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Use the Google Drive desktop app to save local copies of your Google Photos library

One of the best features of Google Photos is that you can access your pictures from any device that has a web browser or a Google Photos app, but the fact that it's kind of a black box and you don't know where exactly your photos are can be a little bothersome. Sure you can download copies of any photo you want from your library, but having an automatic local copy of photos as they are uploaded is even better.

With the Google Drive desktop app and a few tweaks you can have just that — we'll show you how to set it up and a few of the limitations of the system.

Having a local copy of photos

Google Drive sync preferences

Though it isn't advertised as a feature — only found in the FAQ pages — of Google Photos, you actually can coax it into putting a copy of every photo in your library into your Google Drive. If you previously selected the option in Google Drive to show your Google+ photos then you're already ready to go. But if you're starting fresh with Google Photos, go to the Google Drive website, enter the settings and check the box for "Create a Google Photos folder."

With this setting checked, a new folder simply called "Google Photos" will appear in your Google Drive, and it'll soon be populated with every photo that's in your Google Photos library. The folder hierarchy is simple, with year folders filled by numbered month folders and images inside each month. The images seem to retain their original file names and extensions from when they were uploaded as well, no matter if you've uploaded them under "High quality" or "Original" settings in Google Photos. Remember that if you've made any edits to pictures in the Google Photos app, those changes will not be reflected in these local files.

The next step in getting these photos down to your computer for a local copy is using the Google Drive desktop application. You can download it from Google right here for your Mac or PC. Once installed, it will start syncing everything — including that Google Photos folder — down to your computer. If you're not familiar with the app, it keeps a folder on your computer in sync with the cloud, so that any changes made on one side are reflected on the other.

If you're low on space on your computer's internal storage (or just don't care to have anything but Google Photos synced), consider the selective syncing options in the Google Drive app's preferences, where you can choose to only pull down specific folders to your local machine. The Google Photos folder itself shouldn't be all that large, though — multiple years of photo backups was only 12GB for us.

With this system, you now have a folder on your computer that's filled with every photo that you've added to Google Photos. Much like Dropbox's camera upload feature, you can use this as a local backup to what's being held in the cloud.

What you can (and can't) do with it

Google Drive and Google Photos sync

While the option of syncing your Google Photos folder in Drive to your computer is something that works, it doesn't quite do everything you'd expect it to. Whether it's poor implementation or just working out the kinks in this feature, Google Photos doesn't seem to handle lots of cross-platform fiddling when it comes to these local photo copies (Dropbox still handles this better).

For example if you want to add pictures to your Google Photos library, you'll still need to upload them via your phone, the Google Photos website or desktop uploader — you can't simply drop photos in this Google Drive folder and expect them to hit your Photos library.

In the other direction, though, it does seem to work. If you upload a photo via the approved methods and watch it appear in your Drive folder, you can delete it from that folder and watch it disappear from the Photos app and website. As we mentioned there are a few quirks here, though, with some older photos (we're talking years old) that aren't properly deleting locally when we remove them from the Photos app. Thankfully these are back-end collision problems that Google can (and presumably will) fix — but right now it isn't perfect.

The system doesn't do everything you'd want out of a full-featured local backup — it's a bit more in the rudimentary stages right now, in all honesty — but it will make Google Photos a little more manageable for those who want to know what's going on behind the scenes with their photos. We're fans of having our own local copies of these files, and we know quite a few of you feel the same way.

