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It’s an all-too-familiar alert: "Cannot take photo: Your phone has run out of storage."
Now what? Sort through thousands of photos to find some you can delete? Scramble off to a computer and fiddle with iTunes until it lets you back up your phone?
The rapidly changing landscape of personal photos and videos
Smart phone cameras have improved so much in recent years that most people take all of their photos with their phones. (I do.) This is really handy because it is easier than ever to capture moments as they happen.
When I was a kid, video cameras were huge and expensive. My mom once rented an over-the-shoulder camera for a week and took all sorts of videos — of us kids playing piano, a live enactment of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, and even a video of our dog nursing some kittens! Most of the videos I have from my childhood come from that single week with the camera.
The ability we have for capturing moments today absolutely dwarfs what was possible in the past. For instance, over the past few years my wife and I have taken thousands of photos and hundreds of videos of our kids, most of which are only seconds long because they are “in the moment” videos rather than the pre-scripted performances of my 1980s childhood.
But this advancement presents its own problem: Image and video resolution are ever increasing, but phone hard drives remain small. It doesn’t take long before you start running out of space, and need a “family plan” like Michael Scott:
Adventures in backup methods
In my early college days, we used to save and share photos by burning them to CDs. But this isn’t a long-term solution, since CDs fade over time and reach a point where they are no longer readable. (Plus, most computers don’t include disc drives anymore.)
CDs are also very easy to lose. At some point along the way, we lost a disc that had our wedding video on it. Despite much hunting and searching, it is lost forever because that little disc was the only copy.
External Hard Drives
It is still pretty common to back up photos to an external hard drive. But this has its challenges, too. For starters, it’s a pain. Periodically, you have to head to a computer, connect your phone or camera, and manage the import. Then you have to organize your photos in some way — often manually separating them into month-labelled folders so that you can look through your photos in an orderly fashion at some point down the road.
We kept our photos on an external hard drive for years. Until one day when we moved, and thought we lost a drive with 10 years’ worth of pictures on it. (But thankfully didn’t!)
Just like the wedding CD, external hard drives aren't a very secure way to keep your treasured memories because it is still just one device. It could go missing. It could get wet. Someone could sit on it. It could get erased by a strong magnet. Or it could be stolen.
I’ve seen some people keep a copy of their photo archive on a computer so that they have it in two places. But this isn’t much better. A computer has all the same vulnerabilities as a drive, and even more. Years ago when I was in college (in the bad old days before cloud storage), a malicious piece of software got onto my computer and corrupted the whole machine. I lost an entire semester’s work, along with everything else on it.
Keeping multiple copies of important files is a good idea — but you have to make sure the methods you are using are actually reliable.
Thanks for the sob stories, but what's the solution?
The simplest and most secure way to save your photos and videos is to save them to the cloud.
“The Cloud” is just another way of saying, "someone else’s computer.” But it’s a lot more than that.
Reason #1 to put your stuff on The Cloud: Reliability that borders on over-achievement
When you save a file to a cloud service, it is stored on an enormous network of computers — thousands of computers kept in a secure warehouse facility. And any cloud provider worth their snuff will use what is called “redundancy”, so that at any given time, your files are being backed up continually on a cluster of hard drives.
It’s like one computer is constantly asking the next, “Anything new?! Anything new?! Anything new?!” And whenever you have caused something new to happen, like saving a file or uploading a new photo, all the other copies in the cluster are updated as well.
Redundancy is important because computers fail. Sometimes even powerful cloud servers expire, and a hard drive will die. But no big deal, because it is only one of many in the cluster. When one dies, it is swapped out with a new one, and a fresh copy of all your files will be created automatically from the other computers in the cluster. And round and round it goes.
Mirror sites for even more redundancy
In addition to the regular run of redundancy, most cloud providers run multiple storage locations. One might be in Vancouver, another in Toronto, another in San Diego, another in Ireland, another in Australia…
In the same way redundancy happens amongst a cluster of computers in one storage location, the same thing happens between the other storage locations.
Say, for instance, that Vancouver is the “primary” location where your photos are actually stored. But one day Vancouver suffers an earthquake big enough to break some internet cables and bring down some networks. If this is the company’s only storage location, you’ll have lost access to your stuff temporarily while they get up and running again. Or worse, if they suffered a great deal of damage, your photos may have been destroyed.
Yikes! But take heart: if your cloud provider runs multiple locations, you’ve got nothing to worry about.
If Vancouver is rocked by an earthquake and goes dark for a while, your cloud provider will instantly switch you over to a “mirror site” — another storage location where there is an exact copy of all your stuff. Unbeknownst to you, you are now accessing Toronto’s copy of your files instead of Vancouver’s. And on you go.
The Survival of the Cloudiest
At any given time, there might be 50 or more exact copies of your files to guard against data loss.
