As 2011 draws to a close, we cross a wonderful milestone: For the first time, modern smart phones include high quality cameras that are good enough for daily use and not just for the occasional snapshot. This allows users to leave their point-and-click cameras at home, reducing the number of gadgets they must carry around. And thanks to the great connectivity capabilities of these smart phones, our photos are much more easily backed up, copied to the PC, and shared with others.

Because this is such a recent change, and because the ways in which the top consumer-oriented smart phone platforms interact with PCs and cloud services is always evolving, I thought I'd examine how one might perform some common photo-related activities on these devices.

The set up here is simple: While almost everyone uses Windows PCs, smart phone usage is much more diverse, and so too is cloud computing services usage. So aside from the ubiquity of Windows, I'll look at Apple's iPhone, Google's Android, and Microsoft's Windows Phone handsets, the applicable cloud-based services, and how all these things interact together from a digital photos standpoint. This includes manual and automatic ways of getting photos from your phone onto the PC and into cloud storages.

The capabilities differ from platform to platform, of course. And not surprisingly, they tend to be pretty insular, in that Apple's phones work best with Apple services, phones based on Google's platform tend to work best with Google's services, and phones from Microsoft's partners integrate most closely with Microsoft's services. So there's a side-story of sorts here that suggests that that the phone you choose will determine which services you use. But the reverse is also true: If loyalty to a particular service is important, that may determine which phone you purchase as well.

Note that I'm referring specifically to backing up or syncing handset-based photos to cloud-based services here, not to "sharing." Each of these platforms provides ways to share photos on Facebook and other popular services. What we're concerned with is full photo archival capabilities.

To the PC: Acquiring smart phone photos in Windows

If you use a Windows-based PC to manage your digital photo collection, you're probably familiar with the ways in which you can connect a digital camera or memory card to your PC and then use the built-in software in Windows--or the more powerful version included with Photo Gallery in Windows Live Essentials--to acquire the photos they contain. (Some people think of this process as "downloading" the photos, though "copying" is probably a more accurate term.)

If you have an iPhone or Android handset, that's exactly what you'll use as well. Acquiring photos from these phones works just as it does for any digital camera, although Android requires a painful driver install first.

Microsoft, curiously, did something completely non-standard--and inferior--with Windows Phone, however. For this reason, copying photos from Windows Phone turns out to be more seamless--it doesn't require any user interaction--but ultimately less desirable.

Here's how to acquire photos from each phone type in Windows.

Android

Connect your Android handset to the PC via the bundled USB cable and then launch Windows Live Photo Gallery. Then, click the prominent Import button in the left corner of the ribbon. An Import Photos and Videos window will appear.

If this window is empty or at least does contain your Android device, you'll have to make a configuration change on the handset and load drivers on the PC. Thanks to the varying UIs on Android phones, this could differ a bit on your device, but what you're looking for is a "USB Connection" link or similar, which is generally found in Android's notification interface. (Slide down from the top of the device to display this interface.)

From here, choose "PC Mode," "Disk Drive," or similar. This should trigger a driver install process, which will allow your phone to work like a digital camera when connected to the PC. After it's done, switch the USB Connection type to "USB Mass Storage" or "Disk Drive," or similar. Now you should be good to go. You know, depending on which Android device you have.

Back on the PC, click the Refresh button in the Import Photos and Videos window in Photo Gallery to display your phone. It should appear now.

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Select the phone and then click Import. This triggers the Import Photos and Videos wizard.

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If this is the first time you've used this wizard, click More options. You'll want to carefully examine each of the options in this window and make at least a few changes. I change the folder name, for example, to Date Taken + Name, the filename to Name, and I configure the wizard to delete photos from the device after importing. Your needs may vary, but be sure to look at each option and choose accordingly.  When you're done, click OK.

Back in the wizard, click Next and then select the range(s) of photos you'd like to import. Give each event a name ("Kelly's birthday party" or whatever), which will auto-name the photos and containing folders if you configured the wizard correctly. Then click Import to import the photos.

