Does iPhoto’s Faces Work?

by Bakari Chavanu Jan 29, 2009

After purchasing Apple's new iLife '09 suite of software, the first feature I wanted to explore is iPhoto's Faces. It has been one of the most talked about and anticipated features of iPhoto '09. Similar to the face recognition technology found in newer digital compact cameras, faces attempts to scan all your images in your iPhoto library and identify individual faces in them. Macworld attendees oohed and awed the feature when Phil Schiller presented it in early January.

Well after spending a couple of hours exploring and using the tool yesterday, I personally found using iPhoto's Faces not that much different from simply selecting and applying keywords to photos in your iPhoto library. In my experience so far, Faces is not a very efficient visual recognition program. If all your photos in your library were shot and looked like well-developed stocked images, then Faces would probably be much more successful. But then again, maybe not.

I mainly use iPhoto to store and manage all my family photos. (I use Aperture for professional work.) So I have digital photos dating back from 2003 primarily of my children. Well, Faces unfortunately does not easily recognize their growth from year to year or even from photo to photo. First off you have to train Faces to know what to look for. You have to select and name a person's face several times before Faces kicks in and starts identifying that same face in other photos. When it goes through this process, it will deliver up a handful of images in which it thinks a selected face appears. You have to then go through those suggestions and confirm or reject the correct recognitions. I couldn't figure out exactly how the recognition works. But obviously it looks at skin tone, eyes, chin, and other facial features as part of the recognition process. But what I don't understand is why when I select "select" and name say my daughter's face in one photo that Faces doesn't always recognize her face in other photos taken within a few seconds or minutes of one another. It simply is not consistent in its facial recognition. I can understand why it may have difficulty recognizing similarities in her face in photos taken when she was 3 years-old with ones taken recently at 11. I think that it accurately recognized her face in less than 50% of all the images I have of her in my library. The same goes for the faces of myself and other members of my family. 

I try to keep my iPhoto library fairly well managed using keywords, albums and events. Unfortunately, Faces probably won't be the primary management tool that I and others thought it would be. After spending a few hours selecting, naming, and confirming existing photos in my library, I imported a few photos of myself that were not already in the library. Faces failed to make the recognition, even though the photos are very clear and well composed portraits of myself. There are about dozen other photos of myself in my library that Faces still hasn't yet recognized on its own. I have to select those photos and go through the naming process just as I do using keywords. 

The sample photo below clearly shows the faces of my sister-in-law and my daughter. Well, even after helping Faces recognize and name at least 90% of their photos in the library, the tool fails to recognize their faces in a simple shot like this. 


And of course, forget about shots in which faces are too small to see. For example, I have photos taken of my children playing in the snow in Reno where the pictures include them and the surroundings. Well, there's no way for Faces to work effectively in these type of pictures. Photos in which faces are obscured by sunglasses or turned sideways are typically not going to be recognized by Faces. So you still need to keyword those photos if you care about managing and identifying the content of all your saved images. 

Basically, Faces is a hit and miss tool. It doesn't appear that it that it can be counted on to replace the other management tools in iPhoto. For my workflow, I will stick with manually applying keywords to my images to effectively manage my iPhoto library.

I look forward to hearing about how the tool works for you.


  • I have found a reasonable amount of success with iPhoto Faces thus far - it recognizes family members successfully enough for my use - one thing I would say concerning facial recognition systems I have used in the past - facial recognition is very difficult with subjects wearing glasses as in your sample in the article.

    photomandab had this to say on Jan 29, 2009 Posts: 1
  • I’m really looking forward to trying this out.  I hope it works as advertised.  I’ve taken roughly 10,000 photos of my daughter since she was born and it’s impractical for me to keyword each one.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Jan 29, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • Oh wow, my entire family and our closest friends all wear glasses. So again it seems like Faces is going to be hit and miss tool for us.

    Bakari had this to say on Jan 29, 2009 Posts: 37
  • Beeblerax, your don’t really have to keyword photos individually. Faces will help with the process, but you can actually select several photos at a time and keyword them.

    Bakari had this to say on Jan 29, 2009 Posts: 37
  • It doesn’t recognize my cats faces either. I guess I have to start taking pictures of humans now.

    mathiswrong had this to say on Jan 29, 2009 Posts: 1
  • My iPhoto should be hear any minute. Will be interested to see how it does with my mug and my fam’s, some with and some without glasses.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Jan 29, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • Does iPhoto face recognition have difficulty with race? I notice in the Apple demo shots everyone looks caucasian except for one girl, Carrie, who is still fairly light skinned anyway. And there’s no Asians there either.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Jan 29, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • BTW, thanks for the chuckle, mathiswrong.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Jan 29, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • Chris, it seems to take race or skin tone in consideration in my library. But again, the overall process is sometimes hit and miss.  Here’s another article that goes into more detail about it deals with facial detection and recognition.

    Bakari had this to say on Jan 29, 2009 Posts: 37
  • thanks, Bakari, tat was a good link.

    Did you notice too that Apple has again quietly revised the editing pane without telling anyone? I think it’s an improvement, bit it would be nice if it’s new feature (Definition) got a mention somewhere prominent.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Jan 29, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • Yeah, Chris, I was playing around with the adjustments today. I’m thinking about doing a piece on that topic. I still think iPhoto is a great program for the average consumer. It’s just that the Faces program still needs some work.

    Bakari had this to say on Jan 30, 2009 Posts: 37
  • I’ve been using it for an hour now and found a few quirks.

    1) It sometimes mis-identifies siblings. This is a problem because you have to double-check its guesses, i.e. you can’t just confirm blindly.
    2) It sometimes thinks some objects that aren’t faces are, such as this one of a butt!

    I also wonder how it’s affected by you identifying profiles and semi-obscured faces. Does that skew it’s recognition? So should you only identify clear faces?

    Chris Howard had this to say on Jan 30, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • Okay, I’m quite happy with its recognition. For me, it’s *not* having problems with glasses, and I’m fairly hapy with it’s success rate - prob about 50/50.

    My only gripe is there’s no indicated way to get into a photo to check its name suggestions when you’re on the “These may also be xxxx” screen. Instead, you have to double click and then click the Name button.

    If anyone knows a shortcut, let me know.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Jan 30, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • oooo! It just recognised me with a beard!

    Chris Howard had this to say on Jan 30, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • oh wow! it just recognized my Mii as me!

    Chris Howard had this to say on Jan 30, 2009 Posts: 1209
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