Photos, a First Rant
All day at Google’s #io15
developer conference, people were asking what I thought of the new Photos app, awaiting my rant. I seem to have a reputation or something. I wanted to let it simmer for a week before I posted about it.
This is almost that rant.
When +Anil Sabharwal
took to the stage at the keynote to demonstrate the new Photos app for Android, iOS, and the Web, I was anxious what it would be like. Not because it was breaking away from Google+ - I couldn’t imagine that would make much of a difference, but because I wanted to see that they addressed some of the real issues people had with the Google+ Photos system.
After the presentation, I concluded two things: (1) Anil is an awesome speaker. He really drove home the awesomeness of this new/updated product and spoke with a passion that I could feel. (2) They did address some of the problems with the previous photo system. A little. And probably not the way people expected. The Good: Search
For the first time in ages, Google launched a new product that featured their core competency - search. And they did it in a big way. The search button brings you to a separate page with a familiar search box on the top. Underneath, however, are pre-searched items. Including faces of people you take a lot of pictures of, things you take a lot of pictures of, and places where you take a lot of pictures.
If you’re in Europe, I understand you won’t see the faces. But the rest of us will see faces of the people we take the most pictures of. No surprise to me that my closest family members all were in the group. Clicking “more” will do the obvious thing - show more people. It is important to realize that this list isn’t generated by any tag that we assigned to each face - the Google face detection system did all the matching. It doesn’t even show you the names of any of these faces, often because it doesn’t know their names.
Things and places work the same way. In some cases, the search system will know what the photo is about based on the geotag metadata associated with the file. But in other cases, it will use image detection and location extrapolation to figure things out. Take a picture of the Eiffel Tower? You’re probably in Paris. The real weird part about some of the pre-defined searches is you start to realize what you’re taking a lot of pictures of that you may not have expected.
Manual searches can be incredibly specific. On stage, they demonstrated searching for a snowstorm in a particular month, and it returned just those pictures. I had a friend search for omelettes, and it demonstrated his enjoyment of that particular food. One minor annoyance is that you can’t narrow a pre-defined search easily or turn it into a manual search. I can click on the pictures for my son - but I can’t then say “these pictures, with a bathtub.” And since there is no name or label associated, i can’t do a straight manual search for that. Context sensitive searches were demonstrated with Google Now - but they haven’t made their way here, yet. (And if you try to cheat and use the internal label that is exposed in the URL - it won’t work.)
Clicking on any of the pre-searched items, or entering in your own search, gives you the results by date going back… well.. forever. On stage, Google demonstrated clicking on the face of a child and scrolling backwards to when they were a baby. Neat trick! I tested it with my son, and it went back as far as I had pictures uploaded - and now I want to find older pictures and get them on the server.
But searches aren’t perfect.The Bad: Search
The image identification and auto labeling are incredibly accurate. Since 2013 when the search feature was first introduced into Google+ photos, Google’s deep neural network systems have brought the error rate down dramatically. But you will still find some errors. You’ll find people posting how it has identified their cat as a dog, for example. I predict we’ll see a lot of such snafus being posted for a good long time.
More seriously, however, when it makes a mistake such as this - there is nothing you can do about it.
In the Google Photos community, this question is repeated over and over. But there is never an answer because there is nothing that can be done.
You can’t “untag” the image, or teach it that it is an image of something else. You can’t hide it from the results. Does Google think that your ex looks a lot like your mom? Guess who will keep showing up.
Photos are insanely personal, and people have a visceral reaction to not having control over their photos (a theme we’ll return to a few more times), and it seems absurd that the product launched without this feature.The Good: View Scope
One of the nifty features
inspired by other recent photo apps are the zoom level for the photo overview. People have gotten used to sticking photos in folders by date to manage them, but this feature reduces the need for that. On a mobile device, you can view things on a “comfortable” view that shows pictures at a reasonable size, on a “day” view, which shows thumbnails for all the photos that day, a “compact” view which shows tinier thumnails, and a “monthly” view which quickly lets you move between months. The slider also let you quickly travel through time. Everything but the month view also lets you go into selection mode with a long-tap and drag.
Unfortunately, the desktop sticks you with only daily mode and a slightly inferior slider.
