It’s true that there are multiple ways to share and access your images online. That’s not the problem. The question is how much of what you do on your desktop computer can you do in the cloud or sync to your mobile device?
Not as much as you would hope, probably. In fact, while there are lots of cloud systems that take a few steps towards this, there are very few that actually achieve it.
How much do you expect to be able to do online or on your mobile device? The more you want it to mirror what you can do on your desktop computer, the narrower that pyramid of possibilities becomes.
1) Sharing photos and galleries
There are so many different ways of doing this it’s impossible to list them all, like 500px, Flickr, Google Photos and countless others. Some are free, some are paid for, all are perfectly good at displaying your images and possibly offering them for purchase. If all you need is a way of displaying your photographic portfolio online, you’re spoilt for choice. Smugmug is a good example of a paid-for service that offers a high level of organisation and display options and can make your full-resolution JPEGs available for download anywhere.
2) Accessing your own images
Smugmug offers both image display and storage, so that you can access your photos anywhere. It’s limited to JPEGs, though, and if you are more interested in having our files available everywhere than creating an online portfolio, there are better options, such as Dropbox or Google Drive. These have relatively primitive image display and organisation tools, but they will let you store any file type, including TIFFs, RAW files and video. The alternative to a cloud-based storage system which you have to pay subscription charges for is to create your own ‘cloud’ with a NAS drive (network attached storage – see below).
3) Organising and editing image collections
If you need to edit your images remotely, not just view or download them, the choice narrows considerably. Here, you need software that has cloud sync capabilities, and this is where Adobe took an early lead with Lightroom and its Creative Cloud ecosystem, and now ON1 has launched a rival ON1 360 system. Both require a regular subscription, though it’s still possible to buy ON1 Photo RAW on a perpetual license and add the ON1 360 subscription separately. With Lightroom you have to choose a combined software/storage plan.
Lightroom Classic and ON1 360 use the same system. Both can synchronise specific image collections from your desktop catalog to the cloud so that they are available for editing on a mobile device. Both offer smaller ‘proxy’ image files to reduce online storage requirements but ON1 360 lets you upload full size files if you want to.
Both these programs synchronise manually selected image collections, not your whole photo library. If you want to achieve the dream of all your images available, editable and organisable (not a word) everywhere, then you need Lightroom CC.
4) Full cloud-based editing and organising
Lightroom CC looks the perfect solution for photographers who want a cloud-based catalog they can work with on any mobile device or in any browser, but it comes at a cost. This is partly the monthly subscription (approx. $10/£10 per terabyte) and partly the locked-down nature of the software, so that the only external editor you can use is Photoshop.
There are fully cloud-based alternatives, but they are aimed at the consumer market rather than experienced photographers. Apple Photos has been doing what Lightroom CC does for years, and you can upgrade your online storage for a significantly lower cost. It does not offer editing tools to approach those in Lightroom, but it does work with a wide range of external editors. Alternatively, there’s Google Photos, which doesn’t have a desktop app, however, and is only free up to a point.
5) The low-tech workaround
Cloud-based galleries and file storage services are widespread. Cloud-based editing and synchronising with mobile apps, however, is not, and if you want to be able to do all your organising and editing anywhere, on any device, the choice is narrower still.
If your favorite software is firmly desktop based, then you have a couple of options.
• One is storing your images on a NAS drive, but that leaves you dependent on network connectivity wherever you go. And while you can use NAS drives to store images, they are not suitable for image catalogs and databases.
• The other is simply to invest in a portable drive and take it with you. It means also taking a laptop, but most software licenses will let you install software on two machines, so that needn’t be a problem.
If you go the portable drive route, here are some tips that might prove useful:
- Get an SSD not a hard drive, and make sure it uses USB 3.1 Gen 2 or Thunderbolt. The performance will be dramatically faster.
- Store your image library and your image catalog on this drive, so that the same files and catalog are available both for your desktop and your laptop computer.
- Back it up regularly. Portable drives, like hard drives, don’t live forever. If you use a Mac, use Time Machine.
Cloud storage for photographers: the verdict
Sharing our portfolio online is easy, and there are plenty of file sharing sites to make our photos accessible to you and others online. But if you want to edit and organise your photos on any device, anywhere, the choice is much narrower. Of course, you could just get an old-school portable drive.