Dropbox makes the easiest way to send photos

Lincoln Spector

E-mail, Facebook, texting, etc. are all good ways to share new digital stills and videos; but they’re typically an image-by-image, select-and-send process.

Dropbox can eliminate those extra steps with its Camera Upload option, available on Android and iOS devices.

Shoot, file, and send photos automatically

Managing photographs just keeps getting easier and easier. Fifteen years ago, we took our undeveloped film to a photo lab, looked over our snaps for a couple of minutes, and then dumped the prints and negatives into shoeboxes. Now we snap images with our phone or tablet and immediately e-mail them to friends or family or post them on Facebook for all to see.

Dropbox (site) adds a higher level of automation to digital-image sharing. All you have to do is snap the picture; if you’re connected to the Internet, Dropbox immediately uploads the image to its servers, then downloads it to a folder on your computer and to other Dropbox-capable devices. Once the photos are on your computer, sharing them with friends and family can be just as automatic.

Dropbox’s service works with iPhones, iPads, and Android-based phones and tablets. It’ll also work with one of the new Android cameras, such as Nikon’s COOLPIX S800c (info) or Samsung’s EK-GC100 Galaxy (info). You’ll also need a Dropbox account, of course, installed on both your PC and on your camera, phone, or tablet. (From here on, I’ll just use the word camera.)

In the following sections, I’ll tell you how to set up automatic Dropbox photo uploading. I’ll start by assuming you’ve already installed Dropbox on your PC and camera and you’re using the same Dropbox account on both.

From Android to PC, without lifting a finger

Here’s how to set up automatic photo uploading in Android. I used a Droid X phone running Android 2.3.4; your device might behave in a slightly different manner.

Open Dropbox on the camera, then press the physical Menu button. Tap Settings and then find and tap Turn on Camera Upload. The resulting screen will give you two settings, shown in Figure 1.

The first is Upload photos and videos using: Wi-Fi only or Wi-Fi or data plan. (As shown in Figure 1, Wi-Fi only is the default.) If you don’t have an unlimited data plan (and fewer and fewer of us do), select Wi-Fi only. If you’re one of the lucky few who still have an unlimited plan, enjoy it — you probably won’t have it for long.

The second option, Upload existing photos and videos, affects only what will happen immediately after you enable Camera Upload. Should Dropbox start its new uploading duties by transferring all photos already on your camera to your PC? It probably should — unless you have a huge collection of images on the phone. If that’s the case, consider physically connecting the phone to the PC one more time to move the entire collection faster.

Android-Dropbox upload option

Figure 1. When first setting up Camera Upload on Android devices, you can upload all camera images or just new ones.

Exporting snaps from iPhone or iPad to PC

Setting up Dropbox’s photo-exchange system on iPhones and iPads is similar to the procedure for Android. I used a Wi-Fi-only iPad 2 running iOS 6, but setup should be similar on the iPhone. Earlier versions of iOS might not have the Camera Upload option, but you can still manually upload selected images through Dropbox.

In the Dropbox app, tap the Settings icon in the lower-right corner of the Dropbox panel (which is on the left side of the screen). Tap Camera Upload, then turn the Camera Upload switch on.

Next, a pop-up dialog box will ask whether you want to Save All or Only New (see Figure 2). In other words, do you want Dropbox to upload the photos already on your device? If you answer Only New, it will ignore those photos and upload only the pictures you take from now on. As with Android, I recommend Save All, unless you have a massive photo collection to transfer. Make your choice and tap Enable.

iOS-Dropbox upload option

Figure 2. When setting up Camera Upload on iOS devices, you can initially transfer all images or only new ones.

Finding newly uploaded images on your PC

Once you’ve changed these settings, Dropbox will automatically upload your images (stills and videos) into a new folder — Camera Uploads — inside the Dropbox folder on your PC.

At this point, it’s important to note that Camera Uploads doesn’t sync with your camera in the typical bidirectional Dropbox file–synching way. Your photos will move only one direction: from camera to PC. If you edit or delete a picture on the PC, the changes will not be reflected inside your camera. That could be confusing over time, so it’s best to clean out your phone’s picture gallery every so often — after ensuring new photos are on your PC.

Keep in mind that the Camera Uploads folder will appear for any device on which you’ve installed Dropbox and you’re using the same account — including your camera.

Sharing the right photos the right way

Your photos are now moving to your PC (and possibly other devices with Dropbox installed) with no effort on your part. You can share them with friends and family just as easily by sharing the Camera Uploads folder on your computer. However, there are two good reasons you might not want to.

First, if you give other people access to your Camera Uploads folder, you lose some editorial power over which photos they see. You don’t really want everyone puzzling over that accidental snap of the kitchen floor you haven’t had time to delete — or worse, that particularly unflattering picture your spouse took of you down by the lake.

The safer solution: Drag the pictures you want to share into a separate, shared folder within the Dropbox folder. (Dropbox’s default Photos folder will do.) This takes a bit more effort, but it’s still easier than uploading them to Facebook or Flickr. What’s more, you’ll know that others will see only the best pictures — including those you’ve had time to crop and fix. (You can even include some older, favorite photos, as well.)

Second, you probably don’t want the folder shared in the Dropbox, file-synching sense of that word. If you use standard sharing, your friends and family will need their own Dropbox accounts to access your folder. Worse, your photo folder might take up precious space in their Dropbox accounts. And possibly even worse than that, those you share with will have the ability to alter the contents of your photo folder. Do you really want that?

Instead, create a shared link. This allows anybody to view your photos (and access other files) via the Web — all they need is the right URL. To see what link-sharing looks like from the recipient’s point of view, check out this collection of recent cat photos. (Unlike my human family, my cats don’t object to being publicly displayed. Besides, what’s cuter than a new kitten?)

To provide your friends and family with a similar experience (your images, not those of my cats), right-click the folder you want to share and select Dropbox/Share link (shown in Figure 3). This pops up a Web page of the photos, with a dialog box of sharing options. You can add names or e-mails and have Dropbox send invites. I suggest simply clicking Copy link to this page (see Figure 4) and pasting the URL into an e-mail. It’s more personal and actually easier. Thereafter, friends and family can use the same link to see new photos added to the folder.

Get a Dropbox share link

Figure 3. Right-click a file or folder within a Dropbox folder to share images via the Web.

Dropbox share link

Figure 4. Creating a shared-photos link lets others view your images without a Dropbox account.

Long-term photo maintenance

A few other touches will help with image sharing in the long run.

If you’re using Windows 7, make both of the photo folders (Camera Uploads and the one you’re sharing) part of Windows’ Pictures library. This will make the folders easier to load, and it will help photo programs such as Photo Gallery find them. To add a folder to the Pictures library, right-click the folder in Windows Explorer and select Include in library/Pictures.

If you’ve paid for additional storage on Dropbox, move all photos you’re willing to share with friends and family to a shared-link folder and just leave them there. With a free Dropbox account, you’ll probably have to prune the stored images every so often to keep within the limited storage space. This doesn’t mean deleting photos — just moving them out of the shared folder and back into your local My Pictures folder (outside of Dropbox).

Which reminds me: enjoy the cat pictures now. They’re going to disappear in a month or two.



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Lincoln Spector

About Lincoln Spector

Lincoln Spector writes about computers, home theater, and film and maintains two blogs: Answer Line at PCWorld.com and Bayflicks.net. His articles have appeared in CNET, InfoWorld, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications.