When last we met, I pointed out the perils of using Apple’s iCloud Photos for photo backup for one simple reason: if you delete an image off your iPhone, Apple will in turn also delete it from iCloud*.
This time I’d like to go over the best alternative photo backup options for you in more detail, because like it or not, in today’s world, just like paying for food, shelter and taxes, if you snap photos on your smartphone or camera, you will be paying for online storage. And paying more in the coming years as well, as you snap more images.
There’s no such thing as free backup anymore.
Well, let me clarify that. Google offers 15 gigabytes of “free” storage, but that counts for Google Photos, as well as Gmail and Google Drive. I try to stay on top of my Gmail, but my mailbox currently has 46.27 worth of gigabytes that needs to be cleared out, and I have 17.21 GBs in Google Photos.
And they’re growing all the time.
Apple and Microsoft give you 5 GBs of “free” storage as starter points, but a few weekends of casual photo and video shooting, and you’ll eat that up in no time.
If you’re not paying now, you will be. The question is: where do your dollars go, as you have several alternatives.
Why: Members of the $139 yearly Prime subscription service for faster shipping and entertainment also get unlimited photo (but not video) uploads.
Pro: Unlimited storage tops the list. Download the Amazon Photos app and you can set up automatic uploads from your iPhone or Android device. Another bonus: if you have Amazon Fire TV streaming, your recent smartphone pictures (or ones uploaded from your camera) will show up on the TV as a screensaver, and that’s fun.
Con: The interface of the Photos app isn’t pretty, navigation is tough, and the canned slideshows Amazon creates to really bad music aren’t worth your time. And you could upload your entire photo library to Amazon and see the terms one day and suddenly change. This happened in 2017 when Amazon killed off what was called “Cloud Drive,” a service that also, at one time, offered unlimited storage.
My recommendation: store your stuff on Amazon, but elsewhere as well.
Why: With rates starting at $75 yearly for unlimited storage, it’s the most affordable of the services.
Pro: (Full disclosure: SmugMug is sponsoring the upcoming season 4 of #PhotowalksTV.)
Aimed at photographers, but accessible to all, the price and SmugMug services (customer support that answers questions within minutes) should make anyone looking for a safe home for their photos consider it. Photos look great on the Web and in the app, they’re easy to share, and the auto-upload process works like a charm. Everything you snap on your phone goes into a specific storage folder that’s organized by month and year, so even when on vacation, you know everything is being backed up while you sleep.
Con: Search for photos isn’t in the Google/Apple league, although you can help yourselves by taking the time to keyword and tag photos, a chore many people may not want to do. If you remember when you snapped the photos (or visited a specific place) you’ll have an easier time finding those images. Videos are included in auto uploads, but only if they’re 1.5 GBs or less, which knocks most of my videos out of the auto loop. (I upload manually.)
Why: Pay $9.99 monthly for 2 TB of storage, and have an easier time finding your photos and videos, thanks to Google’s superior search.
Pro: The default photo app on Android phones (and no. 1 most downloaded photo app on iOS, per Apptopia) happens to have the best search. In a world where we’re snapping hundreds and thousands of images yearly, that’s really important. Google Drive, which comes with your subscription, is a pure online hard drive that unlike Apple iCloud Photos, doesn’t delete stuff if you remove it from your device.
Con: Google Photos used to have unlimited, free downloads, if you agreed to let Google lower the resolution of your images. That ended in 2021. Now pricing is hard to figure, since it also includes your Gmail and Drive. Go over your limit and you won’t be able to reply to or send new Gmails. The search that is so great on Google Photos isn’t as seamless on Drive, where tons of documents, e-mails and other data show up along with your photos in a search.
Why: Online storage and Microsoft apps for $6.99 monthly and 1 TB of storage.
Pro: As I say, there’s no such thing as free storage anymore, and if you need access to Microsoft security and apps like PowerPoint, Excel, Word and Outlook, you get photo backup and programs we used to buy outright. Works seamlessly in the Windows world, as well as iOS.
Con: I’m not a fan of Microsoft apps, so this program isn’t for me. And 1 TB isn’t enough storage, says the guy with 40 terabytes of hard drive space on his desk.
*Apple iCloud Drive
Why: Apple deletes photos from your iCloud Photos pool if you kill a photo from your iPhone. But this way, you can upload directly to iCloud without having to worry.
Pro: A way of backing up your stuff in the Apple ecosystem ($9.99 for 2 TB of storage) without those pesky deletes. On Mac computers, the Finder has an iCloud category along with your connected hard drives. Here you drag a folder onto the iCloud virtual hard drive to upload it directly. You can also click it open from the Mac to see what’s in there, without having to go to http://www. icloud.com.
Con: You’ll get the same daily nag messages informing that you’re either out of room, or about to be, and understanding the iCloud Drive system is confusing. (It’s built to have all your data available on multiple devices, and to back them all daily. That’s why the deletes disappear. Apple is sweeping the latest version of the devices, and showing you the most current version. The latest would be the one that didn’t feature the deleted photo from yesterday.)
Despite my asterisk and workaround, I still wouldn’t feel safe having folders in iCloud Drive and nowhere else, considering what happens in iCloud Photos.
“I had all my photos and videos in iCloud (Photos), and one day all videos disappeared,” wrote Raymond Dionne to me this week from Nashville. “Why oh why did I stop backing up to my external, what an idiot I am.”
Dan Donovan, a St. Louis photographer, however, wrote me a lengthy and thoughtful defense of the iCloud system, which he loves. “The days of manually managing your photos when shooting with a phone are gone. Just let technology take care of it for you!”
I invited Dan to come onto the iPhone Photo Show podcast with me to talk about it. Look for it in the coming weeks.
Remember that storing photos on Facebook, Instagram and Shutterfly doesn’t count, as the services grind your original down to a low-resolution image that can’t be returned to you as high-res.
And a hard drive purchase is way more economical, if not as reliable. (You can pick up a small 4 TB drive now for under $100.) I like having online and offline backup. I wouldn’t do it any other way.
About the Author
Jefferson Graham is a Los Angeles-based writer-photographer, the host of the “Photowalks” travel photography series on YouTube, and co-host of the iPhone Photo Show podcast, a former USA TODAY tech columnist and working photographer. You can find more of Jeff’s work on his website, Facebook, Instagr