Lousy vacation photos no more?

One of the first things I learned after joining my local photo club is that many great photos don't come out of the camera that way; they need editing.

But good photo editing, like good photography itself, isn't a trivial skill. It can take years to learn how to use sophisticated tools like Photoshop and Nik Software plug-ins to coax a more dramatic, vibrant or better-lit image out of your original file. And in this digital era where even casual photographers might come back from a trip with hundreds of images, it can be time-consuming just slogging through all those files to first find the best shots let alone editing each one.

Just in time for the 2013 summer vacation season, Google today announced new technologies for Google+ that will 1) pick your best photos from among a massive upload, 2) automatically improve them, and even 3) add some extras such as a new image from multiple group shots where everyone's finally smiling. You can also set Google+ on your phone to automatically upload and save photos -- storage is unlimited at 2048px standard size and you've got up to 15G free storage for full-sized images.

I'll reserve final judgment until I see what all the new auto-editing technology actually does with my own photos. But I have to admit that what I saw today while watching the Google I/O keynote video streamed was pretty impressive.

The new Google+ Auto Highlight sifts through a major photo upload to weed out things like blurry images, duplicates and poor exposure, said Vic Gundotra, Google senior vice president. It will recognize if you're at an important landmark and make sure to include one image among those highlights. It checks to see if people appear happy and are smiling -- not necessarily what a serious photographer would be seeking in a "best shot," by the way, but more likely what you want if you're sharing snapshots with family and friends. Based on your Google+ activity it will boost the importance of pictures that include people in your circles. And, Gundotra said, Google's machine learning algorithms have been trained by human raters to learn about photo aesthetics.

It may indeed be somewhat arbitrary, but then so are photo club competitions where images are scored based on the tastes of one or a couple of judges.

Auto Enhance automatically corrects or improves dozens of things in an image, such as tonal distributions, "noise" (dots or specks that can show up in low-light images), white balance (if there's a color cast on an image), exposure and red-eye removal. Gundotra said Google's algorithms recognize the human face accurately enough to properly do skin softening, making wrinkles and blemishes less pronounced. Users will have the option of turning enhancement off.

Finally, the new Auto Awesome occasionally generates new images based on a group of related photos. If you take a quick burst of photos in sequence, you may get a short animation. If you take multiple shots of a group, you might see a new photo where everyone's smiling. Likewise, Auto Awesome may create a panorama of appropriate images or one merged HDR shot (high dynamic range combines over- and under-exposed images in situations where a camera can't adequately capture the scene's full range of lighting, such as when there's both very bright light and very dark shadows).

Automation won't substitute for a serious amateur's own "digital darkroom" work, which for many of us are an important part of the creative process. But for someone who simply wants to share better photos quickly, this is a pretty appealing way to post improved images with little effort.

The new photo features are part of a package of Google+ updates set to roll out in the next week or so.

Update: I've now got the new photo technology in my account. I'm getting somewhat mixed results with some of the auto enhancements -- although to be fair, many of the images in my account have already been edited in Lightroom, so additional editing might be overkill. The skin softening at times was a bit strong for my tastes, although some people might find it pleasing to have that smoother look. White balance didn't correct a bluish cast as I'd hoped, and oddly some of my photos got rotated 90 degrees the wrong way when optimized.

Other images, though, were definitely improved with exposure and contrast -- something I could do with a Lightroom auto correct button as well but may be unlikely to if I'm snapping a picture with my phone.

And I have to say I agreed with a lot of its picks for photos to highlight.

Overall I'd say this technology has potential to improve many if not all casual photos. For now, I'm no less likely to manually edit photos of family and friends I shoot with my main camera. But some of the auto uploads from my phone that I might have kept to myself before, since they didn't turn out great and weren't worth editing time, may be more likely to be shared within my circle of friends if auto improved. And that, I suppose, is the ultimate point.

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