Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Flickr's Dirty Little Secret

The secret is...you suck at taking photos.

And flickr knows it. That's why when you upload a photo to flickr it undergoes a cosmetic lift via a sharpening filter (and perhaps a saturation filter as well). See below.

100_1181.JPG

This is a capture of the exact same photo. On the top is a thumbnail of my photo rendered on Zoto (3.0 beta) . It's blurry and the detail is lost. On the bottom is the same photo thumbnail rendered on Flickr. Notice how sharp the detail and color appear. Unlike Flickr, Zoto is rendering an 'accurate' thumbnail of my photo.

The result? On Flickr I am fabulous, wonderful taker of photos. On Zoto, I am just a loser who can't get a photo in focus.

Does this subtle cosmetic lift, on a subliminal level, factor into a user's decision making process when it comes to choosing a photo hosting service? The advantage to the mainstream user is obvious, but if I was a pro photographer, wouldn't I resent someone taking liberty with my photos? We've had a bit of a debate on this issue in our office (at Zoto). I'm for passing a filter on photos to make them look better. I think it improves the user's experience. On some level, even if they aren't aware of it, they are enjoying their photos more because of this little white lie. Some of our "purists" in the office disagree. In the end the best solution may be to make this an option in the upload settings that users can control for themselves. And user control is what it's all about, right?

New word: flickrality
Definition: The version of reality where you rock at taking photos.

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734 comments:

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Sc said...

Not bad a blog for a designer. :)

Anonymous said...

Or maybe flickr's just using a different thumbnail reduction algorithm -- cubic instead of linear, for example. Are the original photos (not thumbnails) changed?

Also, if you take pictures out of focus, no automatic program I know of can just "fix it".

Douglas said...

But, is this done for all photos, or just for thumbnails? If it's just thumbnails, what you've discovered is how to create a thumbnail for the web: http://hilton.org.uk/photo_thumbnails.phtml

So, what does this say about Flicker? They understand their medium.

Jonathan said...

Are you sure you are comparing like with like? Remember Flickr makes several versions of your file at different size, and the smaller versions will have been resampled - which they probably sharpen to avoid the inevitable averaging.

Anonymous said...

That only happens on thumbnails... the original picture is the original picture. Sensational nonesense!! :)

Rahim said...

I'd be interested to see the original image you uploaded.

This could simply be the sign of a different (and arguably superior) image scaling interpolation algorithm designed to preserve detail such as Lancsoz or Adobe's proprietary "bicubic sharper".

This for me is a big problem with some of the poorer sites that short-change resized image quality to save a few cpu cycles.

Anonymous said...

Your post isn't very clear on several issues. It seems that Flickr is sharpening *thumbnails*, and perhaps even the scaled-down versions, but keeping the *original image* intact. If so, good for them! That's not so secret, and certainly not so dirty. I'll happily stick with Flickr if that's the case. If, however, they are sharpening my original image, then I'm outta there.

And that would go for you and your service as well.

It's a known and accepted technique to sharpen images when you scale them down, otherwise they suffer the blurring you mention. In fact, some of us even go through multiple steps of sharpening and scaling down by half, until we get to the intended size when we want to make a good looking thumbnail.

So, consider this a vote to buttress your argument at work in favor of touching up the *scaled-down* version of the photos you host. But also consider it a firm argument *against* messing with the original in any way, shape, or form.

Daniel said...

There are dozens of complaint threads on the Flickr forums about this sharpening procedure. Flickr overdoes it; it makes many photos look quite horrid.

Anonymous said...

This is why pros don't use Flickr.

Anonymous said...

How does the original photo look? Does it look blurry?

It could be how the image processing works on each service. Zoto might have reduce your photo's quality while flickr might have kept it at 100%.

There can be some effects added to the photo but it differs for each photo.

Anonymous said...

make it a user option, default to filter images when uploaded. Point users that are somehow classified as "professional" (advanced, whatev) to the dialog to shut off the upload filter

The Reluctant Muse said...

I've noticed this myself and have wondered about it; Flickr uploading seems to increase contrast while having the unintended effect of darkening some photos. I've lost count of how many times I've had to doctor and replace my uploaded photos because the Flickr display did not match the original.

