We all love to take pictures. Smartphones make it easy.
Because it's so easy to take pictures, we take a lot of them. (I personally have more than 80,000 photos and videos which take up more than 215 gigabytes of space.)
That's when the fun ends and the hassle begins. The truth is that managing, sharing and editing photos is harder than it should be. Most of us lost control of our photo collections long ago.
Labeling, tagging and organizing photos is difficult and time-consuming. But if you don't do all of those things, can be hard to find a specific photo.
Pictures are inconvenient to share, too -- especially when people are scattered across different social networks. (And there's always that odd relative who isn't on any of the social networks.)
Editing pictures can be difficult and time-consuming. It's also tediously labor-intensive to do creative things with pictures.
And at some point, all those photos can max out the storage on our phones. Yet we hesitate to delete them because we're afraid of accidentally getting rid of pictures we want to keep.
The only product or service that solves each and every one of those problems is Google Photos, which Google announced on Thursday at its Google I/O developers conference and which is shipping now.
Google Photos is a powerful photo editing, Cloud storage and search service. It's also a website, an Android app and an iOS app.
Google Photos is a product of a group called SPS, which stands for Streams, Photos and Sharing.
Two years ago, Google's strategy was to combine streams, photos and sharing in Google+. Since then, Google realized that lumping them together holds them back. The oversimplified thinking within Google now is this:
- "Streams" are all about sharing and exploring passions, which is what Google+ is really great for.
- "Photos" is about all your photos and movies and everything you might ever want to do with them -- edit, combine, store, search for, play with and share. (Social sharing is only one of many things people want to do with photos.)
- And "Sharing," at its essence, is best when it's platform-agnostic. In other words, limitations on the people you can share with are what make most photos apps, tools and sites annoying and hard to handle.
Google Photos is a product of that thinking.
Google said Photos comes with unlimited free Cloud storage; it's the first company to offer such a service.
There's a catch: Photos are limited to a maximum of 16 megapixels resolution and videos up to 1080p. Also: Google compresses the photo files. The company demonstrated convincingly that the compression doesn't noticeably degrade quality, even when you zoom in. Still, if you use Google Photos as the only place where you store all your pictures, all your pictures will be modified from their original form.
You can opt to keep your photos untouched -- but you can only do so under the old plan, where you pay when you exceed your Google Drive limit. (Different users have different limits based in part on which devices they've purchased in the past.)
The free unlimited storage feature is an eye-catcher, drawing attention to the overall freeness of the product: Photos is free. Storage is free. There are no ads. Google Photos has zero monetization associated with it, and Google has no plans to monetize it.
Here's a neat trick: When your pictures gobble up nearly all the storage on your phone, Google Photos will pop up a dialog offering to delete the pictures on your phone that Google knows have been backed up to the cloud. One tap frees up gigabytes of storage without risk of loss.
Google Photos are automatically processed with machine learning and other techniques to identify who and what is in each picture.
One of the most impressive feats of identification is the ability to know where pictures were taken. Sure, with smartphone geolocation turned on, it's easy. But with older photos, or pictures taken with regular digital cameras or with pictures taken when your phone's location feature was turned off, Google identifies landmarks in the images to figure out where the shot was taken.
The intelligence goes beyond mere image recognition. For example, if you take a picture without geolocation turned on of an identifiable object -- say, the Eiffel tower -- it knows that the pictures you took before and after must also be in Paris, so they'll come up on your "Paris" searches as well. And it knows how long it takes to get out of town and makes intelligent guesses about where you are based on that kind of information.
A circular "Search" button hovers in the lower right on the Google Photos app. By tapping it, you get to a page that has a Search box on top, with categories of likely searches below organized into uber-categories of "People," "Places" and "Things."
Google Photos Search results stunned the attendees at Google I/O. The freak factor is off the charts.
Google demonstrated on stage that its image recognition technology can not only tell the difference between a dog and another species of cute mammal -- it can also distinguish between different breeds of dog. You can search for "golden retriever" and it will show you only that breed.
