You're not at a loss for services that automatically back up photos and provide access to them on any device. There's Flickr, Dropbox, OneDrive, and iCloud, just to start. But Google Photos has grown pretty fast, topping 500 million active users per month after two years of existence.
It's worth downloading the mobile app for some extra peace of mind. Google Photos offers truly unlimited backup of all the photos (and videos) you take. Every single one. The caveat: they have to be less than 16 megapixels to qualify for the unlimited storage. You are allowed to upload larger images—but Google converts them on the fly to 16 megapixels. (It downgrades video shot above 1080p.)
There is also an option to upload images at "original" size. If you pick that, images are not converted, but they count against your allotted 15GB of online storage with Google, which is shared with Gmail, Google Drive, and other Google services. (Naturally, you can pay Google to get more storage at $2 per month for 100GB extra or $10 per month for 1TB.)
Google Photos came about by salvaging the best part of the Google+ social network that no one wanted to use—the photo storage and sharing. Sadly for some, Google Photos also replaced our former Editors' Choice photo software Picasa, the desktop program that Google acquired way back in 2004. If you used the Picasa Web Albums for any online storage, all your images have been shunted to Google Photos. You can still use the Picasa Desktop software if you have it; but it'll never get an update, nor can you get support from Google if you have a problem. It's probably time to let it go.
To be honest, you won't miss it, if you are willing to leave desktop programs behind. Google Photos was built from the get-go for use on mobile devices via apps (iOS and Android) and on the web. On iOS, it even supports Live Photos.
It's far from perfect; if you want really unlimited storage, Flickr users get a free terabyte. However, like most online services/apps, Photos adds new features all the time. Many are meant to automate your use, some of which we'll cover here. Read on for all the little tricks that will allow you to get the most out of your account.
1Show a Slideshow
Go into any album of images and display it as a slideshow, which is especially nice when you pair your device with a Chromecast on a big TV. On the web or Android, tap the ellipsis/three-dot menu ( at the upper right). Select Slideshow and they'll display in order.
2Play With Search
You should definitely search in Google Photos, using terms common and obscure. Google's auto-tagging of images is pretty amazing, beyond just the face recognition (which I found could ID people in photos even if they're in the background). For example, a search of the term "dog" got just about every image I could conceive of with my pups in the pics—even some with just a pup statue or paw. I didn't tag any of those pics with "dog" or "statue," by the way: Google just knows. Location searches are also easy with geo-tagging, making it easy to find, say, all your vacation pictures at once.
3Label the People
Whether you're using the mobile apps or Web app, click on Albums, and at the top of the screen you'll see a few pre-set options. One is People. Click it and you'll see headshots taken from your photos. Click a person and enter their name. Then in the future, searching by name in Google Photos will make it easier to find (almost) every picture of that person. Google's face matching takes care of the rest. (You may have to turn that feature on in the Android app.) Is Google then using it to know everyone in the world and make it easy to find them? My tinfoil-hat-covered Magic 8-Ball says "signs point to yes."
4Pinch to Change Your View
Pinching or expanding your two fingers on a single image to zoom in or out is standard. Google Photos lets you change the look of the entire mobile app by pinching, so you can zoom from "comfortable view" all the way out to the by-year view, with stops at days and months in between. Or just use the menu to go in and change the view. Pinch outward on a single picture to zoom it into view for editing.
5Batch Upload to YouTube
Shooting a lot of video on your phone and just wish you could put them on your YouTube channel all at once? It can happen. Since all your videos auto-upload along with images to Google Photos, that part is easy. Next, go to your YouTube upload page and click the button to import video from Google Photos. Once they're ready, go in and give them a title and some tags.
6Upload Other Images
On an Android device, Google Photos will naturally grab images to upload from your main pictures folder. Tell it to go deeper, into the folders for apps like WhatsApp and Instagram and more. Enter Google Photos > > Settings > Back up & sync > Back up device Folders. Click it and you'll see other folders from which you can/should grab images to back up automatically. Access those folders any time by using the hamburger menu ( at the upper left) and selecting "Device Folders."
7Don't Share Your Location
Images taken with almost any device these days, especially smartphones, have lots of location data. Google Photos uses that to actively map where your pics were taken. That's a nice feature, but sometimes when you share an image, you may not want the person on the receiving end to know exactly where the pic was taken. The workaround: visit photos.google.com/settings and check off "Remove geo location in items shared by link." Then, when you generate a link to share an image, the person who sees the image at that link won't get any geo-data. (This doesn't work if you share by other means, such as social media.)
8Quick Select Pics
Hold your finger on a picture to select, then just start dragging your finger and all the pictures you touch will be selected. That makes it a lot easier to delete or move a bunch of photos in a batch or use them with the special tools like creating animations, movies, or collages.
9Save Device Storage
There is a feature in the mobile versions of Google Photos that can help you save some space on phones or tablets: once an image is backed up to the service, the app can delete the local version. (That means it's not really a backed-up image anymore; Google might have your only copy!) You'll find it in both iOS and Android under > Free Up Space. It will instantly ask if you want to really remove all the pictures, which means instantly deleting them from your Android Gallery or iOS Photos collection.
