Assorted Notes On My Great Photo Organizing Project

For years, my wife has wanted all our photos in one place. Hey, so have I. And I’m so close to the ultimate goal: 10 years or more of photos organized in one place, backed up in the cloud, available on our mobile devices and any meta data carefully preserved so if I ever stop using say, Google Photos, all the work done to get things in place isn’t lost.

Warning: this is not yet a complete article. In fact, I’m likely to do a series of them, if only because writing about photo organizing is easier than actually organizing photos.

OK, but seriously — I find myself wanting to make a lot of notes about issues I have with various services as this journey continues. So, this will be my repository for that. Eventually, I’ll return to it to produce something that might be more helpful for anyone.

Seeking A Long Term Shoebox

I would recommend an article I wrote in 2013 called Will Apple’s Photos app solve ‘photo bankruptcy’? (answer: no) which is a comprehensive look at issues I have when it comes to a safe system for archiving photos. It describes my BOSES requirement:

  • Backup
  • Organization
  • Shareable
  • Editing
  • Syncable

Having once organized everything in Photoshop Elements only to discover none of my work could transfer out of that program, I don’t want to get burned again. You know, like almost starting work in Apple’s Aperture only to have that program be retired.

My ultimate defense is that my photos files are organized locally and divided up in a way that at least ensure I always know the general date when things were taken as well as the subject:

Google would have us just trust it all to the cloud and to them organizing it. I know. When I’ve talked with the head of its photos effort, Bradley Horowitz, that’s exactly what he says. And yet — I’m not quite there. I’m still paranoid, though Google is pretty close to doing all I need. So close, yet so far.

My Main Solution: Google

Google is so close that it’s frustrating. I can feed it all my files in the exact structure I want via Google Drive. But if I edit those files using the Google Photos editor, such as rotating 100 pictures from horizontal to vertical today, none of that is reflected in the files themselves. And, should I ever leave Google or need to use my changes elsewhere, that’s a problem.

What I really want is for Google Photos to make an actual software app for desktop that allows for easy bulk editing, location adjustment, date and time changes, organization of photos into physical albums, some bulletproof meta data system and more. Some more about this and my frustrations can be found here, which includes Google’s broken promise to let Google App users have their Google Drive photos work in Google Photos (I use a non-Apps account to get around this).

The Solution I Wished Worked: Apple Photos

Apple had what seemed like the solution I wanted, in part — Aperture. It was able to manage your photos without actually having to import the files into a giant library file like iPhotos did. But Aperture support is retired; iPhotos is dead and Apple Photos is a big bag of disappointment.

I love how Apple Photos lets me edit and organize my photos. But all those photos have to be stored within it locally, which means I can’t have Google Photos pulling them in. That means I don’t get all the amazing creations that Google Photos makes. It also means that I have to deal with the Apple Photos app deciding it wants to download everything or nothing or device-specific images or OMG I can never figure it out and it’s so bad that even my teenage sons were like how do we get this crap off our iPhones we’re using Google Photos forever now and it’s wonderful and Apple is so dumb….

You get the point. Like Google, so close yet so far.

Time For Those Notes

OK, I did warn this wasn’t a finished article but rather a work in progress. Here’s what I’m dealing with and how it’s going:

  • 335 GB of 62,500 photos and videos from 1996 through 2015, including over 2,000 scanned photos (I outsourced this to Scan My Photos; there are also plenty of other companies out there — and no, I’m not paid to mention them) and more older photos to come
  • Files stored locally in folders by year, month/subject
  • Files synced with Google Drive
  • Google Photos allowed to show Google Drive images
  • Test same files synced with Amazon, Flickr and maybe SmugMug (and see this great article from Casey Newton for a round-up of photo services)
  • Maybe return to testing Apple Photos as a solution
  • Maybe look at Adobe Lightroom as a solution
  • A Better Finder Attributes as a savior in changing file & EXIF dates on the Mac

And below, the notes by platform, as they develop.

