Google’s new photo books: bold product trade-offs with a lot of potential

I’m passionate about photos. Not just taking the perfect photo in terms of composition and lighting, but as mementos of a significant moment, as a door into our parents and grandparents lives, and as keepsakes of the special moments in my and my family’s life. I have an emotional connection to photos and seeing a significant one takes me back to its story. I have always loved sorting through photos and creating keepsakes from them, be they one-off birthday cards, a collage, a photo book of memorable events.

I also like creating photo books but haven’t actually made that many. It’s, well,  quite a time-consuming process. For those who have never created one, there are three stages of creating a photo book:

  1. Gathering and sourcing: finding all the photos you want to include. This is easier when the scope of the book is a short time period and/or a recent event. A recent vacation, a year-in-review, and a special event are all relatively easy to source with usually one photographer adding photos to a single folder. This task becomes harder as the time period grows larger, especially when the source of the photos is a non-connected digital camera or, in even darker times, printed photos. The former requires going through cloud services and backup drives, while the latter require scanning and cataloguing, as they have no metadata. This takes time.
  2. Selection and sequencing: picking the good ones and trying not to be too repetitive. This is easier for analog photos as not many were taken of a single event, but becomes more difficult in the digital age where the quest for the perfect moment results in a lot of very similar photos, only one or two which are fantastic.
  3. Editing – choosing layouts and adding annotation: picking a book theme/design, placing photos in the book, and adding headers and further information, page by page. With analog and older digital photos this also includes assessing how large a photo can be printed without running into resolution problems and adjusting the page layout accordingly.

I’ve recently had the chance to complete this process with one of the more customizable photo book editors out there, Mixbook, and with Google, who introduced photo books at I/O earlier this year (and gave a free one to every attendee.) It’s interesting to compare the two processes and results of these two, especially since it looks like Google started from scratch and tried to reimagine the process at every step.

How Mixbook does layouts: lots of options, endless customization, as much text as necessary.

In a recent project, an anniversary book that spanned years, the gathering stage took me about 25 hours… over three weeks! To make the second step easier, I organized photos in folders by years. This worked really well for my Mixbook project as I uploaded photos and added them to the book grouped by year. Mixbook has a great feature that can hide photos that have already been used in a layout so it’s easier to focus on the current batch. The third step, however, again took me a long time, about 15 hours because I had to further edit my selection and make layout and add text for every single page of the project. I had to pay attention to photo quality, the photo actual photo size vs the space allotted in the template.

Google, on the other hand, takes a different approach. First, all photos have to be on Google Photos. Second, users can just choose between 20-100 photos, the maximum allowed per book. Finally, there are no layout or text options. It’s one photo per page, white background, no text.

Let’s start at the beginning: users have three different ways to start a book.

  1. Automatic selection: picking 77 photos out of an album of 140. This is more significant when albums are larger.

    Pick an existing folder/album with any amount of photos and let Google select what it considers the best ones. For example, I did this with a folder with 140 photos and it chose 77. After that selection users can manually add and remove selected photos from the same folder only. This is good for those working on a recent, focused event such as a recent vacation or party. It’s not great when a vacation has many photos split up into several folders by day, as I usually do. For the book I created on Google I had to merge all the photos into one folder before letting the selection algorithm work its magic. This means that even though Photos thinks the process is quick, there is more prep work to be done to adapt to that process. Also, I had to manually go through all the photos that were chosen and in about half the cases replaced them with either a similar photo of the same scene, a similar photo but with different people to ensure all participants were represented, or with an important moment that was not represented by Google’s selection. The problem is that liking only half of them means I don’t really trust the algorithm to choose the best, but it’s a rather good shortcut.

  2. Manually pick photos by scrolling through all your Google photos organized by date. This is more tedious than MixBook’s traditional upload-as-you-work process because scrolling through one long, long scroll of photos doesn’t give an option to pause and save the work and to asses the collection amassed so far. Also, it makes replacing difficult since only 100 selections can be made. That means the user has to scroll back and find a photo to unselect before continuing. Even with a long scroll, it’s easier to select every photo at once and then whittle down to 100. Of all three options, this was the one I liked least. It has no benefits over Mixbook’s process.
  3. Best of Spring 2017 – automatically created by Google.

    Start with one of Google’s Suggested Books. I had “best of spring” suggested for me which included 37 photos. The problem was is that while it included some great ones and some that represented important events this spring, it also included a photo of a medical device, of irrelevant people, of insignificant events. It also chose photos with only a place over a photo of people I care about in that place. When I narrow down a season to 37 photos, every photo counts. Anway, as in option A, it’s a nice shortcut but the selection needs to be monitored and modified.

Yet, let’s look at the bigger picture. What’s interesting here is that Google is trying to take my 25-hour gathering stage and reduce it to minutes. The drawback is that each shortcut has a tradeoff that Google hopes won’t be significant to the user.

In option A, the tradeoff is that each option has the paradigm of “one album/folder = one book” isn’t inclusive enough, but when it is, the automatic selection is a very powerful tool. Even with the algorithm’s not-quite-there selection – it still saves a significant chunk of time. The selection algorithm will improve over time as it learns who is important to me and what kind of mix of photo types I like to include (i.e. portraits, group shots, landscapes, etc.) Also, for cases where paradigm doesn’t hold, and the user needs to do significant prep work to create that one album, make it easier to merge several albums (eg: not just cut and paste.) Perhaps it means allowing users to select more than one album before the selection algorithm gets to work.

Another drawback to option A is the assumption that all photos were taken on a phone and backed up to Google Photos automatically. This would, indeed, shorten the process significantly. However, many photographers still use dedicated cameras, especially for special events and vacations. This site claims photos taken by Nikon, Canon, Sony, and Fulifilm cameras make up over 80% of all photos shared online on sites including Flickr, 500px and Pixabay. Despite the glaring absence of sharing on social media platforms, this is still a significant number. What this means in Google’s process is that more prep work is required to get those photos into online. It’s not a dealbreaker.

In option C the tradeoff is that for the short time it takes to review Google’s selection, the result could be a really cute keepsake. What I liked in this scenario is that it’s based on a certain time period that Google identified to be significant for me. It could do the same for a day, weekend, or even an event over a few hours. That’s powerful.

After making shortcuts in gathering and selection, in step 3, editing, Google has gone all out: only one photo per page, white background, no text. The only choice is the photo’s original shape on white, square on white, and full page. There is no editing. All that’s left is selecting a title for the book. While this absolutely saves time, it’s a bit too harsh on the creative soul. No way add descriptions, dates, location, and, perhaps most important, people?  

I, for one, can live with the simpler design with no theme choice. I might even be persuaded that one photo per page is not so bad, even though my photo book philosophy is more is best. What I can’t live with is no text at all. A photo book is a story. It’s me telling a story to my friends and family now and in the future. My story needs text. What I did to overcome this limitation is add photos of signs of the places we visited for the road trip photo book I created. It took away from my overall photo limit which meant less photos of people were included.

What Google did is make photo book creation very easy for a very specific use case. It automated parts of the process but in doing so made the manual one more difficult. By taking away design options, it also shortened creation time significantly. But at what price? For someone like me, who loves photos, has a huge collection, and wants to delight friends and family with personal keepsakes, then this isn’t the right product. While I love the shortcuts, the prep work is significant, the AI isn’t quite there yet to pick out the absolute best photos and the lack of any customization goes too far.

That said, Google getting this right is an intriguing option. The AI will improve, the photos selected will be more relevant. Instead of not allowing any text, captions for locations, dates, and people could be added automatically. It could do more, add more photos per page that have a connection between them, such a the same day, event, or person. It could make creating a book from several albums easier with an overarching selection algorithm. It could really tell a story, which is more than just the photos, and it could do that in less than an hour.

I can’t wait.

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