When you do scroll around, the thumbnails come up incredibly quickly. A little blurry on the desktop version initially, but it usually recovers quickly enough. Clicking on an image brings up the full “lightbox” view - now with even more lightbox and less metadata by default.The Bad: View Scope
Unfortunately, this same wonderful view isn’t used when it comes to searches. For some bizarre reason that totally escapes me, they seem to limit it to something that resembles the “day” view. This might be fine if you only have a few photos, but if you have thousands of search results, this (combined with the inability to narrow pre-defined searches) are particularly difficult to deal with.
Even worse is that it doesn’t behave the same way as the non-search day view as you scroll - there is a very noticeable pause when you get to the bottom of the scroll bar as it loads the next batch of search results. So although they advertise you can search for your child’s photos going back through history to their birth - you wouldn’t want to do this for more than a couple of weeks if you take as many photos of them as I do.
Finally, although selection is improved from previous, it retains many inefficiencies. For example, you can’t select an image while looking at the lightbox view of it. This makes it really difficult to do things such as select photos you want for an album, story, or movie (and all three of these are even more difficult to edit afterwards). I would love a way to do tagging selection, but even just simple selection in the lightbox is a seriously needed feature that has been lacking for too long.The Good: Editing
Like its predecessor, Photos comes with a photo editor. This now makes the third photo editor in five years. Unlike the recent version, however, the desktop version finally works in browsers besides Chrome.
It is a decent, but not great editor. It provides a number of pre-defined filters, which is unsurprising and unremarkable. It has some basic rotation and cropping, although not as featured as the previous version. It has some tuning knobs, although these are reduced in number and increased in function compared to the previous version.
In a way, that might be a clever approach. This isn’t about providing pros the ability to fine-tune an image - they were probably using the pro tools to do this anyway. This is about offering people to make incredibly quick tweaks to their photos to make it just so. Some of the tweaking is even smart - the “vignette” slider, for example, does a focus on the face in the photo, not just the center of the photo.The Bad: Editing
With this simplicity, however, comes a massive tradeoff. As with its predecessor, this editor is notable for removing features - particularly features people liked, wanted, and asked for.
Adding text to photos is still missing. White balance is missing. Spot touch-up and blurring (now finally available from Snapseed’s editor) are missing. These are features that people (not just photography buffs) have been asking for since Picnik was removed as the photo editor… and they don’t make a return in this new editor.
Additionally, many of the features that did exist in the previous version are gone or hidden in the bulk controlls. Color saturation or desaturation, previously in about 5 sliders, is condensed to one. The “drama” and “details” filter are roughly combined (poorly) in the “pop” slider. Being able to draw a straight line and have the image be rotated to make that line level is gone - replaced by a very difficult to manage rotate slider.
And you’re somewhat stuck with the editor. There is an option (in the menu) to use Snapseed as the editor on mobile, but no equivalent on the desktop, and I’m not sure this would let you use other photo editors on either.
The message from this editor is twofold and clear: Your choices are limited, and this isn’t a service for professionals. The pro, pro-am, and amateur photography communities that helped build the service in the first place are politely invited to leave.
The problem is that the editor might not even be for everyone else. The lack of basic features such as text, healing, and blurring indicate they don’t really care about people who care about their work.The Nitpics
There are, of course, little things about the service that are problematic. Some of these are due to the newness and confusion around the service, others are things that may actually get fixed (but probably not). Most are minor.
For example, there is no easy way to convert photos that are already in Drive to use the new “free” space available. The only solution is to download the photos and re-upload them.
If you shoot in RAW mode on your camera, you’re out of luck with the new service - it isn’t a supported file format anymore.
One problem with decoupling photos from the social system is that comments can’t be placed on photos anymore. In some ways, this is a good thing, since the previous integration was haphazard and inconsistent, but we’ve now lost a lot of comments, some of which may be treasured.
There are other social integration issues. Sharing to Facebook, for example, shares a link to the photo in a way that looks really awkward. There is confusion about what happens to location information if you share the photo. Most annoying, however, is that the link that you can get for a photo doesn’t actually link to the photo, but to the page with the photo, so you can’t embed this image elsewhere.
The lightbox remains a bit of a problem. Photospheres, for example, don’t seem to be supported anymore, and I’m not sure what tool I can use to view them.
There is also no API. There is a hint of one with Drive integration, but it is clear that there is still a big gulf between what developers can do with Drive and what can be done with Photos. This continues to be an obscene regression from five years ago.
There are other nits, some of which escape me at the moment, but which largely turn into inconveniences. I worry that people will rapidly run into them, be turned off by the service, and not return. But this is an even more realistic possibility when facing some of the more major problems.Beyond the Nitpics
Beyond these little things are other “little” irritants that really add up to point out major flaws in this system. And these are small enough that they are unlikely to ever get fixed… yet big enough to become major inconveniences when actually trying to use the system.
