The most effective ways to back up your precious photos to the cloud
Keep your digital memories safe
This story has been updated. It was originally published on February 27, 2017.
If your mobile phone (or laptop) falls in a lake, what happens to those years of photos you’ve been saving up? Unless they’re safely backed up somewhere else, it’s likely they’re gone forever. That’s a worst-case scenario, of course, but it sure helps demonstrate why getting your pics synced to the cloud is such a good idea.
There are plenty of other reasons to take on the task, though. If your pictures are saved on the web, you can delete your local copies and free up some space on your phone. What’s more, you’ll be able to access them from any computer or device, and share them more easily with friends or family.
Don’t let the rather vague idea of “the cloud” put you off, either. In this case, it just means data centers run by the likes of Microsoft, Google, and Apple. You can get started for free, and there are a number of excellent services to pick from.
Which one you choose will depend on whether you’re a true-blue Windows fan, buy every Apple device under the sun, or own a phone, a tablet, and a computer from different manufacturers. We’ve assembled the main photo backup platforms, which vary in features, pricing, and ease of use on different operating systems. We won’t guide you step-by-step through each service—it’s really just a case of installing the apps for your devices and letting them do their work—but we will give you the information you need to decide which type of backup is ideal for you.
The cloud solution you’ll find built into Windows is OneDrive. You get 5GB of space for free, but can up that to 100GB ($1.99 a month) or 1TB ($6.99 a month with Office 365 thrown in). The key advantage is its Windows integration, which means all the software comes built into your OS and gets synced between all your Windows devices.
There are also apps for macOS, Android, iOS, and iPadOS, so getting all your pictures to the cloud won’t be a problem, although the experience on these other operating systems won’t be quite as smooth as it is with Windows. Microsoft has added some useful features to the web interface too, automatically tagging your pictures with descriptors like “indoor” and “outdoor” so you can find them more easily.
OneDrive doesn’t have the prettiest or most user-friendly interface we’ve ever seen, but it does the job and the prices are competitive, especially if you’re after some Office software as well. Microsoft seems determined to keep improving the service, too, which is another reason to stick with it, especially if you spend most of your time on Windows.
Where Microsoft has OneDrive, Apple has iCloud, though its photo-storing service has changed names a few times. Apple has now finally settled on iCloud Photos, which keeps all your pictures synced to the cloud and any other Apple hardware you have.
And if all you use is Apple kit, it works very well indeed. You get 5GB of space for free, but can buy iCloud Plus and increase that to 50GB for $0.99 a month, 200GB for $2.99, or 2TB for $9.99. It really is one of those “set it and forget it” services—once you’ve switched it on, you can just forget about your backups, and iOS will even offer to free up some storage space on your iPhone or iPad once your pictures have been safely sent to the web.
[Related: It’s a great day to secure your Apple and iCloud accounts]
On the downside, support for Windows is limited, and support for Android is non-existent, so this really is one for the Apple fans only. The web interface is also relatively basic, but Apple has steadily introduced some useful improvements, like iCloud’s ability to automatically tag objects and people in your pictures, and a few tools for creating highlights packages of your best snaps and videos.
Although Google Photos has fallen more in line with its competitors in terms of its offerings, it’s still an excellent choice for cloud photo storage, especially if you have a mishmash of devices running different operating systems. It works effortlessly across any kind of device or computer, and you get 15GB of space for free. One caveat: that storage is shared across all Google services, so if you have a lot of emails with large attachments in Gmail or tons of files in Google Drive, you’ll have less space for photos.
Google used to let you store an unlimited amount of photos for free, but that’s no longer how it works. For more space, you can buy Google One and boost your cloud photo storage to 100GB for $1.99 a month, 200GB for $2.99, or 2TB for $9.99.
Once you start storing, you’ll find Google Photos has some useful editing tools, and that there are some smart assistant tools for creating highlight reels of your best snaps. It’s easy to share photos and albums, and—as you would expect from Google—the search ability is the best available. Look for anything from “sunsets” to “dogs,” and Google’s AI-powered scanning will bring up matching pictures in seconds.
The best photo storage alternative to Google, Apple, and Microsoft is probably Dropbox. The bad news is you only get a paltry 2GB of space for free, and you may have to do regular maintenance to keep it tidy. You’ll probably want to go for the 2TB plan, which will set you back $9.99 every month.
Now, the good news: Dropbox is rock-solid and works seamlessly across Windows, macOS, Android, iOS, and iPadOS. If you’re hopping between devices and computers and want to back up your photos from everywhere, it’s well worth that monthly fee.
[Related: 6 essential Dropbox tools you might be missing]
Also, Dropbox isn’t restricted to photos. It syncs any kind of file between your registered devices and the web, allows for quick and easy file and folder sharing (useful if you’re working on projects with other people), and even has an online note-taking tool called Paper.
Finally, there’s Amazon Photos, which is of particular interest if you’re a Prime member. You’ll get unlimited photo storage for free with a $14.99-a-month Prime account (though only 5GB for videos). Otherwise, you’ll get 5GB of photo storage space and will have to pay to get more ($19.99 a year for 100GB).
That’s a decent price for all the storage you’ll ever need, and thanks to the apps that Amazon makes available for iOS, iPadOS, Android, macOS, and Windows, you can upload pictures from whatever devices you use. Overall, Amazon Photos is well worth considering as a catch-all backup solution.