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In-depth look at Google+ photo update with the team that designed it

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The new Google Plus automatically adjusts the layout to your screen size but you can manually revert to a one- or two-column version if you prefer.

At its I/O developers conference a couple of days ago Google introduced various updates to its Google+ social networking platform. The main layout has changed and in the photo section "highlight photos" are selected and presented automatically, images are being "auto-enhanced" and when you upload a series of shots Google+ can automatically stitch panoramas, create an animation find the best facial expressions in group shots, similar to the features we have seen on some recent high-end smartphones.

Google+ has a whole new design, one that will change both how you can interact with the 190+ million active users of Google's social service, and how you can share your photos with them. This is no small update: Google lists 41 changes in all, starting with the fundamental design - which now appears more like the card-style layout of Pinterest, with a mutli-column Stream design and support for high-resolution images.

The emphasis on reimagining its software is consistent with this year's Google I/O theme; Google's annual developer conference focused on software and services, not hardware.  Still, it's easy to see how the new design dovetails with Google's overall strategy: the new Stream layout is friendly for tablets, and the high-resolution images track with the company's Chromebook Pixel, a laptop running Google's Web-centric Chrome OS that was released earlier this year for $1,300.

In fact, those of us who view Google's motives through the rose-colored lens of a camera might go so far as to say that this move merely underscores the company's active efforts to grow the role of photos in its services.  In so doing, Google sets its sights squarely on the domain of Facebook, the reigning champion of social image sharing. Facebook also took steps to shift the role of photos, as seen in last month's release of its Facebook Home app; the app is designed around images, and transforms how you view your Facebook updates and images on Android phones.

Rather than take over your home screen, Google instead provides a clean design that can be flexible in its emphasis on either text or images. Images can now run two columns, though, giving them added prominence - a feature that photographers using the service are sure to appreciate. Furthermore, Google has added a slew of editing features that go lightyears beyond what it had already integrated based on its Picnik acquisition.

Editing so often marks the difference between an image you've “made” and an image you've “taken.” The updates in Google+ reflect the company's acquisition of Nik Software last year; the new auto enhancement and auto awesome features comes from Nik's intelligence coupled with the power of Google's back-end servers and its Knowledge Graph, its previously text-centric database of 570 million people, places, and things, and 18 billion facts.

Why all the emphasis on pretty photos? In our increasingly visual world, the photo, not the text, tells the story. What better way to do so than via social media, which gains extra prominence via the proliferaiton of high-resolution smartphones and tools like Google's own Chromebook Pixel, which packs 2,560 x 1,700 pixel, 239 pixels per inch resolution (that tops Apple's so-called Retina Display on the MacBook Pro). Given the hardware support, it's only natural that Google would try to push the imaging along.

“This is just the beginning. I hope to see a 10x improvement in the year,” says Matt Steiner, one of the product managers behind the Google+ photo features.  “We built it for everyone, everyday consumers who take pictures all the way to photo enthusiasts.”

Inside the new features

The main navigation is now up top, instead of a bar flush-left.  Each post appears more like a single entry of info, and you can flip them around for more related info, or make them bigger as needed. You can opt for one, two, or three columns (though on my own Google+ page, I only saw layouts for one and two columns at the moment). Images are given more prominence, but it also means that if you don't have an image in your post, it looks out-of-place, too. Just another way that Google continues to emphasize the role of images.

Hashtags are more automated now, too. They appear at the upper right, and Google will add up to three hashtags based on what it understands of the context of the post.

To upload new images, you can either do so as if you're starting a new post to share, or you can select photos from the left navigation panel. Once uploaded, your images are organized by the date they were captured, or by album name.

The main photos page still lets you drill down to see what's newly-uploaded, but now has a highlights tab that shows Google's picks of the best images from a large batch you've uploaded. Google does a two-pass look at your images, pulling those that are either blurry or over- or under-exposed. “Once eliminated, we try to pick a representative set of photos,” says Steiner.

