Facebook Photo Quality Examined – High Quality?

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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7 thoughts on “Facebook Photo Quality Examined – High Quality?

  1. I don’t know how to put this. Because I don’t want it to look like another commercial link toward a product one wants to sell.
    The last years I have seen many complaints from users about photo quality degrading when uploaded to Facebook. As a photographer, I must say that I’ve been spending a lot of time to analyze the compression algorithms and how to prepare a photo in order to reach best results on Facebook. I personally agree with Facebook’s policy regarding the “quality vs. bandwidth”. If you are in a part of the globe where bandwidth is not an issue you can almost not imagine what would be to get back on your old modem speed. And still this is the case for many FB users.
    Nevertheless, we all have to admit that Facebook offers a great visibility. But it could turn against us if the quality degrades so much that the photo brings eventually a bad image. So I started thinking about a project that would allow users to upload photos with a personalized text and a caption including an URL to the same photo on a site that supports higher quality such as Flickr, 500px, 1x, etc. I have finally started a development on a plugin that allows us basically to do next:
    1. Upload the photos in higher quality on Flickr.
    2. Upload the photos to Facebook.
    3. Add the user’s caption to Facebook, along with a direct URL to the Flickr photo.
    If you are somebody that uploads one photo at the time, don’t read any further. You can do this manually. But what if you are uploading many photos at the time?
    This Lightroom plugin does the work for you. For more details and installation instructions, see here: http://shootix.net/plugins
    I appreciate your gentle and constructive feedback. If you don’t like Lightroom, it makes no sense to criticize it here, I can’t help that.
    An example is sometimes worth a thousand words. See here what it can provide as result: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.693119124077489.1073741836.171298276259579&type=1

  2. Just like to point out that Picasa doesn’t resize the picture unless you tell it to. You can upload images of over 2048 and it will store the original, this will count towards your 1Gb storage limit however. You must also upload them using the desktop software and specifically change the default upload size to ‘Original size’ under Options > Google+ Photos.

    If you upload them via the web interface, or upload them to G+ then they will be scaled down.

  3. I agree, the majority of Facebook users wouldn’t notice or care about the photo quality. However, as a Facebook user for business I find it extremely frustrating. No matter what I attempt, it’s always ending with a blurry logo (even if I use exact size measurements and PNG-24 format) and a blurred Facebook cover! Not great really.

    Maybe they ought to rethink compressing the business pages, and leave the personal accounts as they are – where people are not so frustrated by this.

    1. Yeah, there’s something going on there – are you uploading at 960px wide? That’s the resolution it displays photos at, even IF ‘high quality is ticked.

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