Google Photos and ICloud Photos

Warning: This post is over 365 days old. The information may be out of date.

Here are some of the things I learned while using Google/iCloud Photos:

Moving from iCloud Photos to Google Photos

This is really easy if you still have your iDevice around.

  1. Turn off iCloud Photos. When asked, select to download all photos/videos back to your device in original quality. If you don’t do this, photos/videos that you upload to Google Photos will be the “optimized” version, which means it will look like crap.
  2. Download Google Photos.
  3. Turn on Google Photos backup and wait until all the photos/videos are backed up to the cloud.
  4. Once done, uninstall Google Photos and delete your photos/videos from iCloud Photos if you wish.

The other way

Unfortunately, going the other way around is a difficult process, which is really, really ironic.

Don’t use Google Takeout

My first attempt at moving photos/videos from Google Photos to iCloud Photos involved Google Takeout to first export the photos. Unfortunately, Google Takeout is a steaming pile of garbage, in that it actually discards all of the media metadata when exporting your archive.

Well, not quite discard. Rather, they’ll “split” the metadata into a separate .json file that sits next to your original file with the same file name. And frustratingly, some photos and videos do in fact preserve metadata - while still having a separate .json file outlining the duplicate metadata. For other photos and videos, the metadata is mangled, and the date of the metadata is set to the archival date.

Sure, I could probably make a script to “merge” the metadata back into the media files. Don’t need to, see below. But why does Google do this metadata-stripping in the first place? What about people that can’t write up scripts when they export their files? This is horrible!

Another catch with this method is that it won’t preserve some “live photos” - although this is probably more of an Apple bug than a Google bug. In short, if your photos are in JPG/PNG format and your “live photos” video is in MP4, then it will merge cleanly back into a “live photo” once you import the two files back into the Photos app on your Mac. However, if your photo is in a HEIC/HEIF format, then Photos will create two separate entries and not merge the photos and videos back into a “live photo.”

So if you’re the poor soul who didn’t know any of these gotchas and used Google Takeout to import your photos and videos into iCloud, you’re in for a very nasty surprise. When I tried this method, my photo library got completely messed up - some of the photos surfaced to the top because of the incorrect date set in the metadata, and a lot of duplicate entries were created because of the HEIC/HEIF bug.

Update: Apparently, there already is a Python script that merges the metadata for you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t support HEIC/HEIF, so my point still stands - don’t use Google Takeout.

Moving from Google Photos to iCloud Photos

With that, here is the actual process of moving from Google Photos to iCloud Photos:

  1. Grab an iDevice and turn on iCloud Photos.
  2. Download Google Photos.
  3. When asked, do not enable automatic backup.
  4. Hold your finger on an entry for 2 seconds and then drag down to select multiple items. Do NOT select more than a couple files! Or else, the download will hang and never complete. Also, do not mix file types, as that will also cause the download to hang. Yes, the Google Photos app sucks.
  5. Once you have selected the media to export, click on the “Share” button and then select “save to device.” Weirdly, unlike the web version, there is no “Download” option under the 3-dot menu.
  6. Google Photos will start saving your photos/videos to your device.
  7. Once the downloads are all done, uninstall Google Photos. Do NOT delete the photos on the Google Photos app, as doing so will wipe the photos from your device and subsequently iCloud Photos as well! Instead, if you want to do a full migration and delete photos from Google Photos, then delete the app first, and then log into the web interface and delete the photos that way.

This method, unlike Google Takeout, will preserve the correct metadata and will also merge together all live photos properly.

Unfortunately, the Google Photos app also has a couple of bugs here. First, I noticed the download and export process is horribly buggy and painfully slow. Every couple downloads, I would get a “Trouble Saving. Try again later” message. (This usually happens if I mix file types - as in, regular photos, live photos, videos, panoramas, burst shots, etc.) Now, that would be okay if Google Photos really couldn’t save my photos - I could just try again. Unfortunately, that error is a lie as well, as Google Photos does save a couple of photos from the selection before quitting. So downloading the same selection results in duplicates.

The download progress bar doesn’t help at all during the download, as it swings back and forth wildly as it moves between the different files. Sometimes, it gets stuck and never moves, only to abruptly finish or give me an error message. Why not make a progress bar with the total set to the size of the selected photos and not each photo? I don’t care if the progress bar is not linear, but it shouldn’t go backwards, at least!