 A click on the highlight tab shows those of your images which Google likes most.

Drill down deeper to view an image in detail, and you'll see the image desktop lightbox has been completely redesigned. You can see EXIF info to the right, in the main view, and navigate around your option by zooming in, viewing, sharing, editing, or tagging people. A slideshow mode kicks images into full-screen. Buried under the “More” button is an add-to-album option, and download option. The editor in this view remains unchanged; it's the existing editor from the Picnik acquisition.

Upon uploading, each image gets altered and changed based on the context of the photo. Google says it tries to be “fairly subtle” in the changes,  which impact global contrast, local tonal distribution, structure and detail, focus (via vignette adjustments), noise, skin softening, and more. The fixes examine the photo for context, but also rely on the EXIF data to find cues for adjustments. Much of Google's automation is based on sensing the context of the image. It can understand a concert based on the environment of the photo, even if it can't identify who is in the photo.

 The changes to the images applied by Google Plus are visible...
 ...but fairly subtle.

“We do a context-specific edit,” explains Steiner. “We figure out what's in the photo - this is the sky, the tree, these are people in front - and then we edit those in a context sensitive way. We selectively apply the right edits. We do different things for each photo.” Google understands, from its extensive “computer vision systems” backend (also known as a machine learning systems that have the horsepower and intelligence to identify what's in an image, what a building looks like versus a face versus a landscape.

In uploading to the Google cloud, the company can edit hundreds  of photos in real-time, at the same time. The edits are lossless and non-destructive, and 100 percent reversible. And 100 percent automatic - you don't have to do anything. You can later download an individual image, or export an entire auto-fixed album, and then continue using that image on your desktop.

The new auto features aren't limited to what you upload, either. You'll be able to see photos that other people take that you've been tagged in, or see photos uploaded to a Google+ event that you attended. Those images can get mixed in with your albums, and auto-enhanced accordingly.

To review Google's automatic enhancements, just open a newly-uploaded photo in the desktop lightbox. Mouse over an image, and if it's been enhanced, a sparkly icon will pop up noting that the image has been enhanced; tap that same icon to switch between your original or the enhanced version. Don't want the auto enhance on at all? Go to More>Auto Enhance to turn the feature on and off (or do so in google.com/settings/plus).

The "Enhanced" symbol in the top left corners indicates that this image has been "optimized" by the Google Plus algorithms. Click and hold the icon and you can see the original version.

If your photo has been Auto Awesome'd, you'll see one of five Awesome icons on the top of the photo: Mix, HDR, Pano, Smile, and Motion. This, too, can be disabled in the settings menu, if you so choose. But, there's no way to force apply any of these settings - everything is done automatically, and you have no choice or control over what settings changes Google applies. As a photographer, though, you still have the option to not allow downloads of your images - a boon that distinguishes Google+ from other services.

If you upload a series of images the Smile feature cobbles together the best facial expressions from multiple shots into a single image. Google will show you the images it drew from to create its single image, just in case you want to see the source shots. Panorama stitches together photos, while Motion turns images into an animation and HDR creates a High Dyanmic Range image from a series of bracketed shots.

Google says that over the coming months, it will begin applying its Auto Enhance and Auto Awesome filters to photographs already uploaded to its service. In the meantime, if you can't wait to try it out, you can apply the auto enhancements manually to an image, or re-upload it.

With all of these high-res images bouncing around, it's no wonder that Google upped it's free storage for all data (across Google+ and Drive) to 15GB. But for high-volume photographers 15GB will go in no time. Google does at least allow unlimited free storage for photos up to 2048 pixels. Tablet watchers will recognize that number: That image size matches that of the “Retina Display” resolution of the 9.7-inch iPad, but ironically is not enough to match the 2560  pixel resolution of Google's own Nexus 10 tablet. 

Sadly, Google doesn't yet offer auto-image rescaling to match that 2048 pixel resolution. That's an unfortunate omission, and is one that will likely still steer photographers back to a desktop-based workflow that involves some level of image edit and management before uploading images to Google+. And that defeats part of the goal of the auto processing this whole update offers.

