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The best way to back up all your photos (Status Update, Ep. 4)

Storing, backing up and finding photos is a pain, and tech companies haven't done much to make it better. Here's the no-nonsense answer for what to do.

Ian Sherr/CNET

Over the past couple of episodes, we've talked about how photos affect our lives and issues around publishing them to the web. But the biggest problem I keep hearing about is where to safely store all these memories we create. Do we keep them on our computers? Do we back them up to the cloud? Should we pay someone to do it? And who can we trust?

Today, we're going to get the answers.

The best way to back up all your photos (Status Update, Ep. 4)

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Ian Sherr

Every once in awhile I'm going to look at what it's like actually using the tech I talk about on this show.

The past couple episodes, for example, have been about how we all capture our lives and publish them on the web.

There's lots to consider when it comes to ethics or privacy -- but that's not what today's about.

Instead, we're going to talk about one of the biggest problems my wife and I have with our technology.

Ok, so, let's do a little word association. Theodore.

Laura Sherr

Cute.

Ian

Airplane.

Laura

Up high.

Ian

Trips home.

Laura

Great.

Ian

Backing up your photos.

Laura

The worst.

Ian

Why is it the worst?

Laura

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James Martin/CNET

Well, because I don't know where to back them up. I don't know where to start. And there are so many of them, will I ever see them again? And do I really need to save all of them anyway? And is it maybe excessive to save them all? And then you have to sort the good ones and that's overwhelming and who has the time for it?

Ian

That's my lovely and incredibly patient wife, Laura. You can probably relate to a lot of what she's saying.

Ian

And probably the system we use here at home isn't that great either.

Laura

No, it's not good. It does not work at all. It takes forever to load a photo. You can't even find a photo. So if you want a specific photo, you can't find it.

Ian

So it's fair to say you're frustrated by this?

Laura

Yes. Yes. It's a black hole.

Ian

All of us together are expected to take a trillion photos this year. With a T. And part of that is thanks to people like my wife and me, who are always snapping photos documenting our son Theodore's life.

What's interesting is that while the tech industry has been awesome at helping us figure out easier ways to shoot even more photos, they've done shockingly little to help us actually store and look at them.

The good news is you've got me.

And I promise, by the time you're done listening, you'll have a mostly foolproof plan for handling all your photos. Mostly.  

This is Status Update, a show about how tech is changing the way we raise our kids. OK, it's actually about how I'm raising my kid. I'm Ian Sherr, longtime tech reporter, editor, husband and now tech-obsessed dad.

If there's one thing you could say the tech industry is obsessed with, it's photos. Whether it's designing the best camera for your phone or programming a new app to share snaps with your friends, photos are one of the key things the tech industry revolves around.

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My son's first Apple event. Is it worth saving? Should I even have to think about this type of stuff?

Ian Sherr/CNET

And who can blame them?

All you have to do is look through the archives of National Geographic, Life Magazine or even the Pulitzer Prizes to get a glimpse of the power a good photo can have.

Heck, even a bad photo can do it. Remember that Miracle on the Hudson in 2009?  You know, the airplane that struck a flock of birds, lost engine power, and had to emergency crash-land on the Hudson River in New York?

The photo that went around the world wasn't taken by a pro with a $5,000 camera. No, it was a commuter on a ferry who snapped a picture with his phone and uploaded it to Twitter.

Photos are also the the reason many of us use the internet every day. My father, for example, only logs on to Facebook to look at photos of my son.

But it's not all sunshine and roses. When it comes to actually storing your photos, it's a mess

Anders Bjarby

And I think it is for everyone since we're not used to having those cameras with us every time everywhere. We take so many photos. How are we going to organize this?

Ian

This is Anders Bjarby. He's based in Sweden, running a small software company called Brattoo Propaganda Software. Originally, he started it because he realized Apple didn't have an easy way to find and remove duplicate photos on a computer.

Bjarby

It's very easy to get duplicates. So that's how it got started.

Ian

Just think about it. You take photos on your phone, you share them with your spouse or your family, they share photos with you, you back them up but you don't really know where. Then you get a new computer and you move the files over. And before you know it -- ack! -- thousands of duplicates.

Who's going to take the time to go through them? Not me.

