Google Photos – Fantastic New Thing or Pain in the Butt?

A story about photographs and online storage

This is not about whisky. Or words (or writing). You may have noticed I post a number of photos to this blog in the Illustrations project. So this is topical! Like many folks who opted for a small, light laptop, I have to deal with space issues. This is my tale…

[UPDATE – see below for using the dedicated uploader, which deals in part with the wacky part…but still results in a hot mess if you back up Google Photos to your PC.]

I’m back to writing after a short hiatus getting my photos sussed out. My photo collection was in disarray, as I’d been overspilling the space on my Surface Pro. There is not a lot of space in the Pro’s C:\ drive (I have 128 GB), and OneDrive is mapped to a directory on the C drive by default. I managed to redirect Dropbox to the SD card and started using Dropbox for my ‘Interests’ photos. It took time moving all that stuff; I have a lot of interests: cars, technology, old decrepit stuff, graffiti and stickers, and soon I was overrunning my Dropbox limit. I have a good 8 GB on Dropbox from signing up friends and family, but the next step up is Dropbox for Business. That’s a big chunk o’change, 1 TB of space for $10/month, no intermediate step. Well, that didn’t fly with me. Grumble.

A tantalizing offer

So then Google comes along and announces free photo storage, for pictures under 16 megapixels. Well, great, my ‘good’ camera, the Olympus OMD EM-10, only does 16 MP. My phone, the HTC One M9 takes up to 20 MP but I can dial that back. 20 MP from a phone camera is a bit crazy, unless you’re going to crop the hell out of it.

Google Drive, with Photos folder. Woot!

So last week I redirected Google Drive, which I hardly used, to the SD card. Not so easy, by the way. Unlike Dropbox, you can’t just create a symlink* to a SD card directory and off you go, the SD card has to be formatted as NTFS for Google Drive to be happy. So, I moved all my stuff off the SD card, reformatted, and moved it all back. Pointed Google drive at the same symlink I used for Dropbox and voila, Google drive is happily writing the D drive (SD Card), thinking it is on the C drive. Take that, Google.

Next, Google Drive has an option to add a folder to link to your Photos collection. (You should see the prompt when you next log into Google Drive.) See above. Nifty, eh? Should be easy to load up all the photos:

  1. Click the prompt to create the Photos folder in Google Drive web app.
  2. Wait for Drive to sync the (empty) Google Photos folder to the computer.

  3. Don’t do what I did: Start dumping my picture folders into the the Google Photos folder. Doesn’t work. Looks like it should work!

GoogPhotosFirst off, once you tell Drive to link to your Google Photos, Drive does indeed create a Google Photos link in your computer’s Drive folder. Take a look to the right. Looks promising, yes? See that ‘Google Photos’ folder there under Gdrive? I dumped several directories of photos into that folder. Thinking I was golden, I installed the Google Photos app on my phone and changed it to use Google Photos, not Dropbox, to store my photos. I had dinner, then I went back to Google drive.

Here is when the wacky kicks in

Google Photos view, from Drive.

What I was expecting was that Google Photos would first of all, ‘take care of’ all my photos in those other directories from a storage perspective. Nope. Google Drive did upload the photos, and I was being charged 4 GB against my general Google Drive allowance, despite the fact none of those photos were larger than 16 megapixels.

Furthermore, the lovely Google Photos app behavior was only working for the photos uploaded from my phone, which were being tossed willy nilly into the Google Photos folder, with no organization at all (like, perhaps a folder called “Camera Upload’ as in Dropbox). The folders that I put inside the Google Photos folder? Not a sign of them in the Google Photos app on my phone or online viewer. Next, I dumped a Bing wallpaper into the top level of Google Photos folder on my PC, and waited for it to sync.

Google Drive - photos here!
Google Drive – photos here!

You can see the folders and the Bing wallpaper in the capture to the left. Note the wallpaper is not in the Photos view above. Bizarre. Then I tried using the upload button in the Google Photos website and yes, that file showed up on my PC, in the Google Photos folder, and in the Google Photos online ‘app’ view.

