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The best cloud photo storage: free and paid options compared

(Image credit: Future)

Smartphone, DSLR camera, compact camera, tablet… most of us have several devices that take and store photos. Then there's the desktop PC or Mac and/or a laptop, all crammed with photos. We're all drowning in data and fear that a device will get lost, or a hard drive fail. 

One answer is to upload all of your photos to one easy-to-use online archive, cloud photo storage app where it's backed-up and, if you're lucky, all grouped and arranged for you. 

That's the dream. In practice, choosing a good cloud storage platform doesn't mean the end to photo editing, sorting or physical backup. However, some platforms do now involve some semblance of automation, with geotags and metadata used to group together photos by location, date taken, who's in them (using facial recognition), and the camera or device with which they were taken.

Free vs. paid cloud storage

Free services usually come with strings attached, mostly obviously a severely restricted storage capacity. Only if you pay a monthly or annual subscription do you get to sample the best features and access to more useful capacities.

Here's a look at the best free and paid cloud storage options right now.

The best cloud storage (free)

1. Google Photos

Unlimited storage but a handful of restrictions too

Unlimited storage
Wi-Fi auto-uploader for phones
16MP limit for stills
Basic built-in editing

This is the big one. As long as you agree with its restrictions on image quality, Google Photos will automatically upload and backup every photo you ever take on a smartphone (when it's on Wi-Fi), and extract every image it finds on your computers. What's more, it does it all for free. 

However, there are a couple of catches; as it uploads your photos, it will downscale them to 16MP versions, and reduce any 4K videos it finds to Full HD 1080p quality. If that doesn't appeal, and you'd rather upload in maximum quality, that's OK with Google, but it will then restrict you to storing 15GB. That's quite a downgrade from 'unlimited', but it's relatively generous. Still, even if Google Photos isn't perfect for professional photographers, it's still a pain-free way of backing-up a phone and keeping a usable copy in the cloud of every photo you've ever taken.

Once everything has been uploaded – something that takes a while, obviously –Google Photos has all kinds of algorithms on board. Auto-enhancing, automatic tagging, image recognition to find your face and group together anything with you in. There's also an animation creator that will create occasional GIFs from burst sequences, and slideshow video options too. Despite these playful features, Google Photos is genuinely impressive software. Plus, a mind-boggling 1.2billion photos are uploaded to Google Photos each day, so algorithms will likely keep improving.

The only trouble is Google tends to have some great products, but then cease support for them at relatively short notice. That's what happened to its last foray into photos, Picasa. Click here

2. Dropbox

Great if you want to sync across multiple devices

Selective sync
Syncs files across devices
Free limit is only 2GB
No editing tools

Though Dropbox is a rather simple cloud-based file storage service, it's particularly good for photos. Unfortunately, the free version isn't much use since new users get a paltry 2GB of online storage – that's not going to stretch very far. 

However, it's worth experimenting with if you're the type of photographer who likes to store all of their photos in folders on a computer, and wants to keep it that way. Although it's a cloud storage solution, the Dropbox software installed on a desktop or laptop PC or Mac can be used to selectively sync folders. Once it's set up, it's simply a case of dragging and dropping photos into a folder that will then automatically sync. It's great for syncing files and folders across several computers. The Dropbox app can then be used to view your photos on phones and tablets, though it's also got a camera upload option that auto-uploads all photos taken on devices.

If you want only the safety of a backup without ceding manual control of your photos, Dropbox is a pretty hassle-free solution for laptop/desktop PC/Mac users. Click here

3. Flickr

It's still free but it's now lost its 1TB free storage plan

1TB storage
Original resolutions
No sync
Auto-uploader costs

It's been around since 2004 and there's something comforting about the almost retro design of Flickr. It's very photography-centric, presenting Exchangeable Image File (EXIF) metadata for each image – including aperture, shutter speed and ISO – as well as the chance to download it in a variety of resolutions.

Perhaps the biggest reason to love Flickr was its 1TB of free storage, which was hard to resist. But as of January 2019, this will no longer be an option and you will be limited to just 1,000 images as part of the free plan.

And there are another few reasons to swerve Flickr. The first is that the free version is an online photo management and sharing platform rather than a cloud storage backup service that syncs with computers. There is an app that can upload every image you take with a smartphone to Flickr, but that's slightly at odds with what Flickr is. 

Underlining its manual nature is its basic uploader; each folder or file has to be individually selected, and the process never seems to work without at least a few files being problematic. However, a $5.99 monthly fee gets you 'proper' auto-uploader software, while $49.99 per year brings discounts on Adobe Creative Cloud (including Lightroom and Photoshop), Prime Lightroom presets, and a Portfoliobox Pro website.

