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Google Photos: how to back up photos from your phone, tablet or computer

Get your photo backups sorted with Google's cloud service

Google Photos
(Image: © Google)

Looking to backup your photos and videos to Google Photos? It's a smart move – Google's service is one of the best options around for securely storing copies of your digital memories. And it's a pretty simple process too, whether you're backing up from a phone, tablet, PC, Mac or even, thanks to a new tool, Facebook. Our guide has instructions on how safely stash away your photos to Google's service, wherever they're currently stored. 

Backing up your photos to a cloud service like Google Photos has many benefits. Unlike a physical hard drive, there’s little risk of mechanical failure. Storage capacity is also much larger (up to 30TB in Google Photos) and easier to expand with a subscription. You can also access your entire library from anywhere, using almost any web-connected device.

If you’re looking for the best cloud photo backup service, Google Photos is right up there. It’s easy to use, offers unlimited free storage for photos up to 16MP and features a smart search function to help you easily find specific types of snap. It also works with a whole host of devices, including smartphones, tablets and computers – and you don’t need an Android or Google device to use it.

Google Photos does have a few idiosyncrasies when it comes to uploading, backing up and managing your photo files in the cloud, but once you’ve worked out the important settings, it can be one of the simplest options for safely storing your photo library online. That said, it's still good practice to have two backups of your snaps in different places, so we've included instructions on how to back up your Google Photos library itself too.

Setting up for the first time or want some top tips to help you get the best out of the service? Whether you’re using a Mac, PC, iOS or Android device, this handy guide will tell you exactly how to upload your pictures to Google Photos – and how to sort them once you have.

Google Photos: storage options and upload limits

The first thing to decide when setting up Google Photos is whether you want to upload and store your photos as ‘Original’ or ‘High quality’ images.

If you choose High quality, Google will allow you upload an unlimited number of 16MP and 1080p videos to the cloud for free. This means you can snap and shoot as you please and your photos will always be safely backed up in Google Photos. 

It’s important to note, though, that if you select the 'High quality' setting, images stored in the cloud will be slightly compressed to save space. The compression is very efficient, reducing file size without any huge or noticeable loss in quality and this option should be plenty good enough if you’re mainly uploading smartphone photos or viewing images on your screen.

Google Photos

(Image credit: Future)

If, on the other hand, you want to back up exact, full-size copies of your original photos, or you plan to print out your images from the cloud, then you should select the 'Original' option. As the name suggests, this will store your snaps online in their original form, with no compression or reduction in quality. 

This is particularly important if you’re a photographer who needs a backup option for full-size Raw files – though be sure to check whether Google Photos supports your camera’s file type, as it won’t accept all Raw formats. There’s a full list of the supported files on Google’s support page.

While Google offers unlimited storage of compressed files for free, you’ll only get 15GB if you plan to upload and store original photos. If you need more space for your uncompressed photo files, you’ll have pay a subscription fee for a Google One membership.

These range from as little as $2.99 / £2.99 / AU$4.39 per month for 200GB of storage. A more generous 2TB package costs $9.99 / £7.99 / AU$12.49 a month, while the biggest 30TB bundle will set you back $299.99 / £239.99 / AU$374.99 every month.

Google Photos: how to back up photos from a phone or tablet

Ready to start uploading snaps from your smartphone or tablet to the Google Photos? Good news, it's pretty easy.

The first step is to download the Google Photos app for iOS or Android. Open up the app, sign in to your Google account and you’ll be offered the choice between backing up 'Original' or 'High quality' images (see above). You’ll also have the choice of whether to use mobile data for backups when you’re not connected to Wi-Fi. Only enable this if you have a sufficiently large data package, as photo uploads can quickly drain your allowance.

After you’ve made these selections, you can change backup settings by tapping the menu button (the three horizontal bars), selecting 'settings' and hitting ‘Backup and Sync’. With 'backup & sync' enabled, your camera roll will automatically, continuously and securely be uploaded to Google’s servers. Here you can also change the size of uploads and mobile data settings.

Google Photos

(Image credit: Google)

Because it’s a Google service, Android device users have more options than their iOS counterparts. The Android app, for example, allows you to select specific folders that you’d like Photos to back up – particularly useful if you want to avoid storing all of your meme screenshots in the cloud. Head to ‘Backup & Sync’ and tap ‘Back up device folders’ to choose which ones you want uploaded.

