Dropbox Photography Introduction

Uncategorized May 05, 2014

What follows is the first half of the introduction to the book I’m working on about organizing your photo library with Dropbox. I thought some of you might like to see what I’ve been working on as I get closer to launching in July.

I adamantly believe that our photos and home videos are the most important digital assets we have. They document our lives, remind us of our our best moments, and teach us who we were. Yet, most people rarely give a second thought to how they preserve, protect, and share those memories. They’re content to leave everything in a giant, digital shoebox that may or may not be backed up. Thousands of photos stored in your phone’s camera roll here, a smattering of memories uploaded to Facebook and Twitter there, and none of them organized, backed up, or protected in any way.

It didn’t use to be like this. For both my sister and I, from the day we were born until we turned eighteen, my mother kept a photo album for each of us for each year of our life. By the time my sister went off to college, our family room bookcase had amassed over forty albums – filled to the brim and overflowing with photos of our youth. My mother had a longstanding rule: if the house were to catch fire, my father’s first job was to get everyone out safely. He was then instructed to run back inside and save as many of those albums as he could. And in all seriousness, my mother wasn’t exactly kidding. Those memories meant the world to her. If she were to spill coffee on one of them she’d be sad. But if she were to lose all of them in a fire, she’d be devastated. Everything else in the house could be purchased a second time. But those albums were irreplaceable.

Today, things are much better. Sure we may print off and keep some of our family photos in actual albums, but most of our digital memories live on our hard drives, where we have plenty of opportunity to back them up and keep them safe. So why do so many of us go about our digital lives with our head in the sand? Every hard drive you own, whether in your laptop, your iMac, or even your super-expensive networked storage device, will fail. It’s a guarantee. One day, the photos and videos stored on it will be lost forever when the hard drive finally dies. So why wouldn’t you take a few simple steps and spend a little extra money to ensure that when it does happen, you have a backup in place?

I’m not sure when things changed, but I suspect it’s a two part problem brought on by our increasingly online lives. As digital cameras took over and people stopped paying to develop film, the actual price of each photo plummeted. And with it, the perceived value. Further, as the digital storage space available to us increased, people began taking more and more photos – eventually reaching the point where they could no longer keep track of their photo collections or find the tools to keep them organized and protected.

Instead of photo albums of family vacations and birthday parties sorted chronologically on a shelf, our digital photo libraries are a jumbled mess. Thousands of snapshots in a single camera roll on your phone, with no meaningful way to browse through them. The oldest ones haphazardly deleted and lost forever to make room for new ones. People mistakenly believe that they can always get their pictures back from Facebook if they ever need them. Or worse, they believe that Apple is somehow magically backing up all of their photos into iCloud. Neither one is true.

While researching this book, I had a conversation with two friends. Neither is technical at a developer level, but both are long-time Mac and iPhone users. They know their way around the platform.

My first friend, we’ll call him Ted, said he was having trouble with his iPhone. His photos and videos had grown to take up nearly 10GB of storage space. And with only a 16GB iPhone, his device was very nearly out of room. He wanted to know how to backup his photos off his device but still be able to access them when needed.

He assumed there was an Apple-centric way of doing this. He figured he could just buy more iCloud storage space. He was shocked when I explained to him that the only user-friendly solution I know of is Dropbox. I told him that even if he bought more than the default 5GB of iCloud space, he’d still be limited by his on-device storage limits. iCloud only backs up what’s currently on your phone. If you delete photos and videos from your device, they’re similarly deleted from your next iCloud backup.

I walked him through how the Dropbox app works. Install it on your phone, sign up for an account, and the app periodically uploads everything in your camera roll to your Camera Uploads folder in your Dropbox. Once uploaded, you’re safe to delete them from your device – freeing up space. Then, you can either use the Dropbox app to browse your photos, view them on your computer, or use a dedicated Dropbox photo app like the wonderful Unbound.

Ted thought that idea sounded great and was ready to sign up. But then I told him the catch – the free Dropbox plan only offers 2GB of space. He needed at least 10GB, which I said would cost $99 a year.

He was dumbfounded. In an age where seemingly every online service is free, why should he have to pay for Dropbox? I tried explaining the value it added and how much I loved the service, but he just couldn’t get past the idea that this was a service that Apple should be offering as part of owning the phone. I couldn’t really disagree with him. It does seem like a problem Apple should be solving, but they’re not.