Anonymous said...

Applying an unsharpen mask when scaling is a pretty common technique. I'm not sure I like that I don't have any control over it on flickr but there is a case to be made that it is a valid technique for producing thumbnails.

Anonymous said...

Well being a photoshop user since version 1 and a web designer, I definitely know that those types of image filtering processes are important when shrinking the size of the image. It gives the image a slightly sharper tonal quality which is lost every time they shrink an image.

Eric said...

There's no such thing as an "accurate" thumbnail. As a photographer, I think that the best solution is to render a thumbnail as true as possible to the original upload.

A bit of blur / smoothing is a natural side-effect of a lot of rescaling algorithms. One of the good things about those algorithms is that they go a long way towards the prevention of aliasing noise introduced by the lower resolution. One of the negative side effects is that most of them do a little blurring -- not because they're an "accurate" rescale of the original, but because a little blurring is a natural side-effect of the rescale process.

Some algorithm writers KNOW that blurring is a natural side-effect of averaging a group of pixels, so they counter-act that blurring a little by pre-emtively passing the image through a sharpening filter.

It takes some fine-tuning to get it right, but yes, filtering thumbnails is something that rescaling algos often do, but it's done to improve the accuracy of the algorithm, not to try to make the image look better than the original.

IMO, that's what you should be shooting for.

Anonymous said...

i don't believe you. you should highlight binary differences in the photos to prove it.
steven colbert jokes aren't that funny.

Anonymous said...

They also effect saturation and contrast. I have done similar tests by downloading an image after uploading it to Flickr and comparing it to the original. In my case they make it look worse.

Anonymous said...

I've noticed that with the drawings I post to flickr. I thought it had to do with the fact that flickr has such a relatively small pic size that everything seemed more detailed.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/diversionmary/

-e

Chris Radcliff said...

I'm confused. Are they performing these actions on a thumbnail or resized version of your photo, or the original? If it's being resized, then sharpening and saturating are standard tricks to make it seem as sharp as the original would look when viewed at a distance. Bicubic filtering by itself causes most thumbnails to look a bit blurry and washed out, if I remember correctly. (I know this because I tend to use the same 1-2 punch on my resized photos before uploading them.)

Of course, if they're doing the same thing to the original-size image, then I can see why some photographers wouldn't like that.

Joel said...

Flickr running the sharpening pass just makes sense, because this pass generally should be done after an image has been resized. The reason is simply that sharpening works on the pixel level, so sharpening the image at full resolution, then resizing it to thumbnail size, will only lose most sharpening details or add undesirable artifacts.

I have dealt with this working on a similar system where fax images are thumbnailed and displayed online. When working with something as bare as a B&W fax image, the difference between sharpening before and after resizing is plainly obvious, with edges appearing muddy or crisp respectively.

The real question is does Flickr apply sharpening to the full-size (unresized) uploaded image? If so then they are definitely trying to help the aspiring amateur photoblogger out. But I suspect it only occurs for the resized versions.

Anonymous said...

I missed the part where you explain what's dirty about it!

Anonymous said...

This is stupid. It's probably just using a resizing algo with built-in sharpening such as Lancoz.

Anonymous said...

This has little to do you you and your photo. Flickr just uses a different thumbnail generator and different sharpening kernal. Check out your full-size original. You'll likely find it doesnt have the degree of blur seen in the thumbnail.

Anonymous said...

The images look the same to me as is.

Anonymous said...

If I had to guess, this is to prevent malicious images.

By applying filters, they can kill any images which may be designed to affect various known (and unknown) security holes, and to insure the image is actually an image (to work around the stupid IE content detection where you can hide html in an image and IE thinks its html and allows XSS)

Lazylightning said...

That's weird. My photos always look less saturated on Flickr than the do other places. I have to oversaturate them to make up the difference.

Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree that there should be an option to edit submitted photos. Doing it by default is unethical and defaces the artist's intellectual property.
Even if tampering makes the photograph look immeasurably better, such a decision should be left up to the photographer, not to the Flickr staff.

Anonymous said...

C'mon, dude. Those pictures look EXACTLY the same.

