Yesterday, Facebook announced changes to their photo handling. You can read the brief article here.
Essentially, they announced that their photo viewer can now display photos up to 960 pixels, rather than the previous limit of 720 pixels. Also, the photo viewer interface now has a white background, instead of the black one (which I rather liked, personally).
One particular sentence in the article seemed to cause alarm among photographers - "Photos you've already uploaded to your profile will also be displayed at this higher resolution." Some of us were worried that this meant they'd be stretching our old 720 images. I'm happy to assure you that this is not the case. I assume (and I wish they'd clarified) that it only applies to images that had been uploaded in high resolution ... and I don't know any photographers who are doing that, for obvious image protection reasons.
The other interesting phrase was "and load twice as fast" ... what does this mean, we wondered? How will they make larger files load faster? More about this shortly.
Let's discuss the size thing first. Yes, you can now upload images up to 960x960px, and they will be displayed that big in the photo viewer.
Or will they? Not necessarily.
Since the first photo viewer was introduced (the one with the black background), I never saw anybody mention one important little characteristic - it automatically resized photos to fit small screens. If your screen couldn't fit a full 720 height image (mine can't), it shrunk it down a bit on the fly, so that you could see the whole thing without having to scroll downwards.
It makes perfect sense that they did this, because scrolling to see a photo is annoying, right? It only has one teensy drawback - your careful sharpening is diminished. If you've ever read my writings before, you'll know that I always say "make sure you resize precisely before sharpening, so that your sharpening is accurate". Well, all that is out the window if the website or the browser are resizing your images for you. So, I've been keeping my vertical images to no greater than 600px ... because I'm a control freak, and I like people to see my images sharpened just the way I intended wherever possible.
I know that many of you have enormous screens, and Facebook has never had to shrink a photo for your viewing pleasure. But there are still a heck of a lot of people with small screens like mine, for whom it does. Mine isn't exactly a small screen, by laptop standards (I mean, it's not one of those itty bitty netbooks or anything), but it's not big enough to show 720px high images without shrinking them.
(Get back to the point, Damien!) Right, so the point is simply this: Even though you can upload images at 960px high now, bear in mind that a lot of people will never see them that way. I certainly won't. Is this a big problem? Apart from the sharpening issue, no, not at all. But I'm just telling you about it, because I'm a nerd, and if you're reading this, I know - deep down - there's a little bit of nerd in you too.
I should mention that my laptop screen can show 960px wide images just fine ... except that the average 960px wide image is at least 620px high, which is too high for my screen, as I've already mentioned. So even landscape images are going to be shrunk down a bit for me to view them.
You must think I'm making this a very Damien-centric article. I know my laptop is not the only computer in the world, but there are lots of others like it, or smaller. Just sayin'.
Ok, so personally, I'm going to be sticking with 600px high as my limit for most images I post.
And let's face it, a 960px image is getting dangerously close to 6x4-printability. If you're uploading images that big, and you don't want people to rip them off, make sure you watermark them prominently. Standard internet image security.
One more thing to mention about size, which may or may not interest you. The standard photo interface (not the viewer which appears over the top of the page you were viewing) is still only 720px. Just a little tidbit of info that I observed. I know hardly anyone uses that interface any more, but I certainly do.
Ok, that's enough about the physical size of the images. What about the file size? What about this claim that the images will "load twice as fast"?
I didn't get out the ol' stopwatch, but it certainly does seem to be faster. Twice as fast might be an exaggeration, though.
How, then? How are they making larger files load faster? Well, let's start by giving Facebook the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they've moved to a faster server, or something. That would certainly help.
But yes, from my brief observations this evening, they do seem to have sacrificed a bit of quality in our images in order to get smaller file sizes. This is bad news, because the quality of images on Facebook has always been pretty ordinary, hasn't it? Well, it's not as bad as all that.
I did a few tests. I re-uploaded some photos I'd uploaded previously. Then I compared the quality of the previous file, to the quality of the newer upload; and compared them both to the original. The results were interesting.
It seems that Facebook might be using a whole new compression algorithm. (Note: just because I'm using big words like "algorithm", please don't assume I know what the hell I'm talking about. I just read that word somewhere, is all.) The old photos were much noisier than the original; whereas the newly-uploaded ones seem a little smoother than the original.
Choose your poison - do you prefer images which are too noisy, or too smooth? I'm prepared to lay a small wager that most of you might actually be happy with the new image quality. Yes, the file sizes are smaller, and yes, the smoothing effect of the jpeg compression will rob your images of a tiny bit of fine detail, but I think the new compression will be nicer to skin and skies and things than the old one. I'm prepared, at this early stage, to give Facebook a small thumbs up. I'm going to be testing and observing a lot more, though.
Needless to say, you should do your own testing. What I haven't tested yet is the implications for sharpening. We might need to sharpen our images for Facebook slightly more than we have been up til now. I'll post more about that once I've had a chance to play.
There's one more thing I have to talk about. I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere else yet, but it's pretty significant from a nerd's point of view - they've removed the ICC profiles from images!
Yep, in a way, this is back to the bad old days. Originally, Facebook just took your image, ripped the profile out of it, and displayed it. If you'd cocked up and uploaded an Adobe RGB image, it looked like tripe. Then, they improved things, and implemented profile conversion - if you uploaded an Adobe RGB image, they converted it to sRGB, and kept the profile embedded (well, it was a strange alter-ego of sRGB, but it did the job nicely).
Now, they've come back halfway. Their upload engine still converts your images to sRGB, but it takes the profile off after doing so. So it's displayed untagged. This means that it's up to your browser to decide how it will display the images. Firefox will display them correctly, but as far as I know, none of the others will (not even Safari, which is colour-managed except in the way it handles untagged images).
So I'm expecting my Ask Damien page to be flooded over the coming weeks with "Oh my God, my Facebook images look wrong!" posts. And my answer will be the same as it has always been: "Switch to Firefox, then get over it. Do you think Joe and Joan Public know or care? Do you think they have a calibrated screen? Do you think they're using a colour-managed browser? Of course not. They just like looking at your photos, that's all. Go and have a beer or something."
So, Facebook images are untagged again. I should mention that they've also gone back and removed the profiles from all previous images, too. So it's not just your newly-uploaded ones that might look different. Brace yourself!
Let me finish this rambling post (if you've read all the way to here, thank you!) by doing what I've always done - defending Facebook. I've always thought there must be a lot of photos going to their servers, and now they've given me a mind-blowing number - over 250 million every day. If I had to find space for that many photos on my servers, I'd want to keep the damn things small too! ICC profiles add a surprising amount of size to a file, so I'm not in the least surprised that they've removed them. In hindsight, I'm surprised they ever included them at all.
Yes, I love Facebook. It's a friend to me, so I'm very happy to play along with their image decisions.