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Google Photos is so 2020—welcome to the world of self-hosted photo management


We take more photos now than ever before. Growth in this segment is explosive, with over 1.4 trillion photos taken last year, according to InfoTrends. That’s up from 1 trillion in 2017. Video is much the same, with YouTube saying in recent years that about 500 hours of video are uploaded to the platform every minute.

Finding a solution to organizing and safely storing these precious memories is more important than ever, and it’s becoming an increasingly large problem to solve. Photos depict a special moment in time, a memory or event that can’t be recreated. They are irreplaceable and largely only exist digitally. Because of this, there are few categories of data that suit a free and open self-hosted solution better.

Purists will argue that your photos are yours and you should own them forever, no matter what, in full resolution. Pragmatists will argue that so long as the export tools are good enough, purity doesn’t matter. For many day-to-day photo service users, though, that was all an academic thought experiment—most people use Google Photos. The service passed a billion users two years ago. (Exporting on Google Photos, by the way, means using Google Takeout. I’ve been waiting for my requested data for seven days as of this writing.)

But this month, the choice reopens for many Internet users. As of June 1, 2021, any new photos and videos uploaded to Google Photos will begin to count against your Google storage quota. Space that previously felt never-ending is now finite for some accounts. Existing high-quality photos and videos are exempt from this change, but the move has a lot of people, me included, thinking about alternatives.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about self-hosted photo management alternatives—particularly those with web apps.

The rules of engagement

Photo management is a juggernaut of a topic, and it means different things to different people. For example, a professional photographer’s needs are poles apart from those of people taking selfies on their cell phones.

Each app below has its pros and cons. At the time of writing, we think you’re unlikely to find a magic “one size fits all” option. But stringing a few apps together might result in a coherent workflow that makes leaving Google Photos less painful.

You can also look at ditching Google Photos as an opportunity. Trying out the following tools serves as a primer for the world of self-hosted photo management and exposes you to the most exciting Google Photos alternatives. This space is developing rapidly, and we’d advise making use of the demos most projects provide to evaluate the apps for yourself before proceeding.

We’ve deliberately ignored more desktop-focused apps like Adobe Lightroom, Darktable, and digiKam. Google Photos is a web app, after all, so the software being tested here follows that same paradigm.

There are countless examples of mainstream applications or services we rely on becoming obsolete or placing once-free features behind a paywall (you’ve seen Ars’ ongoing “Google Kills Product” series, right?). So for many self-hosters, using something that is open source is a fundamental requirement. In a show of self-hosting solidarity, we’ll also focus primarily on open source software today.

Is Google Photos actually good?

Perhaps you’ve made it to this point in a story inspired by the “fall” of Google Photos and simply thought to yourself, “Good riddance.” But there’s a reason why Google Photos has become the de facto photo-management software for many since the service launched in 2015.

Google Photos does most things most people want from this type of software, and it does those things reasonably well and easily.

Google Photos has searchable object and face recognition, album support, automatic backup from mobile devices, and simple photo sharing with granular permissions, among other features. The service supports photos, live photos, and videos all the same. And by allowing folks to search their growing libraries by date, place, object, or person, Google solved the problem of organization with a single stroke.

Google’s massive scale is what makes most of this possible. It’s what allows the company to train its machine-learning algorithms to know the difference between a “mountain” and a “tree” so accurately or for those algorithms to learn which faces are in your photos. Google’s scale also raises questions about privacy, however. The company says that “privacy is at the heart of everything we do,” and it doesn’t use data in personal products like Gmail, Drive, Calendar, or Photos for advertising purposes. One wonders what Google does use that data for, though. Plus, metadata is often more powerful than the data itself.

“Since so many of you rely on Google Photos… it’s important that it is able to serve you over the long haul,” Google Photos product lead David Lieb wrote on Twitter last fall. I want to trust that Google Photos will be around in 50 years, but that feels like a risky bet given Google’s track record for killing products.

So yes, Google Photos is good. But can we trust our data to it? And will the service be around for as long as we need it to be? At what cost? These are the lenses through which a user starts looking at self-hosted solutions.

Tech can always be explained through HBO comedy.





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