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 f

  • Wow, you’re fast.

  • interesting, good food for thought!

  • I’m not sure that it’ll replace/displace Lightroom as your headline suggests, but rather I see this as more of a threat to consumer-oriented products such as Picasa, iPhoto, etc.

  • Jerry Nielsen

    I would agree with you Aaron, but it is something very interesting and just let time run to see what happens!

  • Since Adobe have reorganised their CS package to be subscription based, including a cloud server model, then I would assume that Adobe have already figured out this is the path forward for them as well. Could Google replace Adobe in the photo organising photo processing space? Absolutely, they can.

    I used to use the desktop software, Picasa, from Google and it kept my photos very well organised. I only moved off it last year when I bought a Mac and installed Aperture instead. I could easily be persuaded to go back to some form of Picasa and cloud. I just wish everything wasn’t tied into having to login to Google+ first to do it all.

    Most of Googles products feel like a data storage company to me anyway, much more than say being a social media company. The idea that they would store all of our photos for us makes a lot of sense. A real shame Yahoo doesn’t own a similar service with billions of photos already uploaded. That could be a real winner for them. (flickr)

    Compared to Google, Facebook and Yahoo, Adobe’s current market position for data storage of photos has a lot of catching up to do.

  • Brian Matiash

    Oh ye of little faith…

  • Hey Trey, i know you switched to Android as you mentioned. Are you using the Samsung Galaxy Nexus or the Nexus 4? i am a long time iPhone user but considering the switch this weekend.

  • Michael leonardi

    I would worry that Google would lose interest and shut it down.

  • Trey Ratcliff

    Samsung Galaxy Nexus for me

  • Trey Ratcliff

    Well – then you can worry that about any cloud storage service. I think you can probably agree it is a good idea to store your favorite images (private or public) on the web as well for backup? If you agree with that, then why not Google? They seem more stable than many others.

  • Bob Prangnell

    No, the problem is exclusive to free services like google. They are not a charity, and if they are not charging you for the service, they are making money (or trying to make money) from you some other way. If it doesn’t pan out they close it down. You only have to look at the huge list of services that goog has closed.

    Companies who charge for cloud storage have every incentive to continue. Some will be run badly and go bust, but that is completely different to goog deciding it can’t make enough advertising from you and pull the plug. I really don’t know why you shill for this company.

  • Tyroga

    No way would I want the server “intelligently selecting the best photos for me” when it comes to family snaps. I look through my old photo albums my family has kept forever and the most emotive images would never meet the ideals of human aesthetics. They all be put aside by the Google server if what you say is true.

    I worry about all the folks who will have many “pleasant” photos to look at, but the ones with feet cut off, heads not on the third and to the left but have a lot of emotion attached to them will be all but discarded. I feel sorry for the generations that follow, that will have mountains and mountains of images to sift through, looking for the one or two that mean more to them than the rest.

  • Casper van Zyl

    Sounds interesting,but if you don’t give it a go you will never know.

  • Adam Hoke

    I really think Google is on to something here, but I cannot see this replacing Lightroom as you said for those images you really want to take to the next level.

    Speaking of Lightroom, I was really intrigued by the recent video of “The Grid” with guest Tom Hogarty of the Lightroom team. Check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUKpSKsvndY. It is basically a teaser of a project they’re working on to allow mobile RAW editing. I think they have some interesting tid bits up their sleeves and will lay down the hand when the time is right. I hope they integrate web editing as well with this to complete the puzzle, but that is only a hope. Maybe Google should just buy out Adobe and take over the photography world! Although, I can’t imagine what the price tag would be for that transaction.

  • Trey you and I are usually pretty close to being on the same path but I don’t think you could be more wrong here. I think you have the best intentions and believe what you are saying but I have a question…Who the Hell wants to trust their photos to Google? You know Google? The company that sued (and won) the right to take any photo you or I put online (especially any photo you put on Google+ or Picassa or on other Google property) and use that to make money off their search results? They make money at our expense. And they track our data in ways we don’t even know. Dr. Eric Schmidt once said “If you don’t want us to steal your photos don’t put them online.” People are up in arms about Adobe having “control” over their images but man – you have no idea how much control you’re giving to Google if you buy into this. Their TOS aren’t very photographer-freindly. And the “autotune” feature is going to be a deal-breaker for many. At least they should make the default off.

    I think that if you tailor your meaning of casual photographers to be mom and pop who are shooting vacation photos, this might be more likely a good solution, but photographers who are serious enough to own Lightroom are not likely to go for this. There are other cloud solutions that I think are more viable. iCloud, SkyDrive and Mosaic Archive all offer some sort of very low cost or free storage.

  • Andre


    I personally use Lightroom and Photoshop but NOT to keep
    track and organizing my pictures. I download them with Lightroom in a
    folder with the date. Then I open Photoshop’s little brother Photoshop
    Elements which I use ONLY to organize and never for adjustments. I am
    quite happy with it is keeping track of my 180.000 + pictures in my system.
    it reads and shows RAW and, very important allow cross tabbing of
    images, meaning one single image can have multiple different tabs. One
    is also able to make albums and tab categories and subcategories. The
    only thing which is a bit annoying is that one is not able to search for
    tags, this is especially annoying if there are nested with sub-tabs.
    I do not quite like Google as, if they are good, they are a bit too invasive with the tendency of taking over. Thus, I have to admit, I am a bit prejudiced, neither do I like cloud as I prefer having everything on my personal system.

