“The Cloud” is another term for computer servers whose primary purpose is to store your data and make it accessible from anywhere. Granted, this ability has been available as long as there have been servers interconnected via communication channels, but for the average Internet user, the complexity of setting up and maintaining their own server, or virtual server, has kept them out of the game. This has recently changed.
These days, cloud services are many and vast. Some are free and others require payment. Some have apps for your phone, tablet or even your car. Your data can now be available anywhere you can connect to the internet. So what does this mean for photographers? What are ways the cloud can be harnessed to make the life of photographers easier, be they on the road or at a home studio?
Some Cloud Options
Not all cloud offerings present the same level of service. Below is a quick breakdown of the top offerings. Not included in the chart are other options, such extra space for email or music streaming.
|Dropbox||Sky Drive||Google Drive|
|1000 GB||500GB - $500/year||Not Available||$600/year|
|Max File Size||None (desktop app)||2GB||5GB|
|Amazon Cloud Drive||iCloud||Box|
|100 GB||$50/year||50GB - $100/year||50GB - $240/year|
|1000 GB||$500/year||Not Available||$180/user/year (business account)|
|Max File Size||2GB||Unknown||1GB/2GB|
One of the first thoughts photographers have when contemplating cloud use is a spinoff of the music industry. Music services like Apple's iTunes and Amazon's music service have been opening up the idea to make the music you own available across all your devices anywhere you can get a cellular data or wifi signal. While this seems like an easy crossover for the photography industry, it is volume that makes the difference.
Music anywhere works because of the volume of files and the quantity available. Apple essentially only needs to store one instance of Lady Gaga's latest hit single even if 3,000,000 people buy it and want to have it available on the cloud. This is a great way to do business; just point millions of users to the same file (granted, that one music file is replicated across likely hundreds of servers, but still, the numbers are small). This isn't the case with any given photo.
First of all, none of the images I shoot with my camera will be the same as the ones you shoot with yours. Not only that, a song takes a while to create, so the volume of new songs is relatively low compared to the millions of images produced every day, especially via smartphones. Couple on top of that the increasing size of each of those images as sensors become larger (and more people shoot in RAW) and image storage in a cloud makes less and less sense.
Where it does work is for the casual photographer who is usually home each night, has decent bandwidth and doesn't go crazy with the number of images. For that user, there are packages available to handle the load and ensure that if your house burns down, your photos are safe or that you can access them from anywhere in the world. Not only that, many mobile apps from these cloud providers allow for instant upload of images shot on smartphones.
But for higher-volume photographers, the options dwindle and we have to consider why we want to put all our images, even the blurry ones, in the cloud. If it is simply a means of backing up files, there are terrestrial options that do not carry the same cost and have greater speed. If it is for file accessibility, I don't personally believe the bandwidth and cost is worth keeping even the bad images online just so we can grab them from a laptop while in Starbucks to show our friends.
Backup Of Databases
No doubt, the use of cloud services is well suited to file backup. Beyond the cloud options I listed above, there is a whole other category of services that concentrate on backups alone. These services tend to offer the ability to view previous versions of a file in case you want to recover from the last two sets of revisions. They also have the ability to perform proper incremental backups.
I have found the use of 'normal' cloud services well suited to the backup of my important Lightroom database. Lightroom has the ability to point backups to any location (instructions can be found here as it is not entirely straightforward) and that means I can backup my very valuable database to the cloud every time I close the database, if I so desire.
On top of that, the backup process itself takes no longer than normal and I simply point Lightroom to a local folder which is then synced to the cloud.
This is one area where limited use can make life easier. Imagine you went for a 'trip of a lifetime' to an exotic location, maybe on safari in Africa. While there you decide to signup for a week long tour and end up meeting five other travelers. You spend the week with these blokes and, as often happens while inhibitions are ripped apart by the free-spirit of travel, you become instant Facebook friends.
Back home, or even in your hostel after the safari, you are looking over your images and want to share all the images in which your new friends appear. But how to do it?
In the "old days," you scaled down the images and emailed them. You can still do that, but people are wanting large images they can easily print these days. You can upload them to Facebook, for sure, but downloading from there is painful. Or you could upload the original files to a service like Dropbox and then invite your friends to the folder, while giving them permission to add new files.
