Let Your Computer ID the People in Your Photos

What's the hottest new trend in digital photography? For 2009, it might well be face identification. And no, I'm not talking about billboards that track the people watching them. I'm talking about programs that know who's in each of your photos.

Here's the problem face ID is trying to solve: You've got thousands of photos on your computer, and buried among them are a few dozen pictures of Aunt Alice. But how to find them? They're spread across many different folders, with unhelpful names like Thanksgiving04, Vegas_trip, and 100808. That picture of Aunt Alice holding her prize-winning quilt might as well be in a locked filing cabinet in an abandoned warehouse in Newark

Increasingly, programs are trying to help you identify and track the identity of faces in your photos, so you can later just filter by "Alice" and automatically see all the matching pictures. Here are three programs you can try to get a taste of the future of photo management.

Picasa

Picasa is a free photo organizer that's been around for years, but only recently has Google added name tagging to its list of goodies. And it's pretty cool: After crunching some numbers in the background, Picasa does an admirable job of identifying all the faces in your photo collection. (You can watch a video that shows Picasa's name tagging in action.)

Identify a face, and Picasa then adds that name to all the other instances of that person in your photos. That's right; after you tell Picasa, "this is my mom," all the other photos of mom will be automatically labeled for you. It's like magic.

Of course, you're probably wondering what the accuracy is like. After all, if Picasa starts labeling lampshades and chandeliers as "Mom" or misidentifies a lot of pictures of her as Aunt Alice, then it kind of becomes more trouble than it's worth. In my experience, though, it's surprisingly good. It's not perfect, but mistakes are easily corrected, and the more photos of a person Picasa has to work with, the better the accuracy becomes. In fact, Picasa surprised me with its accuracy when it correctly identified all three faces in one particular photo: my daughter, her mom, and even a framed photo of my daughter!

Picasa has its limitations, though. It's an online photo organizer, and it doesn't write the face metadata back to the original photos stored on your PC. These labels are useful only when you're on the Web.

PicsMatch

I was curious to try PicsMatch, a $79 desktop photo organizer. This program lives on your computer, manages your original photos, not copies on a Web server, and it has face recognition built right in. What's not to love?

The program's method for face matching could be better. While Picasa runs through your photos in the background, looking for matches, and then lets you choose which photos to ID, PicsMatch turns that process on its head. PicsMatch wants you to know--to really feel in your bones--how hard face matching can be.

When you want PicsMatch to learn about Aunt Alice, you need to create an ID entry for her in the program, and then manually search your photo gallery for one or more images to associate with. PicsMatch then takes this identity card you've created and scans your computer looking for other photos. This approach is cumbersome because you need to think of all the people you want to tag right up front. It's also heavy handed, since it requests high-quality photos like those from driver's licenses or passports in order to set up the ID cards. I got pretty good results without such images--which is good. Honestly, how many driver's licenses of friends or family do you have stored on your computer?

Issues like those make PicsMatch feel unpolished and clunky. And even though it's a desktop photo organizer, it doesn't currently support RAW images, limiting its usefulness for advanced photographers.

Windows Live Photo Gallery

The newest version of Microsoft Windows Live Photo Galley has a face tagging feature as well. But unlike Picasa and PicsMatch, Photo Gallery just locates faces in a photo--it can't identify them. You open an image file and Photo Gallery helpfully shows you that there are several faces within it. But the rest is up to you: You click on a face and either type someone's name or pick an existing name from the list, over and over again. If you have a lot of pictures with people in them, that can take a while.

Maybe the next version of Photo Gallery will connect the dots by identifying faces like Picasa, but for now it's only halfway there. That's too bad, because it is free, works on your original files (not Web copies), and even works with RAW files--all the stuff that's missing from the other programs.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Picking Dandelions," by Misty C. McMillan, Laurinburg, North Carolina

Misty writes: "My daughter was picking the dandelions in our yard. The sky was such a great blue that I decided to lie down on the ground beneath the flower and let her come pick it. I focused on the dandelion and let her blur into the background."

This Week's Runner-Up: "Landing Gear Down" by Mike Schaper, Glendora, California

Mike says that he took this photo with a Canon EOS 40D at dusk, setting a fast shutter speed and an aperture that would deliver a shallow depth of field.

See all the Hot Pic of the Week photos online.

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