Glass Photo App Review: Design Needs Work, But the Mission is Clear

In early August, a new photography-based subscription-only social media app hit the iOS App Store. Called Glass, it touts itself as a new, distraction-free home for photographers that is focused on one thing: your photos.

Glass was first conceived in 2013 by Tom Watson who, as an amateur photographer, loved communities like Flickr in the mid and late 2000s. But, as Watson notes, every platform originally conceived to be a place for photographers eventually pivoted away from that: Flickr was lost to mismanagement and Instagram to acquisition. So it became clear to Watson that venture-backed companies would always be a problem as far as the platform’s values and how those values get corrupted over time via outside influence.

Two years ago, Watson along with co-founder Stefan Borsje, founded Glass with the aim to be a platform by and for photographers — amateur and professional alike. It is designed to be a place for photographers to share or acquire knowledge as well as be a place to network with other photographers. Watson tells PetaPixel that in the first two weeks on the platform, they have already seen photographers inspired to buy their first camera as some of their favorite professional photographers share details on how they captured a photo.

I’m sure you noticed the “subscription-based” part: Glass currently runs $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year. However, at launch you can pay a discounted rate of $29.99 for an entire year ($2.50 per month). There is a 14-day free trial no matter which option you choose, which allows potential users plenty of time to figure out if Glass is for them — the trial is not limited in any way, either.

Additionally, Glass says it will not sell users’ data and it doesn’t answer to outside investors or advertisers. Transparency seems to be high on the priority list for Borsje and Watson (something that became extremely clear to me after my interview with Watson).

Most apps and websites tend to be very coy, if not entirely silent, about the security of your photos. For example, deep in Facebook’s terms of service, as a user you “grant [it] a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook” and that even if your delete your intellectual property and close your account, it is “deleted in a manner similar to emptying the recycle bin on a computer… removed content may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time.”

Glass, on the other hand, is clear to you that your content is and always will remain your own, is not subject to any sub-licensing or advertiser access, and the option to download a complete archive of your photos and delete your account is always available — except Glass uses a shredder instead of a recycle bin in a continuation of the metaphor.

Design and Experience

The app itself is incredibly straightforward and no-nonsense. Icons and options are kept to a minimum, which makes it exceedingly simple to start using right off the bat and makes for a very pleasing user experience. Five semi-transparent icons line the bottom of the screen: a “Home” icon that brings you back to the main chronological feed, a Discover section to find or browser users, your Glass profile, a notifications section, and at the far right is the upload icon.

According to Glass, images are processed into the system and displayed with minimal compression. Viewing images on my iPad Air 4, which is about the best screen you can currently use until there is a desktop app outside of the new iPad Pro mini LED display, photos do present with essentially no visible compression. The app also touts support for the P3 color gamut — not only is P3 an excellent color space but all modern iPhone and iPad displays use the Display P3 gamut. (Please note the app is for iPhones only right now — I have an app to mirror my iPhone to my iPad, which I used to inspect the images)

While the uploading process is smooth as silk, I would appreciate the implementation of a basic, optional editing panel when during the process in case the user wants to crop or perform other last-minute basic adjustments without diving over to a separate application first. For someone like me who only edits their photos on a computer — and therefore cropping or other adjustments have already been done — this is not a big deal at all. But let’s keep in mind that Glass wants to attract photographers of all skill and experience levels, many of whom may capture and edit entirely on their phone.

Growing Pains…

The entire concept of Glass is not only admirable but one that I think has great potential. With that said, Glass is still not there yet.

This is not unexpected for an app like this that doesn’t have a huge company (or funds) behind it — not to mention it quite literally is extremely new to the market. Glass does not see the current iteration of its platform as the final product in any way. From my interview with Watson, nothing became clearer than the fact that the company has firm intentions to diligently work at evolving, expanding, and adjusting the platform — particularly as user feedback rolls in.

The concept is strong, and the execution so far shows incredible promise. But there are some issues that need to be addressed — many of these are subjective to some degree, though I feel like most of them would be desired by a vast majority of Glass’s intended user base. So, with that said, let’s get into what needs work.

Lack of Resources

There is currently no “Help” or “FAQ” section both within the app itself or on the company’s website. This was quite a bit frustrating because I wanted to see if I was simply missing several things, but there is nowhere to go that has resources to help. However, Mr. Watson tells me that a Help/FAQ section will be coming in the next few weeks.

I may not have noticed the lack of a Help menu if it weren’t for the fact that it appeared as though there was no way to delete a photo once uploaded. Most other apps have a drop-down mini-menu with options that include deletion, but Glass does not. However, you can easily delete a photo by simply swiping left on it from your Profile.

Customization Would Be Nice

There is no way to edit an upload after the fact, such as adding a caption, and this needs to be fixed. I would also like to see an option when uploading for users to be able to turn off the EXIF data — especially if the photo might be geotagged, as a fair number of people may not be comfortable sharing that. Allowing the manual input of EXIF data would be a nice feature as well — if you upload a photo that’s been stripped of its EXIF, you could manually insert information like the camera model, focal length, aperture, et cetera.