Now all those images from everyone's cameras are all in one place. No massive emails and asking for this one or that one you saw on Twitter. It's a great way to get photos of yourself while on a trip and it is relatively painless. It's also easy to reclaim the storage space once all parties have made their downloads. Just delete the folder and you have more space for the next trip.
Client Image Delivery
While I have not been signed up with Smugmug since last summer, I used it often for two purposes. First, it is a good place to post images and essentially have a backup of the best shots in my catalog, and second, it worked very well as a means for wedding clients to share their new images with distant relatives.
I would still deliver the digital images on a disc via the Postal Service, but sites like Smugmug allow customers to order their own prints or make downloads while keeping the images password protected, depending on how the photographer has set persmissions.
Some wedding and portrait photographers use it as a second revenue stream while I typically used a more modest markup. For me, it was an added service I could offer to my client to make their life easier and it was used often by mothers, cousins and friends of the happy couple as a means to get the photos they wanted without having to pester the bride and groom.
Recently I have switched to using file share services to deliver images, both individually and in bulk. I ensure my client is okay with this method (it is always password protected) and has the bandwidth available as a typical wedding shoot can be half a gigabyte of data. This simplifies the process and creates less headaches (I have been asked for a second or third copy of the image disc on more than one occasion when the bride or groom misplaced it). While it does not allow for the elegance of ordering prints, it does make resharing of images simple.
Keeping In Sync
Ancillary to all the photo syncing, cloud services can be used to keep multiple machines in sync. Some excel at this operation more than others, those being the services with desktop clients that act as folders in any operating system.
In this regard, one can pause their sync while working on, say, a Lightroom or Aperture database. Then, when finished with edits and before hitting the road or using the database from another machine, start up syncing and let the app do its magic. When you arrive at the second machine, depending on your bandwidth, PRESTO! Your files are ready and waiting. I work between two locations 1000 miles apart and also have a travel laptop and I find this system worthwhile.
Not only that, but office files can also be shared in this manner, such as invoices and worksheets.
There are some cavets with this system, however. For one, if using a database, the database needs to be closed on the old machine to prevent problems. Also, if basefiles are not referenced in the same manner (with the same drive name on a Mac or drive letter on a PC) then working with an imaging database will be problematic.
Another method of keeping files in sync and using the system is if you work on the main cataloge (again, Aperture, Lightroom, Photoshop Elements, etc...) on one computer and have a beefier computer to handle full-on Photoshop tehniques. Or if you have an assistant handle one task and you handle the other. Sharing a folder for exported files to have final edits applied is an easy way to transfer these images.
Backup While on the Road
When digital cameras started catching on, vendors in well-traveled locations (Paris, Berlin, etc...) began offering the ability to backup those precious memories while vacationers snapped images all day long. Memory cards had small volumes and were expensive while compact discs were large (storage-wise) and cheap and so these vendors would offer to copy a memory card onto a CD or DVD for a fee to ensure you had a copy of those images.
Fast-forward a few years and the price of memory cards drops, portable storage units come on the market (laptop harddrives in small enclosures with a basic operating system to transfer files from the card to the harddrive) and bandwidth capabilities increases. We are now near a tipping point when it is possible to copy your entire vacation up to the cloud for both backup purposes and to transfer them home automatically.
This idea works well for the casual or low-volume photographer. If you shoot 4-10GB of data and travel in areas with quality bandwidth, using one of the previously mentioned services is well worth investigating as a means of safe-keeping your memories.
But it is still not at the point of being feasible for the far-flung traveler or the pro photographer. For my upcoming tour in Bhutan, I anticipate needing 150-250GB of space (video takes up more and more space on each of my trips). Try to fit that over Bhutan's fledgling Internet infrastructure. Thimphu, the capital, has decent speeds. but we also spend the night in one valley that doesn't even have electricity! I would have to spend just as much time uploading as I did shooting.
As a photographer, I am excited to see where the use of cloud storage goes. Right now, for the pro, there is some utility but it's not quite there. For the amateur or hobbiest, cloud services can be very useful in keeping your image library in sync and accessible if you so desire.