Sunday, August 09, 2009

How Google Picasa Face Recognition Software Can Help Genealogists

Google Picasa Web Albums has face recognition software that can help name the unknown people who are in your old family photos.

This free software even recognizes the same person at different ages.

I discovered this by accident. I was scanning old family photos from one of those shoe boxes of unmarked and unnamed photos that every family seems to possess. After scanning, I uploaded the photos to a private and unlisted Picasa Web Album to share with my cousins so that we could collaborate on trying to determine who was in the photos.

I enabled name tagging** so I could name those people in the photos whose names I did know. I thought name tagging would be a good idea to keep us organized. After enabling name tagging, you can hover over a face in a photo in the Picasa web album, click, and type the name the person.

Then I discovered that after name tags are enabled, Picasa Web Albums will look for similar faces in your photo collection using its photo recognition software. Picasa shows an Add name tags button on the My Photos tab along with the number of untagged faces that were detected in the online photo gallery.

The Add Name Tag feature groups similar faces together. Its purpose is to let users tag photos with names a batch at a time, but for genealogists trying to figure out who is who in old photos, it aids in finding all photos of the same person - even at different ages. Then it suggests the name of the person in this batch of photos based on face recognition similarity to other photos.

It was a very impressive moment when Picasa presented me with a large array of photos with the same face, and then suggested a name which turned out to be correct.

I can't begin to say how helpful this was in naming people in my old family photographs. I had been manually going through the photos comparing ears and noses and eyebrows and so on to find all the photos of the same person. Google did this for me automatically.

Google Picasa makes photo name suggestions based on its software - it is up to the user to decide if the person in the photos are the same and that the names are correct. Face recognition is a tool but does not replace human judgment.

Once photographic subjects are named, you can click on a name to see all the photos of that person in your albums even if that person appears in a photo with others.

Picasa's name tags are very helpful but not perfect. The face recognition software works best if the subject is facing the camera. There is a limit to the success of face recognition when the subject is in the shadows or is in profile. And it didn't get all the photos correct. Sometimes in my case, it confused brothers; sometimes it didn't recognize the person at all, but still, oh, what a help.

Sometimes Google found all the photos of one person, but we still didn't know who it was.

But, overall, I found the Picasa photo recognition software extremely helpful in naming the people in my old family photos.

**To Enable Tagging in Google Picasa Web Albums

  • Click Settings at the top right of the page.
  • Click on the Privacy and Permissions tab.
  • Web Check the box next to 'Use name tags to name people in my photos.


dayna said...

I went wild tagging my old photos until I realized each new person I tagged became an email contact in Gmail. I don't foresee emailing my dead ancestors, so I deleted the tags. If there's a way to turn off the contact adding feature, I couldn't find it.

alex said...

I ended up creating a new google account just for this feature so that it is separate from my usual gmail account.

Kathi said...


Great idea!

Unknown said...

I tried it, but it won't recognise a face in the photo. The photo is B&W taken about 1860 - scanned to 2,200 x 2,800 pixel, full length in a voluminous dark dress and hence the face is relatively small, half facing the camera.

Should I crop the photo, increase the pixels, play with brightness and contrast? Any suggestions?

alex said...

Alex, I love this feature for tagging faces for genealogy while Picasa maintains the option for privacy. My only dislike of this feature is the limitation of characters allowed in naming a tag. Sometimes I will have to shorten a name so that it fits within their limit.

Forensic Genealogy Blog said...

I'd like to add a word of caution about facial recognition software that might appear to identify a photograph of a person. For example, I get asked a lot if an unidentified photo could be a person at a different age, based on one that is known to be him. I get asked a lot about the use of facial recognition software for genealogy, as I am an expert in forensic science as well as a forensic genealogist.

Facial recognition software can only tell you that an unknown photograph of a person is similar to a known one of him, it cannot positively identify it for you. Genealogists must keep this in mind when using facial recognition software for the kinds of older photos that we usually have in our collections.