That's why Anders built an app that does this for you. It's $8 and it's called Duplicate Annihilator. And considering he takes as many as 30,000 photos a year nowadays, he had plenty of reason to do it.

Anders

So I built it, and thought perhaps someone else on the internet would like it. And they did. So now it's a million-dollar business.

Ian

OK, what's so special about Anders? Well, he and I are part of a geek brotherhood that neither of us realized until we started talking. See, we both looked at all these photos we were taking and came up with basically the same way to store them.

How to describe it? Well, most of you probably don't backup your photos at all. If you do, you might use the photos app on your computer or you use something dead-simple like, say, Apple or Google.

Well, to Anders and me, that is way too easy.

Instead, we got these over-the-top geeky expensive devices called network-attached storage -- basically it's a device to store your photos and documents that you can connect over WiFi anywhere in your home. Sounds awesome, right?

Well, it's not. Remember Laura?

Laura

They're like in the cloud, maybe on some folders on the computer, and there's just so many of them, I don't know where they are. I feel confused.

Ian

Oh, and I didn't even mention that I pay about $120 a year for a backup service to store all my photos and documents outside my apartment just in case there's a fire and everything's lost.

Anders

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I would be devastated if I lost photos like this shot of my son's first smile.

Ian Sherr/CNET

Because that's your life, your memory, your everything. The rest of the stuff you can buy, the photos you can't.

Ian

So, to summarize, Anders and I have overcomplicated our lives with technology that kinda sorta doesn't really work well to back up our photos.

By the way, this geek brotherhood? It's bigger than you think.

Stephen Shankland

It's like eating your vegetables. It's not very much fun. You get some benefit from it. But for most people, it's so unpleasant that you're not going to mess with doing it.

Ian

This is Stephen Shankland, CNET's photo guru in residence and father to two adorable children. He's basically done it all. He's used all sorts of photo services, he actually knows how to use Photoshop, and he carries cameras big and small pretty much wherever he goes.

It turns out, he too has an overly complicated, mostly frustrating way of storing his photos.

Shankland

For me, I do it and I don't enjoy it, but I get benefit from it, but I don't enjoy it one bit.

Ian

So what does he do?

Well, for photos he takes on his phone, he relies on this service called Dropbox, which is free to start but costs as much as $10 a month for a terabyte of space. Or enough to store a quarter million photos.

So Shank, as we call him, takes all the photos on his phone and he automatically sends them to Dropbox. Which then syncs them to his computer. And from there, he uses an app called Lightroom, which is from the people who make Photoshop. It costs $10 a month and it helps him to organize his photos.

Now, that's just for photos he takes on his phone. If he's using his fancy camera, it gets more complicated.

Shankland

I pull out the flash card like a peasant. And I plug it into a flash card reader and I import the photos also with Lightroom.

Ian

And then comes the tagging.

Shankland

If I'm diligent, then I will dutifully tag the people in the photos and put titles and captions on there. If I'm lazy, I will select a whole lot of them, give them all the same title.

Ian

Now, this all works for him because he a) doesn't keep a lot of photos on his phone to show to people and b) he's diligent about looking through his photos at least every month.

I'm neither of those things, and most people aren't either. Let's be honest, OK?

For everyone else, there are about five real options to handle your photos: Apple, Google, Facebook, Flickr and Amazon.

So let's go through them.

Apple, you may remember, invented iPhoto, basically an iTunes for your photos. Back when it came out, just after the first iPod, it was amazing. You could dump photos into it, create albums, sync them to your iPod, create websites with it. It was so incredible, people paid as much as $80 for it.

Ian

That was Apple's co-founder Steve Jobs, introducing iPhoto in 2002. Which, if you're keeping track, was more than a decade ago. And that's the point.

As we've become increasingly web-focused though, iPhoto's become less useful. We share photos a lot more now, and many of us -- including myself --  often use Facebook to do it. Apple's tried to upgrade iPhoto, it's even replaced it with a new app called Photos, and it's created a syncing and sharing service called iCloud Photo Library, which is free to start but then costs about a buck a month for 50 gigabytes of storage, or about enough to hold 15,000 photos.

Google is easy: It has an app called Google Photos. You dump your photos into it, it organizes them. The end result is that you can search for stuff like "beach" and its computers will scan your photos and find them. It's incredible.

