picasa 3.5 face recognition impressions

September 26th, 2009 · No Comments

This post was originally published on Awesomeopolis.com on September 26, 2009.


Picasa, for the unacquainted, is a photo organization and basic editing software put out by the good folks over at Google.

Personally, I’ve used it for a few years now because it’s good at organizing mass quantities of pictures, and back around version 2.0 it helped me parse through pictures and organize web galleries for some websites I was in charge of.

But now, Google has just come out with version 3.5, and it includes a tool that I’ve been wanting to have on my PC for a long while. Face Recognition. The news broke on Tuesday, and I must give due credit to Lifehacker and TechCrunch for the articles letting people know about the release.

I decided to give it a whirl and I’ve been playing with it in my spare time. For the most part, I’m happy with it because it does get very good very quickly at picking up faces, but there are of course quirks that I wished worked better.

Read more after the jump!

First, Google’s official video highlighting the new features. I haven’t played with the geotagging at all, but focused my attention to face recognition.

Now, onto my experiences.


I’m a photography hobbyist and I tend to take lots of pictures. As a result, at press time I have 21,236 pictures loaded into Picasa, lots of them with faces.

Starting Up

When you first load Picasa 3.5, it’ll start combing through your pictures and mapping out zones with faces. When you look along the top left and click on “People”, you’ll see an “Unnamed” with a blank picture. When you click on that, you have two options for viewing:

Group by Face is where it’ll make guesses on pictures it thinks are the same person, and then give you a text field to type in and name your name.


Expand Groups shows you individual head frames for you to name.


And when you start typing in a name, it’ll look to auto-complete from your list of contacts. As an added bonus, if you sign into your Google account, it’ll pull down from your contacts. This has pluses and minuses. If your Google account contact list was in a state of disarray like mine, then you’ll have e-mail addresses pop up that don’t belong to your friends and family but may be listservs and business contacts. So, I saw this as an opportunity to clean up my Google contacts list. Here’s a picture of the autocomplete.


In both frames and pretty much anywhere else in the gallery, you can right click and get to a standard Windows menu interface with a sidedrop menu in alphabetical order to assign the picture to a person. While this is nice, it’s not the same as the text field input and gets annoying to assign pictures, especially if you’ve got lots of people you’re tagging and you have to do a lot of scrolling to get to the end of the alphabet.

If you don’t want to tag a person, you can delete them and they’ll move to an “Ignored Faces” section.

Hey, It’s Me! Or Not…

Once you start naming some names, Picasa will make guesses on adding some additional pictures to the mix for you to approve or disapprove.

Sometimes, it makes good guesses right away, as highlighted here since all the pictures here are indeed of me.


Sometimes though, it’s not so smart. For example, I the first picture I tagged of fellow contributor Sathvik was semi-blurry. And when you put a junk picture in, you can expect junk pictures out. Here’s the result of that, where none of the pictures it auto-tagged were of Sathvik. Eventually though, it got it right, and has becoming very clutch at picking up pictures of Sathvik.


And again, if either you or Picasa tags someone wrong, you can always go back, right click, and reassign to another person or delete the tag if you don’t want to tag that person.

Family Members and Bug Eyes

I’m actually quite surprised at how well it distinguishes between members of the same family. I’ve often been asked if my brother, who is two years younger, is my twin (he’s not, but I can see why people say that). Well, at first Picasa thought we were the same person, but after tagging about 200 photos of me, and about 50 photos of him, it’s pretty spot on at telling the different between him and I.

There are cases, where say it thinks pictures of my friend are actually pictures of her mom. And when they’re actually side by side and zoomed to the face, you think, “gee, they really do look alike, don’t they?” You can’t blame Picasa for thinking they’re the same person.

However, sometimes it thinks people wearing the same accessories are the same person. For example, graduation caps and sunglasses. I have a large number of photos that pan a large area during the various graduation ceremonies I’ve been in. And a lot of times it wants to group these people together as one, as exampled by this picture where Picasa wants to think that everyone from my college graduating class is my 13-year old brother, even though I already had 190 pictures correctly tagged of him.


It also thinks people with sunglasses are the same. I tagged a few pictures of my little sister with bug-eye sunglasses, so every girl I know with bug-eyes was coming up as my sister. Once I started tagging those people correctly though, it started parsing them out separately. Also, I hate bug-eye sunglasses.

Here’s an example of two people, who aren’t related at all, who Picasa thought they were the same person because their head was at a similar angle and they were both wearing sunglasses.


And here’s a more extreme example, where it thought my male high school friend was my dear sweet grandmother, again, because of sunglasses.


However, I will give it credit for picking up the same person in different headgear. Every year at college, our university president would hold a Halloween party at her house, complete with free food and all sorts of free swag. So, of course, as a starving college student I beckoned the call for free food, but always managed to take a few pictures of the President in her costume. I tagged a few pictures of her from my graduation ceremony, and Picasa was clutch at picking her up in other photos from her yearly Halloween party despite the different costumes (ranging from Lady Liberty to Willy Wonka).



Once you start mapping out a number of head-on shots, you’ll start getting asked about side profile shots. Picasa isn’t the greatest at automatically figuring out based on a head-on view what the person should be looking like from the side.


A nuance I noticed is that with side-on shots, there were a lot of false reads where Picasa auto-assigns the wrong people. Part of the problem I think was the grouping that it presents. For example, in of the the groups below, the picture is of me. But when I click on the picture, the members of that group show up in the right pane.


