Around 200 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day, this is an astonishing number, albeit one that is unsurprising considering the user base. I recently added 83 more from my DSLR to Facebook as well as Picasa (for posting on Google+) and I noticed startling differences in the final photo quality between the platforms. The lack of gloss and picture impact in the Facebook versions was a bit unsettling, they looked muted and lifeless by comparison. In this article, I attempt to figure out what’s happening to photo quality and why.
First off, we need to establish just how different the photos are. I uploaded the exact same picture to each platform, then downloaded the final result. Picasa does not have an option to control picture quality on upload (it assumes you want the full quality, but does resize the picture down to 2048px on the long side). Facebook has a ‘NORMAL’ image quality setting and a ‘HIGH QUALITY’ image setting, which it warns you may take up to 10X as long to upload. I uploaded one of each and downloaded the resulting picture from each to compare. I apologise in advance for the wide picture, but it’s required to properly show the differences in their original state. Note that these pictures are as seen in your browser (which is the most common use-case scenario).
As we can see, the transition from the camera original (which was saved in JPEG) to a web-ready output from Photoshop, at a respectable 85% quality is minor. There is less colour information (some of the highlights are blown out through my ham-fisted adjustments). Now, once uploaded to Picasa, there are imperceptible differences, as the numbers below will demonstrate. However, once in Facebook, we can see a substantial reduction in picture quality, both on the high and normal settings. Random rainbow colour artifacts begin to appear in what were plain white areas. Gray gradients go from smooth to choppy, and general sharpness, contrast and detail is lost. It basically looks like vomit that a crowd of people has then walked through. If you’re wondering why this happens, this is a great explanation on JPEG compression and it’s effects.
So we’ve established Facebook photos butcher the quality. But why? The answer is in the scale of things, Facebook’s servers house around 100 billion photos, an extraordinary amount and by far the largest photo repository in the world, thus any reduction in photo quality (and hence storage size) means reduced storage cost. Just how much storage saving are we talking about? This is an easy one, we just need to compare the sizes of the pictures:
- Original 4,345KB (4928 x 3264 – 16MP)
- Photoshop 85% 153KB (1280×720 – 1MP)
- Picasa 153KB (1280×720 – 1MP)
- Facebook ‘High Quality’ 42KB (720×405 – 0.3MP)
- Facebook ‘Normal’ 42KB (720×405 – 0.3MP)
That’s nearly less than 1/4 the storage used by the photo on Picasa (or compared to the web-ready Photoshop output)! In short, without crunching the numbers, Facebook has just reduced their photo storage/serving costs by 72% instantly, making the accountants happy. Important to note two things: Firstly, Picasa doesn’t resize down the picture unless it’s > 2048px on the long side. The picture from Picasa is identical to the one from Photoshop. Secondly, Facebook’s ‘High’ and ‘Normal’ settings do not alter the picture size, meaning that they both take an equal amount of time to load in your browser, even AS the Normal setting is visibly poorer in quality. High Quality Setting, what are you good for?
The next logical question of course is, does it really matter? It depends. Facebook knows two things very well. The first is that the majority of photos people take are of low-quality anyway. Either on mobile device cameras, in poorly-lit rooms, fleeting duck-face images for a limited attention span or on a tiny 3.5″ mobile screen, hardly the photos you admire the details within at length. If you are a photographer who believes in quality over quantity and you spend days tweaking and adjusting, getting the photo perfect, only for Facebook to smash your pride and joy into a mish-mash of Crayola, it can be disheartening.
Facebook also realises that people are willing to put up with poor decisions because there is simply no alternative as substantial as it’s own platform. Most people will complain about privacy issues or UI changes, then still return and feed more information in. I post photos to both G+ and Facebook simultaneously, though I would like to be done forever with the latter. I generally include links within the picture descriptions to the Picasa gallery indicating it’s of higher picture quality.
Having said that, I would highly recommend anybody to upload pictures they wish to keep the quality high for to Picasa (or via G+), or alternatively Flickr. These are your memories, and they deserve better than that. Already, G+ is being known as a superb platform for photo sharing, with it’s unlimited storage space, slick galleries and seamless integration. Personally, I’d recommend having a look at the work of world-class photographers there, such as Trey Ratcliff, Lisa Bettany or Thomas Hawk. There are also recommended lists here and here.
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