The war of the cloud is raging. Don't expect to look into the skies and see a cumulonimbus drawing a lightning sword on an altostratus, though. This cloud war is digital, and the companies who are fighting to fulfill your online data storage needs are targeting one of your most precious belongings -- your massive collection of pictures.
You probably already know that your computer's hard drive isn't the ideal location for your beloved images. For one, hard drives routinely crash, sending the data stored on them into dark oblivion. Furthermore, pictures stored locally often get very little eyeball time, and in today's easy media-sharing environment, there's no reason your photos should be collecting digital dust. The only real question then, is this: What are the best ways to store and share your photos online?
The cloud has all of the answers. When we refer to the cloud, we're pointing to online services that store your images in servers that are available from just about any Internet-connected device. For instance, you can upload your pictures from your bulky office desktop PC to online storage and then show those images to a friend at a restaurant via your smartphone.
Cloud photo storage offers a number of tremendous benefits. First, you'll be able to share your pictures just about anytime, anywhere you have Internet access. Second, cloud services routinely back up their data, so you should never permanently lose your priceless and irreplaceable images, even if your own computer explodes into flames.
But balancing the storage and sharing aspects of online images takes a bit of work. With the following tips, you'll reign in the warring cloud factions and use their power for your own photo-tastic ends.
Most cloud services offer free storage to a point, which is often right around 5GB. Once you hit your data cap, though, the attraction of a freebie quickly loses its luster in the face of frustrating limitations.
For example, Internet photo stalwart Flickr does indeed offer free storage. However, you're capped at 300MB of data per month. Depending on the size of the files that your camera creates, that could be fewer than 100 images. Furthermore, Flickr lets you display a maximum of 200 pictures for public viewing. This is just one instance of a company that stunts its free offerings in the hopes that you'll ante up for a paid service.
Yet, if you plan to push your photos into the cloud for years and years, you'll likely wind up opting for a paid account. The good news is that storage pricing is typically very reasonable; the average annual cost for most is well under $100 and often close to $50 or even less.
Still refuse to pay for your photo play? Don't overlook the obvious. Facebook, for example, doesn't restrict the number of images you upload, although it does put a 4MB limit on image size. Sites such as Snapfish and Shutterfly also offer free, unlimited uploads. These services are sometimes tied to products such as prints. SnapFish, for one, requires you to buy products at least once annually to prevent deletion of your images.
So you finally decided to pony up for a paid cloud service. You have virtually unlimited storage capacity, easy sharing options and more fun features that you could ever dream of using. Then the almost-unthinkable happens: Your house is flattened by a hurricane, flinging your computer over the horizon. Good thing you have those images backed up online, right? Right?
Only you've been neglecting to drag-and-drop your images to cloud storage for quite some time. Or to be exact, for about 26 months ... the entire lifespan of your toddler. Those 10,000 adorable baby pictures? Poof, gone.
Most people struggle to remember to back up their files. That's why services with automated synchronization and backup options are ideal. Not only do they detect when you've transferred new pictures to your hard drive, but they automatically initiate the upload procedure for you.
Google Drive, SugarSync, CrashPlan and Dropbox are four examples of services that automatically upload your new photos and videos. So if you're the forgetful type, or you tend to procrastinate on backups (and you know who you are), auto-syncing capabilities are a must-have.
There's an overabundance of cloud services designed for straight-up data storage. From SkyDrive to Box to Amazon Cloud Drive to Google Drive, you'll never want for a place to park important documents and data files. But not every service lets you share photos with ease.
And sharing, of course, is most of the fun of taking pictures to begin with. Facebook, for example, helps you easily tag friends and locations in your images and notifies your friends when they're tagged. The site's interface doesn't allow for the kind of efficient photo browsing of other services, though.
Dropbox does help you create a link that you can share with your friends. However, that process requires additional work on your part. SkyDrive is one site that automatically plunks uploaded images into a sharable gallery. Google Drive works with the company's Picasa software, and as such, there is no shortage of photo-sharing capabilities.
In summary, most cloud services do offer ways to share images, but you may need to try a two or three before you find a sharing style that works best for you. The best way to find your preferred sharing style? Upload just a few photos to each company and use its service for a few days to see if the interface is friendly, fun and easy to use.
With millions of people taking zillions of pictures on their cell phones, cloud services are making moves to satisfy the demands of mobile. In some cases, the kind of phone you use will influence your mobile cloud options.
If you own a Windows Phone, for instance, your images can be automatically synced to your Microsoft SkyDrive. And your Android phone (powered by Google's Android operating system) will easily help you sync to a Google Drive. Have an iPhone? You can funnel your images straight to Apple's iCloud.
On the flip side, SkyDrive won't let you use an Android phone. DropBox nixes Windows Phone, and Google Drive doesn't allow iOS devices or Windows Phone yet. Amazon Cloud Drive and Apple iCloud, though, couldn't care less what mobile device you're using.
No matter which phone you use, you have access to a range of photo-sharing apps. And although its mobile app gets plenty of criticism, Facebook's ubiquity and many options make it a solid option. You can even tag images quickly, no matter where you are.
Two caveats with mobile photos – understand your phone's data plan. Because photo upload and downloads consume a lot of data, you might quickly run up against data restrictions or exorbitant, especially if you have your phone set to auto-sync every photo you capture.
Also remember that you don't have to use the highest-resolution setting on your phone's camera. An 8-megapixel picture takes way more storage and bandwidth than a 2-megapixel file, so unless you're making really large hardcopy prints from your files, bigger is definitely not better.
If there's one thing to remember about online photo sharing and storage, it's this: The services and options change as quickly as the weather. So, too, do their terms of service, which can be a sticky, confusing mess that results in other people using your pictures for their own profit.
Understand that more than a few social media sites (such as TwitPic and Instagram) make picture sharing very simple and fun. But use these services with this caveat -- you may be giving that site permission to use or distribute your pictures in any way they see fit.
Protect yourself by reading the terms of service or by searching for TOS complaints regarding specific sites. One upside is that these sorts of TOSes are more common with social-media sites than storage-centric services.
Finally, keep in mind that there isn't a one-size-fits-all photo storage and sharing system. Your needs may even change depending on the project. To wit: Facebook is great for random snapshots, but Flickr is sleeker and slicker for a burgeoning album of vacation photos.
No matter which road you take to the cloud, you should be excited for the future of digital photo fun. As these services expand and companies tweak their business models, your options will continue to increase exponentially.
Drones can capture amazing pictures. Learn more about the Dronestagram photo contest winners in this HowStuffWorks Now article.
This is truly a golden age in the era of digital photography. The technology just keeps getting better, cheaper and more innovative -- to the point where there are so many options and capabilities that your imagination is the only limiting factor.
The same goes for storing and sharing your images through the cloud. Now your images can be at your fingertips, anywhere you can find a 3G or WiFi signal. The potential for communicating your ideas and your vision of the world is now just a touchscreen away, no matter where you happen to be.
Not only are your sacred family images safer than ever before, but more and more people have the opportunity to see them. These days, there really is no reason that grandma can't see pictures of the new baby, updated daily, or even on the hour, for years to come.
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