugMug’s plugin.

Creating Your Own Photo Cloud Using a Synology NAS and Moments

There are a number of companies that offer you the capability to create your own photo storage cloud. For this article, I chose to use a Synology 1019+ 5-bay NASSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce as a reasonably priced hardware option with solid features and a 5th bay for additional expansion room. Plus, it comes with Synology’s Moments application, a modern solution for storing, organizing, and if you want, sharing your mobile photos.

You can use Moments for your existing photos as well — by moving them into the Moments folder tree — or sync the contents of your Moments folders over to the location on your NAS where the rest of your images are stored. For writing this article, I’ve chosen the latter approach for simplicity. Synology also offers a Photo Station package, which is a more traditional photo organizing system but doesn’t have the same support for mobile devices.

Moments has an Auto-enhance feature similar to Google's Assistant that picks out what it considers some of your best images and proposes an automated color enhancement

Moments has an Auto-enhance feature similar to Google’s Assistant that picks out what it considers some of your best images and proposes an automated color enhancement.

Organizing Your Images With Synology Moments

Like many photo organizers, Synology has jumped on the AI-powered scene, object, and people recognition bandwagon. They don’t have the RD horsepower of a Google or Adobe to deliver the very best results, but Moments does a competent job of automatically tagging people, subjects, and places. In addition, you can enable a capability that scans your images, picks out what it thinks are your best, and suggests an automatic color enhancement.

Synology's moments automatically tags people, subjects, and places in your images

Synology’s moments automatically tags people, subjects, and places in your images

I don’t find the results as impressive as Google Photos’ Assistant, but they can definitely bring some life to a scene without requiring any work. Moments can also find groups of similar images, so you can choose to delete some to save space. For me, disk drives are inexpensive enough that I’d rather add more storage than spend my time deleting similar images, but the option is there if you want it.

Tips for Setting Up Your Server

Whether you use a dedicated NAS like a Synology, QNAP, or Netgear, or add a drive array to a Windows or Mac server, there are some common considerations. First, I’ve grown to like the flexibility of 5-bay NAS units, compared with the more traditional 4-bay units. I can run a 3-drive RAID for my main data store, and still have two drives for a mirrored pair for storing our surveillance camera footage, for example. Second, make sure that your array can support large drives. This is especially true if you also want to use it to back up your desktop and laptop drives.

We tested the 1019+ with Seagate IronWolf and IronWolf Pro drives of various sizes, including 14TB and the new 16TB models. All worked well, providing the possibility for massive storage. For example, 3 16TB hard drives in a RAID-5 or Hybrid RAID configuration would provide almost 32TB of usable storage. Speaking of drive sizes, if you use one of the new RAID options, like Synology’s Hybrid RAID (SHR), then you can enlarge your array easily by adding more or larger drives. That’s in contrast to traditional RAID formats, which often require serious work to perform an expansion.

Picking a Strategy That’s Right for You

If you’ve gotten used to the simplicity that comes with using your smartphone and relying on a cloud connection to Google Photos to manage your images, then all of these options might seem like a lot of extra work. But for many of us, our photographs are a lifelong asset, and in some cases may be enjoyed by generations to come. So it is worth thinking about the future and what your photos and videos are worth to you before it’s too late and something happens to them.

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