Recognising that virtually everyone who takes photographs now does so with a digital camera, and that few people few people still use a single computer to view the results, Google Photos has taken accessibility to a new level. Almost overnight, I have abandoned the offline photo library I spent years building, in favour of this new, universal approach.
It took just a few hours, using the companion Desktop Uploader, to send the 19,418 pictures in my database from my main PC to Google Photos, and a few hours more to scan in paper prints from old albums. The process of indexing them all took somewhat longer, but required no input from me.
Indexing things is, of course, what Google is known for, and it turns out that it does as good a job on your pictures as it does on the worldwide web. After a few days, mine were searchable by name, location and subject - not just on my PC but on my phone, TV and every other device that can access my Google account.
You don’t have to search them at all to find what you want; you can browse, too - and much more easily than with your old PC software. Google Photos automatically organises your snaps into groups of albums which it classifies as either “places” or “things”. It determines which is which by looking at the subject matter of the picture and any metadata it may have, such as a descriptive title or caption, or, better still, GPS coordinates.
The process is not infallible, and has a tendency towards amusing political correctness. My pictures of fireworks on November 5, for instance, were catalogued as “Diwali”. And the industry-standard category tags I had applied on the PC were ignored. Nevertheless, the organisation goes far beyond the date and location subsets familiar from older apps, and Google’s method of organisation makes it easier and quicker than ever to rediscover faces and places long forgotten.
The app is capable of doing more still, but EU legislation means we in Britain don’t get the benefit of its facial recognition engine which in the US lets you search for individual family members and friends.
What we do get, as of this summer, is the ability to share an entire collection of photos with someone else - your spouse, for instance - so there is now no need to upload your catalogue a second time and attempt to keep the two in sync.
Of course, you can change Google’s default categorisations and add albums of your own, but in practice, you will find the app’s “assistant” does most of that for you - suggesting new collections of related pictures and creating collages, animations and movies from shots it thinks belong together. You can get an alert whenever it does this and then choose whether to accept or reject each one.
The fact it is all free is the icing on the cake. If your pictures were shot at a particularly high resolution, you can choose to pay to retain the same quality - but for all but the most serious photographers, the default quality is fine. Actually, fine is an understatement: this might be the best thing to happen to photography since the flashbulb.