Comments

Total comments: 35
iamdons
By iamdons (11 months ago)

Could be nice but if you are a long time Google Picasa user, joining Google+ screws other guests access to Picasa Web content. Also, since buying You Tube, my 30 videos are locked until I join Google+, a disappointing predicament. Flikr is looking better now.

I had always commended Google for providing free useful apps. But this is reminiscent of MS using it's operating system mite to automatically set you up in their other software (browser), etc.

0 upvotes
JackM
By JackM (11 months ago)

wait... some people are still using google+?

0 upvotes
JackM
By JackM (11 months ago)

wait... some people are still using google+?

0 upvotes
jbf
By jbf (11 months ago)

I tried to create an account and set it up yesterday. On the Photos page I saw no way to configure who I'm sharing photos with. I dug into the account settings and eventually found some options, but it was unclear what they did. I wanted to turn off auto enhancement and edit the photos myself. I couldn't figure out how to turn off auto enhancement or bring up a photo in an editor. If anyone can tell me how to do those three things (control sharing of photos and folders, turn off auto enhancement, edit photos in Google+), I'd appreciate the help. Thanks.

0 upvotes
autre_pensee
By autre_pensee (11 months ago)

Hey
As far as photo sharing, uploading/creating an album/photo does not share it, unless you do so from the "share" box on the main front page. Once your album is created, you will have to press "share" on the album view. This will bring up a popup or integrated window at the bottom of which you can select the circles who will have access to your pictures.
you can select or type
- individual contact (from one to a whole bunch)
- individual circles (set those up on the contacts page)
- "My circles" Which circles this includes is customizable under Account/Google+/"Personalize your circles" My account is not in english so I'm doing my best to translate into what i think it says, but you might have to look around a bit for this one. There you will be able to select and deselect specific circles to be part of "My circles"
- "Extended circles" Basically friends of friends, but also people who've added you and you have not added back I believe
- Public, just about anybody

0 upvotes
autre_pensee
By autre_pensee (11 months ago)

In account/google+ very bottom, you will also be able to turn on/off auto enhance and auto awesome etc.... as well as auto hashtags.

Hope this helps.

0 upvotes
jbf
By jbf (11 months ago)

Thanks for the info

0 upvotes
Royi Avital
By Royi Avital (11 months ago)

I don't like they removed the option to share only new uploaded photos to an exiting album.
I could do it easily in the previous version.

0 upvotes
Swingline
By Swingline (11 months ago)

Use to be that non-Google+ members were not permitted to comment on members' pictures and there was no comment by all Picasa users setting that a member could use. Is it still like that?

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (11 months ago)

Not sure but to be honest I am also not sure how anyone can not have a Google-account these days. If you want to use Gmail, Maps, Chrome, Drive or any other Google service you need an account (or for an Android phone of course) and I certainly don't know how I would survive without these amazing free tools. Basically if you've got a Gmail address you already got a Google+ account.

1 upvote
skytripper
By skytripper (11 months ago)

The next version of Google+ will feature automatic photo creation. No more cameras or SD cards to buy—just sign in to your Google+ account to see your latest photos without ever clicking a shutter button!

3 upvotes
Mescalamba
By Mescalamba (11 months ago)

How bad is compression of photos now?

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (11 months ago)

just try it out, looks good to me.

0 upvotes
informme
By informme (11 months ago)

Why nothing new for Picasa or how it can be used with G+? IMHO Picasa is the best photo product Google offers but it is ready for updating/enhancing.

1 upvote
speculatrix
By speculatrix (10 months ago)

I expect that Google will kill picasa as soon as G+ has feature parity even if those features don't actually let you work the way you would have done in picasa.

0 upvotes
Glenn72
By Glenn72 (11 months ago)

Pretty useless to those of us with Windows Phones, as there's still no way to upload photos to Google+. A shame, as Nokia Lumia's are capable of some great looking photos.

