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The Pogue Review: Flickr vs. Google Photos — Which Free Photo App Is Better?

David Pogue
Tech Critic
Yahoo Tech

If you had to rush into a burning computer and could rescue only one folder, what would it be?

I’m guessing you answered: “My photos and videos.”

You can replace your application software. Your email is probably stored online somewhere. Your bookmarks you can reconstruct. But your pictures?

Show me someone who’s lost a lifetime of photos to a hard-drive crash or foolish mistake, and I’ll show you someone deep in mourning. Or therapy.

In the last month, two new free services have opened up that make that kind of disaster impossible: Flickr 4.0 and Google Photos. Quietly, automatically, and privately, they back up all your photos from all your devices — computer, phone, tablet, flash drives, old hard drives, everything — to a password-protected online site. All your photos, past, present, and future.  

Once your photos are backed up, you can view them, arrange them, edit them, and share them on the website. You can view low-res versions of them on your phone, too, using beautiful, fluid Flickr or Google Photos apps — without high-resolution images sucking up all your phone’s storage space. It’s like having one of those wallet accordion-fold photo holders — a really big one that reaches to the moon and back.

And above all: If anything bad ever happens to the photos you’ve stored on your phones and computers, you can re-download them all from the site with a couple of clicks.

If you have photos you care about, and you’re not letting these new services back them up automatically, you are, frankly, crazy. They are fantastic.

I reviewed the new Flickr a few weeks ago. Or, rather, I described it; since Flickr is owned by Yahoo (and so am I), I wasn’t allowed to review it. Here’s the article. And here’s the video.

There are plenty of other photo-storage services: Apple’s newly launched iCloud Photo Library feature is very similar to Google Photos and Flickr, except that it works only with Apple products and it costs money.

Then there are SmugMug, Amazon, Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, and so on. But for unlimited, free storage with automatic backing up from all your devices, there are only two games in town: Flickr and Google Photos.

Meet Google Photos

As automatic, free backup services, Google Photos and Flickr are exactly the same idea. They are, in fact, almost freakishly alike; you have to wonder if one company poached engineers from the other.

They automatically back up every photo from your computers, tablets, and phones. You can choose which folders, disks, flash drives, and memory cards get backed up, and you can specify whether the phone app should use cellular data to upload new photos or wait until you’re in a Wi-Fi area. Impressively enough, both programs can even back up iPhoto and Aperture libraries on a Mac (but not, alas, Adobe Lightroom collections).

Both websites display your photos like postcards, arrayed neatly side by side. Both let you organize your photos into albums, edit photos, and share them with other people (one click produces a Web link to a private gallery).

Both companies insist that your private photos are truly private. They won’t use your photos, steal them, sell them, or snoop on them. If you don’t believe it, then by all means don’t sign up; it’s more storage for the rest of us. 

Both, incredibly, offer image recognition. You can actually search your photos according to what they’re pictures of — even if you haven’t named or tagged any of them.

Here’s what you might see when you search for, for example, “skiing” on Flickr and Google Photos:

Both services also make occasional errors when they try to identify what’s in your photos — they are, after all, only blobs of software. Fortunately, you can correct the classifications of photos that are misidentified. (Flickr lets you do this on the Web but not in its phone app, and Google lets you do this in the phone app but not the Web!)

Because they know what’s in your pictures, both services can also put them into groups by topic. Flickr’s Magic View auto-groups your photos by physical subject — signs, writing, landscape, food, architecture, animals, portraits, and hundreds more — or by visual qualities like symmetry, texture, colors, portraits. Fantastic when you need, say, a picture of a farm animal for a school project.

Google Photos offers a much simpler version of the same thing: You can drill down into your pictures from the categories People, Places, or Things. (These groupings appear only when you click the Search box, though, which isn’t exactly good interface design.)

Both services let you re-download your photos in case of disaster. Google makes it easy to download your entire collection at once, since your photos are right there on your Google Drive. In Flickr, you have to download one album at a time. (They arrive as .zip archives for faster downloading.)

There are, however, a few important differences between Google Photos and Flickr.

Difference 1: Storage limits. The free photo storage on Google is unlimited; Flickr offers you 1 terabyte for free (or roughly 600,000 five-megapixel images).

How much difference does that make? Not much. Of the 100 million people with Flickr accounts, guess how many have ever reached the 1-terabyte limit?

Fewer than 50, according to Flickr.

Difference 2: Compression. The photos and videos on Flickr are uploaded and stored in their original form, and there’s no limit on the resolution of the photos.

Google, on the other hand, permanently compresses your photos to take up less space. Yes, it actually throws away picture data.

Now, Google insists that the lost data is so insignificant you’ll hardly be able to see the difference — and on small photos, that’s accurate. You can blow them up and study them till you get a headache, and you won’t see any difference.

But there’s a bigger problem: If the photo’s resolution is over 16 megapixels (like almost all photos from SLRs, mirrorless cameras, and high-end pocket cameras), Google scales it down to 16 megapixels. You lose the rest of the quality forever. 

If your drive crashed and you lost your photos, here’s a comparison of what you’d get back from Google Photos and Flickr:

(Hint: The Flickr photo is identical to the original.)

In an age where we go to enormous lengths to eke out every drop of photo quality — nicer cameras, bigger sensors, fancier lenses — why would we willingly submit our pictures to a storage service that degrades the quality and resolution, when there are free alternatives that don’t?

(Of course, if you care that much, you’re welcome to pay for uncompressed storage. Under this program, Google Photos offers 15 gigabytes of storage free, or you can pay for more—$120 every year for 1 terabyte, for example.)

