Why the new Google server farm could displace Adobe Lightroom

Are you taking more photos per week in 2013 than 2012? How about 2010? My guess is yes. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a pro or just a casual photographer — it’s really crazy how much visual data we are all generating. It’s awesome, but I know you already have the same problem I do. It’s hard to organize and edit all those photos!

When I started taking photos with my iPhone a few years ago (I’ve since switched to Android) I started taking 10x more photos per week. And just wait till more and more people get Glass; the number of photos will go up another order of magnitude. I’m taking about 100 pictures a day with it, mostly because it’s so much more convenient than pulling out my mobile phone! And, if you’re a photographer, you’re always seeing awesome little compositions that you just can’t ignore. I’m COMPELLED to take a photo!

No matter how good your workflow, you just end up with an ever-growing burden of photos. Pros have this problem, but even we have workflow issues!

So, along comes this exciting new announcement from Google – that they are using their massive server farms to intelligently organize and post-process photos for us. It looks really smart! I can just upload (which is automatic if you turn that on with your mobile phone) dozens or hundreds of photos, and it automatically puts the best photos in the front. It knows which are the best by analyzing human aesthetics in other popular photos! If I don’t agree with its suggestions (or post-processing!) I can undo those bits and make them my own. But it’s like having an assistant that does all the organizing all for me – and an assistant that gets smarter all the time.

Displacing Lightroom?

I think if you’re a casual photographer, this is a compelling new option! It’s free. It’s smart. And it will only get smarter. I notice that one problem casual photographers have with Lightroom is that things still get unorganized. It takes a workflow (and perhaps an understanding of “collections” in LR) to select the best of the best photos. Beyond that, it takes a little while to post-process the photos. It’s a bit faster if you know how to make presets and stuff, but this is still beyond the ken of casual photographers. Not everyone is a hardcore Lightroom geek, no matter what Adobe might think. It’s still a scary product to a lot of people who are just looking for a way to organize all the new photos they are taking!

The other reason casual users will like it is because the photos are automatically backed up on the cloud. That feels good because you don’t have to worry about syncing up your home library on Lightroom with the cloud. It’s confusing! Adobe still hasn’t given users an easy way to do this. People are very scared to lose their photos in a hard drive crash, and hardly anyone (especially casual users) have a good backup situation in place.

For pros that do serious post-processing and hardcore organizing, I think Lightroom is still a smart way to organize your pro photos at home… But, for all those “other” casual photos that pros take… (see the next section!)

HDR Photo

Here’s a photo from yesterday’s photowalk. We are all taking tens of thousands of images… imagine a workflow where we all are letting Google choose the best to save us all hundreds of hours! Cool.

Why it’s good for Pros:

Your first instinct might be, “Hey, I’m a pro. I use Lightroom and have a pretty good workflow. I don’t need Google’s server farms to make any decisions for me!” Well, I think you are right for your “Pro” photos that you do for clients or for your own master portfolio. But, pros also take a lot of “casual” photos. These include quick photos of your family, mobile shots from your phone, fun party shots, a casual dinner with friends, and this sort of thing. Not every photo a pro takes is a serious major undertaking.

Now, if you’re like me, then you take TWO kinds of photos. You take serious portfolio pieces and you take casual family and walking-around photos. And then you kind of have a workflow for EACH kind of photo. And for me, this has been a problem (well until this Google announcement). I have ended up with a pile of family photos that sometimes builds up over time in my Lightroom because I just haven’t had the time to go figure out the best ones and post-process. I feel bad about it — but it is a real problem!

So, in the future, I’ll still keep my pro workflow for my portfolio pieces with my usual Rambo workflow using several Adobe products (if you want to see my whole workflow, see the newly updated HDR Tutorial). But for my family and casual shots, I’m just gonna upload them to the Google Cloud and have it pick out the best ones AND post-process them. This will 1) save me a ton of time 2) unburden my mind from tasks-left-undone and 3) quickly deliver pictures to my whole family, thus increasing the circle of happiness that keeps everything zen.