Google Photos Notes

  • So frustrating that Google Photos only does pretty much a one-way sync with Google Drive. I discovered 2,000 of my photos had the wrong dates on them, because I copied over the wrong folders that hadn’t been corrected. It was fairly fast work to correct locally, which in turn syncs to Google Drive. But Google Photos sticks with the old dates.
  • Google Photos could really use a bulk delete tool. I decided after the issue to completely start over. There’s no delete all tool. There’s no way to even just close your Google Photos account without closing your Google Account (as opposed to Google+, for example). Deleting from Google Drive is supposed to wipe-out all your synced photos, but that took forever. I ended up doing a combo, including selecting a ton of pictures through the painfully slow Google Photos interface. Afterward, Google Photos still thought it should somehow keep placeholder spots for all the years now gone like this below. Eventually, these disappear only to come back. Ugh.
  • Could you make file rotation any more difficult, Google Photos? Be like Preview on the Mac, one click does it. I shouldn’t have to open a picture, click on crop, click three times on the rotate button to get the right orientation because you can only rotate one way, then have to hit Save and then Exit)
  • Google Photos insists on using Date Modified as the date of a photo rather than Date Created, at least from the file date information. Ugh. I’m not sure if an EXIF date would help override this. But it shouldn’t be that way regardless.
  • Google Photos face matching technology is great. But it would sure be nice if you could pick the actual face used.
  • I can’t express enough how painful it is to use Google Photos when you have a lot of photos. Scrolling back on desktop is nightmare. It’s easier on tablet once I figured out the whole pinch-and-zoom thing. But at least bring the the jump to date feature that Google+ Photos had to desktop.
  • Above is an example of the awesomeness of Google Photos. It’s identified a number of my photos from over 20 years ago to various places without any help from me. Below, in the notes on Adobe Lightroom, you’ll see me talking about how some photos lack location information and how you can add this. But Google Photos makes this unnecessary for some — perhaps many — photos. It’s amazing when it works right and shows the vision that we shouldn’t have to do all this stuff by hand but rather just trust the technology. But…
  • If you ever need those photos out of Google, then all that location information is lost. Hence me wishing it would operate similarly to say iTunes Match. Improve my photos by adding additional information in a transportable way that’s written to the file itself. Please.
  • Oh, one problem with that above awesomeness. Clicking on any of those places doesn’t bring back any photos. I suspect a bug, perhaps in part because I don’t think Google Photos coped well with my big delete of photos originally uploaded.

Amazon Cloud Photos & Video

  • Wow. Despite my scanned photos all having dates that reflect when they were taken in the file date (I do this manually), Amazon lists them as having no date. That’s probably because there’s no EXIF meta data embedded in them. And I can’t add EXIF data to my scanned photos using A Better Finder Attributes, it seems, because the files need to have that type of information embedded at the time of creation. Sucks.

Adobe Lightroom

  • Loaded up the trial version. Love it. It allows you to manage all your files without having to actually import them into the program. IE — they can stay in their original location on your local drive. But, you can make edits to those files, such as…
  • Have a scanned photo that lacks EXIF information on when it was actually taken? You can add this information using Metadata, Edit Capture Time then just enter the time you want. Right click, Metadata, Save Metadata To File and you’ve then added a new EXIF field with the information. WARNING: there’s always a chance you could corrupt an original file doing this type of thing, so have backups before trying. But it worked great for me.
  • Have a scanned or any photo that lacks GPS location? Use the Map module in Lightroom, then search for the location you want. It doesn’t even have to be precise — you can set a radius for a general area. Then drag the photos you want with that location recorded from the “filmstrip” below the map and onto the point. When done, to the Save Metadata trick from above, and now you’ve added GPS info.
  • After using Lightroom, I wish Google would by Adobe and integrate it with Google Photos. Or that Adobe would allow it to sync with either Google Drive or Google Photos. Facebook & Flickr publishing are supported. Why not Google? But actually, you can do it one way. Just put your photos into a Google Drive folder, then whatever changes you make are backed up to the cloud. But…
  • Google Drive changes won’t alter what Google Photos does with your images, after it reads them for the first time. IE, if you go back and change dates or location, Google Photos won’t recognize any of that. Hence me wanting a true sync capability, in the way that changes made with Apple Photos on the desktop (or in the Photos app) are fully reflected within photos stored in the cloud.
  • Sadly, there’s no way to save location data into a video file or ensure that a date is embedded. Researching other ideas, but I wish this were built into Lightroom.

Metadata & Location Thoughts

It’s now December 20, about two months since I first wrote this post. In that time, I’ve been using Lightroom as noted above to add location data to hundreds of old photos that were scanned or shot with digital cameras or even smartphones but lacked location. Suddenly, it all changed as of July 2008. Because iPhone.

I’d used smartphones well before the iPhone — Windows Mobile smartphones. But those phones, nor any of my digital cameras, captured location. The iPhone did, and what a difference it makes.

Location is so helpful in understanding where a picture was taken. I know, duh, that’s what location is about. But you realize how helpful it is that this can now be embedded in our photos especially when dealing with scanning older ones. I have pictures from when I was a kid, and some have dates on the back, which were really helpful. But no location. Where is this that I was fishing as a kid, for example?

Sadly, I’ve discovered that for all the advantages Lightroom allows in adding location to photos that lacked it, it can’t do the same with video.