Rediscovering My Photo Collection with Google Photos

Google Photo’s custom “Things” galleries based on photo analysis


The recent announcement by Google to release Photos as a separate service prompted me to learn more about it to determine if it was something I could add to or replace as part of my existing photo management process. I read reviews, did a small test and then determined to go ahead and jump in and fully try it out.

Google Photos offers many great features including automatically backing up your devices photos to the cloud and easily letting you share photos with other people privately or on social networks, but here I just wanted to focus on some of the great ways it can help you organize, re-visit and discover your photo collection which is something that can be challenging.

As an existing app user I got the update and configured the settings. But the true magic was when I then installed the desktop uploader and began the process of sending my complete photo collection of more than 28,000 photos to Google’s cloud. This took about 30 hours and the journey of re-discovering my collection occurred along the way.

A panorama created by auto-stitching my images
A panorama created by auto-stitching my images

As Google was slurping up all of my photos, its assistant was analyzing them and creating new images and effects to selected photos which I was alerted through notifications. The new creations included gif animations from photo sequences, collages, panoramas it created stitching photos together, and applying filters to stylize photos. The assistant also generated what Google calls “stories” by creating custom albums around a specific event. For these it created a batch of photos for each day of the event, connecting them via an animated map showing the location changes over time.

During those 30+ hours I was able to reminisce viewing photos I hadn’t seen in years re-imagined from the processing Google was applying along the way. Note you have the ability to save or discard these new images and stories Google creates.

After the process completed I visited my newly organized photo collection in Google’s hands to see what other benefits it could bring that I wasn’t able to achieve using other software and services I’ve tried. The most apparent value gained was in having a completely new way to navigate and discover my collection. I should also point out that you can do this both from a browser as well as the mobile app on any devices that you have it installed. Here’s a summary of ways you can view your collection.

Search by Date

Google begins by organizing your photos by year and month. This makes it easy to navigate to specific dates quickly and easily by scrolling through your album. So if you don’t already organize your folder structure using a similar method, this will already be a huge improvement allowing you to locate photos by time-frames.

Search by People, Places, Things, or Keywords

I want to point out that it took several days after uploading my collection for Google to completely populate all of these sections.

The people section creates displays individuals based on face recognition. When you click on a person it will show you their photos using a date format sorted from newest to oldest. This functionality is similar to Google’s Picasa software which I use as well.

For places Google uses the gps tags in the photos to organize photos by the cities where they were taken. When you click on the city it will show you all photos taken there in the same date and sort order as people. This is a nice start but I’d like to see Google leverage maps to provide another way to navigate photos by location. In Adobe Lightroom you have the ability to see a world map you can zoom into with pushpins on it displayed by location showing number of photos taken there. I find this way to navigate better and hope Google add this ability in the future. I’ve read that beyond relying on gps data in a photo, Google can also identify objects in an image to calculate location for photos that don’t have the information. For instance if it sees a photo with the Eiffel Tower it will categorize that image as being in Paris.

For things Google does something I’ve never seen in any other program. It uses it’s machine learning to analyze your photos and then allows you to navigate them by the objects it recognizes. In my case it was able to create custom searches for thinks like concerts, weddings, dogs, and dancing. While it’s not perfect, it’s by far the most impressive feature and offers a new way to navigate photos that wasn’t previously possible.

Beyond providing these custom sections to navigate in the search area they also provide a search bar to type in keywords as well. This is something I’ve just tested a little bit and while you can type in location names and things you can also add more complexity to your searches. For instance I searched for “Dog and Water” as well as “Wedding and Kiss” and was able to get relevant results. Searching can turn into a fun game and this feature is pretty amazing.

A photo collage created by a series of photos of my daughter from many many years ago.
A photo collage created by a series of photos of my daughter from many many years ago.

I’ve tried many different programs to organize and view my photo collection over the years but the amount of work needed is pretty substantial. You basically have a handful of ways to organize which includes creating albums, adding tags, adding location (for non-gps capable shot photos), and adding ratings. Doing this work can be pretty monumental when you have thousands of images in your collection. Its daunting nature can prompt you to declare “photo bankruptcy” like Danny Sullivan did.

Owen Williams shared a very similar experience setting up Google Photos for himself and stated the value it provided to him which I wholeheartedly agree with.

It’s won me over because it’s much more than a photo library, turning endless swathes of photos into reminders of the actual moments I was capturing, rather than just a neglected, ever-growing collection of images.

Having a simple way to re-visit and share my memories is the most important aspect of any photo organizational tool and I believe Google has provided a great first step towards this. Another major benefit by having uploaded my collection to Google is that it is now always accessible via my phone, tablet or the web.

I will continue testing out the service and may share other tips and information along the way. I’m looking forward to seeing how the service matures and adds new features that even make it better.

One other footnote is that during this process I also came across this post by David Pogue comparing Google Photos features to Flickr. I didn’t realize that Flickr had added so many similar features to Google Photos and will be trying it out and comparing as well. Stay tuned for a follow up post to that as well.

[UPDATE 7/3/15 Here’s a great comparison of Flickr vs. Google Photos on Lifehacker worth reading if you’re considering between the two]

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