Wireless, cross-device, photo syncing in 2017

I've been meaning for a long time now, to share what I'm doing in regards to synchronizing photos across all of my devices. I originally posted back in 2014 how I was doing it, and again in 2015 with updates as technology changed. In 2016, my photo synchronization strategy changed once again, but I never got around to writing a post on it. So here I am, in 2017, sharing what's changed. As is usually the case with these posts - it's hefty. So get yourself your favorite beverage and snack!

What's changed?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty details, lets take a look at what i've changed first.

From a sync perspective, I've stopped using iCloud. It was a huge pain to deal with when trying to manage my photos in Lightroom. Exporting them from iCloud Photo Library, into Lightroom, tweaking them etc, and then re-importing the photos back into iCloud was extremely tedious and time consuming. Because of this, I found that I hardly ever actually migrated photos and it made it really hard to go back and find photos over time. Remember, this was early to mid 2016 - so iOS and macOS Photo apps were not as smart as they currently are now.

Ultimately, I setup a Google Photos library on my Google account. I then synced my entire Lightroom library into Google Photos. This worked amazingly well. The iOS Google Photos app would automatically upload my new photos in the background, and they'd sync down to my computers into my Lightroom library folder - ready for me to just perform "add missing files" in Lightroom. Any changes I made to the photos were immediately synced to all devices, because the library and photo lived in the synchronized Google Photos folder. The setup for this is explained in detail further below.

The biggest thing however is that I've stopped using Lightroom for photo organization. That does not however mean that my current solution wouldn't work with Lightroom. I was using Lightroom when I changed my syncing solution, and it worked without a problem. I just found that Google did such an amazing job with searching images, that I no longer needed to spend so much time organizing them myself. I now let Google Photos handle all of my organization needs. I explain this in more detail below.

The biggest gain from this change, for me, is that now my photos are synced across all devices, even those that are not Apple. We have an Android device in the house, and a couple Windows machines. All of which have my photos synced to. My wife has the Google Photos app installed on her iPhone and iPad, connected to my account. So her photos now sync into my Google Photos library (and at one point my Lightroom library). With virtually no management on my end, I'm syncing photos from 2 completely different Apple accounts, into a single consolidated family photo library. That's a big win for me.

Moving to Google Photos

When moving to Google Photos, there are a couple different routes you can take. It depends on what your end goals are.

The free solution

If you are not currently using any app, like Aperture or Lightroom, to manage your photos then setting up Google Photos is easy. You just install the Google Photos iOS or Android app, and configure it to automatically back up your photos. On iOS, it looks like this:

When you turn on Back up & sync, Google Photos on iOS will automatically back up your photos for you to the Google Photos service. Google Photos gives you unlimited photo uploads for pictures that are 16 megapixels or less. All of the current iPhones on the market take photos at less than 16 megapixels, so you can use the service for free with no limits. Google Photos will also let you store unlimited 1080p videos as well. Since some iPhones on the market can record 4K video, you would want to choose whether or not you want to record in 1080p so you can sync them for free, or record them in 4K and upload until you run out of storage space, which is 15gb on the free account.

If you go this route, all you have to do is install and sign in to your Google Photos account on all of your phones and tablets. Then you can access the photos from the Google Photos website on your computer.

The integrated Desktop solution

If you are using an app to organize your photos, or are wanting to start using one, then you'll want to get this photos synchronized to your desktop computer. This is extremely easy to do, at the cost of paying a monthly subscription to Google Drive. I currently pay $10 per month, for 1 terabyte of storage. Once you've done that, you can go to your Google Photos settings, from the website, and turn on Google Drive.

Once you have turned on Google Drive support in your Photos settings, you can install the Google Drive app on your macOS or Windows computer. Once it is installed, it will automatically sync all of your photos from Google Photos to your computer. Here you can see that my original Lightroom based organization is still intact, even though these photos exist now in Google Photos.

Since I stopped managing photos myself, any new photo I add to Google Photos gets put under the Google Photos folder, within a folder indicating the year the photo was created. This is why you see Google Photos\2010, and Google Photos\Digital Photos\10s\2010. Google will at least organize your photos by year for you automatically, if you choose not to use any software to manually handle this.

With this, you now have every photo you take, regardless if it's an iOS or Android device, synchronized to your desktop computer. From there, you can open Lightroom, select the Google Photos directory and have it import all new Photos for you. Once they're imported, any changes made to the photos, (including their file location as long as it's someplace under the Google Photos folder) will be synced to all of your devices automatically.

Leaving Lightroom

So now that we've talked about my synchronization solution, let me spend a couple minutes explaining why I moved away from Lightroom all together for my organizational needs.

The biggest reason is time. I don't have much of it, and I have to set aside a block of time to organize several hundred, or a thousand, photos every couple of weeks. My organization routine typically included moving the photos into sub-folders representing the activity that took place, tagging every photo and confirming facial recognition. This usually took a minimum of two hours for me.