Conclusion? Google only recognizes ‘photos’ on your Google Photos folder if you’ve uploaded them through the Google Photos interface – either from the web site (one photo at a time) or via the Google Uploader app (see below for details).

So, to recap

Desktop Uploader app settings
Desktop Uploader app settings
  1. The Google Photos app only recognizes photos if you upload to the Google web site using their Photos interface (the ‘upload’ link on the Google Photos web site or desktop uploader). If you have a lot of photos on your PC, the Desktop Uploader is the way to go. You can add any target directory to suck photos up from (use the ‘add’ button in the uploader Directories screen – see illustration), and also grab them from camera SD cards. Note: Uploader did not recognize SD cards plugged into adapters on my USB hub as ‘devices,’ only the SD card slots native to my system.
  • You only get the special ‘free’ allowance when you’ve uploaded using the Google Photos tools, so they can work their filter. The Sync function used by Google Drive does not perform this check, and thus counts anything you upload with Google Drive Sync against your Drive allowance. No free photo storage if you use Google Drive sync. Use the Uploader.

  • When you use the Google Photos Backup for your phone or the automatic uploader, it throws all your photos into one big bin in the sky. That will result, if you sync the Google Photos folder back to a PC, with a directory holding oodles of photographs. That’s OK with Google servers, which use a different way to store stuff. It is not so good on your PC if you pull hundreds or thousands of photos this way from your phone. File systems don’t work well with thousands of files in a folder.

  • You can organize your photos with the Google Photos app online to create Albums. But you still have a big mess on your PC, and there is no way to see a collection on your PC. Unlike OneDrive, Dropbox or Google drive, Google Photos happily ignores any folder organization you have on your PC when it uploads.

  • Uncheck Photos, or you'll be doublestuffed
    Uncheck Photos, or you’ll be doublestuffed

    5 Oh, yeah – by default, Google Drive will sync your Google Photos folder to your hard drive. If you’ve just used the uploader desktop app to sync 8000 photos to Google Photos, then guess what you’ll get in your Google Drive folder? 8000 copies of the photos you just uploaded. All in one directory. Yes, I checked.

    Thanks to for this handy article here which turned me on to the uploader. Get the Desktop Uploader here.

    The bottom line

    The original deal, Google Drive, is still a good deal, especially for those saving photos of more than 16 megapixels (or RAW). You can get 100 GB of storage for only two bucks a month, and you won’t have to worry about down-sampling photos uploaded by Google Drive Sync. Google Photos sounds like a nice way to store photos for most people, who are not photo nuts and who are not OCD like me about organizing things. For us enthusiasts, Google Photos may not cut the mustard, especially the way it handles uploads and its online interface (a big googly mess, no sign of my original folder organization). I’ll be using Google Drive, and perhaps Google Photos. But I’ll still be uploading photos from my phone to Dropbox, then dropping those into folders on my PC where I know I can find them later. As long as those folders are under a directory in Google Photos Uploader, I know they’ll be backed up to Google Photos for free. But God knows if I’ll be able to find them, or restore my folder organization if I need to download them after a disaster. I guess I’ll be working on headfaking OneDrive to use my SD card. Once I get a bigger SD card, that is. OneDrive is the mother ship for me.

    Postscript: Faking out Google, and dealing with symlinks

    If ‘symlink’ is Greek to you, think of a symlink as a Detour sign. On Windows, you can create a link for a location (in this case, on the C:\ drive) pointing to somewhere else entirely (in this case, the D:\ drive) using the (gasp) command line. The link acts like a directory which stashes everything in the target locale, kind of like those magic bags you used in Dungeons and Dragons. First, start the CMD.exe tool as administrator. Then create the directory you will point to (e.g., D:\endDir). Finally create the link like so:

    C:\> mklink /D C:\alink D:\endDir

    Note that there is no ‘alink’ directory before you start! ‘alink’ is created by this command, but the endpoint – the D:\endDir directory, has to be created in advance. After the link is created, ‘alink’ appears in your C:\ drive (wherever you created it), but if you point Google Drive or Dropbox at the C:\alink as the location for their on-disk storage, the data actually ends up in D:\endDir. Magic 🙂

    Author: H.W. MacNaughton

    Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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