  • Andrea Boyle

    Love ya, Trey, and all you have done to promote my favorite past time but I am closing in on age 60 and love having my own control over all my photos. I get 1-2 really good shooting sessions a week, so Lightroom is great. I have resisted Photoshop CC because, well, it is cloud driven and subscription driven. I am near retirement and soon will be counting my dollars like many around me. Local colleges in my area have already dropped all photoshop classes from their curriculum because younger shooters are shooting on phones and uploading to whatever and using apps. They are not using DSLRs and the like…Don’t get me wrong…I have an i-Phone 5 and too many photo apps to count, but I don’t and probably won’t buy into the “cloud” concept until it is the last thing on earth (or in the sky) to consider.

  • In the not too distant future, Google will just keep the best photo for a particular time and place, and it won’t necessarily be one of yours.

  • atatata

    I do not think that google approach to automatize everything will be successful. Photography is one of those activities where people want to be creative and they want to control. Lytro camera was not successful despite all promises of automatically correcting problems with autofocus.

  • George Potter

    I wonder how many of those thousands of casual shooters use Lightroom to not only organize but process RAW files. Quite a few, I’d imagine. There is no real threat to Lightroom here.

  • Mark

    Something to read before jumping on GoogleServerFarm vagon:


    Think about it.

  • Sean Caldwell

    I’m at i/o and found the announcement fascinating and can’t wait to try it for my casual photos. Might shoot hundreds of pictures on a day with a 7d. If their algorithm can match what I would pick 80 percent of the time, then I would just take a few minutes to scan the back of the pile and see if it missed anything that looks outstanding to me and move on. Will lightroom still have a place for professional sessions? Absolutely.

    Plus, they aren’t deleting anything, simply prioritizing them. This is a great step forward for me. And if I disagree with the choices the system made, what’s my loss? I reorder something and move on. Can’t wait to try it and see if it’s truly effective or just hype.

  • Michael Palmer

    Maybe I’m out of touch with reality but does anyone use Aperture anymore?

  • Yep. Love it. Sorry but I trust Google with my photos about as much as Adobe, and that’s not much.

  • Trey Ratcliff

    Yep – exactly – you got it brotha

  • Trey Ratcliff

    You mean you don’t trust the Google cloud to backup your photos? Or you mean you think that Google will steal them and sell them? (I’m not worried about either)

  • Trey Ratcliff

    Nah – I am not worried about Google. Look man, when you go onto the internet, you just gotta pick people you think are trustworthy. I trust Google and the people behind it… They make the lion’s share of their money from ads. They don’t need to sell my photos for a few pennies. They’ll continue to provide free good services, like Google Maps, for example. Google Maps keeps getting better and better, and they won’t ever charge for that… they just like people using Google services.

    As for Lightroom – I think you are maybe underestimating how many very casual shooters use Lightroom. They use it because it’s their only way of organizing their photos. They don’t use hardly any of the features, like collections for example. Pros and advanced amateurs know these features of course – I don’t think they will use Google cloud to organize their client or professional images, but I’m thinking they should do it for their thousands of casual snapshots.

    Also, in the larger sense, the “web” or internet is moving away from a world of text (like we are writing here) to a world of images and video. Either you submit your photos to the internet or you don’t… no matter where you send them in the Internet, Google can still pick ’em up and index em. Anyway, I’m not worried about Google… (obviously!) I know you’re worried – that’s cool – a lot of people are… but let’s have coffee in five years and see if they’ve really been planning all along to screw photographers! 🙂

  • Hey – thanks good question.

    I do have a strong dis-trust of Google and their intent. I haven’t had a fear of them selling my photos (I don’t post anything with them). Google is the ocean, we must swim in it … but the kind of craft you are in is up to you (ooh, deep thoughts).

    I don’t trust Facebook, Flickr, Apple, SmugMug, BackBlaze, Carbonite, Dropbox, or anyone to have a 100% guarantee-able backup of any of my stuff.

    I am about to wade into some manner of redundancy in the cloud but not as a primary. Thanks for your perspectives.

  • I agree with you Scott, and I am a casual photographer. I’ve even been debating about deleting my Google+ account because of their TOS.

  • Jose Carlos Garcia Sogo

    My question for you Trey is how you mix images uploaded from Google Glass (or your phone) of your usual day life and the images already processed of your portfolio. Or said in other words, right now the settings enable by default the AutoEnhance property for all your images, without distinction. So you should go to uncheck it to avoid your portfolio images to be double processed. But doing this will make your photos from Glass not being processed automatically, so you lose all the advantages of having this.

    What I was proposing Vic Gundotra in his post (reshare) today about this is add a method in the API so the uploader program can decide if the image should or shouldn’t be processed. It will be enabled by default for images uploaded from the mobile but you can choose to disable it for images uploaded from Lr or other processing software (as the open source darktable).


  • chasingphoto

    Its all about choice, I dont see many “pros” doing this avenue of thinking. Maisel, Ogundiran, Delong, etc using anything near this. Its great Google is chasing after Apple/Adobes “prosumer” market, but thats about all this is.

  • alg1000

    You’re an idiot to be excited by this!
    In other words let’s let “Google” replace CREATIVITY!!! and dumb the masses down some more! Unreal.

  • Or raise the bar on creativity?

  • Have you bothered to read the article before commenting? The author addresses this issue quite convincingly. You simply can’t get creative with the a hundred photos a day – nobody has that kind of time. So he is suggesting a split – be creative yourself with the small percentage of your photos you can dedicate time to, and let Google do their best effort on the rest, which is better to let most of your photos remain in void forever.

  • lvthunder

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see Adobe include features like these into their products as well. It’s not like the people at Google are smarter than the Adobe team when it comes to photography.

Newsletter Sign Up

The most beautiful newsletter ever!