Google Photos “High quality” vs “Original”: What’s the difference and should you care

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What happens to your photos in Google Photos when you select “High Quality” instead of “Original?”

Google Photos is a very convenient free platform that allows you to share all your photos and all other types of images between all your devices.

For five years until June 1, 2021, Google Photos offered each and every one of its users unlimited cloud storage, but since that date, newly uploaded photos count with the 15 GB free add-on that comes with each Google Account, and when you reach that limit, you pay for extra storage space.

But there is a way to make sure you get the most photos without going overboard with storage space. Google Photos offers you two options when uploading photos: one is “high quality” images, which are compressed files, and the other is “Original Quality”, which is good … the original files from your phone or camera that typically takes up a lot of space.

In this article, we will walk you through the compression of Google Photos and what is the actual difference between Google Photos ‘High Quality’ and ‘Original Quality’ files.

How does Google Photos work?

If you have not been aware of the messages that Google Photos displays when you install it on a new device, or have not checked the app’s settings, you may have even missed this distinction between the quality settings of your uploads.

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

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

High quality:
* these are the new terms that are active from June 1, 2021

  • All photos uploaded before June 1, 2021 do not count towards your 15 GB free Google Account storage limit
  • All photos uploaded after June 1, 2021 DO count towards your 15 GB free Google Account storage
  • Photos are compressed to save space. If a photo is larger than 16 MP, it changes to 16 MP.
  • Videos higher than 1080p change to 1080p in high definition. A video with 1080p or less will look close to the original.

Original quality:

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

What happens to smaller images (less than 16 MP)?

Let’s start with a 12 MP image from a Galaxy phone and use the “High quality” setting. The image does not change, but let’s see if it undergoes any noticeable and / or destructive compression:

As you can see, the image itself is not reduced in size, but the file size has been crushed down from over 16 MB, all the way down to almost a megabyte! And apparently at no cost at all! It’s almost like magic, but it’s just coming 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 like this one. Google Photos was able to reduce the size of the file so much because much of the image is out of focus, allowing for much more compression in the areas that are missing in detail.

As much as we do not like pixels looking, it will be necessary in this case, as we need to determine the extent of compression. So let’s see what happens when we examine these 100% crops of both images:

100% crop

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

Just for the fuck, let’s dig even deeper and see at what point a difference in quality becomes apparent.

622% crop

This part of the picture was blown up to 622%! Changes will not be noticeable until you zoom in at approx. 500%. You will never, ever, examine any of your photos from this up close.

Let’s try again, again from S8:

Interestingly, in this particular case, Google Photos, even though the image was the same resolution as before, decided not only to reduce the file size but also to scale down the image. After compression, we have an image with a resolution of 2268 x 3024, which is roughly equivalent to 7 MP, down from the original 12 MP. Ouch. It does not look bad or anything, but this apparent type of compression per. Photo may not be something for some people out there (I can vouch for this). We tried to run this image through Google Photos twice, and the results were identical both times.

What happens to images larger than 16 MP?

Images that do not exceed 16 MP mostly come out unscathed from the ordeal, but let’s see what happens to larger images that contain more detail and information than the above. This one was taken with Huawei P10, which is equipped with a 20MP, Leica-branded monochrome camera:

This time, the image was scaled down to 16MP, but in terms of compression, the file size was not reduced as drastically as before. Aside from the fact that the image itself gets smaller after in the end, it shows no noticeable loss of detail due to compression.

Let’s see what happens to another shot from the P10’s monochrome camera:

Same story, the image was changed to fit 16 MP limit still looks good. But when dealing with larger than 16 MP images, Google Photos apparently also changes their image format ever. For example, the image above was originally recorded in a standard aspect ratio of 4: 3 (or 1.33: 1), but after compression, we ended up with an image that is slightly wider and has a non-standard format. It’s hardly noticeable, but it’s something that’s happening.

What happens to RAW photos?

But let’s consider another 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 restrictions are still in effect when processing RAW images, even if they are smaller than 16 MP, they are still compressed and converted to regular JPEGs, which means that all this sensor image data goes down the drain. If your phone is capable of this, or if you shoot RAW on your dedicated camera, we would advise against relying on the “High quality” setting for storing your photos.

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

100% crop

Is Google Photos free? Is free good enough?

The bottom line is that if you have little space and mainly save photos you have taken with your phone, you are mostly A-OK to use the “High Quality” setting. You will never, ever, examine any of your photos so closely to tell the difference between the original and the compressed version. As we saw in one of the examples, Google Photos sometimes even scales images that fit within the limits of the “High Quality” level. Even though it only made this one of the pictures, it is still something to keep in mind.

Moreover, since most smartphone cameras have 12 MP or 16 MP sensors, the limitations of Google’s free unlimited storage space do not seem so impressive. However, if you own a smartphone with a 20+ MP sensor or use the platform to store images from your dedicated camera, you may want to think twice before relying on “High Quality” and choosing “Original” instead. This is true with full force if you save RAW image files.

Keep in mind that Google Photos used to offer unlimited “high quality” photo storage until June 1, 2021, and all newly uploaded photos after that date count toward 15 GB of free Google Account storage surcharge. Once you reach this limit, you will have to pay for additional storage space if you want to continue uploading new photos.
Here is a Google Drive link to some of the photos we used in this test.

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