Lossless Photo Sharing

7 Years Since Publication

Technology moves fast! Article is now out of date.

A cartoon of me with analysis paralysis while looking at a pile of different photo service icons, including Dropbox, iCloud Photo Sharing, Flickr, and many more

My mom sent me an email recently asking for advice sending a couple photos to a friend. She knew that emailing worked in theory, but was concerned the pictures would be compressed at some point along the way. I had to stop and think for a moment on this one; what is the best option for losslessly sharing a photo or two with someone? While on that thought, what’s the best option for losslessly sharing entire albums of photos? In a sea of services all promising to make the confusing mess that is photo sharing a thing of the past, how is anyone supposed to figure it out?

To combat this absurdly complicated productscape, I’ve compiled what I personally believe to be the best services for losslessly share photos with friends and family, separated into two tiers based on the volume of photos being shared. Regrettably, two categories are necessary since there’s currently no “cure-all” product or service that’s the absolute best option for sharing arbitrary amounts of pictures; some are wonderful for a picture or two, while others shine best for hundreds. Like many things in life, it’s all about knowing which tools to use for the job.

Sharing A Handful of Pictures

The optimal solution is to use Dropbox by sending shareable links to your recipients. This solution assumes a one-way transaction of photos from you to another person or small group of people, no collaborative sharing needed.

Dropbox won out over countless other solutions by being both cross-platform and lightweight. It doesn’t matter if your recipients are using a phone, computer, tablet, or toaster, Dropbox is always available in the form best suited to the operating system in use. Are you on iOS or Android? There’s an app for that. Are you on a computer? Use Dropbox’s folder plugin. Are you on a Chromebook? Use the website. You simply never have to worry about compatibility, brands, or hardware when sharing a few pictures with Dropbox, and that’s a load off the mind well worth the brief moment or two it takes to get comfortable with the service.

The exact steps for sharing photos using Dropbox vary slightly depending on the platform, but thankfully Dropbox has an extensive “Help” article providing a nice dropdown list containing every single platform they support and the specific steps to create shareable links on them.

While I believe Dropbox to be the best solution for this problem, there are loads of other potential services that could theoretically be used instead. Here’s why I personally think they don’t make the grade:

  1. Email: While some services like Gmail do not compress pictures (contrary to popular belief), some clients like Mail heavily compress photos by default and require user action to send losslessly, making it easy to accidentally send compressed photos. As long as you’re careful, however, sharing photos through email like this is perfectly reasonable as it’s cross-platform and ubiquitous, making this the second-best choice.
  2. Google Photos: If you already have your photo library managed by Google Photos, it’s hands down the superior choice for photo sharing since the ability to create sharable links or share with specific people is built right in. However, in my opinion, Dropbox is superior for one-off photo sharing since Google Photos was designed with the expectation that dozens if not hundreds of photos would be shared at a time from a preexisting library, not just a single photo or two from your computer. Thus, Dropbox and email are far more direct and succinct in this scenario, and should be considered the first and second options if your library isn’t already stored in Google Photos.
  3. iMessage (the lovely, blue bubble messages on iOS): While iMessage is arguably the easiest to use for sending a few photos to an individual or small group, the sad reality is the photo quality is not guaranteed or consistent. Based on the connection speed, photos will be compressed if iOS deems the connection weak enough. Not to mention, there are people in our families and friend groups that regretfully are not in the Apple ecosystem and would be unable to receive photos this way. Because of the potential compression and lack of cross-platform support, iMessage cannot be recommended.
  4. AirDrop: While photos sent this way are not compressed, AirDrop suffers from the same cross-platform issues as iMessage. Additionally, you need to be physically near the recipients for AirDrop to function, which is a nonstarter in most scenarios.
  5. Flickr: Far too much overhead and unnecessary bloat for just sharing a photo or two with someone. Flickr is more suited to photography enthusiasts who want to share their work with the public, and even then it does a shoddy job of it. Using Flickr to just share a photo or two with someone would be like renting out a disappointing grand ballroom for a party of two.
  6. SMS/MMS (the hideous, green bubble messages on iOS): While practically anyone with a cell phone can send and receive MMS messages, this ancient system is strictly worse than iMessage for photo sharing due to guaranteed heavy compression.
  7. Google Drive: At first glance, Google Drive seems like a great Dropbox clone; they have a website, iOS and Android apps, and even a syncable folder plugin like Dropbox’s for desktop computers. So, why would I not choose Google’s solution over Dropbox’s, or at least rule it a tie? It’s for the sole reason that Google Drive is a usability nightmare due to Google’s insistence on frankensteining the Docs, Sheets, and Slides apps into the UI. I quite simply have no idea where my files go sometimes because of it, and for that reason alone I cannot recommend Drive to anyone who values their sanity.
  8. Thumbdrives/Disks: Not only does it require direct, physical access to share (or, god forbid, snail mailing the storage to each other), but most people won’t be able to view them without access to a computer. In the Post-PC era, most people aren’t around their computers that often or in some cases don’t even have a traditional computer at all, thus leaving them with no means to view the photos. Not to mention, the number of computers with traditional USB 2.0/3.0 ports or optical disk drives are waning, so even if your recipients had a computer there’s no guarantee they’d be able to use the physical storage you’re sending them. Physical media for transporting digital goods is dead, don’t do it.

