Put a Spotlight On All Your Memories

Call it a photography renaissance or narcissism run amok. The new rule is: “Pics or it didn’t happen.”

Digital cameras, especially smartphones, entice us to snap, snap, snap with abandon. Yet all these moments we capture seem to vanish into a digital Bermuda Triangle, castaways adrift on old phones and disk drives.

Finally, these photos get a lifeline. It’s now possible to collect every shot you’ve ever taken and keep it within reach on your phone, tablet or computer. Apple this month replaced its 13-year-old iPhoto with a new editing application called Photos that can collect all your pictures online in iCloud. With a few taps on your phone, you might rediscover a decade-old vacation sunset, or outtakes from a family portrait.

It’s delightful, and I can’t stop playing with it.

The Best Way to Organize a Lifetime of Photos

But Apple’s Photos is only a part of the good news. I’ve been testing four other applications with different ways to manage a lifetime of shots: Adobe ADBE -0.03% Photoshop Lightroom (which unveiled a speedier new version this week), ShoeboxLyve and Mylio. Like Photos, they require subscriptions or hardware to keep running, strong Wi-Fi and some patience during setup—but the payoff is worth it.

Though there’s still room for improvement, several factors have come together to make online photo management finally work: faster Internet in many homes and on phones and the technology to secure and access gigabytes of personal data on the go. Last year, we looked at online photo storage options, including Flickr, Dropbox and Google . But none of those are good at the ugly business of gathering up and getting all of your photos online.

The best of these new photo services can not only find lost photos, but also help you rediscover them through a timeline, facial identification and maps.

Which software does it best? That depends on what kind of equipment you own, how many photos you take and how comfortable you are with storing photos in the cloud.

The new Apple Photos is an improvement over iPhoto but requires commitment to Apple to get the advantages of storing your whole collection in the cloud.
The new Apple Photos is an improvement over iPhoto but requires commitment to Apple to get the advantages of storing your whole collection in the cloud. PHOTO:GEOFFREY A. FOWLER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Just Make It Easy

Without doubt, Apple made the simplest tool to store and edit your library. There’s just one catch: You have to commit to Apple.

A free replacement for the mercifully departed iPhoto that you get by updating OS X to its latest version (Yosemite 10.10.3), Photos zips through my test collection of 33,000 shots on a year-old iMac. I particularly like the smart tools for adjusting light and color and other basic retouching. Photos works largely the same on Macs as it does in iPhones and iPads.

Photos organizes your library into a big, beautiful calendar of thumbnails that you browse like a time machine. It can also figure out where in the world the shots were taken or find them based on faces it identifies (and occasionally humorously misidentifies).

You could use Photos as a stand-alone editor just on a Mac or iPhone. But if you’ve got snaps scattered across many iDevices, turning on the iCloud photo library lets you archive them all centrally and keep edits in sync everywhere without any effort on your part.

Apple gives everyone 5GB of free iCloud storage, but charges between $1 and $20 a month for more. My 33,000-photo test required the $4-per-month 200GB package.

Apple is replacing its Mac iPhoto application with a new one called Photos this spring. Personal Tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler got a preview. (Originally published 2/4/15)

The first time you upload your collection to iCloud, it will take a while—days, even, maybe weeks. How long depends on your Internet provider, how busy Apple’s servers are, and, possibly, the phase of the moon. At best, the upload rate was just under 3GB an hour, which is OK, but at other times and places it didn’t even clock a third of that. I wish Photos let you assign images star ratings, and that it would automatically import photos from other services, like Facebook and Google Drive, like some competitors do.

Apple gets some little details right, like saving your data plan (and a bit of battery) by only uploading from your phone when it’s on a Wi-Fi connection. And even though you’ve got every photo with you on your phone and MacBook Air doesn’t mean it’s going to eat up all of your storage space. Photos can make sure it only takes up space for the photos you need and downloads the rest as you request them.

Photos is designed to hook people on Apple. Importing shots from an Android or Windows phone requires plugging it into your computer. But using iCloud isn’t quite as limited as I’d feared: You can look at your Photos collection on non-Apple Web browsers and share gallery links to anyone. And if you decide to dump Apple, you can download your whole collection first.

