How do you upload photos to a computer?

A digital camera in a dock, ready to transfer photos. See more cool camera stuff pictures.

If you've ever used a 35mm film camera, you know it means buying film and having it processed with special equipment. The typical roll of 35mm film lets you take two or three dozen photos, which are permanently exposed onto the film. When you're ready to see how your photos turned out, you take the roll to a lab for processing, which takes less than an hour. With the time, cost and uncertainty about how the pictures will turn out, you might limit taking photos with a film camera to special occasions.

With today's digital cameras, though, you can take hundreds of photos, and you can see immediately if you like them or not. You can delete the ones you don't like, and save only the ones you want to save or print. Digital cameras continue to improve in quality and durability, making it convenient to take great photos anywhere any time. In fact, one of the most common places you'll find digital cameras today is built into mobile phones.


If you use the Internet, especially social networking Web sites, then you know you can post photos from your digital camera to share with your friends online. But how to you get them to your computer in the first place? If you had the 35mm film camera, you would have to use a digital scanner to scan each print and create a digital copy. With the digital camera, though, you make the transfer by connecting your camera to your computer or by moving the flash memory card itself from your camera to a peripheral attached to your computer.

How do you make that connection? How is it different if you're using Mac, Windows or Linux? How do you organize those photos and prepare them for printing or posting online? This article helps you answer these questions and more for a variety of digital camera and computer combinations.



Make the Connection for Photo Transfer

This photo shows a digital camera directly connected to a laptop using a USB cable. Some cameras use a USB-powered dock in which you insert the camera.

You have two ways you can transfer digital photos from your camera to your computer: The first is to send the photo files over a direct connection, either wired or wireless. The second is to remove the memory card from the camera and insert it in a card reader connected to your computer.

Most digital cameras come with some way to connect the camera directly to your computer. For most cameras, this means using a Universal Serial Bus (USB) cable. Most digital cameras come with a USB cable or a dock or cradle with a USB connector. You plug in your camera at one end, and plug the other end to an available USB port on your computer. Your computer should detect that you've plugged in a USB device. Some cameras may have another type of cable, such as FireWire, but USB is more common.


Some digital cameras now have wireless options for connecting to your computer. Bluetooth is the most common of these options. If you enable Bluetooth on the camera, a Bluetooth-enabled computer can discover and connect to the camera. Another way to connect wirelessly is over a WiFi network. WiFi is becoming popular in smartphones with built-in digital cameras like the Apple iPod.

This USB card reader can read several different types of flash memory cards.

If your digital camera uses removable memory cards, you may not have to connect directly. Most dedicated digital cameras and some mobile phones use one of several types of memory cards. Some notebook and laptop computers now have built-in SD card readers. Others require a card reader, typically plugged in to an available USB port on your computer. Like memory cards, card readers come in different shapes and sizes.

What's your best choice to download from camera to computer? If you have several options, choose the one that's easiest for you and your devices. For example, if you have a lot of photos to move and want to preserve the battery life in your camera, you can remove the memory card and use a card reader. (Cameras usually must be running before you can connect.)

So you've got your camera or memory card connected, now what? On the next page you'll read how the computer actually receives your photo files from the camera or memory card.


Uploading Your Photo Files Over a USB Connection

These windows show the auto-play dialogs displayed for the same camera in Windows 7 (on the left) and Mac OS X 10.4. Both give you options to import all your pictures from there, or to select which pictures you want to import.
Screenshot by Stephanie Crawford

After you've connected your camera or memory card to your computer, the next step depends on your computer's operating system and settings. Windows, Macintosh and most modern Linux systems have similar software and require similar steps. This page covers the "perfect picture" scenario for how to do this. If you have trouble using these steps, click over to the next page to see how to get past some common problems getting your camera connected and your photos transferred.

By default, your operating system constantly monitors your computer's USB ports to see if you've plugged in any compatible devices. Most modern operating systems respond immediately by discovering the device you've plugged in and mounting it. The system displays a message on the screen indicating it has found the device, and sometimes it will put a new icon on your desktop for that device. If you have connected the camera directly, you may need to turn on the camera before the computer can find it.


If it's the first time you've connected the USB device to your computer, the operating system will also determine what type of device it is (Canon PowerShot SD 400 or iPhone, for example). Then, it'll try to load the device drivers it needs to translate data back and forth with the device. After the device is loaded, it might also trigger one of two things, depending on what you've connected and how your system is configured:

  • If you connected the camera directly, the operating system may launch software designed to upload photos from the camera, or ask you to choose between importing photos and other tasks.
  • If you connected the memory card using a card reader, the operating system should mount the card's file system, which you can browse in your file manager, like Windows Explorer or Finder (in Mac).