While the first picture is me, the second is of a male friend, the third is a female, and the fourth is a mysterious shadowy dark figure. If I were to go ahead and punch in my name for the group, it will think ALL of them are me, and then continue to assign pictures accordingly.

Celebrity Endorsements

Picasa will pick up anything that looks like a face. So, trips to the museum result in Greek statues being tagged, and posters of Dr. Evil or Ferris Bueller result in being picked up if it’s in the background.



Processing Time

To go through my 23,000 photos, it took my desktop 30 hours of continuous crunching. Granted, my PC is about four years old now and only has a single GB of RAM, but even though I had nothing else running, it wasn’t using all the RAM that was available. I’ve read other similar findings of people with much better processors and much larger memory, and users seemed to be complaining that Picasa wasn’t using it efficiently.

My method of attack was to go through the list of suggested face groups and name as many as I could. When there were no more faces, I did a sweep up and down the list looking at suggestions for the people. I would approve, or disapprove, and sometimes Picasa would right away offer up new suggestions for an individual person. For example, it thinks that a picture of me in a hat is me. I tell Picasa that it is, and then right away will pop up four more picture of me in that same hat, asking for my approval. After clearing out suggestions for everyone, I went back to the unknown category and started the cycle over again.

What I found to be confusing was the progress bar. Pretty much right away in the first few hours, it jumped from 0% to 15%. However, from there it slowed to a trickle. Despite the fact that I was naming people as fast as it would present them to me, it was a slow crawl up from the 20% mark to the 35% mark, and sometimes it would go DOWN. This was discouraging.


Finally thought, after 30 hours of crunching and about 5 hours in aggregate of me actually sitting at the desktop naming people, it changed from a percentage complete to a number unnamed. Unfortunately for me, that number was at 8,000. Oy, that’s still a lot of pictures to go through.


Faces in the Crowd

I talked before about it picking up faces of random classmates at graduation. Well, if you have any picture where there are a lot of people in the background, it picks them up and wants you to name them.

Here’s an example of a picture I took at a Devils/Rangers hockey game during warmups. It picked up the faces of 17 fans in the background. That’s 17 people I now have to go in and delete because I’ll never want to name them. Multiply that by the 50 or so pictures I took at that game, and that accounts for about 300 random faces I need to manually remove.


Another gripe I have is that Picasa will pick up 17 random faces from a crowd, but in other pictures won’t pick up where there’s clearly a person standing there. Here’s an example where it’s tagged fellow contributor Matt, but not me.


While these examples are rare occurrences, they happen more often than I would like. How did the algorithm miss the face in the above picture, yet pick out three of my siblings which were in a frame on the wall in the picture below? And what stopped it from picking up the additional faces in the frame?


If it touts that it will automatically snap faces, then it should do that. I have a large number of pictures where the main person in a photo who takes up 50% of the space is ignored, yet it captures the pixelated faces of strangers walking by in the background. Very annoying, because if I do want to go back and tag them, they’ll have to be manually added while I’m manually deleting the people in the background.

Thumbnail Issues

One additional problem I have is that the very first picture automatically becomes the thumbnail of that person. So, in the case of Sathvik mentioned above, the half-blurry picture now becomes his permanent mark. There’s a right click option that says “Refresh Thumbnails”, but it doesn’t change the thumbnail despite removing the original picture. Searches of the problem tell me that other people are experiencing this, and that the thumbnails must be stored elsewhere on the hard drive, but no one has been able to provide a solution yet.

Exporting and Sharing

I was also curious as to what happens if I export a photo, and then re-import it. Does it keep the face information? Apparently not. A quick test had Picasa asking me who this new mysterious man was, even though it’s a copy of a photo that I exported using the export interface in Picasa!

A search for the issue lead me to this page, where the author of the post had the same question. He got a reply from Google, in which they said this:

“Thanks for trying out Picasa 3.5 and thank you for your posts! We’ve put together this list of common questions on the topics you’ve addressed that we hope will be helpful to you.

Q: Is face tag data stored in the photo itself?

A: We currently do not store face tag data directly inside the photo but this is functionality that we hope to have in the future.

Q: Since my face tag data is not stored in the photo itself, where is my face tags data stored?

A: Face tag data is stored in the Picasa database and also in the .picasa.ini file in the folder where your tagged photo sits. To see the location of the photo on your hard drive and the .ini file where the information is stored, right click the photo and select “Locate on Disk”.

Q: How do I transfer my face tags from one computer to another?

A: There are a few different ways to transfer your face tags:

1) You can perform a Backup of your photos and restore them on your new computer. This process will preserve your face tags. (“Tools” > “Backup Pictures”)2) You can copy your files *and* the .picasa.ini file from your hard drive to the new destination3) Upload your face tag albums to Picasa Web Albums and download the album to the new destination

*Important note on option 3: In order for your contact information to be preserved you’ll need to make sure that your contacts associated with your face tags are marked as “Online Contacts.” This means that the person is synchronized with Google Contacts. After copying the photos to the destination computer, make sure you are logged in to your Google user account so that Picasa can retrieve your Google Contacts and update your face tags with the corresponding information. See reference section for more info on syncing contacts.”

I for one am happy to see Google answering concerns. Maybe we’ll get a reply out of them for some of the thoughts posted here?

Final Thoughts

Overall, I feel very happy with the facial recognition software, but there are still a number of shortcomings that will hopefully be addressed by Google in future releases of the product.

→ No CommentsCategories: photography | Tags: | 6,023 views

0 responses so far ↓

  • No comments yet. Go ahead and add one maybe why not?

Leave a Comment