I Want Easy, But Not Apple
The Shoebox app is an inexpensive Photos alternative for people who use Android or Windows.
The Shoebox app is an inexpensive Photos alternative for people who use Android or Windows. PHOTO: SHOEBOX

If you like the sound of Photos but you also run Android or Windows, a solid alternative comes from a startup called Shoebox. Its apps scour many different devices for photos to archive to its cloud. It will upload your phone’s camera roll, your old iPhoto collection or just a Windows or Mac folder you tell it to keep an eye on.

The Shoebox app is also good at helping you relive old photos by using features such as This Day in History, an addictive, ever-changing gallery. You can browse a timeline of photos or search by location and other tags, but it won’t ID faces in photos.

Shoebox also has another advantage: It’s cheap. Uploading unlimited original files costs $5 a month. Storing unlimited lower-res “screen quality” images is free.

Uploading speed was just as variable as it was with Photos, but Shoebox does cap image size at 20MB—and won’t accept the big raw files pros like to use. Shoebox’s app for PCs and Macs doesn’t store any of your collection locally. Because of this, getting a closer look at a photo can sometimes take time.

Shoebox’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t have built-in editing tools. You have use a different program, then load the edited photos back into Shoebox.

I’ll Make My Own Cloud
Lyve replaces a monthly fee with a hard drive that stores your photos and makes them available online.
Lyve replaces a monthly fee with a hard drive that stores your photos and makes them available online. PHOTO: LYVE

If you don’t like the idea of a monthly fee or just don’t trust a company to archive your memories in the cloud, try Lyve. A free app for Apple, Android and Windows devices, Lyve works behind the scenes to keep your collection in sync. Instead of uploading shots to the cloud, Lyve figures out where all your pictures are and puts thumbnail versions of them on every device. When you want the original, Lyve copies it from the device where it’s stored. (Just be careful not to delete it from the source.)

Setting up Lyve is faster because you’re not uploading to the cloud. It gets bonus points for also importing photos from Facebook, Dropbox and Google Drive.

But depending on a device somewhere else to hand over the full-size photo—or to even be online—can get complicated. This is where Lyve makes money: It sells drives that sit on your Wi-Fi network, always on, stuffed with all your photos. They charge $300 for 2TB. That drive even has a USB port and SD card slot on the back for easy uploading after a vacation.

Last week, Lyve unveiled Mix, a party mode that lets you instantly swap (and archive) photos with friends. But its apps still lack some editing and rediscovery aides, like searching for faces and places, that make Apple’s Photos so powerful.

If you want a lot more control over how all your shots are archived, a service called Mylio similarly makes a catalog of all your photos across different devices (including PCs, Macs and iPhones), gives you some pro-level editing tools to tweak them, then keeps them in sync everywhere. You can use Mylio to back up original files across several devices, too. But the more devices you keep in sync, the more it costs—starting at $50 a year for three devices and 50,000 photos.

I Need Professional Tools
Professional photographers and users of Apple’s now-retired Aperture will find Adobe Photoshop Lightroom offers them the best editing tools.
Professional photographers and users of Apple’s now-retired Aperture will find Adobe Photoshop Lightroom offers them the best editing tools. PHOTO: GEOFFREY A. FOWLER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

For pro photographers—and weekend wannabes like myself—Adobe’s Lightroom has long been a favorite for organizing and editing. A year ago, Lightroom began to wade online. An updated version brings speed enhancements and powerful facial recognition.

Subscribers to Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography Plan—$10 a month, including the latest Lightroom and Photoshop versions—can upload unlimited photos to its mobile service. These aren’t full-resolution files, but when you edit them on Apple or Android phones and tablets, changes stay in sync everywhere without damaging your originals.

The caveat: Lightroom won’t put your original files in the cloud or even copy them to another device (except in a file backup). Its mobile apps can be slower than Apple’s Photos to load the low-res images. And its tools for organizing photos based on location and facial recognition (both superior to Apple’s) are only available on the computer.

Still, Lightroom is the service I plan to stick with. For one, my whole collection is giant—much larger than Apple’s 1TB limit for Photos. And I like to edit photos on a big screen, so the quality of the tools I get there are the most important.

But I sure wish Adobe would go all-in on a cloud service like Apple’s Photos. That’s “something that we will consider for a future release,” a spokeswoman says.

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