How and why to use Google+, the surprising champ of photo sharing

Google boasted in October that its social network, Google+, now has 300 million monthly active users. It was a lofty claim, one to which many critics replied: Uh, no way. Google has found sneaky ways to inflate its user numbers in the past, but even naysayers have to admit that the company’s two-year-old social network has some die-hard fans.

I’ve never encountered a person who uses Google+ exclusively—no one is fleeing Facebook and running straight into Google’s protective embrace—but plenty of folks have a Google+ account, especially because the network is so closely tied to Gmail, Google Drive, Maps, and other popular services. Google+ is a natural extension of those products.

But it’s not uncommon to sign up for Google+, fill out a bio, maybe add a photo, and then promptly forget about it. (Stop me if you’ve heard this before.) In its quest to become a superpower social network, Google+ has baked in tons of settings, tools, and resources, and is constantly adding new ones, but such efforts make the whole thing overwhelming. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine—those are simple social networks. Google+ is a lot more complicated, starting with: Who should you add to your circles? Wait—what on earth is a circle? Let’s go back to basics.

The dummy’s guide to using Google+

Most of us don’t really need another social network in our lives, but given that we interact with Google on a daily basis, natural curiosity has fueled the growth of Google+. There are those who use the network to somehow game Google’s search rankings in the interest of self-promotion. There are businesses that use the network’s private communities to discuss company matters. And then there are regular people (you and me) who just want to know what Google+ is good for.

Like every other social network, Google+ is useless unless you build up a profile so that people want to friend you, and it helps if a passel of your friends are already signed up. Profile, friends—these things are key. Google+ helpfully culls your email contacts and recommends people to add based on where you’ve worked or gone to school, or you can search by name. Do both.

This is where circles come in. Like Facebook, Google+ allows you to limit the audience for each of your posts. Some stuff you want everyone to see, other stuff you might want only a few people to see. You can add the same people to multiple circles—some could be both friends and colleagues, for instance—and change the audience on any post.

Google+ has tons of settings that most social networks don't offer.

Google+ has tons of options once you get the hang of it. You can join or start communities, mute uninteresting posts, and share stories from around the Internet. Basic social networking stuff. Google’s wide reach means that Google+ can work with Maps and Gmail—when you search for nearby restaurants, Google+ shows you establishments that your friends have visited or reviewed on the network. You can share content directly from Gmail to your G+ page, too. It’s the little things.

Google+ offers almost too many options, and they’re not always obvious. For instance, when you write a post, you can click a little arrow that gives you the ability to disable comments and shares on what you write. Facebook offers nothing like that. You also have the world of Chrome extensions for Google+, which let you do everything from +1 (the equivalent of a Facebook like) any page on the Internet to schedule future posts.

But there’s the problem of what to post. If you already use Facebook and Twitter, thinking of interesting things to say or articles to share that your Google+ followers haven’t already seen or heard of is an exercise in futility. If you want to keep your Google+ account active but can’t think of different content to post across all your networks, you can easily cross-post the same article or thoughtful musing across multiple sites using services such as Buffer or the aforementioned Chrome extension.

Google+ gives you an extensive selection of photo-editing tools.

Photo features worth using

Google+ isn’t difficult to use, but once you drill down, you realize that the social network is pretty much like all the others. Where Google+ really shines compared with its competitors is in photo sharing.

Over the past year, the network has planted its flag in photography, and the strategy is clearly paying off. As of October, some 1.5 billion photos are uploaded to Google+ each week.

Uploading your photos to the network is easiest via Chrome, where you can drag and drop your photos into the network with ease. The Google+ iOS and Android apps let you turn on an auto-backup setting for your images, so every photo you take on your phone is uploaded and stored in a private album on G+.

Once your photos are in the Googlesphere, you can edit them in the network’s Lightbox. The swath of photo-editing tools is available only to desktop users—Google+ falls short here, because as Instagram has proved, people want the option to put a filter on their images while they’re out and about with their phones. You can turn on the G+ auto-enhance feature in the apps for a light but pretty great edit performed by Google itself, and do some basic cropping. For more hands-on work, however, including adjusting the auto-enhance level from low to high, you’ll have to open Chrome.

Google+ turns your holiday photos into GIFs with its Auto Awesome feature.

The desktop-based editing tools are solid and go way beyond those of any other social network. They range from your rudimentary crop and rotate functions to vintage filters, frames, sharpen/blur effects, center focus, and a crazy tilt-shift option. You can create square images or make your photos look as if they came straight from a sun-bleached 1960s film strip. If you upload multiple images that are clearly frames of the same action, the network’s Auto Awesome feature takes the stack and creates a composite image, a GIF, an HDR image, or a mix that catches everyone looking their best. Google+ on Thursday released a holiday update to Auto Awesome that turns stills of snow falling into GIFs of snow falling. The same goes for twinkling lights. The best part is that you can share some of your work publicly and save the private family photos for just your closest circles.

That’s the problem with Google+. People get so overwhelmed by the litany of options and boxes to check and uncheck on every page that they give up on the network altogether. But if you’re tired of Facebook and want a new place to share your photos that has more tools and privacy settings than Instagram offers, Google+ might be your best bet. You don’t have to use every setting all at once. Trying it can be as easy as auto-uploading your finest smartphone photography and letting Google+ pick and polish your images.

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