So what's the downside? Well, you have to trust Google with your photos and, if you choose the free option, the backups are lower-quality than the originals. Now you can choose to pay about $2 a month for 100 gigabytes, or enough to hold about 33,000 photos. You can go up to $300 a month for 30 terabytes, or about 10 million photos, but that's a little crazy.

Facebook is the world's largest photo sharing website, but that's about where it stops. It's really hard to find and organize your photos, so it's not a place to store them.

Then there's Flickr, which was bought by Yahoo and, by the way, is now owned by Verizon. Flickr is that awesome photo site your nerdy friend was using back when we all still had Blackberrys and flip phones. It's tried to keep up with the times, but let's just be honest: Most Flickr users I run across are like Shank and myself.

Shankland

If you're interested in Bentley cars, or if you're interested in bird photography, then Flickr is gonna be good for you, because there are lots and lots of photos from lots of really good photographers who are out there who can provide you inspiration. There are lots of these little communities. None of these communities are your friends and family.


Ian

OK, and then there's Amazon, which has photo sharing as part of its its $99 a year Prime subscription where you get two-day shipping, streaming music, video and so on. And, unlike Google and Facebook, you can back up full-quality images.

But video isn't free, so pony up at least a buck a month if you want to backup the magical shaky cam of your kid's first steps.

WHEW. 

OK, I'm tired and that's just naming the top five. I haven't even gotten into WordPress, Koken, Fanfare, Imgur and all the other ones out there too.

OK, so what you've learned so far is that I overcomplicate my photo storage, and I've found like-minded individuals who probably frustrate their families too. Fun to hear, but not useful, right?

So here's where you're going to get the best advice you've ever heard about photos.

Shankland

OK, here's my advice: Use Apple Photos or use Google Photos and do not worry about it.

Ian

Yup. You could do all the complicated stuff, but let's be honest. If you're listening to me for advice, you aren't really up to that. And heck, I've been doing it this way for a long time and I'm not really up to it either.

It may not be appealing to pay someone like Google, but they're going to store all your photos, sort through them, and even automatically make video mashups for Mother's and Father's Days.

When it comes to Apple, there is one caveat: You have to live the Apple life to make it work. I mean MacBooks, iPhones, iPads, Apple TVs, all that stuff. Because when you have all those thing, you can do nifty things like take a photo on your phone on one side of the world, and almost suddenly your family can view it on your TV at home. It's super cool. But only if you've an Apple-d out your family.

Here's a final thought, in case you're tempted to go to someone other than Apple or Google. Remember the golden rule of the internet: If you don't understand how they make money, either you are the product -- in the case of Facebook, you're a pair of eyeballs they sell to advertisers -- or the company's not going to be around for a long time.

Ian

So yeah, to recap, pay Apple or Google. Or use their free services. For now.

Status Update is produced by me, Ian Sherr.

Editing by Connie Guglielmo. Reluctant backups by Laura Sherr and baby squeaks by Theodore Sherr.

Do me a favor? Go to Apple Podcasts or Google Play or wherever you get this from and leave a review. It really helps. You can also Tweet at me: @iansherr, or email me through CNET's website.

The ridiculously cute podcast logo was shot by James Martin, and produced by Justin Herman and Mollie Gilbert

That fun theme song heard at the beginning was by Lee Rosevere, and the piece you hear right now is by Jahzzar.

The other music in this episode came from the amazing artists who contribute to the Free Music Archive. I've put links to each of their pieces in this show's transcript, which you can find online at CNET.com along with some other helpful links about some of the things we discussed in this episode.

You know, CNET makes a bunch of other podcasts too, including the 3:59, which gives you the day's tech news in under four minutes. CNET also has tons of tech news, reviews, insights and analysis -- and it's all there just waiting for you.

Thanks for listening. Until next time.

Music in this episode

"Skeleton Dance" by Lincoln Grounds, Bob Bradley and Matt Sanchez

"Puzzle Pieces" by Lee Rosevere

"Take Sanctuary" by Joe Henson and Alexis Smith

"Tease Me" by Christopher Baron

"Gold Dust" by Martin Felix Kaczmarski and Alex Arcoleo

"Siesta" by Jahzzar