Enter Google Photos. They do most of this for me. The only exception is that they organize the photos under a single folder, representing the year. Where-as I would break the photos up under a year, by month. Here you can see Google Photos organization of the photos since I stopped doing it myself, for 2017.

They organize them in a single directory for the entire year. When I used to organize them in Lightroom, I organized them by year, month and activity as seen here.

I now just use Windows Explorer to move specific sets of Photos into sub-folders if I need to. Any photo that is stored within a sub-folder of the year, will let Google Photos create an album for it. For instance, in my example photo above, I have a folder called eating at Islands Burgers. Google turned that into an album for me, so when I search for Islands Burgers in Google Photos (regardless if it's the mobile app or website) their auto-complete will know what you mean and present it as an option.

This to me is pretty awesome. My custom organization strategies can be persisted across all of my devices using Google Photos this way. So why pay for Lightroom for organizing? Just organize them in Windows Explorer if you want. If I were to select the Eating at Islands Burgers album suggested to me, I would be presented with the album (represented as a folder on my computer) as shown below.

Now, Lightroom does some other things - such as tagging your photos. Unfortunately Google Photos doesn't read your tags or support custom tagging of photos. Here's the crazy thing though. They scan the photos for content and automatically associate tags for you. From my experience with it, it does a far better job of it than I ever did. For example, I can search for all photos of Batman - and get back comic books and clothes. None of these photos were tagged by me in Lightroom. Even the blanket in the photo has batman in it!

Another example is searching for "Zoo", which presented me with photos both my wife and I had taken at the various zoos we've been two. It also included two different albums we had created with photos from different occasions.

I've searched for Nintendo controllers, Monitors, 2006 Scion Xb, Chihuahua and have been given every photo containing these items. It is amazing when you experience it for the first time. Once I used it enough to see how accurate and thorough Google Photos tags stuff, I stopped worrying about tagging things myself.

Lightroom supports facial recognition, and so does Google Photos. Google Photos does an amazing job of it though. I synced photos of our newborn daughter and assigned her a face in Google Photos. From that point forward, as we take pictures of her it automatically assigns her face to the photos. Even though she's now 3 years old and looks completely different from the 1 hour old baby I first uploaded a picture of, Google Photos has kept up and figured it out. Since Google Photos handles this, I stopped using this feature in Lightroom.

The last thing that Lightroom is good at is editing the actual photos. Google Photos has some basic tools, like crop, rotate etc. It even has a few filters you can apply. It's not the powerhouse that Lightroom is though, so if you find yourself editing photos often, you'll still want to keep doing that in Lightroom. This is something I hardly ever did, so it was just one less reason for me to keep paying for Lightroom.

Even though Google Photos can automatically do a lot of what you have to do manually in Lightroom, there isn't anything stopping you from continuing to use Lightroom.

Google Photos Assistant

Google Photos has a feature called the Assistant which will automatically take photos you've uploaded and turn them into albums, collages, home movies and animated gifs. It's really awesome. For example, it took a series of photos over the course of two weeks of my son and organized them into an album and collage for me called Highlights of Oliver

Selecting the Highlights of Oliver tile opened up the collage so that I can vew around 20 photos of him over a span of two weeks. Photos taken by both myself and my wife, which is really a nice touch.

Google Assistant on Android

The last thing that's neat, if you are on an Android device that supports the Google Assistant, is that the Google Assistant will search your photos too. Here I asked the Assistant to find photos from a park, and it knew not to just do a Google search of park pictures. Instead, it searched my personal photo collection and find some photos. If I touched the Google Photos button, it would open the app and give me a wider selection of images to look through.

Wrapping up

I've used this system for over a year now and love it. It has simplified the way I do photo synchronization and management across all of my devices, and my wifes devices.

Lightroom's dual monitor support

I'm not sure how i went so long without having dual monitor support for editing photo's. This support was essentially non-existant in Aperture. Lightroom handles this in an awesome fashion.

You can run Lightroom on your primary monitor in either standard mode or fullscreen mode. Regardless of how you run it on your primary monitor, you can output the photo's to a secondary monitor for previewing. In the following photo, you can see that I am in Grid view on my primary monitor. In this view, I can rate and add my keywords. I can move between photo's on my primary monitor and view the fullsize photo on my laptop's screen.

This feature works great can be accessed from the dual monitor icon on the bottom left of the screen.

Options for 2nd monitor

The more I use Lightroom, and get used to the different interface, the more I like it and find myself surprised at how long I put up with Apertures lack-luster feature set (relative to Lightrooms).

Wireless, Cross-device, photo syncing in 2014

For the last two years I have used Aperture for storing, organizing and sharing our photos. It wasn't the perfect photo solution, which I've blogged about more than once, when it came to wirelessly getting photos from several devices in to the Aperture library. I did however like how much flexibility it provided me for organization. I know that Lightroom had really good organizational features, but it didn't play well with my iOS devices and Photostream wasn't supported, which made wirelessly uploading my photo's impossible at the time.

