Can an iPhone App Judge Photos Better than Humans?: EyeEm’s ‘The Roll’

Benjamin Caro
7 min readJun 5, 2016

The Roll has some pretty impressive technology behind it. Analyzing the framing of your photos, it assigns an aesthetic score to each photo on your camera roll. Not only that, but by using a combination of shape and color recognition and, I suspect, geotags, The Roll is assigns keyword descriptions to your photos, making them searchable by tags. Instead of scrolling endlessly for that picture of a latte with Prince latte art, you could instead search “coffee” and boom, there it is. PetaPixel lauds “The Roll is the 21st century version of the Camera Roll; it’s what the Camera Roll should be.”

Before our rigorous testing, let’s see how it works. The following is what The Roll thinks is the very best photo on my camera roll.

My girlfriend, an actual photographer, looks for a shot while I steal one of her.

Fine. I‘m not going to ask to be buried with it or anything, but fine, it’s a photo.

Here is The Roll’s analysis of the photo. As you can see, it gave it a score of 96%. That’s a pretty damn good score! If I was back in high school, that would have landed me an A. I’m calling my parents. Also, you can see the myriad of freakishly accurate keywords The Roll generated for this photo. Truly, the tech behind this app is awesome, or creepy, depending what mood you’re in.

Now let’s check out some other photos to see how The Roll rates and reviews them! I took a random sampling of photos from the internet to see how The Roll compares them to my amazing 96%-scoring coastline shot. The following are the actual keywords and scores generated by The Roll. All I can say is: 96%? Best of luck.

Aesthetic Score: 67%
Keywords: full length, sitting, playing, enjoyment, fun, focus on foreground, cute, selective focus

While this photographer did seem to have a knack for rich colors and depth of field, this relaxed shot of someone sitting didn’t have the excitement necessary to pull in anything higher than 67%. Even with little action, though, the photo captures the fun and enjoyment on Muhammed Ali’s face, something great to remember him by.

A photo of a wonderful kiss that could’ve been technically better with more planning.

Aesthetic score: 25%
Keywords: street, large group of people, city, city life, road, crowd, focus on foreground, outdoors, day, group of people, medium group of people, uniform

The subject matter of this photo is inspiring. A beautiful kiss in front of a large group of people! I think it tells a great story. Unfortunately, the photographer didn’t take the time to frame his shot very well. The colors are drab and the focus is a little soft. Make sure to always tap on your screen before you take a picture for best focus.

Afghan actress.

Aesthetic score: 88%
Keywords: portrait, headshot, close-up, focus on foreground, face, red, cute, day

Wow, what a great headshot! This photo comes very close to beating my 96% score, and it’s easy to see why. The photo captures the actress’ piercing green eyes. This Afghan girl will certainly land many roles in Hollywood, California due to her cute demeanor.

The burning monk, 1963.

Aesthetic score: 36%
Keywords: weather, outdoors, day, season, stationary, close-up, focus on foreground, nature, white

While The Roll managed to pick up on some highly accurate descriptions for this photo, such as being outdoors, it missed a few key aspects that I really help separate this photo from the others, namely that it’s of a monk burning alive after dousing himself with gasoline.

Warm clothing of the padre.

Aesthetic Score: 39%
Keywords: full length, warm clothing, day, outdoors, city, focus on foreground, jacket, city life

Here we see a priest modeling the latest in men’s fashion during a similar time period in Venezuela. The warm clothing he’s wearing steals the show. Based on the 29% aesthetic score, though, I’m beginning to think that The Roll has a bias towards more colorful photos. Let’s test out that hypothesis with our next photos.

Stuart Franklin, “Tank Man”

Aesthetic score: 34%
Keywords: road, season, weather, outdoors, day, the way forward, nature, diminishing perspective, surface level, selective focus, elevated view.

Another low score. A photo no one will remember. Should’ve been at the beach with me.

