Apple Photos and the iCloud Photo Library once promised to be these marvelous things that would unify all of our photos and videos across all of our computers, mobile phones and tablets.
Instead, they have turned out to be yet more confusing, slow, deeply flawed software frustrations from Apple.
Yes, the Photos apps and iCloud Photo Library are huge disappointments. And Apple shows no sign of improving them any time soon. It’s time to kick them to the curb and find other solutions. Which is what I’ve done.
Faulty by Indesign
Really, let’s not lie to ourselves about this “new” Mac app called “Photos.” It’s really just iPhoto with a fresh coat of paint in the colour Ive (and if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years, it’s that Jonathan has no sense of colour). It’s slow and crashy and feels like it was designed circa 2006.
And iCloud Photo Library? It’s the molasses poured all over your iPhone’s camera app that slows its launch time to over 10 seconds. It’s the cludgy proof perfect that Apple still just doesn’t get the cloud.
Then there’s Apple’s boy-in-a-bubble syndrome. Apple Photos and iCloud Photo Library totally lock you into the closed, sterile Apple ecosystem. We’re cut out of engaging and collaborating with anyone who isn’t likewise willingly trapped.
One Platform to Rule Them All
If Apple sucks at software and services, it’s nigh-irrefutable that the company reigns supreme at devices and platforms.
Fortunately, because of the extensible spirit that Apple builds its iOS and Mac platforms with, iPads, iPhones and Macs themselves uniquely integrate with pretty much every other service out there. That represents tremendous opportunity, and there are plenty of alternatives to Apple Photos and iCloud Photo Library ready to be explored.
As Apple faded in my eyes, Google Photos grew on me pretty quickly when it was launched back in May. It does pretty much the same thing as Apple Photos, but better and cheaper. Plus, it has some candy-sweet features that bring your photos to life, like automated stories, animated gifs, and reminders of past events. Apple Photos seems veritably dead in comparison.
Even better, Google gives you options in terms of how your photos and videos get stored.
The quick and easy default choice is to have the service tuck an unlimited quantity of your pics and videos away for free in the cloud. There are some catches with this approach, of course, as there always are when things are free. First, it only saves lower-quality, lower-resolution copies of your pictures and videos (the average person wouldn’t notice the difference, however). Second, the files are locked away in a closed catalogue, just like Apple’s opaque iCloud Photo Library. Third, and most importantly, Google data mines your stuff for the purpose of profiling you and profiting from your photographic ventures.
The other choice you have with Google Photos is to have the full quality, original photo and video files saved directly into an open directory system on your Google Drive. So you’ll have full access to the files in your private cloud storage environment and can sync it with any device you like. There’s a cost associated with this option, but it’s notably lower than what you’ll pay for Apple’s iCloud Photo Library.
Unfortunately, beyond storage options, Google Photos offers almost nothing in terms of photo management. It is a service clearly aimed even more squarely at sucrose-hungry amateurs than Apple Photos. Not that I’m a pro photographer or anything, but I do like to at least add keywords and other metadata to my images. Google Photos doesn’t go there.
Fortunately, with the ability to save your files on Google Drive, you can expose them to cataloguing and management software from other companies.
Like Adobe Lightroom
Lightroom is way overburdened with superfluous features, but its excellent cataloguing capability is just what I’m looking for. Plus, it’s completely open in terms of letting me manually establish a location and structure for my photo files.
So I can combine the way Google Photos will save my photos and videos as files on Google Drive with how Adobe Lightroom enables me to catalogue my stuff, whatever file system it’s in.
My Own Personal System
This is were I’m moving my 90,000-plus, 500 GB photo library to.
Don’t freak out – it looks a lot more complicated than it really is.
The main parts of my photo-management process are represented by solid lines, and these are pretty much automated. The dotted lines represent backups or “bonus” parts. These are parts I’ll do manually, when I want to.
I’m using both an iPhone 6s Plus and an Android device (a Nexus 6) to capture photos day-to-day. And I have a propensity to randomly use various other mobile devices as they fall into my hands. (I’m trying to get my hands on a Nexus 6P right now…)
I also regularly shoot with a Sony NEX–7 DSLR camera.
