Backing up your photos to the cloud is becoming an increasingly viable option as storage costs drop, bandwidth speeds up, and more devices go wireless. I have an overview of a number of options here. Now one of the biggest players in cloud services has added interesting new options.
Amazon has recently modified the way it counts photos in Amazon Cloud Drive. You have always been able to upload photos, as you could with most other kinds of files. But they were treated like any other file when it came to measuring how much storage space you were using. Amazon Prime accounts start with 5GB, which isn’t a lot when it’s being used for videos, photos, and any other files you’re storing online.
Now Amazon has changed it to unlimited storage space for your photos and has branded it as Prime Photos. What that means is that standard image files in formats like JPG no longer count towards your overall storage quota. When you look up your storage usage on your account, photos are separated out in a special unlimited section. (Video files are still counted against your quota.) It’s pitched as secure online storage for your photos, accessible from almost anywhere.
The change is one of the free features to Amazon Prime membership alongside Prime Music, Prime Instant Video, the Kindle Lending Library, and the reason most members pay their annual membership fee: free 2-day shipping.
Since its initial rollout, Amazon modified its Amazon Cloud Drive plans and pricing structure and provided a way to extend it to other files as well.
The Unlimited Photos plan, which is free with Prime membership, has unlimited storage for photos in addition to 5GB for videos and other file types. If you don’t have a Prime membership, you can purchase the Unlimited Photos plan separately for $11.99/year. There’s also a new Unlimited Everything plan for photos, videos, files, and documents, for $59.99/year. Both have a 3-month trial. You can find more information here. And if you’re a student, Amazon Prime also offers a special 50% off rate for student membership with a 6-month free trial, along with all the regular Prime benefits like free two-day shipping, streaming movies, music, and TV shows, and, of course, unlimited photo storage.
I first reviewed Amazon Cloud Drive as an option for backing up photos online when the new unlimited photos feature was launched. At the time, I was a little underwhelmed and found it a little gimmicky. My main criticisms related to the limitations for usefully managing large numbers of photos. In particular, as a Mac user, there was no Mac client for uploading photos, which meant that you really had to use the web browser, which just isn’t well suited to large uploads.
But Amazon has been making improvements since then. There’s a new upload client for Mac (there’s been one for Windows for longer), and there have been tweaks to the web interface. The improvements have made a big difference, and I’ve now changed my tune and have found that Amazon Cloud Drive is now a much more viable option for backing up large amounts of photos–or, for that matter, any other files–online with a service that is safe, reliable, and cost-effective.
If you want to just dive in and try it out for yourself, here’s the direct link. Otherwise, below’s a quick overview of how it works and what it offers.
Uploading Photos: Web Browser
The upload dialog is pretty straightforward. The most basic version is to use the web interface. You can drag and drop images onto the panel or browse for files or folders. To get the photo-specific viewing options, you can use JPG or TIFF files. You can also upload RAW files, but viewing them is limited to the embedded thumbnail, which isn’t especially useful.
By default, your images are sorted by the date they were taken (the information is automatically extracted from the image file). You can also sort by upload date.
Uploading Photos: Amazon Cloud Drive Client
The release of a Mac client for Amazon Cloud Drive Client has made a big difference in how useful the service is to me. The Windows client was released well before the Mac version, but for me, and for the many other photographers who use Mac, that wasn’t especially useful.
The client itself is very straightforward. It’s essentially a drop panel that you drop your folders or files onto, with the upload beginning automatically. There aren’t any options like replace or sync or merge to be messing with. You can pause or cancel, but that’s about it.
Once the upload starts you get a progress bar and it just goes about doing its thing.
If you get errors (for instance, trying to upload files larger than 2GB each), there’ll be a notification in red and you can open a list of the offending files.
Uploading Photos : Third-Party Clients
By itself, Amazon Cloud Drive clients don’t offer synching and automated backup capabilities. But some third-party synching apps are starting to add Amazon Cloud Drive integration. Here are some of the early adopters I know about, and I expect this list will continue to grow.
SyncBackPro (Windows) has added Amazon Cloud Drive to its cloud backup options.
Syncovery (Windows and Mac), one of my favorite backup and scheduled transfer apps, has added Amazon Cloud Drive to a beta versions of its Windows client and now its Mac client. I have a more detailed post on using Syncovery with Amazon Cloud here.
The image view through a web browser is clean and simple, with a dark grey background and the image’s longest edge spanning that dimension. You get next and previous buttons overlaid on the sides. When you roll the cursor over the image you get icons at the bottom of the screen for the sharing link, download, and deleting.
If you click on the ellipses (three dots) at top right of the screen, you get a flyout displaying some image metadata. But it’s pretty basic and includes only filename, capture date, added date, filesize, and pixel dimension. It doesn’t include any embedded IPTC descriptions (or any other IPTC, EXIF, or XMP metadata), and you can’t add captions, titles, or geotags.
The share links are generated on the fly with randomized URLs. That enables you to be able to hit the Stop Sharing link to break the old URL to make it private again.
Apparently you can only share images individually. There doesn’t appear to be any way to share a folder or multiple images at once as a gallery.
If you use the download link, it immediately downloads the original file. There are no options for choosing a resized version or specifying the image format.