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
2 upvotes
speculatrix
By speculatrix (10 months ago)

I'm sorry for you and the two other people with Windows Phones.
Can you upload through Web interface on the old Picasa service?

0 upvotes
tompabes2
By tompabes2 (11 months ago)

IMO the target of the auto-enhance feature is the common user with no retouching skills, and that's why you can't customize it. I usually use Picasa, and I found that I don't want to spend hours retouching my pictures anymore, so what I usually do is click on auto contrast and auto colors on nearly every picture, and that's all. This is where the auto-enhance feature comes handy: for people who just want to add some "punch" to the images without losing much time, or no time at all in this case.

1 upvote
panoviews
By panoviews (11 months ago)

BTW, the filename isn't visible anymore in Google+ Photo. But the filename can be watermarked on the image with L/R Mogrify plugin for Lightroom. Using Lightroom it's also possible to export to Picasa (Google+) with a plugin from Jeffrey Friedl.

http://www.photographers-toolbox.com/products/lrmogrify2.php
http://regex.info/blog/lightroom-goodies/picasaweb

1 upvote
Dan Tong
By Dan Tong (11 months ago)

Google's User Interfaces, as witnessed by, the confused, frustrating GMail, and all of it's related programs and apps is one of the worst in the industry, in my opinion.

For example, making folders along the left side disappear with one of their interface upgrades, is one of the worst ideas I have come across. They really don't understand how people work, especially, how frustrating it is to first time users to not find what they are looking for.

Unlike Apple, which is or was driven by Jobs who was one of the few industry leaders who understood that User Interface, was extremely important, Google, I would guess, is led by persons who just don't understand this at all. What a shame. I hope they learn this lesson soon.

Still, I will probably check it out - I think I already joined up, because I can't stand Facebook. One of the problems is that Google makes it somewhat difficult to go from GMail into one of their other "Apps".

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 5 minutes after posting
3 upvotes
fuego6
By fuego6 (11 months ago)

Agree. and just when you get used to it looking / working one way, google will change it up on you for really no good reason... a real sin in the UI design world and something that Apple excels in!

2 upvotes
speculatrix
By speculatrix (10 months ago)

I think that the trend to hide all visual clues (disappearing menus, borderless buttons, overly subtle shading between window areas, etc) must be usability nightmare for the visually impaired.
I have good eyesight and I struggle at times.
I think that all UX designers should have a two-screen setup: one is their 27" pro S-IPS monitor, the other a 19" crappy TN at 1200x1024 so they can see what the majority end user will experience.

0 upvotes
HubertChen
By HubertChen (11 months ago)

A very interesting Article that I will share with my wife who is getting into photography on a mobile phone and she does not want heavy Photographic Workflow Apps on her beloved, but old MacBook. Thank you!

I linked your Article in the Article Series: http://www.dpreview.com/articles/3167814967/rfc-beating-photoshops-rent-forever-cloud-trap, hoping that I can help you a little getting more traffic.

Thanks again to bring this interesting development to our attention!

0 upvotes
Johnsonj
By Johnsonj (11 months ago)

Very nice. Now it should incorporate Snapseed's "Vintage" and "Retrolux" filters. That would be the bomb!

0 upvotes
AndyHWC
By AndyHWC (11 months ago)

they should make it available to non-google+ users. Why force users join Google+? Too many privacy settings to check. :(

1 upvote
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (11 months ago)

My guess is they would like something in return for providing the service.

9 upvotes
kbryd
By kbryd (11 months ago)

By default all your pictures are visible only to you, so no need to check any privacy settings. Google+ is not Facebook, so no need to worry.

5 upvotes
hlk
By hlk (11 months ago)

Because it's a feature of...Google+.

It's free, for heaven's sake.

6 upvotes
tompabes2
By tompabes2 (11 months ago)

Are you serious? It's like asking to be able to use facebook without having to open a facebook account!

