Cropped version of a photo by Flickr user joeshlabotnik.

Google, plus our past = the future of photos

A couple years ago, I wrote about my first serious attempt to organize my family’s photos. 50,000 digital photos spanning more than a decade — scattered across multiple computers, phones, cameras, and hard drives. It wasn’t a bad first attempt, but if I’m perfectly honest, it required a fair bit of work to keep it current. Which means it was out of date pretty quickly. (And it’s just as well: my middle child repurposed the photo server earlier this year to be a Minecraft server.)

Then I remembered the photo albums. Dozens and dozens of photo albums. Actual dead-tree, hold-in-your-hand, photo albums. Photo albums from my childhood. Photo albums from my wife’s childhood. Photo albums from our early, pre-digital life together. Photo albums from grandparents, passed down to us when they died.

Photo albums that none of us had looked at in years.

So naturally I got rid of them.

Over the past six months, every few weekends, I took a Saturday afternoon and systematically removed the images from their albums, scanned them, and then recycled them. The end result?

When combined with 2012's effort at organizing our digital images, we now have an archive of over 75,000 images, spanning more than 50 years.

Here’s what I did:

Scanning

Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300

I’ve now scanned thousands of images using the Fujitsu Scansnap S1300, which works well with my MacBook Pro laptop. It supports scanning to JPG or PDF, is sheet fed so you can scan groups of pictures in bulk, and can do one-sided or two-sided scanning. (For some photos, we wanted to preserve the writing on the reverse of the images; for most, we simply wanted the picture itself.)

Saving

Using the Google Drive sync client, I saved the scanned images to the local Google Drive folder on my Mac’s hard drive — each album went in a sub-folder that corresponded to the year it was from. The Drive sync client saved each folder and all images to my Google Drive account in the cloud, and I shared the top-level folder (“Family photos”) with my wife and kids so they all have access to the photos as they’re saved.

(I upgraded my Google Drive storage to 1 terabyte, and I’m currently using just under 30% of that space. This plan used to cost $50/month; earlier this year that dropped to $10/month. If 100 GB will be sufficient for you, that will run you $1.99/month.)

A bonus? I now have access to every photo we’ve taken or scanned, from my phone, whenever I have Internet access:

Google+

Google+ has a setting that gives it access to images stored in your Google Drive account. There are several reasons to love this feature:

Stories

I’ve raved about Google+ Stories on Twitter previously; it really is as close to magic as anything Google’s shipped in a long time. But once I started scanning past albums into Google Drive, the real magic showed itself: every once in a while, a Google+ notification would appear, announcing it had a new Story waiting for me. My favorite was a Story for a trip to Prague my wife and I had taken 8 years ago. Even more amazing? I hadn’t labeled the photos: Google+ had applied image recognition to the photos, recognized a few of the landmarks, geo-tagged the pictures, and packaged up the best of the Prague photos into a shareable Story. Incredible! (If you want to know more about how Stories works, this article by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic from last summer is a great overview.)

Full story is viewable here.

#AutoAwesome

When I got a bit more serious about digital photography a few years ago, I bought a copy of Adobe Lightroom, and started spending a lot of time color correcting my images, sharpening them, adjusting white balance, and otherwise futzing to get the images just right. And while the effort no doubt produced better pictures, it was an extraordinary amount of work. Which meant that the images often sat, untouched, waiting for that mythical “down time” when I’d process them. Google+’s #AutoAwesome algorithmically sifts through your images, and if you tell it to, will enhance them without your input. Are these equal to what I would have done manually? Almost certainly not. But better-with-zero-effort versus best-with-tens-of-hours-of-effort isn’t a fair fight: easy wins.

Here’s an example of an #AutoAwesome picture from our trip to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone this summer:

(I’d share the Story from our Yellowstone/Grand Tetons trip from the summer — it is what sold me on Stories as an ideal tool for photo curation and sharing after all — but it has a ton of family pictures and pictures of our friends that aren’t mine to share publicly. You’ll just have to take my word for it.)

AutoAwesome also detects series of images, and can animate them. Like an animated picture of my wife and I eating wedding cake from 1997. (Nope, not sharing.) Or kids opening presents. Or waves lapping the rocks from the California coast. It’s delightful.

Chromecast Backdrop

Once the images are shared to Google+, you can configure Chromecast to run them through a slideshow on your TV. While the configuration could be better (I have a lot of folders, it took a while to check them all), the end result is tremendous: an always-on slideshow of our lives, prompting the kids to often ask, “Who’s that?” “When was that taken?” “Where was that house?” (This is when they’re not proclaiming “I remember that trip!”) As conversation starters go, pictures from our collective past are as good as they get.

Google

Which brings me to the most amazing, living-in-the-future aspect of this whole exercise. Now, when I go to Google, I just type “my photos of…” and get… magic:

[my photos of Christmas]

[my photos of weddings]

Or my favorite, [my photos of the kids]:

In some cases, these queries are aided by the barest of info I added — album names might have contained the word “wedding” or “kids” or “boys” — but in many cases, the queries benefit from the vision and machine learning in image search that the search team released last year. (Seriously, take a few minutes and read that blog post. Even after working at Google for 7.5 years, stuff like this blows my mind.)

Last month, I was at a bar with a good friend of mine who I got to know after we moved to California in 2007. I was telling him how huge my first son was as a baby, then I remembered that I had our entire photo archive on my phone. 15 seconds later, I was showing my buddy a picture from my son’s first birthday party. (Even bigger than I’d remembered, BTW.) Before this scanning project, that image hadn’t been viewed since it went into the album shortly after the birthday party in 2001.

Now?

My photos — all of them — are never more than 3 taps away, from any browser or device I have access to, wherever I happen to be.

There’s more to be done: now that the hard work of organizing the digital photos and scanning the physical prints is done, I’ll take the occasional afternoon in the months ahead to add additional info to album names, making the searches even more contextual. If I have even more time, I might add descriptions for individual photos on the G+ side. I’ll manually back up my Facebook photos to Google Drive so that they’re included too. I’ll try and get as many from my kids’ phones, my wife’s phone and camera, and her Facebook feed as well.

In the near future, I’d love to be able to say to my TV, “OK Google — show me pictures of Thanksgiving this weekend” or “OK Google — my in-laws are visiting, show me pictures of trips we’ve taken with them” and have them displayed by my Chromecast.

Best of all? I don’t think that future is all that far away.

Disclaimer: I’ve worked at Google since 2007 and am currently a partner at Google Ventures. I’m fortunate to be friends with a number of people who work on the Drive, Photos, and Google+ teams, and I was part of the original team that built what would become Google+. I wrote this not for their benefit, but because I’d described this setup to several non-Google friends, all of whom wanted more details on how I did it.