Amazon Cloud Drive is designed to work with most kinds of files, not just image files. To organize them, you can arrange them in the kind of folder structure you’re familiar with. To move incoming files into folders, you can’t drag and drop. Instead, you highlight them hit the Move link at the bottom of the screen. You’ll then get a popup where you can choose the subfolder you want the files to move to. You can, however, change the sort order to make it more logical for whatever you’re trying to do.
There’s a version of the free smartphone and tablet app for IOS and Android. It looks and works almost exactly like the website version. One thing that the smartphone app can do that the website version can’t do, though, is automatically upload any new photos you take on your phone (ie. the same as Dropbox’s Camera Upload feature).
Room for Improvement
There is, however, room for improvement, and there are limitations that aren’t going to suit every photographer’s needs.
There is no automatic backup option. You have to manually drop your files into the upload panel (or via the web interface) to upload them. You can, however, add third-party software into the mix to automate the process. But by itself it’s not much good for synchronizing Lightroom or Aperture catalogs. Of course, the absence of automatic syncing can also be a virtue in that it makes it harder to accidentally delete files from the online backup.
The options for sharing photos or videos are still quite undercooked.
Amazon Cloud Drive only supports files that are 2GB or smaller. That can be a problem if you’re looking to back up videos or even high resolution panorama photos.
Another limitation–although not necessarily a problem–is that the nature of this service doesn’t have the kind of access flexibility that comes with something like Amazon S3. You can’t mount your data as a drive or use it as the backend of a website or any of the myriad other ways you can use more full-featured cloud storage options. It is designed to be simple.
So is Amazon’s Prime Photo a good option for backing up photos?
When I first reviewed it after the initial rollout of the unlimited photos feature, I was underwhelmed. A lot of that had to do with the limited ways to deal with truly large numbers of files and folders. At the time, I regarded Dropbox Pro or extra storage in Google Drive as better options for many users, and they’re still better options if you’re need things like automation or versioning.
But with the addition of two things I’ve changed my tune. One is that Amazon now offers an Unlimited Everything plan for photos, videos, files, and documents, for $59.99/year. At $5 per month, that’s a good deal and makes it directly competitive with automatic backup services like Backblaze or CrashPlan (although, it should be noted, Amazon Cloud Drive does not currently have built-in automatic backup). The other is the addition of the Mac app, which makes uploading large numbers of files much more viable. The Mac app isn’t perfect–it’s very basic, and from time to time I have it stall on me (fixed by hitting pause and then resume), but it makes a big difference for dealing with folders and large numbers of images. There have also been some other incremental improvements that have helped.
One thing to be careful of if you’re using the Prime Photos plan (rather than the Unlimited Everything plan) is that it is quite strict about filetypes. You can upload as many images as you like, but all other filetypes are counted against your regular 5GB quote. That includes video files, sidecar XMP files, or any other kind of files. If you want to save those as well and have a lot of them, a better bet might be the Unlimited Everything plan.
So after experimenting a lot more with it, I’ve now signed up with the Unlimited Everything plan and am using it in my mix of the cloud backup options that I use for some of my own files.
But if you’re a professional photographer, there’s an important catch in using Amazon Cloud Drive as part of your business. As a reader helpfully pointed out, the Amazon Cloud Drive terms of service limit your usage to personal, non-commercial use. Some of the language seems more geared towards preventing users from creating online services or client galleries with it rather than strictly as a data backup service, but so that you can make your own interpretation on whether your intended use falls within the allowed terms of service, here’s the actual language (you can confirm the latest version here):
1.2 Using Your Files with the Service. You may use the Service only to store, retrieve, manage, and access Your Files for personal, non-commercial purposes using the features and functionality we make available. You may not use the Service to store, transfer or distribute content of or on behalf of third parties, to operate your own file storage application or service, to operate a photography business or other commercial service, or to resell any part of the Service.
While I was initially intrigued by the idea of using it to backup my images, I’ve now scaled back my usage to personal photos and the oodles of other non-business files of all different types I have. That’s still a lot of data, and so far so good.
There’s nothing inherently bad about using Prime Photo or Amazon Cloud Drive for photo backups–at least, no more so than relying on other commercial entities to keep your images safe–especially if it’s used in combination with local backups on hard drives or other physical media. Since Amazon provides the online infrastructure for so many of the web’s sites and services, it’s hard to imagine a safer place for them online. So long as you continue paying your membership fees, of course. Cloud storage companies can and do disappear in the face of business realities–like Digital Railroad in 2008 or BigStash in 2015–but Amazon has proven to be one of the most reliable and stable players in the space thus far.
If you already have Amazon Prime membership, you already have access to the Unlimited Photos feature as a free part of your membership. You can find more information here.
If you don’t currently have Amazon Prime membership, you can sign up for a free 3-month trial here.
Or if you’re a student, you can sign up for a free 6-month trial that you can then convert to a paid account at a 50% discount rate with a student membership. More information here.
If you’re not a Prime member and don’t want to be, you can also purchase Prime Photos as an a la carte option for $11.99 a year. More information here.
And if you want to sign up for the Unlimited Everything option that includes most other kinds of files (as long as the files themselves are each under 2GB), you can find information about that here.