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Google Photos "High quality" vs "Original": What's the difference and should you care

Posted: , by Milen Y.

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Google Photos "High quality" vs "Original": What's the difference and should you care

Google Photos is a very convenient platform that lets you share all your photos, and whatever other types of images, between all your devices. And we do mean all your images, because Google Photos offers every one of its users unlimited cloud storage. But there's a catch, a small one, but a catch nonetheless.

Unlimited storage is available to everyone, but the free tier lets you upload only “High quality” images, while “Original quality” is reserved for either paid subscribers and/or Google Pixel owners.

If you haven't paid attention to the prompts Google Photos displays when you install it on a new device, or haven't checked the app's settings, you may have even missed this distinction between quality options for your uploads.

So, with this in mind, we decided to test just how high quality the “High quality” setting is, and what happens when you upload really big files and RAW images on Google Photos.

First thing's first, let's see what Google has to say about both quality settings:

High quality:

  • Unlimited free storage
  • Photos are compressed to save space. If a photo is larger than 16 MP, it will be resized to 16 MP.
  • Videos higher than 1080p will be resized to high-definition 1080p. A video with 1080p or less will look close to the original.

Original quality:

  • Limited free storage (15GB)
  • All photos and videos are stored in the same resolution that you took them.
  • Recommended for photos that have more than 16MP and videos with more than 1080p.

Starting out (relatively) small


Let's start out with a 12 MP photo from the Galaxy S8 and use the “High quality” setting. The image won't be resized, but let's see whether it undergos any noticeable and/or destructive compression:

Original image (4032 x 3024 = 12.19 MP; 16.7 MB)
Google Photos “High quality” (4032 x 3024 = 12.19 MP; 1.05 MB)

Original image (4032 x 3024 = 12.19 MP; 16.7 MB)

Google Photos “High quality” (4032 x 3024 = 12.19 MP; 1.05 MB)



As you can see, the photo itself has not been reduced in size, but the file size has been crunched down from over 16 MB, all the way down to almost a megabyte! And seemingly at no cost at all! It's almost like magic, but it just comes down to Google's clever image compression algorithms. The source file was as large as it was, because the shot was taken using Samsung's "Selective Focus" feature, which is ideal for close-ups such as this one. Google Photos was able to reduce the file's size so much, because a large portion of the image is out of focus, which allows for a lot more compression to be done in the areas that are lacking in detail.

As much as we don't like pixel peeping, it will be necessary in this case, as we have to determine the extent of the compression. So, let's see what happens when we examine these 100% crops of both images:

Original image
Google Photos 'High Quality'
Original image Google Photos 'High Quality'

It just boggles the mind how the file size of the image can be reduced so much without any noticeable loss of detail, even when examining parts of it up close.

Just for the heck of it, let's delve even deeper and see at what point a difference in quality becomes apparent.

Original image
Google Photos 'High Quality'
Original image Google Photos 'High Quality'

This part of the photo was blown-up to 622%! Changes don't become noticeable until you zoom in to about 500%. You will never, ever, examine any of your photos from this up close.

Let's give it another try, again from the S8:

Original image (3024 x 4032 = 12.19 MP; 7 MB)
Google Photos 'High quality' (2268 x 3024 = 6.86 MP; 2.68 MB)

Original image (3024 x 4032 = 12.19 MP; 7 MB)

Google Photos 'High quality' (2268 x 3024 = 6.86 MP; 2.68 MB)



Interestingly, in this particular case, although the photo was the same resolution as before, Google Photos decided to not only reduce the size of the file, but scale down the image as well. After the compression, we are left with an image with a resolution of 2268 x 3024, which is roughly equivalent to 7 MP, down from the original 12 MP. Ouch. It doesn't look bad or anything, but this seemingly per-photo type of compression may not be to the liking of some people out there (I can vouch for this). We tried running this particular image through Google Photos twice and the results were identical both times.