For example, although you can now create a story by seeding it with images to use, the editor itself remains unchanged. You still can’t add or fix locations. You’re still limited to a sort-of-chronological presentation. You can’t add narration. These are all major problems that existed with stories before - and they still largely exist. Stories are also limited to pictures within a 31 day period. Why would you want to tell a longer story? How about posting birthday or “first day of school” pictures for your child growing up?
Similarly, movie editing is practically unchanged from its previous incarnation, and still missing features. I’m glad to see it is available on more platforms now, but it remains grossly underpowered, even for a simple editor. For example, while it is possible to create a new movie with clips and photos, it isn’t possible to add photos to an existing movie. You can remove segments, but not change their length. You can add a title, but not add credits, interstitial text, or end credits. (And maybe I’m dense, but it really wasn’t clear what the buttons did when I first tried it.)
Speaking of movies, Photos maintains the bizarreness that you can have videos in Photos or YouTube - but can’t easily move them between the two. A problem that has existed for nearly five years now, with no good resolution in sight. To be honest - this is ridiculous.
Still, I guess mobile users should be happy with what they get. Both of these features remain missing from the desktop version. The desktop does let you create albums… but this leads us into a whole batch of new problems.
The old editor had horrible album management - and this remains pretty much unchanged in the new version. Shared albums (so families can contribute vacation photos, for example) are still gone, although the shared hangout albums appear to remain. Albums are now lumped with movies and stories as “collections” of things and are arranged in more or less chronological order. There is no way to search for the title of an album, no way to organize them in some logical fashion, and they don’t appear as part of the magical search results (although the album name may be used to return the contents, you have no way to know thats why).
Even worse, the contents of your albums are no longer manageable. If you put something in the album… you’re stuck. You can’t change the order of the photos in the album… you can’t pick a cover photo… you can’t even delete a photo from an album. You can add more photos… or delete the album. This is taking lack of control to an almost absurd level.All About (the appearance of) Control
This “lack of control” is a recurring point. So much, that I’m tempted to make a much larger post about it when I have time (ha!). But let me say a very few words about it now.
Over and over - Photos has taken the position that it can do some things to make our photo organization better, easier, and faster. And it does a pretty good job of that, to be honest.
The problem is that often we want to tweak it just a little… or fix the little things it does wrong. Give our personal touch to something. And that is just too much for Photos. Even where it does give us some appearance of control, with the editor or with any of the collections, it continues to fail to let us do the things we feel we need to do.
This is why Photos ultimately feels lacking - it lands us in the uncanny valley
where things are close… but not close enough.Curmudgeon’s Conclusion
I’ll use Photos. There is enough about it that I like that I’m not driven away… but in one week, it has already lost its shiny feel.
It gives me only one thing that I feel is a real improvement over the previous version - speed.
As for the rest? Meh. The search is nice, and an improvement over the previous version, but not powerful enough yet for me to make substantial use of it except to show it off. Stories and movies are largely unchanged and lacking. Management is largely unchanged. Other components, such as albums, are a major step backwards.
So while it is a good system overall… it lacks the details that would make it an awesome system.
Perhaps it will get true first class integration with Drive and Google+. Perhaps even an API! (Lot’s of thoughts about what I would love here.) Maybe it will get tags, but I doubt it (but wouldn’t it be awesome if it could get tags it can learn from?).
But, as with many Google services recently, they won’t come quickly. +Anil Sabharwal
and his team deserve a lot of credit for getting Photos to where they are now - but they need to keep going. They need to deliver fixes to Photos over the next few weeks, and then deliver continuous improvements over the next weeks and months. We can’t wait two (more) years for some of these changes… only to see them come as part of a complete overhaul (again)... and Google can’t really afford to re-do the entire photo system every two years and then sit on their laurels in the interim.
Google has a credibility problem as a whole, which is beyond the scope of this post. Photos, however, does little to fix that problem. Seeing continuous updates… showing people that this is a real service that provides real value to everyone
(including pros and amateurs, not just casual users)... opening the platform to allow developers to do cool things on top of a powerful base. These things, together, will help improve Google’s reputation. And hopefully Anil and the team will do this.
As for these photos? They have nothing to do with the post, except they were from my post-I/O trip to Yosemite. They’re what the new Photos service is all about - helping preserve, enhance, and share memories.