Managing a personal library of 35,000 digital photos is no small chore.
I can’t help but think computers ought to do a better job of helping me organize and catalog these images. In the past, I’ve used iPhoto (which slowed to a crawl), Aperture (now abandoned by Apple), and Lightroom (where I could never seem to find what I wanted when I wanted it).
Not long ago, Apple released Photos, a more powerful photo organizer. Photos makes every picture you’ve ever taken available across all your Apple devices. It does a fine job of importing photos and organizing them by date and location info. It does a fair job of learning faces and finding photos of people who matter. And if you’re obsessive about tagging photos as you enter them, its search feature is sheer magic.
Frankly, though, manually tagging photos — especially when you have several thousand to deal with — is a time- and labor-intensive task (especially since the Photos tagging interface is awkward and fiddly to use). In the age of self-driving cars and artificial intelligence, tagging seems like something the computer should be smart enough to be doing for me.
Which brings me to Google Photos. As an experiment, I fed the new Google photos app several thousand pictures. It gobbled them right up, quickly organizing them into a timeline — but it also applied Google’s core technology — search — to make my photos more accessible than ever.
Search for “water,” and Google Photos presents me with every photo of a beach or lake or mountain stream or waterfall in my collection. (You can search for those keywords, too, and see only beaches, lakes, mountain streams, or waterfalls.) It identified the faces of people I take lots of pictures of (Clyde, the nephews, our families), and, while it doesn’t know those people by name, it can reliably find every photo of a given face in my collection — instantly.
Want to see only photos featuring the color red? Want to see pictures of donuts? (Or pizza? Or food in general?) Statues? Churches? Photos shot in December of any year? Google Photos can juggle thousands of images and pull exactly what you’re looking for.
And — there’s more. In the background, your personal robotic Photo Assistant is constantly on the lookout for crafts it can fashion out of your digital raw materials. When it saw I had taken a series of shots of a young woman in a prom dress in a fountain, it created an animation based on those images (the featured image included with this post) and surprised me with it.
What’s more: my assistant noticed triplets of photos — three images of the same scene, all at different exposures — and fashioned them into high dynamic range images like this one:
Last night, Google even noticed some photos I had taken in Cambodia years ago could be pieced together in to a panorama:
The assistant’s work doesn’t always delight me — I don’t care for most of the “enhanced photos” it produces with filters and vignettes — but the Photo Assistant feature does make for an interesting way to stumble across long-forgotten photos from my own collection and see them in a new light.
By contrast: if I’m careful to tag every beach photo with the word “beach,” Apple Photos will dutifully serve ’em up when I search for them — but without hours and hours of tagging, Apple photos pretty much restricts me to searching by date, location, or face. I can share Apple Photos with others — but it’s neither easy nor fun to do so. In short, Apple Photos is adequate for the task at hand — but the app never feels magical in the sense that Google Photos feels magical.
Of course, there’s this: today, Google says, “We don’t look at or allow others to look at your photos.” But Terms of Service change — so how long will it be before Google starts using my photos (or even just metadata from my photos) to serve me targeted ads? I’m not paying for Google Photos — which means I’m the product — or I will be, at some point. Will my photos someday be leveraged in ads without my knowledge (something Facebook already does, by the way)? Or will Google one day decide that it’s no longer in the photo business and kill the Photos app (the way it killed off my beloved Google Reader app)?
You don’t know. You can never know. And that’s the rub. Google Photos is more magical, easier to use, and superior in pretty much every way to Apple Photos.
Apple’s only advantage is that Apple isn’t Google.