Facial recognition software alone will not do the job. Especially if a picture was taken long in the past, there may be no way to know if that picture is really the person the software recognizes as a likeness, or his brother or cousin or friend who looked just like him, or even a complete stranger. Usually there are not many photos of other family members or friends to rule out it could be someone else who looks just like a particular relative. Since family trees are usually not 100% complete, the whereabouts (or existence) of other family members are not usually known well enough to rule other individuals as the person in the picture. And there is always the possibility that it might be a total stranger that just might look like your family. How many times have you run into someone who looks a lot like you?

The good news is that if you combine the software with what you know about you family and friends, the software can help narrow down the possibilities. If nothing else, it can rule out that two pictures are the same person, and help you focus on the people the unknown photo might be.

Everyone, genealogists or non-, gets excited about the possibility of a photograph being a long lost relative, or of a grandparent when he was a child. We WANT the picture to be identified, so there is the ardent desire for it to me Uncle Joe or Grandpa Jones. So the caution here is double. When you look at an unknown photo, facial recognition software or not, step back and try to be objective, think about what the software is telling you, and realize that even the most modern technology cannot replace common sense.

A more complete discussion of the use of facial recognition software in genealogy can be found in an article that I wrote for Dead Fred's Newsletter on age progression techniques. It is relevant to the present discussion of the Picassa software. See

As Dick points out "it aids in finding all photos of the same person", and "it is up to the user to decide if the person in the photos are the same and that the names are correct".

Aylarja said...

RE: Forensic Genealogy Blog,
I don't think anything in the original blog piece is at all inconsistent with what you wrote: facial-recognition software is a tool that can assist, but can never take the place of careful, informed human judgment.

I have a suggestion for an enterprising genealogy company: incorporate facial-recognition technology that can span not only one individual's collection, as Picasaweb does, but an entire site's collection of uploaded photographs to suggest possible matches. How incredible would it be to discover that the unnamed, unknown individual included in your collection is face-tagged in someone else's collection - perhaps opening up a point of contact with a previously unknown distant relative - or that someone else's collection contains an image of your great-grandfather that you have never seen?

Obviously, there are privacy issues that would need to be addressed, and it is a legitimate question whether this technology can work reliably across multiple collections of photographs, but I see a fantastic potential here for opening up yet another avenue in genealogical research that would have been simply impossible in an era before the Internet.

Abba-Dad said...

Another word of caution. I believe Picasa terms of service say that any image uploaded gives Google the right to use in any way they choose. I still need to research that but since I don't use Picasa I don't really care.

MyHeritage has a terrific facial recognition tool that you should check out as well.

Thanks for the tip!

Mamawolf said...

I tried Picasa as a beta version and was alarmed that, when it loaded my photos to it's program, it sucked them right out of the folders on my pc.

It did not do this to all of the photos, just the vast majority. Two years or so later, I still have not found all the missing photos. Does this still happen, or did they get it fixed?

I'd love to try out this feature, but don't want my carefully organized photos to be snatched again.

yooper girl said...

to Mamawolf: Picasa has had multiple changes since the beta version, but it does not remove pictures from the files on your computer. It opens the files and allows you to organize them, but does not remove them from your files unless you tell it to move it to a new folder, or "save to disk".
to danya: If you go to the Picasa tools menu, choose options, choose name tags, then unclick the button that says "Upload people album thumbnails to google contacts"

Unknown said...

I installed Picasa 3.9 and now have suffered corruptions probably permanently to some jpgs in my genealogy folders. I uninstalled and they ares still completely damaged. They suggest reinstalling to fix problems. And risk further damage? That's not a route I would like to take. I was using the face recognition features in the free version so maybe that's the issue? Anyway that is a certain deal breaker for me and people should be very careful with this software and backup all important photos before installing and making sure the program doesn't scan the backups. A google search finds others with the same issue.