Difference 3: Duplicates. Google Photos doesn’t prevent you from uploading duplicate photos. Flickr “de-dupes” automatically.

Difference 4: Video limits. Both services auto-backup your videos, too. But Flickr’s maximum clip length is three minutes; Google places no time limit, but does limit the resolution — 1080p hi-def is the max.

Once again, though, Google does compress your videos, discarding some of the original quality.

In other words, neither service is wonderful as an automatic video-backup service.

Difference 5: Face recognition. Google Photos can round up all the pictures of a certain person. Its facial-recognition feature doesn’t go so far as letting you name these faces — you can’t name Aunt Ethel and expect it to remember her name — but it’s pretty close. This picture shows how it works (I added the little circles around his face):

Flickr doesn’t offer face recognition at all. (Coming soon, it says.)

Difference 6: Image-search refinement. Flickr and Google Photos can both pluck “needle” out of your haystack of photos, or “pumpkin,” or “bird.”

But Flickr’s image-recognition smarts go much further. Flickr can search not just your own photos but all of the 11 billion photos people have made public online.

Furthermore, you can then refine an image search by colors, photo size, photo orientation, or copyright; for example, you can ask it to show you all large, “free for commercial use” red-and-black boat photos.

Difference 7: Community. Google Photos is designed to serve as a personal backup locker, and it serves that purpose well.

Flickr, however, began life as a community. That means people can leave comments on your photos (the ones you’ve made public), offering tips and compliments. Thousands of people use Flickr to discover, share, follow, and favorite each other’s pictures. Maybe that social aspect is important to you, maybe not — but if you do embrace it, you’ll discover a terrific way to improve your photography.

Plus, it’s really fun to see how many people have viewed each of your photos, much the way it’s fun to see how many people have “liked” a Facebook post you made.

Google Photos makes no attempt to be a public gallery for the world’s photos. Everything is either yours privately or shared with certain people outside Google Photos, so there’s no ocean of conversation, tips, and admiration from other photographers.

Difference 8: Editing. Both services offer editing tools. Google’s are extremely basic. You get four sliders for Light, Color (saturation), Pop (intensity), and Vignette (shadowed edges), plus cropping, rotating, and filters:

Flickr’s editing tools are far more comprehensive — so complete they resemble a kind of mini-Photoshop. They let you remove blemishes, fix redeye, add text, draw on top of the photo, selectively add color to a black-and-white photo, add a frame or a sticker, or tweak the resolution, brightness, contrast, saturation, warmth, and sharpness.

Difference 9: RAW files. Many advanced photographers like to take RAW photos — a format that preserves more of the camera’s original sensor data than the usual JPEG files. Back on the computer, you can manipulate a RAW photo with far more freedom than you can a JPEG.

Flickr can’t back up RAW files. Which is weird, since Flickr, overall, seems better suited for advanced and pro shutterbugs.

Google does back up RAW, although it converts them to a compressed format in the process (unless you join the paid plan).

Different 10: Exclusive features. In keeping with its incarnation as a complete photo solution, Flickr makes it easy to turn certain photos into prints, posters, photo books, wrapped-canvas art, and so on.

Google doesn’t offer any options for turning your photography into real-world objects, but it does offer something called Assistants. These are collages, animated slideshows, panoramas, and videos automatically created from batches of your photos.

They’re cool, but a little on the weird side. For example, you might discover that Google Photos has assembled a movie from your own video clips and related photos, then processed and degraded it — with blur, dust, hairs, and poor color rendition — to look like some ancient 16mm family video from the ’60s. The video sound is eliminated, but Google adds catchy background instrumental music.

Sometimes the Assistants page shows up as a panorama, automatically generated from related photos that Google discovered in your collection —

— or a stuttering sort of animation, like an animated GIF, auto-generated from a sequence of photos. You can’t control or edit the Assistant productions; you can make your own on the phone, but not the computer. It’s all just a wee bit random.

Face to face

Google Photos is incredibly clean, stripped-down, and simple. For example, it provides zero control over how your photos appear — you can’t alter their size, change how they’re sorted, or view them by the kind of privacy settings they have (you can on Flickr). You can’t even see how many photos you have

In short, Google Photos screams “1.0.”

Flickr is mature, rich, powerful — and sometimes confusing. Its newest features, like the primary Camera Roll view (all your pictures in one giant scroll, flanked by a time ruler) are spectacularly clean and easy to use, but some of the older ones (like the Organizr) are cluttered and dizzying.

Now, not everyone will care about Google’s decision to reduce the quality of the photos and videos stored there. You crazy kids today, shooting only with your phones and sharing photos only on screens, may never know or mind that you’ve lost a little clarity along the way.

But to me, that data loss is a deal killer. If I lost all my pictures, I’d be thrilled to have an online backup — but my happiness would be dampened by the fact that my restored photos and videos aren’t quite as sharp and clear as the ones I lost.

Similarly, I find it hard to believe that Flickr can’t fix its own limitations — limited video lengths, RAW-file uploads, and a couple of aging organization screens — and thereby trump Google completely.

But never mind all that. Both give you free, automatic, superbly searchable storage for all your pictures, from all your machines. Choose one or the other and download its auto-uploader (and phone app). 

And get started now: The first uploading process takes a very long time — days, in fact.

Thanks to these amazing (and amazingly generous) new services, the world has just changed. As of this moment, nobody will ever have sympathy again when you share a sob story about losing all your photos.  

David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. He welcomes nontoxic responses in the Comments below.