For camera connections, just click the import button and the software will do the rest. If you want to be more selective, look at the options in your software. For memory cards, you can copy or move photo files from the card in your file manager the same way you would move files between local folders. In both cases, you can also delete the photo files from the camera memory to free up space for future photos.

How are you doing so far? If your computer mounts the USB device, but doesn't launch any software, again read the next page for hints on what you should do.

These windows show an SD card mounted using a card reader in Windows Explorer (larger window shown) and Mac OS X 10.4.
Screenshot by Stephanie Crawford

Wireless connections are a little different. If you're connecting over a Bluetooth connection, your operating system should automatically launch software that lets you interact with the device. If you're connecting over a WiFi connection, though, you'll need to use your operating system's native software to browse other computers on your local network. The device should show up on that network if it's connected properly. You can browse to the network device from there and find and copy the files you want.

After you've imported the photos, you can use them however you'd like. Also note that you should safely "unmount" or "eject" the device before disconnecting it so you don't accidentally corrupt any files the computer is still importing.

Note that the images are in whichever file format the digital camera creates, so you may need software designed to read those types of files. The next page covers this as part of checking and setting up the file associations for your camera's photo files.


Troubleshooting Camera-computer Connections

This page should help you handle some of the common issues you might have connecting your camera and computer for transferring files.

What if the computer doesn't do anything when I connect the camera?


If you're connecting over Bluetooth, first check that the Bluetooth transceivers are on for both your computer and your camera. If you don't have a Bluetooth transceiver in the computer, you may need to add one, usually in the form of a USB device about the size of a flash drive. If you're connecting over USB, be sure the cables are all connected properly and that you've switched the power on for both computer and camera.

If the connection itself seems to be working, the problem may be that the computer isn't able to read the device. Check your operating system's device information to see if your camera is listed in your connected devices. The resources at the end of this article include links about how to manage your devices on different operating systems.

What if the computer can't find the driver for my camera?

If you've successfully made a connection, but the computer isn't acquainted with your camera, your computer might prompt you for where it should find the drivers it needs to exchange information with your camera. If your camera came with software for your computer, insert the software CD or DVD and follow the instructions for installing that software. If you don't have the software you need, you should be able to download it for free from the camera vendor's Web site (such as Canon's Web site for Canon cameras), usually under "Support" or "Downloads."

Sometimes, the computer doesn't prompt you for a driver, or it doesn't automatically associate the device with the driver. If this happens, you'll need to use the device management software for your operating system, open the device properties and manually select what driver the device should use. The resources following this article include links about how to manage your devices in different operating systems.

My computer didn't automatically launch any software to read my photo files. What do I do?

If your computer mounts the camera successfully, but doesn't launch any software to read or import your files, you may to check your system's file association for the types of photo files you're reading. A file association is the software your operating system uses by default when opening that type of file. Browse the device in your file manager and try to open one of the photo files by double-clicking on it. If the system says it doesn't recognize the type of file, or it asks you which application it should use, you'll need to create that file association.

To create a file association, start by looking at the file extension for a photo file you want to open. For example, for JPEG files this is "jpg" such as in the file names "my_photo.jpg" and "img2010041301.jpg." If you can't see the extensions at the end of the file names, you can change the settings of your file manager to "show extensions" or to not "hide extensions." You can also right-click the file in the file manager, select to view its properties, and possibly find the extension there.

Next, be sure you have software installed on your computer that can read that type of image file. You may be able to preview the photos without anything extra, but you might want to install software to edit those photos, too. For example, sophisticated Nikon SLR cameras can produce RAW files the company calls Nikon Electronic Format, a less common format only usable by certain software. If you're not sure what software can read or edit what types of files, you can usually find out with a simple Internet search.

Most software automatically creates its file associations when installed. If you still need to create the file association after that, though, you can open the file and force the system to ask you what application to use. There, the system often gives you an option to default to that application to open this type of file in the future. That option creates the file association for you. Another way to create the file association is in advanced operating system configuration. Check your operating system's documentation for how to create and manage file associations.

For more information about cameras and related topics, picture the links on the next page.


Frequently Answered Questions

How do you upload pictures from your phone to your computer?
To upload pictures from your phone to your computer, you can use a USB cable, a memory card, or a cloud storage service.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Apple. "iPhone: Technical Specifications." (April 9, 2010)
  • Apple. "Mac 101: Connect Your Camera." Nov. 27, 2008. (April 9, 2010)
  • Reichman, Matt. "How to Offload Your Cell-Phone Pictures." June 17, 2009. (April 9, 2010),2817,2348830,00.asp