We take pictures of ourselves, our food, our friends, the great moments of our life, the dullest minutia of our daily routine. Pictures by the hundreds, possibly by the thousands, quickly fill up our smartphone.  But are they there forever, only viewable on the small screen in your hand?

Despite what you might fear, your phone's photos are not trapped inside your device. Nor do you require additional hardware to archive and later view them. You have many free choices to upload your pictures and enjoy them sans smartphone.

Smile! You Are the Product

Before diving into the features of the various services, it should be noted that taking advantage of any of these free cloud services comes with a potential price. As the saying goes, if an online site isn't selling you a product, then you are the product. 

Upload the latest photos of your vacation to the South Pacific, for example, and social media sites such as Flickr or Google+ might suddenly include ads from travel sites in your feed. For most, this is a fair bargain. However, all your account activity and identity data, combined with any "tags" you include with your photos—place, date, and people's names, for example—may, in the aggregate, be more personal information than you care to hand over.  

It is up to you to manage your privacy settings and use your good sense.  

The licensing agreement for each of these services—those many pages of legalese that you didn't bother to read—may allow the company to sell your data, your location or even use your photos for advertising. Instagram, for example, recently altered its terms to allow them to offer your pictures for use in ads. Only a very public outcry forced them to change the rules.

The promise of free storage, accessible from multiple devices and shareable with friends and family, carries that sort of risk and you should pay attention to it. 

Business Model Catwalk

Since every company has different rules, it may prove useful to understand the business models of those offering you free service.

This is not a cautionary declaration strictly for social media sites. Consider the privacy policy of the popular Box service, which, unlike Yahoo, Google and Facebook, earns its money from charging for cloud services, not selling aggregate personal data to advertisers. 

This Policy in no way restricts or limits our collection and use of aggregate data, and we may share aggregate data about our users with third parties for various purposes, including to help us better understand our customer needs and improve our services and for advertising and marketing purposes.

Note, this is only a small portion of the Box policy. While Box says it will not sell your "personal" information, it acknowledges that "aggregate" information may be offered to third parties. In addition, since you are "sharing" information with others—your photos—what they might do with your images is now also out of your control, and out of the control of the cloud service provider.

You can simply never be 100% certain of privacy protections and loss of data, but understanding the risks is important.

The Cloud As Your Darkroom

When it comes to features, many of these services, such as the revamped Flickr or the delightfully simple Dropbox, are probably better options for storing and sharing your photos than your own computer's hard drive. I know this all too well. My trusty old MacBook Pro gave out earlier this year, resulting in the loss of hundreds of photos and several files.

The best free sites, such as Flickr, not only provide ample storage, they offer tagging, search and presentation tools to enhance your photos. They also incorporate numerous social functions within their service.

Flickr

Flickr may promise a "free terabyte" of space, though each photo is limited to 200 MB in size.

That's still pretty good for free. Download the Flickr app for iPhone and Android and you can even set it to instantly upload your photos as soon as you take them—a great time saver. These photos are kept private until you designate them for sharing.

Google+

You are probably a member of Google+, whether you realize it or not. If you have signed up to use any Google service in the past, including Gmail, then you're in the Google+ club. This is not such a bad deal for photo lovers, since Google offers members 5 GB of free storage—plenty of space for your smartphone photos.

As with Flickr, the Google+ app for Android and iPhone includes an "Auto Backup" feature that lets you have all your smartphone pictures instantly uploaded. You can keep your pictures private or share them with specific individuals, or with "circles" of friends. 

Since Google+ is far more than a photo sharing site, some users may find it intimidating. If so, simply take advantage of the free storage and auto-upload feature.

 

Facebook Photo Sync

Did you know Facebook Photo Sync existed? Facebook announced "photo sync" last year. Install the latest version of Facebook on your iPhone or Android device and you can have your smartphone photos automatically uploaded to Facebook; all of them, not just one at a time. 

Here's how to set up your Facebook app for syncing:

  1. Go to the Photos tab in the app
  2. Tap Photos
  3. Tap Sync

All the photos you have auto-uploaded remain private until you designate which ones, if any, should be shared on your timeline.

Facebook Photo Sync offers 2 GB of free storage.

No-Frills Free Photo Storage  

Several other cloud services offer ample free storage space for your photos, without the emphasis on presentation or community. Some, like Dropbox, also make it a snap to sync your photos across all your registered devices.

Dropbox

Dropbox is one of the simplest cloud services available for storing your photos, or just about any file, in fact. With the iPhone or Android app, you can easily upload your photos to Dropbox, and they are synched across all your devices (with the same Dropbox account). 

The free version currently offers 2 GB of storage, though Dropbox offers numerous deals to increase this space. (Note: I received 50 GB free—for one year—with my recent purchase of a Samsung Galaxy S4.) 

Like the services noted above, you can have your Dropbox app auto-upload your photos as soon as you take them. You can also create folders for your photos—much easier via the desktop version—and share pictures inside these folders with others.  

You can also share photos via Dropbox integration with Twitter, Facebook and email.

Box

Box is a cloud storage service that provides 5 GB of free storage, with much more available for a fee. 

You can share individual photos or entire folders. Box also allows you to see when a picture you have shared has been viewed.

SkyDrive

Not to be outdone, Microsoft's SkyDrive offers a pleasing 7 GB of free cloud storage.

There is an iPhone and Android app, however, only the Windows Phone version has an auto-upload feature.

Bitcasa

Bitcasa is a start-up that offers up to 10 GB of free storage.

The service also allows users to upload pictures and videos of virtually any size. If you choose to use Bitcasa's paid service, you can have virtually unlimited storage for your photos—and any other file you want to store. You may find it much easier to use Bitcasa from your desktop, however. 

Everpix

Everpix is a clever new photo archiving service—though available only for iOS at this writing. Everpix uses "algorithms" to analyze each photo uploaded and then automatically places them into into various categories: Outdoors, Cats, Food, etc. If you have lots of photos to store, this auto-categorizing function can be a great time saver.

Another useful benefit of Everpix is that the company can figure out which photos are essentially duplicates, and remove them for you.

The free service offers nearly unlimited storage space—with the caveat that only the last 12 months of photos are accessible. Access to more than that requires a fee. 

The New Language of Images

We are awash in pictures because we love to document our lives and share our moments. Pictures express how we look, how we feel, what we care about, where we are. They expose our insecurities as equally as our boasts, our desires as much as our belongings, and can be shared with the world as easily as with our closest friends. 

The combination of always-there camera-equipped smartphones combined with popular photo-sharing services, are turning pictures into a secondary language, one potentially as impactful and seemingly as common as the written word.

Update: An earlier version of this story misstated Flickr's current limits on photo storage and display. 

Lead image courtesy of 1000 Words/Shutterstock. All other images courtesy of Brian S. Hall.