Is Face Detection Technology Worth It? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Is Face Detection Technology Worth It?

by David Peterson 7 comments

More and more point-and-shoot, and even digital SLR camera models, are touting a new feature known as face detection. A camera with face detection can notice when faces are in the frame and then tailor the images it takes to get picture perfect portraits every time. At least this is what the camera makers are promising. Are we seeing a genuine revolution in camera technology, or is face detection just another marketing ploy to sell more cameras?

At first glance, face detection technology seems pretty amazing. I know I was pretty excited when I first heard about it. “They’re really merging artificial intelligence with our cameras. The future is now!” I thought. After all, only people know when other people are in the room. This is the domain of science fiction.

What do cameras with face detection do?

Cameras with face detection notice when a face is in the frame and then set the autofocus and exposure settings to give priority to the face. The camera basically focuses on the face and finds a shutter speed and aperture combination that brings out the best colors in the face. At least this is what your camera salesman will tell you.

If you have been disappointed with shots taken using the automatic setting on your camera, you will know that even the most sophisticated automatic exposure systems still make a lot of mistakes. Certain kinds of photos simply aren’t even possible with automatic exposure. You can’t, for example, get a nice silhouette as the sun is going down. Even with the latest cameras, the best photographers still need to have an intimate understanding of how to manipulate manual settings to get the images they want.

Does it work? Honestly, No.

Beneath all of the buzz behind face recognition, you’ll find a mostly incomplete system that doesn’t do much to make the experience of taking portraits any better. If anything, it is just another distraction. Cameras with face recognition do a good job of recognizing faces, but they don’t do much with the data they collect. They don’t know how to focus the camera on the eyes, which are the most important part of any portrait.

Don’t spend extra money. Try this tip.

Instead of spending extra money on a camera with face detection, you’re much better off using the following tip to get better portraits. It all starts with the eyes. Find your subject’s eyes and focus on them first by placing them in the center of your frame, and pressing the shutter button halfway down. Now, while continuing to hold the shutter button, reframe the shot to include the background you want. Snap the photo and enjoy.

Here is what you are doing. You are telling the camera to focus on the most important part of the photo before adjusting the composition to include a background that works. Portrait photography isn’t the only area in photography where this is useful. It has applications in landscape photography, sunset photos, and practically everything else.

As a sports photographer, you might want to focus on the part of the scene where the action is about to occur before recomposing the shot and taking pictures. This guarantees that, no matter what, your subject will be in the part of the photo that is in focus. Without this skill, it is incredibly difficult to get a good action shot because you will never get the subject to be in focus.

I would argue that knowing to focus the camera on the most important area of the photo is so vital that it should be considered a basic skill for every photographer. Because it applies to so many areas in photography, you might as well incorporate it into all of your photography. You don’t have to spend a bunch of extra money on fancy cameras with face detection, just learn to pre-focus.

In this case, do it yourself.

Some things will never change... (including marketers who want to sell cameras). Over the years, digital camera technology has made some very significant strides. The most important of these were the ones that made it genuinely easier to use your camera to get the shots you want. Face detection doesn’t really accomplish this. It simply attempts to remove one step in taking portraits, and unfortunately, it is a very important step. It’s a step that doesn’t just apply to taking pictures of people, it applies to almost everything else in photography.

Besides, who needs a fancy camera to detect faces when you have the best face detection program built into your brain? When you allow the camera to make less decisions for you, your photos will always be better. So many technology enthusiasts and camera salesmen scorn the need to learn manual settings, but look at who is taking the best pictures. It’s the photographers who take the time to learn manual. It always has been, and it probably always will be.

But maybe I’m just old-fashioned. I’d like to know your thoughts on face detection, whether you own a camera with face detection, and if so, what you think of it so far. If you have any portraits taken in face detection mode, send ‘em my way, and we will put them to the test.

Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?


  1. Richard says:

    I wonder if it's improved enough in the last 5 years since the comments above.

    I'm used to focus, compose, shoot, and even using spot metering with compensation dialed in based on skin colour. Yet it is slower. I can stand in front of a group of people who want their photo taken and say "Just a second" or even "This is a metering flash not the real photo". (Which is also an excuse if you want a real photo without fixed grins - just another metering flash ;-)" - But I can't snap the kids like this. If I'm trying to capture the moment then the moment can have moved before I get even an off-center focus frame onto my subject, which can lead to rushing things. So I'm now comparing different cameras, one great at traditional style and one that sacrifices it a little but offers all these features.

    • Richard
  2. Rob says:

    My Fuji has face detection and I have never used. I switched it on once and found the green squares very distracting, its like smile recognition; just a gimmick to sell cameras,

  3. Phil Parsons says:

    Handy for grab shots perhaps, but not for serious photography. Switch exposure metering to "spot", focus on the eyes & half depress the shutter button. Exposure & focus should be locked at the best setting. Recompose and shoot.

  4. Jimmy Alexander says:

    Totally agree with the eyes but just a little solution. If you have a camera with focus points, frame the photo how you want it then chose a focus point over the eyes so that you don't have to move the camera and accidentaly through of Focus.

  5. Tony Wells says:

    My camera has face detection, but I have never used it. I fully agree to focus on the eyes in manual and have control over the camera and what we see ourselves

  6. Trevor Owen says:

    Have it on my Nikon point and shoot but this camera is for snaps and not for serious photographic work, rely more on your eyes than on your cameras electronic brain.

  7. Rob says:

    I agree whole heartedly on face detection. My Sony A550 has it and while it works ok for "grab shots", it doesn't get that sharp eye shot in portraits. I think it's more designed for party situations and not serious photography.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.