Crossing the boundary


Photos that don't go over the 16 MP come out of the ordeal mostly unscathed, but let's see what happens to larger shots that pack more detail and information than the ones above. This one was taken with the Huawei P10, which is equipped with a 20MP, Leica-branded, monochrome camera:

Original image (3840 x 5120 = 19.66 MP; 8 MB)
Google Photos 'High quality' (3464 x 4618 = 16 MP; 3.95 MB)

Original image (3840 x 5120 = 19.66 MP; 8 MB)

Google Photos 'High quality' (3464 x 4618 = 16 MP; 3.95 MB)



This time around, the photo was scaled down to 16MP, but as far as compression goes, the size of the file was not reduced as drastically as before. Apart from the image itself becoming smaller after in the end, it exhibits no discernible loss of detail due to compression.

Let's see what happens to another shot from P10's capable monochrome camera:

Original image (3840 x 5120 = 19.66 MP; 9.19 MB)
Google Photos 'High quality' (3464 x 4618 = 16 MP; 4.93 MB)

Original image (3840 x 5120 = 19.66 MP; 9.19 MB)

Google Photos 'High quality' (3464 x 4618 = 16 MP; 4.93 MB)



Same story, photo was resized to fit 16 MP limit, still looks good. However, when dealing with larger than 16 MP images, Google Photos seemingly also changes their aspect ratio ever so slightly. For example, the photo above was originally shot in a standard aspect ratio of 4:3 (or 1.33:1), but after the compression, we ended up with an image that's slightly wider and has a non-standard aspect ratio. It is barely noticeable, but it's something that happens.

But let's consider one more scenario that may concern some of you out there – what happens to RAW files when you use the “High quality” setting?

While the image size limitations are still in force when dealing with RAW images, even if they are smaller than 16 MP, they'll still get compressed and converted to regular JPEGs, meaning that all that sensor image data goes down the drain. If your phone is capable of it, or if you shoot RAW on your dedicated camera, we'd advise against relying on the “High quality” setting for storing your photos.

I tried it with a 23 MB DNG file from the Huawei P10 and ended up with a 820 KB JPEG! Although the resolution remained the same, the compression was this time around a lot more noticeable. Not only the overall sharpness of the image was affected negatively, but the colors were dulled in the process as well (likely due to how Google Photos handles color profiles). 

Original RAW image
After Google Photos
Original RAW image After Google Photos

Original RAW image
After Google Photos
Original RAW image After Google Photos

100% crop


Is free good enough?


Bottom line is, if you're short on space and are mainly storing photos that you took with your phone, you are mostly A-OK to use the “High quality” setting. You will never, ever, examine any of your photos so up close as to tell the difference between the original and compressed versions. However, as we saw in one of the examples, Google Photos sometimes scales down even images that fit within the limitations of the free tier. Although it did this to only one of the images, it's still something to keep in mind.

Further, since most smartphone cameras have 12 MP or 16 MP sensors, the limitations of Google's free unlimited storage do not seem all that imposing. However, if you own a Sony smartphone, for example, or are using the platform to store images from your dedicated camera, you may want to think twice before relying on “High quality” and opt for “Original” instead. This applies full force if you're storing RAW image files.

Here is a Google Drive link to some of the photos we used in this test.

20 Comments
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posted on 12 May 2017, 03:50

1. AmashAziz (Posts: 1479; Member since: 30 Jun 2014)


10 seconds ago.....

posted on 12 May 2017, 04:04

2. mercorp (Posts: 1043; Member since: 28 Jan 2012)


Just simply downsize the resolution you shoot to below 16mp. BTW what happens to videos and images not shot from the camera when uploaded at free price tier to google photos?

posted on 12 May 2017, 04:11 2

3. Milen_Y (Posts: 36; Member since: 09 Jun 2016)


We might test what happens to video files further down the line. All images — be it photos from your smartphone or dedicated camera, wallpapers, scans, or whatever else — are treated the same way by Google Photos. "High quality" sees them resized and compressed to fit within the free tier's limitations, while "Original" preserves the images as they are.

posted on 12 May 2017, 04:58 2

5. vincelongman (Posts: 5068; Member since: 10 Feb 2013)


