Today Facebook begins rolling out multiple improvements to its photos product. Users will be able to upload and download high resolution photos, quickly view photos in a pop-up light box view without leaving the page they are currently viewing, utilize two bulk tagging features to tag one person in multiple photos simultaneously, and use a streamlined and more reliable Flash uploading tool. Despite the monetary cost, Facebook has made the changes to keep the world’s most popular photos product technologically competitive.
Five months ago Facebook acquired photo sharing startup Divvyshot, whose founder Sam Odio managed these product changes. He tells us that “we took a fresh look at the photos product, built a new vision, and this is the first step towards that vision. Facebook is building out a larger photos team, photos are becoming a priority within the company, and it’s something we felt like we should be doing for our users.” The new changes will only go live for a small random subset of users later today because of the 100 million photos Facebook takes in a day. However, barring any significant problems, the changes will be rolled out to 100% of the user base over the next few weeks.
High Resolution Photos
Users will now have the option to upload photos at 2048 pixels along the largest side as well as Facebook’s standard 720 pixels. This 8 times improvement in quality will cover the resolution of photos taken by most consumer cameras. Larger photos, such as those shot with DSLRs, will be re-sized down to 2048 pixels, or roughly 6000 kilobytes, on the user’s side just before the upload occurs. This means that if you try to upload a 6 megabyte photo, you won’t have to wait for that large file to be sent to Facebook. Users will still have to be patient, however, as the uploader notes high resolution photos take up to 10 times longer to upload.
Anyone will be able to view the print quality, high resolution photos on Facebook’s web interface, and there will be a link below them to initiate a download of a .jpg of the photo. The high resolution will allows users to print 5×7 inch photos at 300 DPI, or perhaps even 8x10s, without any degradation of the image. High resolution photos will also be available through the API, opening opportunities for print products, and high resolution photo experiences on HD televisions. Odio says he’s excited to see what the API partners come up with.
Facebook will still be using its Haystack storage infrastructure for high resolution photos. The significant drop in storage costs over the last five years makes the high resolution feasible, but it will still cost millions of dollars. Odio says, “Zuckerberg made the decision. He though users would appreciate high resolution. He looked at the tab and said ‘Let’s do it.’” Odio explained that all the other major photo sharing sites offer high resolution, including Divvyshot, and while Facebook had previously been focused on sharing memories, not pixels, Facebook is ready to “get with the times”.
Light Box View Of Photos
Soon, you will be able to click a photo anywhere on site, on the news feed or within albums, and the photo will load over a darkened background of the content you were viewing. You can then browse to adjacent photos, or click out or hit escape to close the light box and resume viewing the page you were previously looking at. The view will also include comments and Likes below the photo, only one advertisement instead of two, and the total amount of other text and distracting graphics will be minimal.
Light box view will also help photos load faster. Instead of sending a get http request for a whole new page which would have to be generated by the server and sent back, now Facebook will just construct the light box over your current page and immediately start downloading the image. The image may appear first, followed by the comments and Likes a tiny fraction of a second later.
The change should help users keep their desktops tidy. Previously when users wanted to retain their place in Facebook but view a photo, they would typically load the photo in a new tab. Odio say, “This seemed like a clumsy experience. The funny thing is that everyone is tracking page views. This change will probably cause a significant hit to page views, but we think it’s better. It loads much faster and you don’t lose your context in the content you were interested in.”
To navigate the light box view, users can click the right or left arrow buttons to view the next or previous photos, or click the escape button to close the light box. Users who don’t like the light box and prefer the standard photo view can click the refresh button on their browser to load the currently viewed light box photo in the standard view.
When you go to any album page, you’ll be able to click “Tag photo”, enter a friend’s name, click the face of that friend in multiple photo thumbnails, and hit save to simultaneously tag that person in all of those photos. “People were doing an incredible amount of tagging, but it seemed like a terrible user experience to have to tag each individual photo separately”. Odio says it might sound difficult to pinpoint faces in thumbnails, but it’s actually quite easy.
The original uploader of photos will have access to an express bulk tagging system. Facebook will recognize the same face being present in multiple photos, and temporarily the group photos with the same face together making it easy to tag that person in all those photos simultaneously. This should alleviate uploader tagging fatigue, which frequently resulted in users leaving their friends to tag themselves.
Flash Uploader and Streamlined Flow
Facebook is implementing a new Flash uploader which increases reliability and takes advantage of the greater market penetration of Flash. Facebook has experimented with Java clients and browser plugins over the years, but rewrote the uploader in Flash for its ability to select multiple photos at once. The upload flow has also been streamlined. When you hit “upload photos” you’ll immediately begin selecting photos, and not be first asked to create and name an album as you were before.
Reliability is measured by how many users who at first click “upload” actually end up with new photos appearing on the site. Facebook expects at 5-10% increase in reliability thanks to the Flash uploader and streamlined flow. While users in the US with modern computers and fast connections might not see much difference, users in countries like Indonesia with older computers and worse connections will have a much improved upload experience.