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Once the wizard is complete, you can use Windows Live Photo Gallery to view, edit, and share your photos. Remember that this free but powerful application can share to popular services like SkyDrive, Facebook, You Tube, Flickr, and more, many through third party add-ons. So take a look at the available options in this application as well.

iPhone

Apple's iPhone is the most straightforward of the bunch, which is amazing when you consider how poorly it integrates with Windows otherwise. To import photos from the iPhone, connect it to the PC via the bundled USB sync cable. You should see an auto-run window appear. If so, click Import pictures and videos using Windows Live Photo Gallery to continue.

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If this auto run window doesn't appear, launch Windows Live Photo Gallery and then click the prominent Import button in the left corner of the ribbon. An Import Photos and Videos window will appear.

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Select the iPhone from the available choices and then click Import. This triggers the Import Photos and Videos wizard.

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If this is the first time you've used this wizard, click More Options. You'll want to carefully examine each of the options in this window and make at least a few changes. I change the folder name, for example, to Date Taken + Name, the filename to Name, and I configure the wizard to delete photos from the device after importing. Your needs may vary, but be sure to look at each option and choose accordingly.  When you're done, click OK.

Back in the wizard, click Next and then select the range(s) of photos you'd like to import. Give each event a name ("Kelly's birthday party" or whatever), which will auto-name the photos and containing folders if you configured the wizard correctly. Then click Import to import the photos.

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Once the wizard is complete, you can use Windows Live Photo Gallery to view, edit, and share your photos. Remember that this free but powerful application can share to popular services like SkyDrive, Facebook, You Tube, Flickr, and more, many through third party add-ons. So take a look at the available options in this application as well.

Windows Phone

Microsoft, oddly, has gone a different route with Windows Phone. Despite the fact that it also makes the photo acquisition software in Windows, and the superior Windows Live Photo Gallery, the software giant does not allow you to use either tool to import photos from a Windows Phone handset. Instead, you must use the lackluster Zune software.

Now, Zune isn't generally lackluster. It's just lackluster for acquiring photos. And that's because it doesn't really give you the breadth of options that are available in Windows Live Photo Gallery, including the neat ability to automatically name photos on import. Unfortunately, there's no way around this limitation currently, so let's dive in and see what we can do.

First, you'll want to configure Zune's photo acquisition features, such as they are. To do this, you'll want to plug in your phone. This should auto-start the Zune software, but if not, run Zune after your phone is connected to the PC and navigate to the Phone page.

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Now, click Settings, then Phone and then Pictures & Videos. As you can see, there are a few options here related to picture acquisition, including Import Settings (leave photos on the device after import or not), Save Location, and Image Quality (default, original, or VGA; choose original). After you've examined each of these options and made any necessary changes, click OK to exit Settings.

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If you've opted for the default, automatic transfer of photos, Zune will transfer the photos and (camera-shot) videos from your Windows Phone as soon as it's connected to the PC. In fact, this often happens so fast you won't even notice it happening. That's nice.

What's not so nice is that Zune gives you no option with regards to automatic naming and filing. So instead of nice folder names like Kelly's birthday party and Thanksgiving, all of your photos will instead be dumped in a folder called From [phone name]; so for my own phone, this folder is named From Paul's Focus S. This folder is found inside your Pictures folder in Windows 7, and it contains at least one sub-folder, named Camera roll. (You may also see a Saved pictures folder if you've used that feature on the phone.)

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Every photo (and video) you take with the phone's camera and transfer to the PC will be found inside the Camera roll folder. But it's just a flat listing of pictures, and the names are awful, just the same raw files names used by the device, like WP000001.jpg, WP000002.jpg, and so on.

Yuck.

You can of course edit these photos in Windows Live Photo Gallery, and I do recommend doing so. This includes changing the caption, which will provide a nicer way to reference favorite photos, and performing numerous photo-related cleanups. The more organizational among us may also want to create individual folders for events and move the pictures around first. I find this to be one of the more infuriating things about using Windows Phone.

Next: Syncing to the Cloud

In the next part of this article, I'll look at ways in which you can bypass Windows all together and sync photos directly from your smart phone to various cloud computing services. As you might imagine, these capabilities vary from device to device, and from service to service. So stay tuned: There's a lot more to come.