Andrew Brennan said...

I'd just like to refer you to a comment someone made on the topic of this entry.
http://www.metafilter.com/mefi/58207#1572643

"That's a rendered thumbnail, which isn't that person's original photo, but a newly created one on their end. When making a photo physically smaller, you can lose detail and running some slight sharpening doesn't seem crazy or invasive to me."

Anonymous said...

Because of the effects of resizing, most professional photographers would apply a sharpening filter to their image, after it has been resized. Since Flickr presents multiple sizes, usually smaller than your original, it's only logical that they do so too. If your photo site is going to resize your photo (and therefore isn't presenting the "pure" original anyways), I would hope they sharpen it some.

Theo said...

Important to remember that lanczos and even the mathematically ideal Sinc filter will produce visually unacceptable moire patterns for some images (for example this one) unless you blur the filter itself beforehand.

So there is a subjective element to the blurriness/sharpness question, which goes beyond simplistic questions of accuracy or technical idealism. Because the images are discretely sampled there isn't any single technically "honest" way to do it and produce a visually "accurate" result.
Anyone who claims to be a purist ought to know that.

Ibsulon said...

No, it's not all about user control. If the user wanted such control, they'd probably be using Gallery. :) The user wants Easy.

Now, it might be nice if there was an option to turn it off, but I know I'd want it on by default.

Anonymous said...

The definition of "thumbnail" is vague, but I would suggest "the best way to represent your image at a reduced size". Any manipulation to this result is true to the definition of thumbnail and not a big deal. Now if they saturated and sharpened your original, that would be a different story.

klokop said...

I can hardly tell the difference between the to pictures...

Anonymous said...

Yep, it's very smart to do a sharpening after image resizing on a server side. I use fotki.com and they sharpen images after resize as well. In the past, they didn't do any sharpening, and I remember members where complaining all the time about it...

Anonymous said...

This is the only thing I don't like about Flickr. I sharpen my images at the final output resolution before publishing... and Flickr keeps on doing more sharpening. Many of my photos are "ruined" this way on my Flickr account. It should be an option in our user settings!

Anonymous said...

I think you're right. User should know and should be able to disable id at upload time.

Not that it's a bad idea, but I just don't know any pro that would like this feature. They want to do the final adjustments themselves and be damned if you retouch it after them.

Maybe they took this decision because pros are not their target market.

Anyway, well done !

Anonymous said...

Interesting thought. Just beware that options are the easy way out when decisions can't be made -- it passes the burden/blame onto the user.

It's the design difference between Macs ("We'll figure it out for you") and Linux ("Don't like it? Reprogram it yourself"). Which one is better for the average user? Btw, I'm a Windows user, which is about half and half. There's no right answer here, just realize that more choices are not always a good thing.

Ryan McGinnis said...

They're downsizing your photos to three different, smaller sizes. Of course they're going to USM the thumbnails -- it's standard procedure after downsizing. I suspect the original (found by clicking "ORIGINAL") is not USM'd.

Anonymous said...

Interesting.... I honestly wish that there was a way to turn this off.

Jim
RunFatBoy ( http://www.runfatboy.net ) - Exercise for the rest of us.

Chris said...

I do believe that regardless of any filters they may apply, the originals are left untouched.

Anonymous said...

Yes, because what if you were purposfully, "artfully" trying to have it blurry, working with your depth of field and such things as this? I think the best way to go is to have the option.

Anonymous said...

The reason for sharping is when you resize an image to a smaller size you lose detail, so you have to sharpen that image to bring that detail back.

Andy Dabydeen said...

Hmm ... of course, there is no human involved in the flickr process, so if you intended you photograph to be a little blurry, you're screwed. And sometimes, I do play with the focus on my photographs, experimenting, just to see how things will turn out. I suppose you're right though. For the general photographer, Flickr is OK. If you're a pro, the only reason you'd go to Flickr is the exposure, otherwise, you'd host your photos somewhere else ... like your own site.

Brian said...

I'd consider modification of thumbnails to be ok, since it improves the look of the photos at reduced sizes. Did you check to see if the full-size image was put through the same filtering? That would be unacceptable, in my view.