Another reason to give Flickr a miss, at least for now, is that it's now owned by SmugMug, a very similar cloud photo storage platform. There are reasons to believe that Flickr may be amalgamated into SmugMug. That may be no bad thing, because SmugMug has a plugin for Adobe Lightroom to make auto-uploads possible, but for now, Flickr's future is unknown. Click here

4. Shoebox

Despite some restrictions, storage stalwart Shoebox has ease of use as a big plus

Simple, clean user interface
Facebook photo backup
10.6MP limit
Video restrictions

Best thought of as a lighter version of Google Photos, Canada-based Shoebox has been around since 2012 and is beginning to look a little dated. Although it offers more than enough for the casual user – and comes with an auto-uploader app for phones, a desktop client, and online access – the free version of Shoebox insists on reducing the resolution of photos uploaded to its site to just 10.6MP (3,264 pixels on the longest side), which does seem limiting – and it's significantly less that what Google Photos offers for free. There's also a ban on 4K videos, with Full HD 1080p videos limited to 3 minutes each, and 15 minutes in total. An additional hour of video costs $4.99.

For US$5 per month on the 'Pro' plan you get original resolution backup, but this is not a good plan for videographers since videos are limited to six minutes each, 10 hours in total, and must be in Full HD 1080p quality – ie no 4K.

However, for casual photographers happy with limited resolution, Shoebox is an excellent platform. Retaining each photo's metadata, images are grouped on a timeline, but can also be put into albums. When viewed, images can be shared via a variety of social media platforms via email, and from the websites can be individually downloaded to the desktop. There's also a nice option to backup photos uploaded to Facebook. Like Facebook, it presents you with some of your own photos on the anniversary you took them. It's a really clean user interface, and it's so easy to use, but Shoebox does seem to have lost ground to Google Photos. Click here

5. 500px

With EXIF data maintained and licensing options, 500px is worth a look

Photos can be licensed
Original resolution uploads
Only 7 uploads in 7 days
Declining popularity

A portfolio platform will not appeal to photographers who can't bear to delete old silos of Raw files. If you're the kind of photographer who likes to keep piles of old images 'just in case', the likes of 500px will only appeal as a way to showcase your very best images. 

However, there are photographers who will very happily delete almost all of their photos, keeping only a few of their very best. If that's you, consider putting them on 500px, a community of over 13million photographers from 190 countries that's all about quality over quantity. As well as getting feedback from other photographers, it also acts as a platform for licensing, so members can make money.

Naturally, 500px does allow its users to upload photos in original resolution, but there is a big catch for users of its free version; it permits only seven uploads within any seven-day period (it used to be 20), and 2,000 uploads in total. Various upgrade offers exist, with 'Awesome' ($3.99/month) bringing unlimited uploads, 'Pro' ($4.99) allowing you to showcase your photography business, and 'Pro + Adobe' ($11.99), which adds an Adobe Creative Cloud Photography plan for access to Adobe's Lightroom and Photoshop software. Click here

The best cloud storage (paid)

(Image credit: Future)

1. IDrive

Comprehensive cloud storage that’s very well priced, especially for the 5TB plan

Capacity options: 5GB (free), 2TB, 5TB | Supported devices: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux

Great value
Supports internal, external and NAS drives
Simple interface
Must pay for 12 months up front
No cheaper capacities under 2TB

 IDrive is a fast, easy to use cloud storage solution which lets you easily sync files stored on your computer, as well as on a NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive. There’s 5GB of free storage to start you off, while $69.50 buys you a year's worth of 2TB storage, and 5TB can be had for a very competitive $99.50 a year. Both packages are also regularly discounted to make them even more of a bargain.

The simple web interface allows you to easily share files by email or to social media sites, and you can sleep easy knowing up to 30 previous versions of all files are retained should you need to roll back to an older version of an image. What's more, while there is support for continuous file syncing, files on the cloud don't have to be automatically deleted should you delete the version on your local hard drive.

Like Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive, IDrive also offers a clever facial recognition feature to help you organise your image portfolio, and it's able to sync images across your mobile devices.

(Image credit: Future)

2. Google Drive

Cloud storage that covers every base, and great value for 2TB or less

Capacity options: 15GB (free), 100GB, 200GB, 2TB, 10TB, 20TB, 30TB | Supported devices: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android

Lots of capacity options
Competitive payment options
Bristling with extra features 
Better for Android than iOS
2TB currently costs more than IDrive equivalent 

Google Drive is a huge cloud storage service that enables you to store any file type and has a sliding pay scale depending on the services and the size of storage you want. You get a generous 15GB for free, but there’s also a wide selection of paid upgrades. 100 GB currently costs £1.59/$1.99 per month, 200GB £2.49/$2.99 per month, and 2TB £7.99/$9.99 per month. There are even 10, 20 and 30TB options, but they’re hugely expensive. An added bonus is, like Apple and Microsoft, Drive isn’t just about storage, as it’s also integrated with Google’s cloud-based productivity apps that rival Microsoft’s Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

(Image credit: Future)

3. pCloud

There’s a lot to like here, especially if you value simplicity

Capacity options: 10GB (free) 500GB, 2TB | Supported devices: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Windows Mobile

