Saturday, June 20, 2015

Find Your Smartphone Photos Easily with Google Photos (for iOS and Android)

Do you ever find it difficult to find a photo on your phone?  Google Photos (available for Android or iOS) is an app that organizes your smartphone photos and videos, tagging them automatically using image recognition, which makes it easier to find a photo.  If you have photos on Google Photos (aka Picasa Web Albums), it can include those as well (this option can be turned off).  Google Photos can also sync your smartphone photos and videos to the cloud for free, with some compression (uncompressed backups are available for a subscription).

First, I will discuss Google Photos' organization functions, then its editing capabilities, followed by its search functions and finally its presentation options.

I downloaded the iOS version of Google Photos to my iPhone 6.  After what seemed like seconds, it presented me with the photos and videos in my phone as well as those I have on my Picasa Web Albums, organized by month.  (Note: it doesn't affect the iPhone's built-in Photos app, which still functions as normal.) At the highest level, it shows thumbnails for 3 months, with each month showing up to 28 thumbnails.  You can swipe to scroll, or use pinch to zoom in to a month, showing 24 or 15 thumbnails.  If you zoom in further, you'll get a collage, similar to the default Google Photos view. 

You can choose a photo for sharing, editing, viewing exposure info, adding to an album, or deleting.  There is also a description field.  If there is any information in that field, it will be used to help improve search results.

Google will ask if you want to backup your photos to Google Photos.  This is one way you won't lose your photos even if your phone or computer is lost or damaged.  A compressed backup is free, while an uncompressed backup requires a modest subscription fee (the fee varies depending on your desired storage - currently $2/mo for 100GB).


Pulling up a photo gives you the option to edit exposure, saturation, "pop" (clarity), or add a vignette. You can also change add Instagram-style filters or change the crop.   The controls are not as extensive or detailed as the built-in editor in iOS 8.  However, it is possible to edit photos in iOS 8 and have them instantly available in Google Photos.

editing options


If I want to find photos, I can search by face, place, or things (e.g. flowers, food, etc.).  Google uses image recognition to identify the face, place, or object automatically even if you never tagged your images or added keywords.  In addition, you can search by type (video, Google Drive image, or Google-automated Creations*).  Note: Creations are automatically-created effects added to your images.  For example, Google might create another version of one of your shots as an animated GIF where snowflakes are falling, or stars are sparkling, etc.  To allow Google to do this for you, turn on the Auto-Awesome option (under settings).  In the iOS version of the Google Photos app, Creations can only be made automatically.  In the Android version, you can manually choose to generate an Auto-Awesome Creation.

The search function works well, as long as you keep your expectations realistic.  Facial recognition is reasonably accurate.  In the sample search below for my daughter's face, I did not find any false positives.

search results for my daughter

"Things" works somewhat ok, about as well as can be expected for computers, although it can of course make mistakes.  For example, our son's first communion was identified as a wedding.  It identifies some objects off the bat:

In the addition, you can search for an object, and it will try to find photos that match that object.  Here, I searched for "ball". Most of the images were relevant, although I found one that was for a party that didn't have any balls.  It was because the party theme was "a Princess' Royal Ball".

I tried searching by other descriptions such as "colorful" but it seemed too inaccurate (there were a few colorful photos, but far more photos that were monochromatic).

"Place" recognition doesn't work well (note: I remove location information when uploading photos), except for famous places such as Las Vegas or Disneyland.  Some guesses were bizarre.  For example, in the thumbnails below, the one labeled "Griffith Observatory" was taken at a restaurant in Manhattan Beach, which is about an hour's drive away.  I imagine it would work better if I left the location tags.

I don't have any complaints about the app, except that I wish it could also search by metadata, like Lightroom, but it doesn't do that (yet).

In addition to organizing your photos and enabling you to search for them, Google Photos can help you create albums, movies, animations, collages, and online scrapbooks called "Stories".  Just tap the "+" icon at the top right of the app to select a form of presentation.  Albums and movies are self-explanatory.  Here are the other options:

Creating a collage is simple but fully automated, without customization options.  You just select 2 to 9 photos, and the app creates one for you.  I didn't get to choose the layout of the collage.  I wish Google would restore Picnik's collage-making tools, before Picnik was acquired by Google and integrated into Picasa Web Albums' online image editor.

Animation is an animated GIF from up to 50 photos.   Just select the photos, and the app uploads them to the Google Photos web service, where Google's computers do their magic backstage, then the app downloads it as an animated GIF.  It shows up as a Google Creation in the album where the photos came from.

"Stories" are online scrapbooks of events, automatically created for you, complete with layout and formatting.  Here is a sample.  If Google Photos makes one for you, you'll be notified.  Alternatively, you can also create one yourself.  Whether Google creates one for you, or you create one yourself, you can later add or remove photos for the Story.

If you're worried about your photos being posted by Google as a Story for everyone to see, don't worry -- a Story remains private unless you choose otherwise. 

To allow Google Photos to create Stories for you, you need to create a free account with Google Photos (if you use Picasa Web Albums, you already have one).  You also need to enable some options.

I find the Google Photos app to be very convenient to use, and quite useful.  It's free and it's a must-try app for Android and iPhone users.

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