And like I said above, the download process is slow. Sometimes, it hangs. When that happens, I need to cancel, and check which photos Google Photos felt like downloading during each attempt, and then deselect those before restarting the process.

The second bug I came across: any burst photos you may have in your library will not be saved. To save burst photos, you have to open the photo, and then select a frame, and then hit download, and then select another frame, and then hit download… and do this for all of the frames of the burst shot. The burst shot will show correctly in the Photos app, but this is seriously annoying!

The last bug I encountered is probably the nastiest one: Google Photos will silently corrupt some HEIC/HEIF photos. This is why the checklist above mentions turning off backup and sync. If backup and sync was on and a corrupted version was saved locally, then you would have been absolutely screwed if Google re-uploaded the corrupted file. I noticed that this bug mostly occurs if the photo was edited before. If a file becomes corrupt, it will show up as an “empty” photo on the Photos app, and there will be an exclamation mark at the bottom right corner of the photo. Tapping it will produce the following message: “An error occurred while loading a higher-quality version of this photo.” Unfortunately, re-downloading from Google Photos will not fix this problem.

Fortunately, I did find a workaround - launch the Photos app on macOS, right-click on the photo, and then select “Revert to original.” This removes any modifications you may have made, but at least the photo becomes normal again. Wait for it to sync back over to your other iDevices.

Why, Google Photos, why?!

Which one is better?

I had the opportunity to use both services, since I frequently go back and forth between iOS and Android for app development. I thought Google Photos would just beat iCloud Photos, given that it’s available on both Android and iOS, but after that horrible experience exporting photos, now I’m not so sure.

Most of my family members use Apple devices, so really it’s just a matter of not wanting to pay extra for two services. I think I’ll probably go back to iCloud Photos and keep Google Photos around as a sync solution to transfer photos/videos taken on Android devices back to iCloud Photos. The Google One membership isn’t very expensive, but in Korea the membership doesn’t even bundle other Google services, so it makes more sense to cancel it and use the 15 GB of storage as a temporary offloading space.

In my opinion, you will most likely be stuck with whatever option you choose now, as these services will probably get more and more restrictive about users leaving as time goes on. And if your entire family uses one service, then the gargantuan process of getting everybody to move across to another platform will be extremely daunting.

I heard Google Photos has more features regarding photo/video management, and that kind of matched my experience. But all the while I was using Google Photos, I didn’t really like the idea of letting Google take care of my photos library. I know I’m probably just being paranoid, but Google is an advertising company first after all, and letting them train their AI models on my photos/videos just doesn’t feel right.

I know moving to iCloud Photos is just shifting the problem to Apple, and hoping they won’t go manic one day and do a 180 on their privacy stance, but I just feel more comfortable on iCloud than on Google Photos. I’m not really sure why. And obviously, some people will not care about this at all - after all, if it backs up photos and videos in case you break your phone who would say no?

Personally, I would still recommend iCloud Photos, because it’s just really easy to back up iCloud Photos. Yes, you should back up your photo library, even if it is being synced to an online service. If you don’t have multiple copies of something, you don’t have it backed up. Worst case scenario, every datacenter owned by Apple and Google go poof and you should still have access to your photos. With iCloud Photos, Time Machine automatically backs up your entire photo library as long as you check “Keep originals” in the Photos app. With Google, there is no backup option. There is no desktop app, and you’ve seen how messy Google Takeout is at exporting all of your original photos. I think this is the one aspect where iCloud beats the pants off of Google Photos, and the one aspect that really, really matters to people that want to keep the photos in their original condition.

All in all, it’s a toss up. Choose wisely because switching later will be hard.

Can I use both?

Yes, but do a bit of setup first:

  1. Only install Google Photos on one of your iDevices. Or, only activate the backup feature on one of your iDevices.
  2. On that same iDevice that you activated the backup feature on, make sure to go into iCloud settings and select “Keep Original.” If you use the “optimized” option, then the photos and videos uploaded to Google Photos will look like crap.

The caveat here is that photos you take on Android or upload to Google Photos won’t automatically transfer over to iCloud Photos. So you’ll have to manually download new media on Google Photos every once in a while.

If you disable the backup feature on Google Photos, then the reverse won’t work as well, but the media that were previously uploaded will stay on Google Photos. Obviously, you won’t be able to view your photos/videos on iCloud on Android. On desktops at least, you can use the web browser to access iCloud, but the interface is still a bit clunky in my opinion compared to a regular native app.