My own searching has found that it can distinguish between different kinds of food. For example, searching for "tacos" or "pie" or "pizza" brings up photos I've taken of those foods.
You can combine searches to make them super powerful, and search for, say, "pizza in Chicago" or "lions in Kenya" or "rain on the beach."
Google Photos finds people, too. Once you search for a certain person, the search result shows every picture of that person you have going back in time even to infancy.
The result of this incredible technology is that you can for the first time instantly find any photo from among thousands with a simple search.
Cloud-based photo editing tools are pretty common these days. I've said for a couple years now that Google+ photo editing has been the best available (best, as in easiest to use for great results).
It turns out that Google has continued to evolve these tools in the direction of increased control and better ease of use and has unveiled the most evolved version in Google Photos. (The less evolved Google+ photo tools will be around for a while, but they will be removed at some point.)
The "edit" button brings you to a radically simple five options: "Auto," "Light," "Color," "Pop" and "Vignette." Each option gives you a slider bar. Unlike normal slider bars, moving the control from one side to the other does more than make a linear change to the photo. Each single slider may do multiple jobs.
For example, the "light" editing slider bar does different things to different parts of the photo as you move the single slider. At one point in the sliding, you'll bring more brightness just to the faces in the photos. Keep sliding, and the shadows are brightened.
Another example of the editing intelligence of Google Photos is that when you select "vignette" (which darkens and blurs the outside edges of a photo to bring attention to the subject) it doesn't center the vignetting on the photo, but on the faces in the photo. So if a person is off-center, the vignetting will be off-center, too, automatically.
The real magic happens on the "Assistant" page, which appears when you swipe to the right in the app. The first thing you see is that Google Photos has already made automatic changes to many of your photos, turning them into albums, movies, scrapbooks (called "Stories"), animated GIFs, collages or panoramas. In Google+, this feature is called Auto Awesome.
However, with Google Photos, you get more control. By tapping the "plus" icon, you can choose which of these modification types you want, then you choose the pictures to which you want to apply those modifications. (You can't choose to make panoramas -- if a group of your photos lend themselves to a workable panorama, Google Photos will automatically make it for you.)
After you edit a photo, the original is still available to you, as is the case now on Google+.
"Stories" combines pictures, maps, animated GIFs and videos into an event-based scrapbook you can modify. In Google+, "Stories" are automatically created. In Photos, you can also now create Stories from scratch.
Videos and movies
Videos play automatically when you bring them up or share them, and they also loop endlessly.
Google Photos can also automatically create movies when you take multiple videos at a single event. It will create a kind of edited video, complete with visual effects, cuts music and other enhancements. You can go in later and change all attributes of the movie. You can even, for example, toggle on or off the sound initially recorded, which will go along with the music. You can also change the music from a list of songs.
Your Google Photos-created movies appear when you swipe to the left in the app from the main screen under the "Collections" heading. These include "Albums," "Movies" and "Stories."
Sharing directly from Google Photos is easy and facilitated. You can upload directly to Google+, Twitter, Facebook or any social network you have installed as an app on your phone. You can add to your list of one-tap sharing apps, including messaging apps, email apps, cloud storage apps, like Evernote, and more.
You can even get a URL that takes people to a Web page filled with the photos you selected, and anyone with an Internet connection can view these. It's like an instant photo Web page that Google builds for you on the fly and free of charge.
Google Photos isn't perfect. Some people might feel uncomfortable with the compression of files or with the adding of precious memories into Google's all-seeing, all-knowing machine intelligence system. People may fear lock-in, though that fear may be unfounded. While Google Photos is advanced and mature in many ways, it still suffers from minor glitches (for example, the Web editing view crashes my Chrome browser consistently).
With all that in mind, Google Photos is by far the easiest photo app or service I've ever encountered.
More importantly, it solves all the major problems associated with taking thousands of pictures over time -- problems of discovery, storage, management, editing and more. And it does all this free, ad-free and without the baggage of a social network.
That's why I think you're going to want Google Photos.
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