Sunday, 13 December 2015

Google Photos review

Some time ago, Google added the Photos service to their portfolio. So, what is it, and should you use it?

The Google Photos service aims to help photo interested people by providing a free cloud service, where it should be easier to search for your images later. There are essentially two versions of the service: The one most people probably use is the free - in the gratis sense - version, where your photos and videos are stored compressed. You can still upload an unlimited number of items.

There is a second version where Google stores your material uncompressed, but then you need to pay for the storage through their Drive service.

Uploading


To upload your images, it is easiest to use a batch uploader, available for Mac and Windows. This is a simple program running in the background, which scans for new images and videos, and uploads them for you. I've used this program for Windows, and found that it is a big unstable.

Sometimes, it crashes, it does not always find new photos automatically, hence, I must restart it to have it upload new images. Also, it seems to skip the largest videos, in size above around 1GB. I've found that I often need to upload these manually.

Which brings me to the manual upload possibility. From the main page, you can click on the cloud symbol (far right below) to upload single files, or multiple files in a batch.



The advantage of this latter method is that you can upload photos from everywhere. If you are on the move, for example, you can upload your photos over a wifi network in a cafe, not needing to wait until you are home.

The downside is that Google will never store the catalogue location of your photos, even if you use the batch upload program: The directory path where your images resided, e.g., C:\photos\holiday\2015\London, is lost, and you cannot search for these keywords later. So how do you navigate your photos, you may ask yourself?

Browsing photos


Google Photos offers a handful of ways to browse your photos. First of all, you can scroll them all in chronological order. Which is all well if you have some tens of photos, but if you have thousands, that becomes increasingly difficult.

Next, you can navigate by places and things:



Places categorizes your pictures into where you took them. If your camera or smartphone has a GPS device, this is the source for the geographical location of each photo. However, the photos and videos can also be categorized by some pattern recognition algorithm.

This means that when someone uploads photos that are GPS tagged, the information about what objects reside where is used to map other people's photos which are not GPS tagged. This seems to work quite well.

When a picture is GPS tagged, you can see a map showing where it is taken. If it was not GPS tagged, but located with the pattern recognition algorithm, you can only see which city, typically, it was taken in, not the exact location.

Things aims to group your pictures according to what you have photographed. The categorization is solely automatic, you cannot yourself select which category each picture should go into. This works quite well, even if it is not very accurate. In the examples above, you see scooters categorized as "bikes", and to the right, you have a hawfinch in a pine tree categorized as a "flower".

You can also search for any word, and the results are sometimes helpful, sometimes not. Here, I have searched for "sparrow". This yields a lot of birds, but none of them are actually sparrows:


EXIF information


If you select one photo, you can see some key EXIF informaion: Time and date, original filename and resolution, aperture, shutter speed, ISO and focal length. It also shows what type of camera was used. However, you cannot search from this information.

So you cannot search for photos taken with the Lumix GH4 camera, for example, or images taken at 14mm focal length. Which is a strange limitation. If you key in "Nikon" in the search field, you will get pictures of Nikon cameras, not pictures taken by Nikon cameras.

Compression


Image resolution is reduced to a maximum of 16MP, which is mostly quite sufficient. In addition, they are also compressed further in a new JPEG file. The original JPEG file you uploaded is not saved, unless you are using the pay-for-storage solution.

You could upload RAW files as well, but then Google will convert them to JPEG and discard the original file.

Video files are compressed to a maximum of 1080p.

Here is an example picture. You can download the original photo, and the compressed photo created by Google Photos:

Original, click to download4608x3456 pixels, 8.54MB
Compressed, click to download4608x3456 pixels, 2.14MB

To help you in comparing them, here are 100% crops from both images:


It is hard to find any real evidence that the compressed image is worse.

"Creations"


If you upload certain types of photos, Google will create "Creations" for you. For example, if you pan while taking several photos, you will get a "Creation" which is the stitched panorama. If you photograph a similar scene several times, you will get an animation.

And if you use the bracketing feature on your camera, Google will make an HDR for you. Here is an example of the latter: I used the five picture bracket feature on the Lumix GH4 with the Samyang 7.5mm f/3.5 fisheye lens, and set the difference to one stop. This gives me five pictures:

+/-0
-1
+1
-2
+2

Google combines these for you automatically, and gives you this HDR picture. It looks somewhat cheesey, but is sure to give you many likes on social media:


Conclusion

Google Photos can be a good search and archive tool. But it is not perfect: It doesn't have the functions you would typically want, like searching for images taken with specific cameras, or taken at specific focal lengths or apertures.

People who are concerned, or, if you want, paranoid, may say that Google will use the information from the images you upload to profile you, and generate more specific ads tailored for you. That is probably true. So the service is not truly free, you are probably paying with your own personal information.

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