Improving Google Earth Base Imagery

Google Earth has been out for four years now. In June 2005, Google not only made a fantastic and invaluable resource free to the public, but since then has added amazing features and incredible data to the application. This blog usually sits in awe of the latest and greatest features added every few weeks, or even days. However, every once in a while Google goes down the wrong path with a feature or update.
Example of old/new imagery in Google EarthToday, I’d like to make a case that Google is going down the wrong path with their base imagery. Albeit with the best of intentions. They apparently would like to make the imagery when viewed from space look more normal (like you would see it from space). Google Earth’s imagery has always looked “mottled” due to the strips of satellite imagery having many different rectangular shades of brightness (since the imagery is taken at varying times of day and year). Correcting this look is something I’ve also pleaded for in past blog posts. But, not the way they are doing it now.
Lately, Google has been attempting to correct the view from above by fusing different colors of shading into the imagery and using color correction on the satellite imagery. For example, this was done with Australia in December, and this weekend the US has had some of the treatment. But, the problem with this approach is that the colorization sometimes messes up the quality of the imagery (painting not only vegetation green, but also buildings, roads, and everything else (see image to the right). See the example in the screenshot here in Google Earth – turn on “Historical Imagery” option of GE 5 to see the two different shots. Not only that, but the colors are actually wrong in some places (like Arizona where they painted areas green that have no substantial green color in real life) – see the Tucson Mountains for example. However, I do approve of processing the base imagery for color saturation, brightness, and contrast consistency.
Blue Marble time animation in Google EarthIf Google wants the imagery to look better from space, they can use techniques built into GE to smoothly transition from one imagery set to another when zoomed in close. I suggested this back in 2006 and put up an example file and video using NASA’s Blue Marble imagery. Try it yourself here . Note that the file shows the view from space for the current month (which changes the vegetation and ice/snow according to the season – see a time animation of all 12 months). As you zoom in closer, the imagery smoothly disappears to show the base imagery. And, Google doesn’t have to use the NASA Blue Marble I suggested. They can use their own desired look (such as their special colorization technique). The important part is that they can set things up so it smoothly transitions to the normal base imagery once a user zooms in closer to the Earth.
There has been debate about how best to approach the views from space. But, I think the current course of action – modifying the base imagery – is wrong. A layer you can turn on/off to change the view would be a better approach. And, the layer could offer different choices (Blue Marble, Google’s favorite view, and maybe others). In addition, the same layer could have the ability to turn on/off clouds. Ironically, the new historical imagery feature in GE 5 lets you see the Blue Marble imagery in lieu of Google’s base imagery if you select a time where they don’t have imagery. So, Google is already making use of the concept.
Recently I was re-visiting the Microsoft Virtual Earth/Live Maps/now Bing Maps (yet another name change). Their image sets change at different zoom levels, but I really do not like the transitions (very abrupt – not smooth in the 2D – a little better in 3D). And they have several different transitions (too many I think). You don’t see the better quality imagery until you are very close to the ground. Often, you don’t even realize they have high resolution imagery until you zoom to house-top level.
I certainly don’t want Google Earth to have lots of levels of transitions (and definitely not abrupt ones) in the imagery. But, the current approach Google has taken is certainly not acceptable (can you tell I’m not happy?). Maybe one or two levels of transition (in a user-selectable layer), would be a better approach. It could even be useful (if it showed different views according to season, weather/clouds, etc.).

About Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor started the Google Earth Blog in July, 2005 shortly after Google Earth was released. He worked in 3D graphics for many years and was very impressed with this exciting product. Frank left in 2009 to circumnavigate the earth by sailboat as part of the Tahina Expedition.


  1. I think part of the problem with Bing is the raster labels — they’re a huge factor in the appearance of abrupt transitions. Since Google already uses floating vector images for the labels, it greatly helps ease the transition.
    My point is that Google could do layers like you suggest that are similar to Bing, and the transitions would be much smoother simply due to the way they style their labels.

  2. Michael says:

    couldn’t agree more with you!

  3. I believe that Google Earth should make use of the same imagery that is used on Google Maps for the zoomed out view. This should then smoothly transition at a time when it is appropriate so that the high resolution imagery can be viewed.
    I swear that GE used to do this anyway – back in the early days?

  4. I wholeheartedly agree. The green discoloration of base imagery is actually just horrid— and frustrating.

  5. I am not sure that the “view from” space is the main consideration here. I think we are seeing a transition from a stage when well informed users have understood the nature of the ‘patchwork’ appearance, and even found it useful when checking out imagery changes, to a stage where Google see a product with popular use and increasing paid for content where a ‘patchwork’ could convey a detrimental makeshift product image.
    Whilst small patches of the UK have been improved by colourisation, I wholly agree with criticism of the results in the US.
    It is also possible that GE placemark icons will also have to be re-coloured in consequence, and I have already noticed some problems with placemarks icons used in KML files.

