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Google Photos made a sad task easy and I’m grateful

I get it. Technology is consuming us. It’s turning our children into unhappy zombies, our social discourse into a swamp and may have helped Russia rig our elections.

It’s also wonderful and often sublime.

When my father-in-law passed away, we wanted to celebrate his memory with photos. Most of my digital photos are stored on a 1 terabyte network attached storage (NAS) device in my basement. The NAS is my bulwark against unexpected system and hard drive crashes. It gives me some piece of mind, but, to be honest, not enough.

I also suffer from Scatterimageitis. It’s a fairly common ailment typified by digital images stored on a variety of static and multiple mobile devices, CD-ROMs, SD-Cards and a small collection of proprietary cloud services.

Having all these photos scattered across devices and the ether is a continuing source of stress. I’ve tried to mitigate it by enabling cloud services from Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple. Each one offers a small amount of free cloud storage, usually 5 GB. If you own an iPhone, most of the space is filled up with full-phone backups, which does include photos. But 5 GB of storage is no match for all the photos and video you can store on a 128 GB iPhone. I now pay $0.99 a month for 50 GB. It’s not enough and I’m sure I’ll eventually start paying $3.99 for 200 GB.

I’m also a $99-a-year Microsoft Office 365 Home customer which gives me 1 TB of cloud storage (for each one of my four family members). I mostly use this for my documents, though I do have some images in the Microsoft cloud, as well.

Even Amazon offers me cloud storage. As a paying Prime member, I can store an unlimited number of photos in Bezos’ cloud. It’s a tantalizing offer, but I chose a different path.

The art of organization

Back in 2004, Google purchased Picasa, a powerful, free, image editing and organization application. It uses my digital photos’ file and meta information to organize my photos by date and location. Later, when Google added facial recognition, I spent hours identifying faces, letting Picasa do the hard work of finding other similar visages across thousands of photos, all of which were stored on my NAS.

When Google discontinued Picasa in 2014, I was initially heartbroken. The application still works to this day on my desktop, but is falling behind more modern and intelligent applications. Plus, to be honest it was still only a half measure for my Scatterimageitis. I still downloaded SD-Card-based photos (taken with my Sony Alpha NEX-5) to the NAS, but unless I manually added my iPhone photos to my NAS drive, they were not part of the archive.

I had to make a change, one that would recognize my local image store and the one I was constantly building with my iPhone.

When Google unveiled Google Photos in 2015, I reflexively rejected the application and its unlimited storage for high-but-not-full resolution photos out of pique. They took away my Picasa, I would keep my photos to myself. However, a year and a half ago, I relented and installed Google Photos on the iPhone 7 Plus I was using. I subsequently took the phone with me to Italy, where I took a hundred or more excellent photos. For some reason that I cannot recall, I was not backing up that phone and when I tried to update it to a beta version of iOS I basically bricked it…and lost all those precious photos.

Or so I thought.

Turns out that Google Photos had been doing its job all along and, yes, it had every single one of my Italy photos stored in the cloud, perfectly organized.

A convert

After that, I installed Google Photos on every iPhone I use and added it to my primary home desktop PC, as well. In that system, I pointed it to my basement NAS archive and left it alone. Over the next few weeks, it crawled through countless folders and sub-folders, sucking up almost 20 years of digital images and created digital copies in the cloud that, while not always full resolution, still look excellent on virtually any screen. (I could pay $1.99 a month for full resolution storage up to 100 GB).

Now, whenever I want to find a photo I or my wife has taken of a person, place or thing, I open the Google Photos app on my phone and search with a keyword or name. I’m never disappointed. And I’ve stopped worrying about losing my photos or running out of local storage.

When my father-in-law died, I pulled out my phone and began the search for all photos of him. I chose his face from all those automatically listed in the app and instantly had hundreds of photos, all in chronological order, to choose from. In my estimation, Google’s Facial Recognition technology is the best in the business.

Google Photos was not a complete solution for my photo memorial needs. Grampa was in our lives in the decades before digital photos. My son and I spent an afternoon combing through boxes of old, physical photos, looking for pictures from the late 1980s and 1990s featuring Grampa. When it was time to add them to my collection, I used another Google tool, PhotoScan, which can also be found under Google Photos.

The app offers a quick, easy, and effective way of digitizing photos of almost any style and quality (old black and white, matte, glossy, bent, etc.). To use it, I placed each photo on a flat surface, positioned the phone over them and then scanned the image by moving the phone over four large white dots that appeared over the image.

Because Google Photos is also a cloud-based service tied to my Google account, I’m able to access my photo library through Google Chrome on the desktop. I used the browser to select and organize (scanned photos lack meta info, so I had to drag and drop them into the proper chronological order) the best Grampa photos.

Next, I selected the slideshow option and then set up my Microsoft Surface Pro as a tablet and launched my Grampa Memorial Slideshow, letting it run throughout the course of our Shiva.

I’m not naive. Google’s access to my data usually gives them lots of demographic information about me and, perhaps, my family, all of which they can use to monetize my existence. However according to Google’s Terms of Service, storing my photos in their cloud does not equate to me giving up my intellectual property rights. In addition, Google’s Privacy Policy says they’re not using my photos for advertising purposes.

To be honest, even if Google did use my photos to connect me with contextual advertising, I’d consider this a fair trade-off. I’m getting unlimited free storage and powerful tools for digging into my own personal archives and they’d get something valuable in return.

Technology isn’t perfect and, I agree, it has the power to do as much harm as good. But it also literally makes what was once virtually impossible, possible. Without Google Photos and my local and cloud-based storage, creating and sharing my father-in-law’s life in images would have been a daunting task at a time when I likely had the least energy to do it.