Please compared videos
I'm curious if the difference will be worse, I think it probably will be

posted on 12 May 2017, 05:46

8. Milen_Y (Posts: 36; Member since: 09 Jun 2016)


We are considering it.

posted on 15 May 2017, 06:03

19. civicsr2cool (Posts: 118; Member since: 19 Oct 2016)


it doesnt matter what resolution you shoot your pictures or videos at, everything is compressed.

posted on 12 May 2017, 04:57 1

4. vincelongman (Posts: 5068; Member since: 10 Feb 2013)


One of the unrated benefits of the Pixel
All photos/videos uploaded from a Pixel are saved at OG quality and don't count towards storage used

Even if I upgrade to a S9, iPhone 9, etc ... I'll keep my Pixel so I can upload photos/videos at OG quality without running out of space

posted on 12 May 2017, 05:23

6. lallolu (Posts: 560; Member since: 18 Sep 2012)


Does one loose the free storage if one sold the Pixel later on?
Is the free unlimited storage only for the first owner of the phone or a new owner will also get it?

posted on 12 May 2017, 05:40 1

7. Milen_Y (Posts: 36; Member since: 09 Jun 2016)


All images and videos that you've already backed up on Google Photos from your Pixel will retain their original size and quality and won't count against your storage quota in the future. However, any new photos/videos that you take on your new device will count against the quota and will undergo compression if you choose to stick with the "High quality" option.

posted on 12 May 2017, 07:29 1

10. vincelongman (Posts: 5068; Member since: 10 Feb 2013)


Yep
But you transfer and upload them using your Pixel
Then they will be OG quality and wont count against the quota

posted on 12 May 2017, 08:57

12. Milen_Y (Posts: 36; Member since: 09 Jun 2016)


That's right, although most people are not likely going to keep their Pixel around just to take advantage of this. Most people will get rid of their old phone after they buy a new one.

posted on 12 May 2017, 10:16

13. avalon2105 (Posts: 311; Member since: 12 Jul 2014)


One question about Pixels and "unlimited storage". What happens if I connect my external HDD to Pixel phone over the OTG cable? Will it start uploading my collection of stored anime at original quality or will it mess it up? For some reason Google photos destroyed all my videos when uploading at "High Quality" even though some videos were 720p or even 480p.

posted on 12 May 2017, 07:22

9. lyndon420 (Posts: 5000; Member since: 11 Jul 2012)


Don't forget Nexus users...we also get unlimited storage at original sizing.

posted on 12 May 2017, 07:30 1

11. vincelongman (Posts: 5068; Member since: 10 Feb 2013)


Nope, not at original quality
Only the Pixels get unlimited storage at original quality

posted on 12 May 2017, 11:20

14. Styles123 (Posts: 1; Member since: 12 May 2017)


Did you test if is there a noticable difference between original and high quality when you print pictures at at different sizes (4X6, 8X10 etc)?

posted on 13 May 2017, 03:37

17. Milen_Y (Posts: 36; Member since: 09 Jun 2016)


No, but I'd think that 12 MP/16 MP photos would be OK for printing in smaller sizes. Google even says that compressed 16 MP shots are good for printing in sizes up to 24x16, although I'd take that with a grain of salt.

posted on 12 May 2017, 20:11 1

15. Zylam (Posts: 1120; Member since: 20 Oct 2010)


Nice, thanks a lot for this test. I always wondered what happened to the quality of the photos when they went through the Google photos process.

posted on 12 May 2017, 21:47 1

16. gagatau (Posts: 1; Member since: 12 May 2017)


Great article Milen! I spotted the cathedral of Varna on one of the photos, he-he!

posted on 14 May 2017, 15:12

18. Shamoy (Posts: 96; Member since: 28 Dec 2013)


I just pay $10 a month for 1TB storage so it doesn't phase me to go original quality.

posted on 05 Jun 2017, 18:25

20. buccob (Posts: 2732; Member since: 19 Jun 2012)


It's for articles like this that I visit this site every day....

Thanks! great info

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