The stars have since aligned, with Aperture being discontinued and Adobe releasing Lightroom for iOS, I now have the opportunity to move over to Lightroom and actually end up with a much better solution. After getting all settled in with Lightroom, I am now able to take a picture on my iPhone, open Lightroom on my iPad and make edits, then open up Lightroom on my Mac or Windows PC and have the original photo and it's edits already ready for me to add keywords to and organize. Even better yet, is that my wife's iPhone has Lightroom on it, and every picture she takes, shows up on both of my iOS devices and on our two computers, without any issues. Well worth the $10 a month it's costing, plus I get Photoshop for my machines and iOS devices, so it's a great value for the price.

The setup

I downloaded and installed Lightroom mobile on my iPhone and my two iPads. Then I downloaded and installed Lightroom mobile on my wife's iPhone and her iPad. Finally, I downloaded Lightroom for my Windows machine and my Mac (technically the same machine, just dual booted). Next, I created a collection on my iOS devices, one collection per device. When you create a new collection on a device, you can tell it to auto-import your camera roll. It will automatically upload your photo's to the Lightroom cloud, and sync them to all of your devices, in the background.

Once each of our devices has a collection created, and has the auto-import enabled, we see all of the collections on all of our devices. This allows us to take a picture on any device, and not have to deal with sending to photostream or AirDropping a large number of files. Our photo's just show up on all our devices. If you want, you could create a single collection, and assign it to auto-import on all devices, so all of your photo's go into 1 collection from all devices. We chose to create one collection per device though so we could make finding a photo easier. I know my wife snapped a photo of my daughter on her iPad, so I just go to her iPad collection from my phone and find it.

Here, you can see all of our collections easily accessible on my iPad.

Now that all of our mobile devices were set up with Lightroom, I launched Lightroom on my Mac and discovered that the collections were available there without any set up. Now I can easily select the photo's and import them in to my library, add keywords, edit them and back them up.

One of the other cool features of Lightroom is that I can select any photo from my library, add them to a collection and enable mobile sync on the collection. Now any photo I add to the custom collection will sync to all of our mobile devices. Extremely easy.


You can technically sync photo's to iOS from Aperture and iPhoto as well, using Photostream. The difference between Photostream and Lightroom Collections is that Photostream still syncs down the photo to your device (albeit a small version), while Lightroom only syncs a thumbnail. Since majority of the time, users won't actually open all 500 photo's to view on their device, you only need 500 thumbnails. As you can see from my photo above, I have 142 photo's from my wife's iPhone, but it's only using 31mb of storage. When you open a photo to view the full photo, Lightroom downloads the full-resolution for you to see. Much better!

With Aperture/iOS, I could share photo's with my wife through Photostream as well, but my wife would end up saving the photo to her camera roll and a duplicate ultimately ended up in my Aperture library. I would spend a lot of time removing duplicates. Luckily, it seems that Lightroom is smart enough to not import duplicates. Another benefit is that I don't have to manually upload 20 photo's that I just took of my daughter to Photostream for her to see. They just show up in our Lightroom.

If I wanted to have a photostream per device, it made things even more complex. Take a picture on my iPhone, and upload to photostream, then take a picture on my iPad 5 minutes later and manually upload to photostream again. With Lightroom, we can take pictures on any device at any time and not deal with uploading. Lightroom handles it all for us with less effort.

Tags & Keywords

Lightroom calls their version of Tags, Keywords. I downloaded an app on my iPad called Photosmith, that lets you create a collection of photos on your Mac (or Windows) and sync the collection of photo's to your iPad. You can then add keywords, edit the photo's, name them and then sync the changes back to Lightroom. It's a great way to 'tag' photo's while on the go. Until the Lightroom Mobile apps support keywording, I'll use Photosmith to do all my keywording while on the go. It's a bit difficult to set up initially, but in the end it works pretty well.

This process is by far the best photo syncing solution I've found, after several years of messing with trying to take care of syncing to the computers wirelessly and sharing across all devices.

Disappointed in Adobe Lightroom for iPad

I can see potentially editing photo's stored within Lightroom on my Mac while I am out and on my iPad. It's unfortunate though that they did not ship the iPhone version with it at the same time.

The work flow that would have me signing up for the creative cloud in an instant is the syncing of my photo's wirelessly from my iPhone to my Mac and iPad. Right now, as far as I can tell, I would have to take the picture on my phone, plug the phone in to the iPad via a camera connection kit and import in order to sync the photo's across my devices.

The fact that Photostream only syncs full-sized images back to the Mac (reduced sizes across iOS devices, so not originals), means that I can't rely on Photostream to carry my photo's from iPhone to iPad and Lightroom.

Until Lightroom ships on the iPhone, so that I can take a picture and sync the original file to my Mac and the thumbnail to my iPad, I can't justify paying for a service that seems half-baked.

I'd be happy if they just provided a temporary work-around by shipping a "Lightroom Sync" app to the iPhone that pulled my phone's Camera Roll photo's and pushed them to my Mac, with no other features.

So I guess I'll just have to continue waiting for a perfect syncing platform.