Thankfully, and unlike Instagram, images are always displayed in their original aspect ratio. This is greatly appreciated, but there are a few niggles right now that really need to be addressed.

First is a problem with horizontal photos: when you click on one, it initially displays only a zoomed-in portion of the photo. You must pinch-squeeze to make the entire photo fit the screen. Square or vertical photos have no problem in this regard. The below photo shows this: on the left is what you see upon first clicking the image, the right is after pinch-squeezing the photo out to full size.

Constrained to 16:9

Images cannot have an aspect ratio wider than 16:9. It is not uncommon for me to crop images to 2:1 or 2.35:1 for a more cinematic look when that applies — these images I simply could not upload, as the app will inform you that they must be 16:9 or tighter. Watson informed me that there was originally panorama support in beta, but they kept running into issues making them work in the feed. He tells me they will absolutely revisit it in the future as “there are too many incredible panoramas out there to keep Glass constrained to 16:9 forever.”

Unexpected User Experience Hurdles

Partially related to the prior issue, the app does not rotate with your phone. This means you can only view horizontally-oriented photos with the camera held vertically, making them significantly smaller on screen than if the app would auto-rotate with the phone.

Watson explained that there were too many edge cases with changing orientation that it wasn’t a feasible option for version one of Glass, but they are not ruling anything out in the future — except “ads, public counts, algorithms, influencers, engagement casinos, and data tracking.”

While disappointing that it isn’t coming soon, I can do nothing but admire that response.

On a reversed note, square and vertical image viewing is afflicted by a different issue (on certain iPhone models) — the photos are positioned much too far toward the top of the screen such that if you have an iPhone X or later model, the notorious “iPhone notch” that houses the speaker and camera cuts into the top of the photograph. Most of the time, this is not particularly noticeable at first glance since the extreme peripheries of most photographs don’t contain much truly critical information. However, it is an issue enough of the time that I noticed it immediately after uploading about ten images.

Below is an example where the issue can be particularly noticeable — obviously a screenshot cannot capture the notch of the phone, so I have attempted to recreate the effect via crudely and lazily photoshopping out the area that would be covered by the “notch.” The right screenshot then shows what the full image looks like if it were positioned ever so slightly lower. Again, this issue only affects square or vertical aspect photos — the top of horizontal photos remains below the notch.

… But Growing Nonetheless

Watson says that there are several new features coming to Glass soon — improvements such as adding Categories, so users will be able to browse photos posted to categories like Film, Black and White, Abstract, etc. There are also many smaller updates soon to come — the already mentioned Help/FAQ section as well as more minor tweaks like adding pronouns to bios. The latter is something that I greatly appreciate — it isn’t even something that personally affects me, but it represents a solid ethical and moral code on behalf of Watson and Borsje as well as extreme attention to detail.

While it may sound odd to say that I think the Glass team has a keen sense of everything from the most minor to major details given how many issues I found with the app, it is important to note one thing:

As Watson explained to me, much of the trade-off with not taking venture capital money is that everything simply takes much longer — they have limited resources compared to VC-backed competitors, and he says they feel that friction every day. After all, the same goes for most things in this world — if you have other people’s money, you can do a lot and you can do it quickly. But then you’re also beholden to them. Glass is not.

Design Needs Work, but the Mission is Clear

Overall, I have come away with a sort of odd feeling about this app. This review does not sound overly positive in many ways, and yet I have come away very impressed — not by the current form of Glass, but by the promise of what it both will and can be, as well as the refreshingly and almost unheard of transparency of the company and the co-founders. I also extremely admire the entire concept and the way that Watson and Borsje decided to not only get this off the ground but their permanent commitment to Glass remaining unadulterated by investors and advertisers and other undesirable, external pressures.

It should be mentioned though that I can’t recommend someone should invest in something based on promises of what will come, only on what currently exists. So while I believe Glass’s founders will deliver in time, it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth laying down the cash now to join their burgeoning community.

Are There Alternatives?

When you see Glass, the first comparison you’re likely to make is Instagram. To that end, the founders have repeatedly pushed back on that, arguing that they and Glass do not want to replace Instagram, but rather make something new that avoids the same mistakes. Flickr is also another option, especially now since SmugMug runs the show there. It’s not clear if that service will ever fully recover, though.

Should You Buy It?

Yes. Glass is not there yet when it comes to design, but if you like the idea of a dedicated photography app whose founders promise will only continue to grow, expand, and evolve, I think you should give Glass a try.

To do so costs you nothing for a two-week trial run and only $2.50 a month if you purchase an entire year subscription at once ($30 at the time of publication). Also, while it is currently either invite-only or waitlist, that will not last more than a few more weeks. I even gave the waitlist a try — I received my access code less than twelve hours later.