Stefan Kjartansson said...

I hadn't noticed.

Are you saying that they're sharpening the uploaded jpg or just the auto-sized thumbnails?

If the smaller size is being sharpened, I'd think that would be more authentic to the original.

Joe said...

If flickr doesn't mess with th full size image, just th thumbnails, then that's ok. Images always become more blurry when made smaller, and a little sharpening of th thumbnails makes them easier to make out.

Anonymous said...

Wow. That's earth-shattering. I think we should look into a special congressional investigative committee. Wow. I’m just stunned on so many levels.

GravityPhone said...

it seems like what would be best is just to have an option available to the pro photographers to turn off the filtering, but leave it on by default.

KeithAlanK said...

Flickr only tweaks the thumbnails, NOT the originals. (I tested this several times) And thumbnails usually need a little sharpening, so I don't mind a bit. I don't base my opinion of a photo on how the thumbnail looks, only the full-size original. Do you?

Solomon Rothman Search Marketing said...

Excellent POST! I've probably read 100's of blog entries on flickr and photo sharing services, but this is the first one I know of to reveal this "secret." Occasionally, blur used correct can greatly enhance the effect of photo, so I agree with you that user option is the best choice. Wouldn't it be terrible for a pro photographer to upload a photo that used blur artistically to have their "improvement" filters mess it up.

Anonymous said...

I would have thought doing this to thumbnails is a no-brainer. You're already modifying the size. Why not modify other things? Some places crop thumbnails even. They just *represent* the photo. The difficult question is whether to do this to larger versions of the photo. (Does flickr?)

Deepak said...

Well, how does it matter? Even if you were a pro, you couldnt sell your photos on flickr. You would still need to host your photos on another site that lets your customers buy the photos and licenses

If Flickr does apply filters and the photo looks better, there's nothing wrong with it.

Grafdom said...

Yes, i agree and i've actually noticed how much more enhanced their images are, its a great way to enlighten your stack i guess.

Anonymous said...

Or perhaps Flickr is just suing a more effective thumbnail algorithm to render the picture. No consipiracy here.

Anonymous said...

Different programs resize images with differing quality. This is nothing new. All this tells me is that Flickr is better (or different) at resizing than Zoto is. Use Photoshop to resize an image and then use IrfanView to resize the same picture, and they will also look different. Neither program is doing any secret editing to your picture.

Anonymous said...

What the hell.

Why are you photographing a bowl of soup.

The problem is your subject.

Flickr should have an AI filter for idiots who want to post images of soup.

Only artful nudes and cool scenery is interesting. Soup is not a subject matter for photography.

Someone should take away your camera, soup photographer.

Anonymous said...

maybe only 'pro's' would care but that begs the question- If you're a pro, why the hell are you hosting on a gimicky social networking site like flickr. If you're a real pro, host your own.

Matthew Rothenberg said...

Ok, you figured us out! I work for Flickr. I've revealed the dark truth behind this on my blog at:
http://mroth.info/blog/2007/02/01/flickrs-dirty-secret-revealed/

kara said...

@mroth

That's hilarious.

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It's chili. Not soup. It's freakin AWESOME chile that I created. It's my italian chicken chili. People shouldn't just be taking photos of it they should be writing sonnets about it and naming their children after it. Yes, it's that freakin life changing. I think it even cures the common cold.

The recipe is here.
http://flickr.com/photos/kerfuffle/357285855/

P.S. You wouldn't happen to be CEO or an employee of a photo hosting site called Zoto, would you?

Kord said...

Haha. That did sound like me, didn't it?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

If you looked at the full-sized version of your original picture at a distance such that it appeared as small as the thumbnail you've posted, it would look just as sharp as the bottom picture. Try it out. Flickrality IS REALITY without having to step back to view your picture in its entirety. Really. We ARE good photographers and so are you ;)

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Thank's. Use Photoshop to resize an image and then use IrfanView to resize the same picture, and they will also look different. Neither program is doing any secret editing to your picture.

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The reason is simply that sharpening works on the pixel level, so sharpening the image at full resolution, then resizing it to thumbnail size, will only lose most sharpening details or add undesirable artifacts...

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