Sharing Photo Albums

Creating and sharing albums in Google Photos is currently the best option for collaboratively sharing more than a handful of photos. While Google Photos didn’t fare as well as Dropbox for individual photo sharing, it was entirely because it was carefully tailored to best suit managing and sharing many photos from large libraries. Thus, it truly shines when the volume of photos being shared increases to album size and beyond. With any service, by the time you want to start sharing more than a couple photos, the problem’s scope necessitates a more robust and fully-featured service to support easily uploading and managing all the photos. Since solutions in this tier are naturally “heavy duty” because of this, the previous hit against Google Photos for being a bit too much for just sharing a single photo or two vanishes.

Google Photos is cross-platform, lossless for free for up to 15GB1, and provides everyone you invite the ability to contribute their own photos. Not only that, but it also includes all the goodies you’d expect from a Google service like intelligent photo searching and face detection. All these features—while overkill for just a single photo or two—make sharing and enjoying lossless photo albums with friends and family a joy. When you decide to give the service a try for yourself, Google has some great help guides that outline how to create photo albums and how to invite others to see and contribute.

While there are less services available that serve this particular use case, there are certainly some out there that promise similar features to Google Photos, here’s why I can’t recommend them:

  1. iCloud Photo Sharing: Hand on heart, I love iCloud Photo Sharing. Its tight integration with the core of iOS and macOS allows me and my family to share and comment on our vacations photos as naturally as creating traditional, local albums. Sadly, while iCloud Photo Library is lossless, iCloud Photo Sharing compresses photos and videos. With lossless sharing being the core requirement for this article and iCloud Photo Sharing additionally lacking cross-platform support, iCloud Photo Sharing cannot be recommended.
  2. Dropbox: While Dropbox technically supports the same bare necessities that Google Photos does, Google simply does it better with the addition of intelligent image searching, face detection, and what I believe to be a more refined user experience for collaborative album sharing.
  3. Flickr: While Flickr was not a great solution for sharing just a photo or two due to all the bloat, it fares slightly better when you need to share hundreds of photos instead. Still, as an album sharing solution it’s a no-go because it lacks free, private photo sharing among other more serious issues.

Photo sharing is a bloated, complicated mess, but now you’re armed and ready with the knowledge of what the available, optimal services are for the volume of photos you’re sharing. Now, instead of spending time worrying about what to use, you can direct your energy back to where it belongs—sharing your uncompressed memories with friends and family.

  1. It’s important to note, however, that once you use up the free 15GB of uncompressed photo storage, you will begin using the unlimited “free” tier which does compress photos and videos. Assuming you delete your oldest shared albums once everyone’s gotten a chance to contribute and download copies themselves, you won’t have to worry about the limit (or, you can be an adult and actually pay for your software). ↩︎