Review: iPhoto ’09 face detection limited but still useful

Even though I’m preferring Apple Aperture over iPhoto to post-process my RAW format photos, the new “Faces” feature in iPhoto ’09 (part of iLife ’09) sounded interesting enough to me to give iPhoto another try. To get some photos in iPhoto without having to duplicate them, I set it up to reference Aperture preview JPEGs in iPhoto’s preferences instead of copying them to the iPhoto library. The preset for Aperture preview JPEGs is 1/2 size of the original photo. Now I’m able to reference Aperture projects by dragging them to iPhoto using the Show Aperture Library menu in iPhoto’s File menu. 

Referencing Aperture previews saves a lot of disk space compared to copying the photos into the iPhoto library. Unfortunately, Apple forgot to write the geotagging metadata to these previews so I’m not able to see where my photos were taken in iPhoto with the very, very cool “Places” feature. While referencing photos from Aperture saves space, I have to do this again for every new project or photo I import into Aperture. I wish Apple had a closer and more intelligent integration between these two products.

Automatic face detection and face recognition

For this post, I’m using my own definition to differ detection from recognition:

  • Face detection: Will iPhoto detect any human faces on a particular photo
  • Face recognition: Will iPhoto know who that face belongs to on a particular photo based on “experience”

Every time I import a photo into iPhoto ’09, the face detection/recognition algorithm kicks in automatically. It tries to determine if there are any faces on the photo and if yes, if it knows that face based on previously tagged faces. I have a lot of photos of my family, friends, weddings and so on and face detection seems to be quite limited when there are more than 4-5 people on a single photo. I have quite a lot of false positives (no face there but iPhoto detects one) in landscape-only photos. I ended up using Add Missing Face which lets you draw a rectangle over a missed face a lot!

Even though I manually tagged 30 of about 100 photos with my full face on it with my name, the face recognition algorithm only asked me on 12 of the remaining photos “Is this Jan?”. Face recognition works best if the subject looks straight and level into the camera and the face is brightly lit. Understandably, it won’t work when the subject is wearing sunglasses. While the algorithm is (at least sometimes) capable of detecting a face profile, I never saw a case where it actually recognized a face from the side.

There’s a lot of room for improvement in iPhoto’s face detection and recognition algorithms. It’s still fun to play around with Faces. Even though automatic recognition in iPhoto ’09 is limited and only works on a small percentage of my people-photos, it encouraged me to manually name-tag many photos. The reward comes in form of the new Faces tab where all name-tagged photos show up, grouped by name. That being said, I’d love to see Faces (and even more Places) in Aperture too.

6 thoughts on “Review: iPhoto ’09 face detection limited but still useful

  1. I use Aperture. Assuming the faces feature worked correctly, would I be able to have iPhoto process my photos, identify the faces and then tag each image accordingly so that I could search within my Aperture library for images of a specific person?

  2. I did not have much success with face recognition. It is really hit or miss and caused me to spend WAYYY too much time manually tagging photos, JUST HOPING that it would help IPhoto along and make it work better. Not the case, and I ended up wasting 3 hours of my life.

    I will use IPhoto, because it is what I use, but don’t buy it just for the face recognition. Usually when Apple touts a feature, it is done right, but in this case it is a miss.

  3. for those of us using iLife 09 and not aperture, could you post a few words on how to utilize gpx data (I can use an iPhone App to download that data file to my computer) with iPhoto? I can’t figure out how to then integrate that data with photos in iPhoto. I’m assuming it should assign the location to photos taken at the same or nearly the same time, but so far that’s not happening. I’m suspecting you’d readily know how to make that happen?

  4. Winnie, you may want to try it yourself. Some folks are reporting pretty good results – but then, good is relative.

  5. Thanks for this very helpful review. I’m using Aperture, too, and was thinking about buying ilife ’09 just because of face detection. But if it is that unreliable I think I will wait until it is integrated in Aperture (hopefully in an improved version). But when will this be?

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