Very easy to use
Excellent PC, Mac and mobile device integration
Lifetime payment options
No monthly payment plans
2TB plan currently costs more than Google Drive when paid annually

pCloud is a relative newcomer to the cloud storage scene, but it's making waves, and it's easy to see why. This is one of a few cloud storage companies to offer a one-off, lifetime payment option. If you can stomach parting with £350, you get 2TB of storage for life, plus benefits like 2TB of download bandwidth for sharing images and videos (uploading is unlimited). Alternatively, £175/$175 will buy you a lifetime's 500GB of storage and the same again in linking/streaming bandwidth. pCloud also offers annual subscription plans, with the same 500GB/2TB storage options priced at £47.88/$47.88 and £95.88/$95.88 per year respectively, which works out at £3.99/$3.99 and £7.99/$7.99 a month.

It's not only the lifetime storage option that makes pCloud attractive. You can access your files from a PC, Mac, mobile devices or the web, with pCloud storage appearing as a local drive on a PC or Mac for ultimate ease of access and backup. What's more, for an extra $3.99 a month, you can upgrade to pCloud Crypto so each stored file can be encrypted and password protected.

(Image credit: Future)

4. Dropbox

An ultra-versatile cloud option for PC and Mac, if not the most photo-friendly

Capacity options: 2GB (free), 2TB, 3TB | Supported devices: Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Windows Mobile

Extensive file and folder organisation
Lots of extra collaboration features 
2TB plan costs more than equivalent IDrive and iCloud plans
Many extras aren’t vital for photographers 

Dropbox has been the go-to cloud storage choice for years. You get a rather paltry 2GB for free, so really you’ll need to step up to the 2TB ‘Plus’ plan at £7.99/$9.99 a month, albeit charged annually, at an up-front cost of £95.88/$119.88. This also gets you extras like easy file sending and 30-day account and file recovery. A 3TB ‘Professional’ plan is also available, but it’s geared towards small businesses, and isn’t great value for most photographers.

Dropbox’s simple interface enables you to drag and drop the files you want to store online into a Dropbox folder on your machine and then these are automatically stored in the cloud, mirroring what is on your device. If you delete a photo from your computer, it can be set to delete from the cloud. Using the mobile app for iOS and Android is equally easy.

Although Dropbox doesn’t offer a dedicated imaging application like iCloud Photos, the simple folder structure design will appeal to those who like to have full control over the way their files are stored and organised.

(Image credit: Future)

4. Apple iCloud

A beautifully seamless storage solution, but only if your a MacBook/iPhone user

Capacity options: 5GB (free), 50GB, 200GB, 2TB | Supported devices: Windows, Mac, iOS

Top choice for Apple fans
Competitive pricing
Useful cloud-based office apps
OneDrive still better for Windows PCs
No Android device support
Capacities top out at 2TB

iCloud is the most logical cloud storage choice if you’re already an iPhone or Mac user, such is the seamless device integration of Apple’s ecosystem. As with Microsoft Windows and OneDrive, iCloud is neatly integrated into the Mac Finder app, making for super-easy file backup and sharing across devices. The connection is so slick that selected folders on your Mac’s internal hard drive will automatically upload to iCloud, and if you delete a file from your machine, it’ll also be deleted from the cloud.

Apple also includes access to web versions of apps like Pages and Numbers for easier on-the-go productivity. The Photos app is available across Apple devices, as well as directly through a browser. It enables you to quickly access, organise, download and share your images in one of the most streamlined interfaces available.

iCloud starts at just £0.79/$0.99 a month for 50GB of storage, while 200GB is £2.49/$2.99, and 2TB £6.99/$9.99. You can also get 5GB for free when you sign up.

(Image credit: Future)

6. Microsoft OneDrive

Capable and feature-rich cloud storage, but pricing and capacity isn’t the best

Capacity options: 5GB (free), 100GB, 1TB | Supported devices: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Windows Mobile

Good integration for Windows 10 PCs
Useful Microsoft Office web apps
Accessible monthly pricing
No competition for iCloud on Apple devices
Look elsewhere for storage over 1TB

Being a Microsoft product, OneDrive cloud storage is deeply integrated into Windows 10 so it can be accessed from the operating system much like a physical hard drive or SSD, making for an effortless cloud backup solution. There’s also a Mac OS app to enable a similar experience when using a Mac, though perhaps inevitably it’s not as slick as the iCloud ecosystem. OneDrive can also be used on iOS and Android mobile devices.

The photos section is just one part of OneDrive and it boasts clever features. There’s extensive raw file support, as well as the ability to automatically recognise the content of your images and tag them, making it easy to search for images by content or theme.

One Drive offers 5GB of storage for free, while 100GB will set you back a fairly accessible £1.99/$1.99 a month. £59.99/$69.99 will buy you a year’s subscription to the Office 365 Personal plan, which gives you 1TB of storage, along with a useful file recovery service and access to online versions of Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

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