Using it depends on how much you care about having a high-resolution version of every picture. The amount of storage on your device is also a factor; and if you're using other services to get a backup. You don't want Google deleting an image before it goes to iCloud or Dropbox.
You may simply want to plug your phone into the PC and copy photos over rather than let Google Photos make the decision for you. But if you're a frequent photo deleter, this is a handy tool.
10Convert Images Already Uploaded to Save Space
If you've been uploading images with the backup option set to "Original" and the images are over 16 megapixels, then you're using up your free online storage allotment from Google. However, you can switch the setting back to "High Quality" (so Google automatically shifts images upload to 16 megapixels if they're bigger) and convert all the images you've already uploaded down to 16 megapixels.
On a desktop, go to photos.google.com/settings and click the RECOVER STORAGE button. Don't worry about this if you don't have a device that take images bigger than 16 megapixels (even iPhone 7 is limited to 12 megapixels). This also doesn't impact images you've stored on Google Drive—but it will convert images bigger than 16 megapixels you have uploaded on Blogger, Google Maps and Panoramio, Google+, and Google Hangouts.
11Make Sure Photos/Videos on Google Drive Show
There's a special setting in Google Photos: it makes sure that any photos or videos in the Google Drive account with the same username show up with all the rest of your images. Turn it on and you'll see them all. Note that it doesn't actually move the files from Google Drive. And if the images are in Drive, not Photos, they're using up some of your allotted storage, even if they're under 16 megapixels.
12Deep Edit the Deep Blue
Basic photo editing on Google Photos is a breeze—click on an image, click the Edit icon (), and you're presented with filters to apply, sliders to adjust light and color (or a "Pop" slider to make the image pop more), plus a speedy crop/rotation tool. Simple stuff that works on both mobile and desktop.
When you adjust light and color under that second icon, you get a few nice extras by clicking the down-arrow () next to each slider. Under light, there's exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, blacks, and vignette (to put a spot light on a section of the image). Under color is saturation, warmth, tint, Skin Tone, and Deep Blue—that last one is to adjust just the color blue, which is nice when the shots involve water. (Want more lush greens? Crank up saturation, then decrease Skin Tone and Deep Blue).
When you're making edits on the desktop, you can click and hold the cursor on the image (or hold the letter "O" on your keyboard) to instantly see how the edits look compared to the original.
13Apply the Same Edits to Multiple Shots
If you've perfected the edits on one image, you can apply it to a bunch of them. On the desktop, look at the edited image, go to the overflow/three vertical dots menu ( ) and select Copy Edits. On the rest of the images, use the same menu to Paste Edits. You can also just use the copy/paste keyboard short cuts (Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V, respectively). This isn't an option on the mobile apps as yet.
14Save a Copy When Editing
When you go into the editing tools in Google Photos, you get the usual stuff. Change the lighting, the color, apply some filters, crop, rotate, etc. When you click Save at the end of editing, the app will ask if you want to save the changes, and then overwrite the original image stored on your device. If you don't want that to happen, hit the menu to either go back to the original, or to Save a Copy, so you'll have both versions. (In the web-app version, it says Done instead of Save, and will not ask you first about overwriting, it just does it. But you can also access the menu again to save a copy. What's nice is, if you go into edit the image again in the web interface—you can undo all previous changes, even if you did the edits in the mobile app!)
15Create Collages, Animations, and Movies
Don't be afraid of that Google Photos section called Assistant. It shows you "cards" of suggestions, like making collages of photos that are similar, even making animations of images in a series. Swipe them off the screen if you don't want what's in each card.
You don't have to settle for just Google's auto-creations. Click the buttons at top to create your own Album, Shared Album, Collage, Animation (and on the mobile apps, Movie), and now Photobooks (see below).
For instance, the Movie choice: click a bunch that you want, pick some music from your library or the pre-set library Google provides (including songs like "Ride of the Valkyries"), and let the app create a fun little movie for you to share. You can always go back in to the movie later and add or subtract images, change the soundtrack, or even apply a filter. (Weirdly, you can't send it direct to YouTube.)
If you really hate the Assistant and just want the storage, you can turn off the suggestions at photos.google.com/settings under Assistant Cards > Creations, or individually in the mobile apps via Settings > Assistant Cards > Creations.
16Auto-Upload From Mac or Windows
The Google Auto Uploader for Photos desktop app is going away as of March 12, 2018, and will be replaced by the new Google Backup and Sync, which is also replacing the Google Drive program for Windows and macOS.
Back and Sync will sync your Google Drive documents to the PC as well as videos and pictures—and it'll copy any and all of them from the PC to Google Photos automatically. Backup and Sync also supports the High Quality upload option on photos so they won't count against your Google storage allotment.
You can always still upload photos and vids individually or in a batch by dragging them to the Google Photos website, too. You can also drag them into the Google Photos folder found on Google Drive, for that matter. Turn it on via Drive's Settings.