Kevin Carter, “The vulture and the little girl”

Aesthetic score: 35%
Keywords: animals, field, livestock, grass, nature, landscape, herbivorous, outdoors, day, grassy, brown, rural scene, selective focus, animal, beauty in nature, tranquility.

While The Roll is able to detect the “beauty in nature” this photo exhibits, The Roll is unable to comment on the responsibilities of Western journalists in the third world, their conflicting roles as both objective documentarians and active players in the horrors in front of their lenses; nor quantify the tragic consequences of photojournalism in the public sphere. But it’s early. Looking forward to the next update.

Nick Ut, “Napalm girl”

Aesthetic score: 45%
Keywords: day, focus on foreground, enjoyment, vacations, outdoors, fun, nature, selective focus, running

This photo somehow won a Pulitzer Prize for its portrayal of a family on vacation in Vietnam during the summer of 1972. The Roll was not impressed with its technical aspects though, which can’t be excused by the black and white photography format considering this photo scored better than the colored ones above. Still, aesthetics aren’t everything. Enjoyment and fun go a long way.

“Earthrise.” Image credit: NASA.

Aesthetic score: 79%
Keywords: moon, beauty in nature, astronomy, night, tranquil scene, tranquility, nature, idyllic, majestic, exploration, discovery, space exploration, outdoors, sky, moon surface, weather, close-up, landscape, white, blue, dark.

On a quiet Christmas Eve in 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 transmitted a live broadcast to earth from their orbiting spacecraft, sharing pictures of the earth and the moon. “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth,” said one of the pilots. The broadcast ended with the crew taking turns reverently reading from the book of Genesis, the very first book of the Bible about the origins of our planet and all of humanity. The Roll says 79%.

The Hubble Deep Field. #nofilter

Aesthetic score: 38%
Keywords: night, full frame, illuminated, glowing, abstract, dark, close-up, light, nature

This kind of shitty abstract photo took 10 days in space to capture. They were bound to lose Instagram followers while waiting. They took a risk by pointing their camera app, the Hubble Space Telescope, on an empty part of space. What returned were 3,000 never-before-seen other galaxies, allowing them to not only realize our infinitesimal place in the universe, but also identify the age of the universe, the beginning and end of everything, the origin and culmination of all things. If you ask me, though, it kind of looks like psychedelic dandruff. Like what am I supposed to be looking at? Perhaps if the photographer zoomed in on a single galaxy, one that was closer to us and we already knew existed, the photo would’ve been aesthetically proficient. At least add someone smiling in the foreground.


Let’s tally up the scores, from worst rated to best.

11. Kiss photo (25%)
10. Tank man (34%)
9. Vulture and the little girl (35%)
8. The burning monk (36%)
7. Hubble Deep Field (38%)
6. Aid from the padre (39%)
5. Napalm girl (45%)
4. Muhammed Ali (67%)
3. Apollo 8 Earthrise (79%)
2. Afghan girl (88%)

And the #1 best photo is…

My beach photo (96%)

All in all, based on the top scorers, it looks like The Roll places more value on pictures of faces (especially “cute” ones, like the faces of the Afghan girl or Muhammed Ali smiling) as well as landscape pictures like a relatively uninteresting overcast beach or, if you prefer, one of the few pictures of Earth we have from the surface of the moon. Make sure to take a picture of a face, or of tranquility, if you want a photo that will really resonate with people.

After our test, it’s obvious that there are definitely technical limitations to determining the emotional value and aesthetics of a photo using a computer program, no matter how advanced. Even so, it’s clear that it’s only a matter of time before we get to relinquish the need to judge photography ourselves, ask how it affects us on a personal level, or even evaluate its lasting social and political effects on society at large. I think this can also be said of other art forms, including paintings, music and even poetry.

I’m looking forward to the next update!



Benjamin Caro

Writer/director working on bringing the short film “Cathedrals” to life. See what we’re doing to help the blind!