Excessive snapping left you low on smartphone space? In the settings menu, tap ‘Manage device storage’ then ‘Free up space’ to delete photos from your phone that have already been added to the cloud by Google Photos. It’s a nifty trick that can release storage space on your phone in a flash. You can also toggle ‘Limit cache size’ to restrict the amount of your phone’s storage used by image thumbnails.

Google Photos: how to back up from a PC or Mac

If your prized snaps are currently stored on your computer or an external hard drive, there are two ways to upload them to the cloud. You can visit photos.google.com, sign in with your Google account, tap ‘Upload’ then select a folder from your computer to upload to Photos. You’ll need to keep the window open until the upload has completed.

Alternatively, if you’d like to automatically back up photos from any folder on your computer, you’ll need to download Google’s ‘Backup & Sync’ desktop application, which works with both Windows and Mac.

Google Photos

(Image credit: Google)

 Once it’s installed, simply sign in to your Google account and select the folders you’d like to be stored in the cloud. Your chosen folders will then be continuously backed up, so any photos you add afterwards will automatically be uploaded by Google Photos.

If you’d like to back up an SD card or a folder stored on an external hard drive, you’ll need to insert or connect it your computer before selecting it as a source during the ‘Backup & Sync’ setup.

With everything up and running, you’ll find ‘Backup & Sync’ running in your menu bar, checking for new photos and uploading copies to the cloud.

Google Photos: how to back up from Google Drive

In July 2019, Google changed the way that photo files are shared across its Drive and Photo services. Previously, the two cloud storage solutions handled photos jointly. Any photo uploaded to Drive would be automatically added to Photos and any changes made to it in one service would be mirrored by the other.

To simplify the system and prevent users from accidentally deleting snaps, that system has changed – for better and, in some ways, worse. The downside is that you no longer have an automatic backup of snaps in either service.

That's because the two services now handle photo files separately, so images uploaded to Google Drive won’t automatically be imported to Photos. Likewise, anything that you upload to Photos will not automatically be shown in Drive.

Google Photos

To backup from Google Drive to Photos, go the 'Upload' button in the top right-hand corner of the web page. (Image credit: Google)

Got some photos on Google Drive that you'd like to back up with Photos? There's a relatively simple, if not perfect, way to do it manually. In the web version of Google Photos, go the the 'Upload' button in top right-hand corner (see image above), select ‘Upload From Google Drive’, then choose the images from your Drive that you’d like to import to your Photos library. You’ll have the option of transferring them as ‘Original’ or ‘High quality’ files, and they’ll appear in your library instantly.

This revised approach also applies to other actions, including editing and deleting photos. Even if you store the same photo in both Drive and Photos, the files are not connected. So if you delete a photo from Drive, you’ll still find it in your Photos folder – and vice versa.

The changes apply retrospectively, too, so any photos that were synced to Drive and Photos before the new system was introduced will now be treated as separate. This means that if you want to free up space in your Drive folder, you can safely delete previously synced photos because they should still be in Google Photos – though you might want to check first, just for peace of mind.

How to back up Facebook photos to Google Photos

Not happy having all your personal memories stored exclusively on Facebook? Good news – Facebook now has a simple tool to let you back up all of the photos and videos on your account to Google Photos.

The transfer tool was initially only available in the US and Canada, but is now live for all Facebook users worldwide. It's a pretty quick and straightforward process – just follow these steps and it'll be sorted within hours:

Facebook Google Photos

(Image credit: Facebook)

1. Log into your Facebook account and go to the 'Account' drop-down menu over in the top right-hand corner.

2. Head to the 'Settings & Privacy' section, followed by 'Settings', and then 'Your Facebook information'. Within this menu is the 'Transfer a copy of your photos or videos' option – choose 'View' and now choose Google Photos as your destination.

3. At this point you'll be asked to choose between backing up your photos or videos. Once you've chosen, the tool will take you to a Google log-in so you can approve the Facebook transfer.

4. All done? Now you just need to click 'transfer' and wait for your photos backup to be processed. We found that this happened in a matter of hours, but Facebook will notify you of the progress.