Of course, there is always the chance that a worldwide catastrophe could take out a bunch of storage locations around the world all at once… But if the planet is in trouble, we’ll have bigger concerns than my son’s baby pictures…
Reason #2 to put your stuff on The Cloud: It's so easy!
Have you ever gone through the work of backing up your photos to an external hard drive? If you have, then you know how annoying and tedious that is. You can skip the whole bothersome process by using one of the many photo-backup apps available these days.
Perhaps the handiest feature of these apps is their automatic date detection. Why should you spend time moving your photos into date-labelled folders when software can do that for you? This feature alone saves countless hours you might have spent cut-and-pasting photos into manually-organized folders.
Here are a few notable cloud-photo providers:
If you’re an Apple user, iCloud is a natural choice. By storing your photos and videos on iCloud, you can save a lot of space on your phone, and access your stuff automatically from any of your other devices.
However, iCloud offers a mere 5GB of storage for free, which fills up pretty quickly. But iCloud storage is pretty affordable if you need more.
Amazon does a little better by offering unlimited photo storage for Prime customers, and 5GB free space for videos. Amazon’s Photos app is a convenient way to free up space on your phone. Just open the app and let it do its thing. It will automatically locate photos and videos it hasn’t already backed up. And when the upload completes, you can safely delete everything from your phone.
One Amazon Photos’ best features is their filtered search. You can scroll through months and years to see photos from the Christmas Grandma visited, or find your grad photos in a few seconds. Amazon put a lot of work into their search filtering, and it shows — it is easy to use and works really well.
Your Amazon photos are easy to access because you can always go through the app, or through the browser when you log into your Amazon account at amazon.com/photos.
Google Photos is free and unlimited — for photos and video. That’s right: you can upload everything without limit, for free.
And just like Amazon Photos, just open your Google Photos app and let it run. In addition, Google’s app will even offer to delete the photos from your phone afterwards, saving you a step. (But you’ll still need to go into your “Recently Deleted” items and permanently delete them manually to clear up your phone’s storage.)
Google’s search filters aren’t quite as nice as Amazon’s, but they still work well enough.
Apple, Amazon, Google, and others have been in hot pursuit of photo-recognition supremacy. My sneaking suspicion is that Google made its services free in order to get its hands on an enormous amount of photos to improve its photo-recognition capabilities. If you’re okay with Google using your photos to make its engines smarter, then Google is a great option.
Personally, I use Amazon Photos as my primary home for photos and videos, and I use Google Photos as a “backup cloud”.
There is also the lesser-known pCloud. They come at storage in a different way, offering monthly fees like Amazon and Apple, but also offering a “buy it once forever” option. If you like the idea of escaping monthly bills, pCloud might be right for you.
What about physical photos?
If you hail from the 80s like me, you probably have a huge stack of photo albums with real, made-from-living-tree photographs in them. Lots of companies have made basic photo scan apps or dedicated photo scanning devices. The dedicated scanners are impressive — they’re also expensive.
If you are looking for a cheap or free way to save digital copies of your pictures, I recommend Google PhotoScan.
Rather than taking a single shot of your paper photo, Google PhotoScan takes several, and automatically patches them together to get a higher resolution and light-corrected image.
Basically, you snap a photo each time the target icon on your screen touches one of the dots on the screen, and the app takes care of merging these dot-guided photos into one. You can save the resulting photo to your phone, or send it straight on to Google Photos.
Last stop: What about privacy? Reliability? Security?
Those are important questions.
Nowadays, privacy is a valuable commodity. Whenever we are on the internet, privacy is not guaranteed. If you are storing sensitive photos in the cloud, keep that in mind. Even stored in a “secure” cloud account, it’s still on the internet.
Generally, though, if you are using a reputable, long-standing company to store your files, your privacy and security become their problem. You can be assured that they are spending millions of dollars every year to safeguard their servers.
But all the same:
Rule of Thumb: When saving anything online, always ask yourself, “Would my life be ruined if someone got ahold of this?” If so, maybe take out a safety deposit box at a bank instead.
Remember all that stuff about redundancy? Because of that, a cloud server will always be more reliable than that single external hard drive you keep in your house. Multiple copies on multiple continents will ensure the survival of your photos long after your toddler decided to see if the shiny silver boat thingy can float in the tub.
In terms of “hackability”, an external hard drive is safer than online storage because you can completely disconnect the drive from the internet. But cloud providers take security very seriously, too. In fact, they stake their reputations on it. There is a media heyday every time some celebrity’s photos are leaked, and so cloud providers are always at work shoring up their networks against new emerging threats.
Let the cloud take care of your photos so you can go live your life.
If you have reservations about storing your photos on the cloud, don’t worry — you don’t need to go “all in” all at once. You could throw some photos on a cloud account just to try it out. You can always back out and delete everything afterwards.
But since our need for photo storage will likely only increase in the coming years, I invite you to give the cloud a try. Then you can use all your freed-up time to go and do things that will cause more pictures to be taken!