Bustling Beijing Getting this photo was not easy at all!I knew of this area of Beijing called the CBD, or Central Business District.  I notice that they have all these catchy names here, much like the building I took this photo from: "China Merchants Building."  At any rate, I had the driver circle the business district a few times so I could find a good angle.  We found one in this building, but did not know if we could take a photo from the top floor.  Woo went in first.  This might have been a mistake because during the shoot he admitted he had a dreadful fear of heights.  But he said it in such a charming British accent I thought it could have been my subconscious.We went up to the 32nd floor.  No windows no dice.  We then went to the 31st floor, but the confused secretary would not let us through.  Then we tried 30.  The secretary said yes and let us into a boardroom, but the angle was not right and the other offices were busy.  So we went to 29.The secretary on 29 was confused so I instructed Woo to tell her, firmly, "We are with the Government."- Trey RatcliffFind out what happened here at stuckincustoms.com.

Why it’s good for casual photographers:

I probably get more questions from casual photographers than pros about “How do I organize my photos?” It’s a big problem actually. The process of getting the photos off your devices, onto your computer, then selecting a few to share online is rather complex. Now I think the workflow is much simpler. There are still two situations:

1) Shooting with just a mobile phone (Android or iPhone): If you have Google+ activated and up and running, your photos can just go automatically to the cloud (private just to you by default). It will take your hundreds of photos, post-process them all, and then automatically choose the best ones and push them to the front of the album. It might make a few mistakes, but it’ll be pretty dang good. And if you don’t like the post-processing, you can undo it… But I have a feeling that people will really dig the automatic skin-softening. That is almost a universally adored feature!

2) Shooting with a compact camera or DSLR: The easiest path is just to download all the photos to a folder on your computer (put them in Lightroom, if you want) and then just upload the whole lot to Google+. Let Google figure out the best, or at least make a first pass at it. Give it a run a few times… It’s a drastic change to a workflow, yes, but I think this is a smart way to do it.

Here is a photo of us from last night – that’s me, Brian Matiash, and Thomas Hawk.
I think that the number of images we all take (especially “casual” images) will continue to increase as technology continues to build on itself.
- Photo by John E Klein

Why this is bad news for Adobe

I know some of you may disagree that “casual” photographers don’t use Lightroom, but I’ve talked to thousands of casual shooters that DO use Lightroom. It’s arguably the best way (hitherto) to organize your photos. All you need to do is take a few thousand photos a year, and you have yourself an organizational problem! There are millions of “casual” photographers that fit into this category. This is, in fact, Adobe’s biggest growth area — new photographers that are needing a way to organize and post-process their photos. They still continue to grow with pros, although you could make an argument here that that area is slowing because most pros already use Lightroom or Aperture! There’s just not a lot of room there.

But now, these casual shooters have a free way to organize and post-process their photos with this new Google server farm. Even better, the photos are backed up onto the cloud, which you don’t get with Lightroom. Google will be able to snipe away millions of users who would have previously chosen to go the Adobe route.

What I want to see next from Google:

I do like the post-processing already. I think it makes good decisions for the most part, but I’d like to have even more control on the web. I know they just bought Nik, so I can only assume that we’ll get some of those handy “Snapseed” controls soon, and then in the future, maybe some of the other cool effects from the whole Nik suite of tools. The other thing I’d like to see is the ability to upload RAW files. Once we can upload RAW files, then we’ll have even more power to post-process photos. Again, I don’t use the Google post-processing farm for my pro-portfolio pieces. I still do all that RAW processing locally.

It will be a long time before the web is fast enough for me to quickly upload a set of RAWs and process them all online. Pros will keep our hardcore processing local for quite a bit, I think. However, I am at peace with the idea that there are two kinds of photos in my life – those that need massive at-home client processing, and those that the web can organize and process for me.

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