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Flickr's 1TB for photos is great, but how about a smart shoebox?

commentary More space for online photo storage is a welcome move, but it's also like having a bigger "shoebox" where more of your photos get lost. How about an increase in organization?


Last week, Google gave everyone 15GB of space to store their photos. This week, Yahoo takes that to 1 terabyte. You know what? I don't need more space for my photos. I need these tech giants to get smarter about organizing them for me.

I have an entire column I've been meaning to write about my personal journey in trying to organize my pictures. I haven't gotten to it, because like my photos, I haven't sorted it out. It's a nightmare -- and I'm a pretty organized person.

Trusting myself more than software
Perhaps I make it hard on myself. I don't want to just leave it to my computers to import and do whatever they think is best with my pictures, because I don't trust them to do the right thing.

Will iPhoto grab pictures correctly and put them in all the right places off my iPhone? Should I let it clean off those SD cards scattered about from standalone cameras? And how do I deal with the fact that I live in a house with four different people, all taking pictures that I want to ensure are safely stored and organized?

My own personal process for years had been to pull pictures off various devices and organize them into folders. I have a folder for each year. Within each year are subfolders organized by date along with the event.

For example, when my family went skiing at Mammoth Mountain in January 2012, all those pictures went into a folder I called "1201 mammoth." A kayaking trip that same month all went into "1201 kayaking."

It's not a perfect system, but it has the advantage of being 100 percent guaranteed not to get screwed up by some photo organization tool. I absolutely, positively know that I can find all my pictures from a particular time and event and, importantly, in a "transportable" way between services.

Trying again to get organized; worried about transportability
See, I've been burned by being too trusting of a photo tool before. Back in 2004, I discovered, and fell in love with, Adobe Photoshop Album. The tool allowed me to tag pictures manually, so that I could find pictures by people or places. Plus, I could locate by time pulled from the pictures themselves.

After about two years, I couldn't keep up. I was taking so many digital photos with our family's single digital camera that I never found the time to import and tag them in a way to keep them organized. I fell back to my more manual organization process, when I could find time to do even that.

Last year, I tried to become better organized again. My wife, seeing a friend who had all of her family photos available through iPhoto on their family's iMac, wanted the same. "I just want to go to one place and get all our pictures," she told me.

Challenge accepted. I purchased an iMac for our own family, with lots of storage, then went to import all our pictures into iPhoto. It has lots of great tools within it, including the ability to detect faces or locate photos geographically. I'm in!

Except, lurking in the back of my mind remained that issue of how transportable all that tagging -- that "meta data" -- was going to be if I ever left iPhoto. After all, iPhoto couldn't pull in any of the tagging info I did with Photoshop Album. Two years' worth of work was lost. I didn't want to go through that again.

The answer turned out to be "not very." The photos themselves would always keep any time and location stamps within them. But how I tagged them to events or people in iPhoto wasn't going to flow outward -- not easily.

Things haven't progressed much for me since the middle of last year, when I did my last big organization. I did pull all the pictures off our various phones and cameras and filed them using my manual process, then imported all of those into iPhoto on the family iMac. My wife, largely, got what she was looking for.

But I didn't get what I wanted: the ability to hit that same collection and pull pictures up by person or event, because I've still been stalled on making that investment in tagging again. Plus, I haven't even had time to organize the latest photos into folders, as I'm used to.

How about iPhoto Match?
Ideally, I want iPhoto (or something like it) to sync with the cloud in the way that iTunes Match does for music. I love how iTunes Match cleaned up my music, and I no longer worry that I might have some that's gone missing. It's all there, on my laptop, my phone, and in the cloud, kept in sync. Plus, I do the same now with Google Play Music, as well. Triple backup!

That's part of the promise of Picturelife, which aims to be that cloud-based backup and sync for your devices, even staying in sync with organization you do within iPhoto. It's a promise I like so much that I signed up for it last year. But the reality is that I've yet to make use of it, because I still remain stalled trying to do that initial organization.

Backup, at least, is better
At least adopting Apple's Photo Stream, Google+ Auto Backup (formerly Instant Upload) and Windows Phone Auto Upload have eased some of my backup worries. These give me some reassurance that if I haven't pulled the pictures off our various Apple, Android, and Windows Phone devices, I've got a copy in the cloud.

But those aren't without problems. Peter Nixey had a great post earlier this month that had me nodding in agreement on many things. Apple's Photo Stream having a 1,000-picture limit is, well, limiting. Sometimes I panic that I might not have pulled a photo off a device and stored it locally before it's been dropped by Photo Stream, leaving me without a backup.

Make my shoebox smart
Maybe it's time for me to just give up, let my devices import into iPhoto, Google+, Flickr, whatever, and trust that they'll all do the right thing. But I still feel like the organization I want, that I need, and that I can take with me from service-to-service doesn't get addressed.

Last week, Google promised that "Highlights" in Google+ would more easily help me spot my great photos. With nearly two years' worth of pictures in the system, yeah, it helps a tiny bit. It mainly works to help me navigate through photos by date. That's useful, given how Google generally doesn't put most of my photos in albums. For those it does, there's no geographical linking. And forget the idea of trying to find pictures by name.

Well, I take that back. Like Facebook, Google+ stands ready to help me publicly tag my pictures. Of course, I don't want to publicly tag pictures of my family members for Google or Facebook. But if I were going to get comfortable with the privacy implications of that, I want that data transportable.

In the end, I'm glad more online storage is coming. But while the bigger shoebox is great, especially as a backup for our precious digital memories, I think the real tech winner will be the company that figures out how to make us feel like we can sift through that box quickly and find what we want.

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