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

27 Comments
  • Andrew, I like your write ups on the Google Photos app, but would you be able to reach out to them (and maybe get some response) on whether they are going to fix Albums more specifically the reordering of albums? They took this away when they split off the G+ photos and it's a terrible departure. The help section even says "you can't reorder albums, but here are some things you can do:" I feel like this is Google Maps all over again. They took away all the functional things to give it a face lift and then never brought back the functional things. Except this app contains all my memories and photos. Really frustrating experience so far. Even my wife is pissed and if she's mad at an app update, you know they're doing something wrong!
  • the whole photos on google drive is redundant and confusing for user.
    there is a google photos left tab and then there is create photo folder on drive.
    why google why???
  • It's really a case of one hand not talking to the other... except in Google's case there are like 30,000 hands.
  • Exactly Posted via the Android Central App
  • I think you missed the part that explains that you have to manually activate it to create that folder. So, this is not for normal users, those will NOT see that redundancy. It's for advanced users that might find some special cases where this makes sense.
  • Never mind... figured it out!
  • And still no Google Drive for the Linux desktop. Guess I'll be sticking to Copy like always. Posted via the Android Central App
  • If there was just one Linux desktop I'm sure it would be there already. But Linux is even more fragmented than Android. Why do you think commercial developers tried and failed to target it for consumer apps, and now largely ignore it?
  • I do not think this is mainly due to Linux diversity but to a much smaller customer base for Linux and competition from freeware - Sun and Unix/Solaris had the same problem. Also the source of money for Linux was once the stock market that had bought into the ideas of freeware and synergies but now they need revenues to console the stock market.
  • Andrew, I guess you should join google because you do more explaining of how this app works then they ever did. In any case, in my drive I see only some of the photos ... its been that way ever since this drive to photos connection was created. So for example I have around 5000 photos in my google photos but I only see 582 in my drive. Any idea as to how I can see rest of them? I am assuming all the photos which I added in google+ Photos should show up here, the 5000 number is basically photos in albums in google+ photos. Does it matter? Should I uncheck the setting on drive website and check it again? Like windows restart :)
  • The back end of this is kinda complicated and impossible to figure out completely... As I note in the post the link is hardly one-to-one when something changes on one and and whether it is reflected on the other. I can't say what you should do to get all of those photos back into Drive. I'd think unchecking/rechecking in Drive would do the trick... Maybe give it a day or so between unchecking and rechecking it so it clears out for sure?
  • thanks, I did notice at the end it says "stay tuned your older photos are coming soon". But when I searched there are people seeing this for almost 2 months now ...
  • One thing that I am frustrated with and perhaps I am missing something, it's been known to happen. But I take a lot of shots with my DSLR and use Adobe Lightroom to organize my photos in folders but topic or event. I have my Lightroom library sitting in my Google Drive sync folder so that all photos are backed up to drive. Under the old app, each of these folders became albums. However, after the update, I have lost this functionality. So for example I have a folder called "Ariel Photography" and one called "Ariel Photography - Edited", the latter containing photos that have been photoshoped. I used to be able to click on this album in the photos app and share it via instagram or whatever. Now they are all comingled in the photo stream and I need to look closely at the thumbnails and check the file name to decipher which ones are edited.
  • You can create Albums from folders in OneDrive. O also dislike how Googke organizes things. Apple has the same disadvantage there.
  • Wow the confusion LoL long story short I only use Google photos just in case my house gets flooded, burned down or hit by a meteorite and my hard drives get destroyed. I was using Google Drive (still am for some pictures). After awhile so many choices just gets confusing. Oh well...... Keep calm and Google on! Posted via the Android Central App
  • already did it. i guess it automatically saves my photos from my phone to the desktop app. obviously you gotta sign in first tho
  • This is an area of advantage for OneDrive Photos (and I assume Dropbox Photos as well)
    Edits made on the desktop will get reflected back into the web gallery.
  • Picasa does this automagically for me. It uploads the ones on my PC and backs up the ones in the cloud to my PC. Unfortunately I'm at work right now so I can't check the settings that do it. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Picasso only does it by Album. It cannot sync your entire collection seamlessly like the Apple Photos app. If Google had updated Picasa I'd have switched and moved back to Android but I'm tired of web apps and photo synching being tied to sync clients that pull down all sorts of other stuff. It's a management nightmare on small SSD systems.
  • Mine definitely syncs all my photos. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I use Dropbox to transfer my photos to desktop. Google is compressing your images so you'd be backing up processed photos and video. With Dropbox I remove the images after they're transferred and I'm still on the free tier.
  • Photos are only compressed if you stick with the default option of 'High Quality'. Selecting 'Original' will upload your photos unmolested - although if you do that they will use your google drive storage of course.
  • Regarding Google Photos app for desktop (pc). I have it pinned to my task bar like all of my must used apps, but when click on it, it won't take me to my photos. In fact it does nothing. This can't be working as intended can it? I want to single click it to take me to the gallery it's backing up. Anyone know why it's not working? Posted via the Android Central App
  • Google Photos folder that is in my Google Drive folder, is using 159Gb of space. How can I disable this?
    I don't need all my photos and videos backed up in a local copy. I unchecked the "Create a Google Photos folder" option. I am expecting the local Google Photos folder to disappear from my PC. Right?
  • Wait, why is it using so much space? It literally shouldn't use any... Posted via the Android Central App
  • I found the reason and a solution. I installed the Google Drive app in my desktop pc. So, it syncs all your Drive folders to the PC. Also, I configured Drive to show Google Photos folder (which are gbs and gbs in size). Once my backup was finished, Drive app started syncing all backed up photo, and downloading them back to the PC. This is why I found this Google Photos folder in my PC, taking so much space. Solution:
    I excluded this Google Photos folder (in the Drive app in PC) to sync it to my pc. By unchecking it, and it disappeared from my PC. I am still able to access this folder from my Google Drive app or browser. Sorry if this was too complex... Lol
  • I use Google Photos and have both a Windows PC and MacBook. I ended following the directions in the article for Google Drive and showing the Google Photos folder. I synced the content using Google Drive to my MacBook. I used Picasa and tried to find Duplicates using the Experimental feature. Unfortunately, Picasa failed on the Mac to detect any duplicates. Not sure if it is a feature parity issue between Mac & PC. I ended using the Similarity app (similarityapp.com) to find image duplicates (pixel by pixel, not byte for byte). The free PC version marks all the duplicates, but the Mac version seems to be crippled to the first 50 duplicates unless you buy the full version. Proof of concept though, Similarity app works correctly to identify the duplicates. Wish I could find a free image duplicate finder on Mac... Picasa wasn't the solution in this case.