So I have three main photo input sources. Those are represented at the top of the illustration.
The Google Photos apps on both my iPhone and Nexus automatically sync all my photos and videos from each device directly to Google Drive.
After I shoot with my NEX–7, I use Adobe Lightroom to import the photos from the camera into a directory system on an external hard drive that’s attached to my MacBook Pro.
And that’s where the connection into Google Photos comes into play.
That entire external drive is my Google Drive sync point. So the photos that get automatically uploaded from my iPhone and Nexus are placed into the same file system that my Adobe Lightroom catalogues are based on. And, likewise, the photos that I upload from my NEX–7 are placed into the file system that Google Photos uses.
Google Drive automatically syncs all of the sources together. Effectively, Google Photos and Adobe Lightroom share the same file system and each software environment can see all the photos and videos.
Then I use Lightroom to manually manage my entire media library’s metadata, adding keywords and sorting them into collections while Google Photos automagically manufactures delightful stories, animations and reminiscences for me on the fly. It’s a nice balance of sugary treats that Google feeds me and the pro power that Lightroom provides me.
But Wait, There’s More…
On top of that, I get plenty of extensibility.
Because the files are naked in an exposed directory system, I can back them up as I see fit, both locally and in the cloud. For example, from Google Drive I use Mover to sync the photos and videos directly over to OneDrive and Dropbox. This saves me having to use my expensive local internet bandwidth to transfer files up to each cloud file systems from my computer. (Mover is one of the best services available to heavy cloud users like me. It’s free, but I’d gladly pay for it.)
I also mirror the local external hard drive that syncs with Google Drive to a second external drive as another backup.
Addicted to the Apple
Despite my Escape from Appletraz, I’m still dependent in some ways on Cloud Cupertinoo Land’s way of doing things. For example, I like the fact that my Apple TV can display a gallery of my photos in my living room as an eternal screen saver.
Similarly, I love the fact that my Apple Watch can show me a different one of my favourite photos every time I glance at my wrist.
Not surprisingly, I can only feed these Apple devices my pictures through the Apple Photos ecosystem.
So I manually export the very best pics I take from Lightroom into Apple Photos, and they sync from there over to my Apple TV and my Apple Watch.
Migrating is Hard Work
I’ve slowly begun the process of moving my photos and videos out of Apple Photos and into this Adobe/Google hybrid I’ve designed.
It’s a long, time-consuming process and there are downsides. The downsides, though, really just reinforce the fact that I need to get out of Apple’s walled garden.
For one, even though all of my photos and videos are already stored in the cloud in iCloud Photo Library, I can’t move them directly from there to Google Drive using Mover because, as I mentioned before, the Apple system is a closed black box.
Instead, I have to manually export my photos out of the desktop Apple Photos app into Google Drive and it all has to be uploaded again. That represents considerable time and lots of expensive bandwidth.
Another major problem is the fact that Apple Photos can’t include all – or, in most cases, any – metadata with photo and video exports. That means the hours and days of time I’ve invested in tagging and cataloguing my media using iPhoto are probably going to be tossed away during this transition.
That’s a painful reality, but one I’ve reconciled to in the interests of moving to a more open, extensible system.
Closing Thoughts About Opening Up
Whining aside, I understand why Apple builds their software and services the way it does. It’s all about catering to customers with a low skill level and moderate needs. Apple’s stuff is easy to use and, with low utilization, works relatively well. If you just shoot a few pictures from time to time and want to sync them between your iPhone, iPad and Mac, Apple Photos is great. That’s fine, from a marketing perspective. You can easily get up and running and locked in with Apple’s products and services.
Once you have tens of thousands of pictures, though, and start using devices that don’t bear an Apple logo, things break down very, very fast.
That’s where Apple is doing its customers a disservice by not enabling us to grow up and easily leave its walled garden when we hit performance problems caused by its software quality failings. Like a hyperactive parent, Apple is doing its customers more harm than good by smothering us under the blanket of its hermetically sealed information ecosystem. Show us you love us: set us free, Apple.