My other friend chimed in. He said he wasn’t worried about his photos and videos because he was backed up. I asked if he were already using Dropbox or paying for one of the larger iCloud storage plans. He said “No, I bought the larger 32GB iPhone so all my data is backed up with Apple.”

This time I was flabbergasted.

He went on to explain that all of his data was safe because of iCloud. I let him finish and then had to break the bad news to him that iCloud only works for the first 5GB. Once you go beyond that, none of your data is backed up unless you’re a paying customer. Apple, through all of their flashy marketing around iCloud and promises of how it “just works”, has convinced a large set of non-technical users that their most precious data, their photos and videos, is safe when it’s actually anything but.

This is exactly the problem that I’m writing about in this book. I’m desperately trying to preach to users that the data you hold so dear isn’t being handled by Apple. If you lose your phone, in most cases, your photos and videos go with it. And as I talk to more and more people about this problem and explain to them how things actually work, so often I’m met with incredulous stares. Not that they’re surprised or outraged that their data isn’t safe, but at the sheer audacity that someone would suggest they need to pay for their data’s safekeeping.

In person and in this book, my goal is to make a solid case that your data is most definitely worth the measly $9.99 per month Dropbox charges. My sister was absolutely devastated when her iMac’s hard drive failed without a backup in 2005. She mistakenly thought that her iPod’s photo cache served as a full backup of her photos. I can still remember the awful look on her face when I explained that her four years of high school photos along with the first year of her college photos were reduced to nothing more than 160 pixel wide thumbnails.

Apple never marketed to her that her iPod Photo backed up her memories, but she still mistakenly assumed that when it asked to sync her photos. But now we’re in an even worse situation where Apple really is marketing to users that all of their data is safe. I can only cringe at the thought of how many customers go to a genius bar to get a replacement phone and are told “just sign into iCloud and all your data will be restored” only to find out that’s not the case.

My mother meticulously archived and organized our family photos into dozens of albums when we were growing up. All those albums and film development cost real money. Every roll of film, every trip to the camera shop, every album, and don’t forget all the time put into organizing and pasting photos into the albums. It was an investment. The idea that everything online should be free has created a pernicious entitlement culture where users are unwilling to pay a little money to safeguard their most precious digital memories.

It’s a terrible situation and one I’m trying to correct. This book is the antidote to most people’s digital negligence. It will teach you a simple method for organizing, sharing, enjoying, and protecting your most valuable memories.

Who this book is for

I should say up front that this book is for consumers. While the sharing and backup solutions I present may be of use to professional photographers, the organization and review strategies will likely clash with the workflows of people who take photographs for a living. I also won’t be covering how to handle and process RAW format photographs. Everything I write about will assume we’re dealing with JPG files from your camera phone, point and shoot camera, or your prosumer DSLR.

I should also say that the examples I present and the software I recommend are definitely Apple-centric. We’ll be covering ways to archive photos from your iPhone and iPad, ways to share those photos with Photostreams and Apple TV, and we’ll be using tools that, to my knowledge, are only available on Mac. Most of the ideas and tactics I write about can be used on Windows or Linux platforms, but the automation techniques are Mac only.

Why listen to me?

Hopefully everything sounds great so far. But you may be wondering why you should listen to me. What makes me the expert? The simple answer is that I’ve been thinking about today’s digital photography challenges constantly for the last few years as I’ve watched my own collection become more and more unwieldy. I’ve honed my workflow to be as simple and, most importantly, automatic as possible. I’ve learned that I lose focus and things grow unorganized as the complexity of my workflow increases. But, by keeping things simple, repeatable, and efficient I’ve found a happy medium where I’m able to keep my photo library under control without devoting too much time to curating it. It’s the techniques I’ve settled on over the last few years that I plan to share in this book.

Those techniques are modeled after the principles I’ve learned practicing David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology for the last ten years. In his book, he teaches a series of concrete steps that can be taken to reign in any complex system. I’ve simply adapted his teachings into a workflow for managing your photo library.

Further, my background as a long-time Mac app developer provides me with additional insight into finding the best software tools and automation techniques for the job.

If you follow the steps I outline, you’ll quickly find yourself with an organized photo library that’s accessible on all your devices, backed-up in case of disaster, and shareable to all your friends and family.