17Back Up With Wi-Fi Only
In the mobile apps, you can turn off "Photos (or Videos) back up using cellular data" in the settings under Back up & sync. It's a good idea for those with a limited data plan. Otherwise the auto-upload aspect of Google Photos can eat through your data like water dissolving cotton candy.
18Recover Items for 60 Days
Deleted an image you want back? Go to the menu (on mobile or web), and select Trash. Your deleted images hang out here for a couple of months before they're truly gone. That is, unless you hit the EMPTY TRASH option. Then they're toast.
19Download All Google Photos
The editing tools on Google Photos are, indeed, pretty weak compared to pro editing tools. If you need to import a picture or two from Google Photos into a desktop image editor, it's easy to download. For a single image, click the photo > Download. Same goes for Albums (select Download All), or downloading multiple selected thumbnails. If you want to select photos to download, you can, but only 500 at a time, and it saves them as a ZIP file.
The only way to download every single image is to use Google Takeout, a service Google provides so you can download all copies of everything you've put on any Google service, such as Blogger, Calendar, Drive, Hangouts, Keep, YouTube, Gmail, Maps, and others. If you go this route, the images may lose all their EXIF data, the information attached to each image about location, camera used to take the image, etc.
20Scan Old Photos
Google Photoscan is a free mobile app that comes separately from Google Photos. It's worth using if you're "scanning" old snapshots. The app uses a special method of scanning with your smartphone camera to reduce glare, enhance resolution, and detect the edges of the shot. The result is, of course, instantly saved into your Google Photos.
21Share a Library Auto-Magically
Sharing is a hallmark of almost everything you do with pictures online, and Google Photos is no exception. You can easily share a shot or a whole album with people, even if they don't use Google Photos themselves. If they do use it, all the better, because you can create a Shared Library. That library could include every shot you take, or you can share only photos tagged with specific people or photos from a specific date range. If they share back, you both get access to all the images you want (you don't have to accept them all), and they're available to the Google Photos Assistant to create movies, collages, and more.
22Print a Book
Photo books are the latest method for Google to help you share photos with that Luddite friend or family member who still thinks pictures are for seeing on paper only. And it doesn't hurt that Google and its partner in printing can get a few extra bucks out of you. It's $9.99 for a 7-inch square softcover or $19.99 for a 9-inch square hard cover; each is 20 pages minimum, but you can have extra pages for 35¢ in soft or 65¢ in the hard covers.
Google tries to pick the best images, but you can change them. It's a max of 100 photos per book—that's 100 pages—but you can change the selections to get down to a reasonable price. If you want more than one image per page, you need to make a collage of the images in Google Photos, then select it for the book—otherwise, it's one pic per page, with a big white margin around it.
23Don't Rediscover Everyone
There's a feature of Google Photos Assistant called Rediscover this Day, which brings photos from days in your past bubbling to the surface. It's an option you can turn off or on in Settings > Assistant Cards > Rediscover this day. But sometimes it's nice—until you see someone you don't like, perhaps an ex. If you like the feature but not who is featured, use the facial recognition to cancel them out of rediscovery.
To do that, tap the search box, and you'll see a "list" of faces. Click the arrow () and you'll see all the faces Google Photos recognizes. You should, of course, assign them all a name for sharing, but you can also merge faces that Google hasn't realized are the same person, and more to our point, select Show & Hide People, so you can prevent them from reappearing.
24Archive Images Worth Keeping, but Not Seeing
If you're smart, your smartphone camera is used to take pictures of more than just friends and family. Use it for menus, store hour signs, notebook pages, license plates of cars that make you mad, etc. It can all be useful info later. Of course, it's not pretty and you may not want to see it in your Google Photos stream. But the service knows: the Assistant will suggest that you archive the non-photographic stuff, including screenshots from your phone or tablet, via a "clear the clutter" card. Go ahead and use the archive. Go crazy. Just like with Gmail, an archived thing is not deleted, and you can always find it later with a search. Sadly, Google Photos doesn't search in the text in a picture, so you can't just type in words you've got in a picture (like a restaurant name on a menu) to find it.
25Live Photos Live
Live Photos—which add three-second videos on either side of a photo—have been around since the iPhone 6s, and Google Photos supports these little mini-movies. You can tell which shots are Live Photos because they have a little toggle button at the top, which allows you to turn off the animation if you want. If you leave animation on, it plays in an endless loop, with sound. If you edit a Live Photo in Google Photos, it gets saved as a still.
Google Photos also provides another feature that can make Live Photos look great, or sometimes a bit off—it stabilizes the background of an image, freezing it to avoid a "shakey cam" look.
Sharing a Live Photo with someone who does not have an iPhone 6s or above typically means losing the motion, and that's true if you just do a straight share from Google Photos as well (say, try to send it via iMessage). However, Google Photos has a workaround—use the menu on a Live Photo to Save as video. It'll save the vid right in Google Photos, even loop it three times for you. Use Google Photos tools to trim the length or rotate it, then share it anywhere. You can't save it as an animated GIF from Google Photos, but Google offers a free iOS app called Motion Stills to do that.