How bad is Google Photos compression really?

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Google Photos has long offered one of the best deals on all photo storage: it backs up your entire library for free, as long as it can compress the images just a bit. But starting tomorrow, June 1, that deal will go away and you’ll now eat through Google storage (which you may have to pay for), whether your images are compressed or not.

With the change on the way, I was wondering how bad Google’s compression really is. Does the compression leave my photos in “High Quality” as Google has been claiming for years? Or does the compression degrade my photos enough to make it worth using more storage by switching to “original quality” backups?

I did some quick tests this morning to find out. I snapped some photos and videos from my Pixel 5 (one of the few phones that will) keep getting free compressed storage) and a photo from my Fuji X-T30 and uploaded them to two separate Google Photos accounts, one with compression enabled and one with original quality.

The results were mixed. For photos, the compressed versions were often indistinguishable from their uncompressed counterparts. But once you lose resolution, the compression really starts to show.

This is what I found in a handful of tests. You can click on the images to view them in a larger size.

The original quality photo.

The compressed photo.

Here’s a photo I recently took of my cat, Pretzel. I zoomed in on his hair, his eyes, and the books in the background, and I can’t spot any difference. The photo, taken with a Pixel 5, was originally 3.4 MB, but it was compressed to 1.5 MB.

The original quality photo.

The compressed photo.

I took this photo on the Yale campus last weekend with the Pixel 5’s ultra-wide camera. Both versions look great in full screen on my computer. You could probably argue about whether there are some more noises around the edges of the leaves in the compressed version, but I generally feel that if you have to look for image issues, they don’t really matter.

The space saving is not very big here: Google’s compression brings the file size from 7.3 MB to 5.7 MB.

The original quality photo.

The compressed photo.

Here’s a photo I took this morning of Pretzel on my Fuji X-T30. I zoomed in on his face and couldn’t find a difference even when both were blown up as big as Google Photos could make them.

At first, it seemed like this was a situation where Google Photos’ compression won out: the file size shrank from 12 MB to just 662 KB, and the images look practically identical.

But there is one very remarkable difference. Google limits the photo resolution to 16 megapixels, making the photo significantly smaller than the original 26 megapixel file my camera saved. Here’s a zoomed-in cutout showing how the details begin to disappear as blocky noise comes in:

Left: Original. Right: compressed.

Look, I don’t know if I need all 26 megapixels of this image right now. But if I ever wanted to print this photo at a larger size, crop it later, or otherwise make changes to it, those extra pixels would be a huge benefit to keep.

Video stills. Left: Original. Right: compressed.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with 1080p video, but there’s something wrong with the way Google handles it. And unfortunately, if you use Google’s compression, all your videos will be compressed at 1080p.

When that happens, everything gets dingy, details just disappear and some colors even lose their shine. It really is a significant downgrade in terms of quality. I can’t embed a Google Photos video here, so I’ve included a screenshot comparison above. I think you can see most of the differences, although it’s much clearer how blurry text gets at larger sizes.

I originally shot this video in 4K in February on my Pixel 5. It looks nice enough on my non-4K computer screen. Street signs, faces and the falling snow all look sharp. But the compressed version is quite a mess – it looks like I recorded it with a layer of fat on my camera lens.

The loss (or saving) of data here is great: it drops from 55MB for this 10-second clip to just 6MB. No wonder it looks so much worse.

I still got away mostly impressed with the quality preserved after Google’s compression. For photos, the result can be almost indistinguishable as long as the original file is smaller than 16 megapixels. But for videos, there’s no doubt that uncompressed is the way to go. Too bad you can’t set different options for photos and videos at Google.

The real downside is that compressing your photos doesn’t always save a lot of space. That extra space sure adds up as you push thousands of new photos into the cloud every year. But if you do have to pay, it might be worth keeping your photos — and especially your videos — at their full quality, especially if you’re uploading them in higher resolutions.