How to back up analogue prints to Google Photos

Got a stack of printed snaps stashed in a shoebox somewhere? Google Photos isn’t reserved for your digital archive, you can back these up physical snaps up too.

Download Google’s PhotoScan app (below) and you’ll be able to scan your physical photos individually. These copies will then be uploaded to the cloud for secure storage.

Google Photos

(Image credit: Google)

What's particularly good about PhotoScan is that it has a smart way to remove the glare that's a common issue when you're trying to scan laminated photo albums, or indeed any photo under artificial light. 

The app takes several scans of your photo by guiding you around four virtual dots. Then, using a nifty algorithm (what else, this is Google), it averages them out to remove any bright blobs that would otherwise obscure the scene. In our experience, it works really well.

Download PhotoScan for Android

Download PhotoScan for iOS

How to manage and organise your Google Photos

Uploaded your entire photographic collection to Google Photos? Naturally, you’ll want to organize and sort your archive for easy navigation.

Google Photos offers album functionality, so you can easily group selected photos into folders in the cloud. Either select several photos and click the plus symbol to add them to an album, or go to the ‘Albums’ tab to create a new album first then add photos. You’ll then be able to share these albums easily with family and friends. You can’t, though, put albums inside albums or group them together, so organization options are relatively limited compared to some other services.

Google Photos

(Image credit: Google)

The real magic of Google Photos lies in its machine learning smarts. Provided you’re happy for Google’s AI engine to trawl through your whole photo library, it’s incredibly good at intelligently detecting subjects, faces and objects, which you can then find by entering terms in the search bar.

You’ll also see these same categories under the ‘Albums’ tab, with dedicated folders for ‘people & pets’, ‘places’ and ‘things’. Your entire library will be sorted by subject matter, which makes it really easy to track down specific photos in even the biggest collections. Under ‘things’, for example, Google Photos is able to identify everything from stadiums and race tracks to cars, boats and beer bottles. 

It’s also scarily good at recognizing faces and grouping photos that feature the same person, which you can then label with their name. You can also improve these results by reviewing photos and telling Google what they contain, as well as adding anything that it might have missed.

How to edit your Google Photos

Google Photos offers relatively limited editing options. Open any photo that you’ve backed up to the cloud, hit the sliders icon and you’ll be able to apply filters, crop and rotate the image, and adjust colour and light settings. It’s closer to the experience of tweaking photos on your smartphone than a comprehensive editing suite.

Google Photos edit

(Image credit: Google)

Again, Google’s AI smarts add to the experience here. Hit the ‘For you’ tab and you’ll find animated images, short movies and stylised photos created automatically by Google Photos using snaps from your library. Like what you see? Click ’Save’ to keep the edited picture.

How to back up your Google Photos library to a hard drive

Google Photos should keep all of your images safe and securely stored online, but it's always good practice to keep two backups of your photos in different places. This means many people will want to create an offline backup of their Google Photos library on a hard drive.

Unfortunately, while it’s straightforward to download a copy of your library, there’s no easy way to keep that copy synced with Photos. Instead, you’ll need to periodically save your entire Photos library using Google’s Takeout service.

To get started, go to the ‘Download your data’ section of your account under ‘Manage your data & personalization’, or head directly to Google Takeout. Here you’ll see a list of the Google Apps with data you can export.

Google Photos backup

(Image credit: Future)

If you only want to download your Photos library, tap ‘Deselect all’ then scroll down to Google Photos and tick the box. Don’t want to export all of your Photos albums? Click ‘All photo albums included’ and deselect anything from the list that you don’t need.

Click ‘next step’ and you’ll be presented with several options. You can choose whether you’d like to back up directly to another cloud service (such as Dropbox or OneDrive) or receive a download link via email. You can also change the compression file format and the maximum export size, from 1GB to 50GB (anything larger will be split into separate downloads). 

Finally, you can choose to make it a one-off download or schedule regular exports, every two months for a year. Bear in mind that these exports won’t be limited to any new photos added since the last backup, but will include your entire Photos library every time. 

When you’re ready, click ‘Export’ and Google will begin creating a copy of all the files in your Photos library. Depending on the size of your library, this can take several hours. Once it’s done, you’ll receive an email and can start downloading the backup copy to your hard drive.