  6. Christopher Bruns says:

    I agree. I have always felt that the Google Earth “patchwork” look could be improved.
    In defense of the Google Earth folks: Years ago the initial “whole Earth” view at startup showed an eggregious patchwork mosaic. They since switched to a consistent smooth look for the most zoomed-out appearance, which definitely cured most of my initial revulsion.
    I suspect they are now struggling with the remaining mosaic look at intermediate resolutions. I agree that any method that dramatically alters the most-zoomed images is probably a mistake.

  7. I disagree with you. I think Google’s approach is the right one here. Transitions are good for Maps but not Earth, because in Earth you work with what you see in the images, you make placemarks, draw roads on what you see. If the image changes as you zoom out, it is useless. Google just needs to improve its coloring algorithm.

  8. Right on. I’d leave the images as they were, instead of applying false colour. It would look.. umm.. less bad.

  9. In Pakistan some areas had imagery of maybe 25 to 50m resolution and that base imagery got replaced with SPOT/Cnes imagery in this latest update. So while we have a far superior (2.5m?) imagery now for these areas which looked ancient, the also have the overwhelming green color cast on them.
    Does it have more to do with SPOT/Cnes imagery then?

  10. FRANCE – following my comment on colourisation in the UK and the US, I have been looking at the new high res coverage in France, and whilst the extension is welcome, up to half the departments included have imagery with too much contrast, making dark shadows, and rathe artificial colours, particularly in the green spectrum, which is over used. The effect is an unnecessarily crude look in my view.
    This colouriasation actually gives France a more patchy appearance from near space than before (although as earlier middle res images are not in the history layer in many places comparison is not easy).

  11. I could argue either way on this one. On the one hand, the ‘patchwork’ quality of GE imagery draws attention to the fact that the imagery comes from a variety of sources which, in my opinion, is a good thing. There’s already enough people out there who think that GE plugs them into some sort of spy satellite, providing real-time views of their backyard. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with a little image manipulation for aesthetic purposes. A little satellite red-eye removal, as it were. In the end, though, I would put retention of image integrity at the top of my list.

  12. I agree completely. The areas where they have done this now look completely unrealistic. I hope they reconsider.

  13. I for one think Google should just leave the imagery alone. 90% of the time, the images are just fine as is. So what if they look like a patchwork from space?
    I just see no point in messing around with it, as the results have turned out a loss worse than what we had before.

  14. As a proponent for Google Earth and it’s various applications, I have found it increasingly frustrating and ultimately just not that fun to zoom in on a blurred green landscape. Who comes up with these bright ideas?
    The mosaic pattern of satellite photos was working just fine sans the green dye color. This situation needs to be rectified as it is really taking away from the entire Google Earth experience. Very sad.

  15. A couple of years ago the imagery of the Netherlands was modified more or less in the way described in your post. All rivers, lakes, canals and ponds were suddenly blue. Also some “patchwork-transistions were removed. It all suddenly looked a lot better. I don’t know if Google used an advanced automated process or if all this was done by hand but over the years I never found a mistake (a blue building, field or forest.)

  16. dmcgrady says:

    I liked the images very much the way they were.
    I do not like the green versions at all.

  17. Any way of not displaying overlays. Some imes the base image is good enough, especially with the spot image backgrounds

  18. I live in Oman which until recently had the (perfectly acceptable) patchwork of high resolution images. This has recently been replaced with an update of 2.5m base imagery which is horrible. Most of the country is now very dark and the poor contrast has lost much of the detail, particularly in the built up areas where most of the interest lies. There are also patches of hideous colour around the coast. There have always been a few areas of old low resolution imagery, particularly in the interior, so it can be argued that in general the update is an improvement. Although it is possible to access the historical imagery, I think this recent update is a backward step.

  19. You are spot on. GE is absolutely screwing up the imagery with their attempts to adjust it. As the saying goes – the road to destruction is paved with good intentions. My vote is for the “raw” imagery. Good PAMAP imagery in PA is being completely destroyed – discolored, lousy contrast. Google is making a mistake. I’m getting the imagery elsewhere and linking it in to replace their background. A little slower, but a lot better.

  20. Finally someone is talking about this. Frank, you’re totally right. In the Pacific Northwest where I live, it’s now very difficult to discern coniferous forests from deciduous forest, and clear cuts from in-tact forest.

  21. Imagery of Colorado’s mountains has also taken a big hit. As an avid off-roader I am no longer able to pre-explore numerous regions due to dark over saturated imagery. I have done print-screens into photoshop, brightened and semi desaturated the images to reveal details I used to see before the changes. Sometimes even this is not adequate indicating image data has actually been lost or destroyed. What is Google Earth thinking? Please forget about an orbital view and concentrate on a hang glider view as was once the case.

  22. scott burgess says:

    We still have this green overcast layer that has made the close up views unusable at lake Tahoe. Is there any way to turn this off??

  23. Please turn this off. It’s ridiculous. You should not be artificially coloring the maps. Just show the real thing.

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