Google Photos just changed some wording on it’s app for both iOS and Android. See the announcement here. Instead of Backup and Sync, it now just reads Backup. Wait. What? Does that mean it doesn’t sync anymore? No. According to the announcement, “There are no changes to how your photos and videos are stored in Google Photos, we are only simplifying the terminology.” And, as 9to5Google reports, “It’s interesting how ‘sync’ is considered a given with modern technology and cloud backups.”
“Syncing” may be considered a given, but the devil is in the details. When you delete the cloud copy of a photo, does it delete the original on the phone? When you edit a photo in the cloud, is that edit reflected in the device copy? Read on to learn the nitty gritty of how it works with Google Photos. If you’re lucky enough to have a Pixel phone, these issues do not appy to you. These issues only arise when you have a native photo or gallery app on your phone in addition to Google Photos. On Pixel (made by Google) phones, Google Photos is the only app for managing photos.
Does Google Photos Sync from the Cloud Down?
Let’s test this. You take a photo with your phone, the backup setting is on, and Google Photos uploads the photo to your Google Account in the cloud. You now have two copies of that photo, one on your phone (device, camera roll) and one in the cloud.
- To see only the Google cloud copy: go to the web (preferably with a computer) and go to Photos.Google.com signed in with the same account as your phone. Here you are looking directly at the cloud, only photos that were successfully backed up will be showing here. You will need to refresh to see the latest changes.
- To see only the device copy: use the “Native” app for photos that came with your phone. For example, on your iPhone, when you open the Apple Photos app, you will only see photos that are on your device, in the iPhone camera roll. You won’t see all the other photos that may be in your Google Photos cloud.
Here’s the test: Viewing the cloud copy, make some edits. Crop it, make it black and white, add a vignette, whatever. Now view the device copy using the Native photos app. Is it the edited version? Next try deleting a photo from the cloud, is it deleted on device?
- Edit cloud copy, what are your results?
- View using Google Photos app on phone: I see the edited version
- View using Native app: I see the unedited version.
- View again using Google Photos and tap “Review out-of-sync changes” Then tap the photo under “Edited” and “Apply Changes”, Modify. (if you don’t see “Review out-of-sync changes” right away, tap the account button, then “Review out-of-sync changes”
- Now when I view using the native app, I see the edited version
- Delete cloud copy, what are your results?
- View using Google Photos app on phone: photo is gone
- View using Native app: photo is still there
- View again using Google Photos and tap “Review out-of-sync changes” Then tap the photo under “Deleted” and “Delete”. (if you don’t see “Review out-of-sync changes” right away, tap the account button, then “Review out-of-sync changes”
- Now when I view using the native app, the photo is gone
Does Google Photos Sync from the Device Up?
If something changes about a photo on your device, without using Google Photos to make the change, will Google Photos see it and upload that change to the cloud? This time I want you to view your device-only copy of a photo by using the Native App. On an iPhone, use the Apple Photos to edit and delete a photo. On android, use the Gallery app.
- Edit device copy (using the native app), what are your results?
- View using Google Photos app on phone: I see the edited version AND the original
- View using Native app: I see just the edited version.
- View using Google Photos on the web (Photos.Google.com – remember to refresh) : I see 2 copies, the original and the edited version
- Delete device copy (using native app), what are your results?
- View using Google Photos app on phone: photo is still there, NOT deleted
- View using Native app: photo is gone
- View using Google Photos on the web (Photos.Google.com – remember to refresh) : photo is still there
What’s it all mean?
If you use Google Photos for all your photo tasks, you’re golden. It’s when you sometimes use the native app, and sometimes use Google Photos that things get messed up. So, don’t do that!
- You want to edit photos sometimes on your phone, sometimes on the web, and know that those edits are reflected everywhere in Google Photos.
As long as you use the Google Photos app on your phone, and the Photos.Google.com web interface then that is exactly what will happen.
- You want to edit photos on the web and know that the original on your phone is also edited. You’ll need one more step: open the Google Photos app on your screen and tap “Review out-of-sync changes” and tap “Change All” under Edited.
- You want to delete photos from your device and have them also be deleted from the Google cloud. As long as you use the Google Photos app and tap the trashcan, that’s exactly what will happen.
- You want to delete photos from your device and not from the cloud. Use the Google Photos app, select the photo(s) to delete and then the “Delete from Device” command.
- You want to delete all device copies of your photos to free up space on your phone. Use the Google Photos app on your phone, tap the account button (top right) and then tap where it says, “999 items to delete from this device.” On an iPhone, you’ll also need to delete the contents of the “Recently Deleted” album before the space is freed up.
- You want to delete photos from the cloud while leaving them on your device. Use the web interface to delete the photos, then ignore the “Review out-of-sync changes message in the Google Photos app.
If you’re befuddled by all of this, the main lesson is to not assume that your expectations are correct when it comes to syncing or not – check it out. The second lesson is to pick one photo management app and stick with it, there’s a lot to learn. If you’re going to use Google Photos, we think it should be your primary photo app. Do not use the Apple Photos or Android Gallery app that came with your phone.
As with everything in technology, YMMV (your mileage may vary.) Leave a comment below if you have further questions. If you want to learn more about Backup vs Sync, here’s another article: Backup or Sync? What’s the Difference?
About the author
Chris Guld is President and Teacher-in-Chief at GeeksOnTour.com. She has been teaching technology since 1983. She is currently a Platinum Level Google Photos Product Expert and the author of Learn Google Photos.