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

Google Photos "High quality" vs "Original": What's the difference and should you care
What happens to your pictures in Google Photos when you choose "High quality," instead of "Original?"

Google Photos is a very convenient free 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.

How does Google Photos work?

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.

What happens to smaller images (under 16 MP)?

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:

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:

100% crop

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.

622% crop

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:

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.

What happens to images larger than 16 MP?

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:

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:

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.

What happens to RAW photos?

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 an 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). 

100% crop

Is Google Photos free? 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 with a 20+ MP sensor, 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.


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