5 upvotes
AndyHWC
By AndyHWC (11 months ago)

To clarify, I was a Google Picasa user, why don't they make this technology available to Picasa users? Once I enable Google+, who know what info from my profile will make available to the public? I was shocked when I found out my google search history was found in one of the work PC.

Picasaweb is still free, and if Google is really no evil, make it available to picasaweb. And stop asking Microsoft to kill its homebrew Youtube app because it strip out the ADVERSTISEMENT. Nothing is free.

2 upvotes
ksgant
By ksgant (11 months ago)

Seriously, you need to get a grip. And Microsoft knew exactly what it was doing when it made that Application for Windows 8. They KNEW it was against the terms of service to strip out advertisements, AND it also allowed downloading of the content, which is also another no-no. Now, Microsoft knew this, they had to of known this and they also knew that Google would issue a take-down. It was a trap, so they can continue on with their "Screwgled" campaign. It's interesting that they decided to drop this right before Google I/O also.

Weird though that you're asking Google to stop asking Microsoft to kill it's app because it strips out advertisement, then say "nothing is free". Exactly, nothing is free....which is why the advertisements are there!

1 upvote
AndyHWC
By AndyHWC (11 months ago)

Seriously, I am asking people to think why Microsoft has to build is own. Similar for iOS users, why they have to build a crappy Map program with TomTom? This is because Google is handicapping its competitors with its jewel apps like Goolge Map and Youtube.

It seems Apple had lost but if you think deeply, it was only a tie. Apple lost the reputation of its steller execution and implementation but Google has to give-in and give iOS users a full-feature Google Map that they serve. Same for Youtube for Windows Phone. Microsoft is simply force Google to give its users what they deserve. I will bet official Youtube app will come soon to WP8.

1 upvote
AndyHWC
By AndyHWC (11 months ago)

Interesting enough, you can search for image and web with Google Search. But you can't search for video, your only option is "Youtube" which it acquired a few years ago. This is a monoply tactic that Microsoft used in the late 90s and early 2000 to force smaller players out (e.g. Netscape). So excellent site like Vimeo never get the exposure that it derserves.

1 upvote
ksgant
By ksgant (11 months ago)

Interesting enough, you're wrong about searching for video. Case in point, I put in the search term "Closer NIN" for the video by Nine Inch Nails and searched in the "videos" tab for Google. First result was...on Vimeo! Which is NOT a Google owned video site. First off the bat, was something other than Youtube.

Also, why should Google have to make any app at all for Windows 8? How many YouTube apps does it have for OS X? Hmmm...none. Hey, how about for Windows 7? None. It's a web service.

And also, how is a search engine a monopoly like Microsoft had? You can live your entire life and never ever ever touch a Google product or search product if you choose. You're not forced to use Google. You can use Bing. You can use Duck Duck Go. Then again, I didn't feel that Microsoft truly had a monopoly back in the 90's as I was going fine with my Mac then, as now. A monopoly was AT&T when they had ALL the phone service in the 80's in the US. You didn't have a choice at all. THAT'S a monopoly

Comment edited 3 minutes after posting
1 upvote
ksgant
By ksgant (11 months ago)

I see now you were talking about a Youtube app for Windows PHONE. I doubt you'll see a Google made app for that, as they don't have unlimited resources and since WIndows Phone is such a tiny market, they're not going to waste resources on it. Microsoft KNEW that when they made that app that Google would have to issue a take-down. You realize this, yes? They specifically violated the Google terms-of-service on purpose. They wanted to rile up people like yourself, and it obvious worked. But you need to do a little more research into this, as I've shown you that you were wrong on your video search assumptions and you're wrong on the Google Maps issues for iOS. Google didn't have to "give in" to anything. Apple totally screwed up by dumping Google as their maps solution and Google could have let him hang in the wind. This was Apple's doing, not Google's. Their contract with Google was ending and they chose not to renew. This is all well documented and got Scott Forstall fired.

0 upvotes
Total comments: 35
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