Image Annotation for Computer Vision: A Practical Guide

What Is Image Annotation? 

Image annotation is the practice of assigning labels to an image or set of images. A human operator reviews a set of images, identifies relevant objects in each image, and annotates the image by indicating, for example, the shape and label of each object. These annotations can be used to create a training dataset for computer vision models. The model uses human annotations as its ground truth, and uses them to learn to detect objects or label images on its own. This process can be used to train models for tasks like image classification, object recognition, and image segmentation.

The number of labels assigned to an image can vary depending on the type and scope of the project. In some cases, a single label is sufficient to represent an entire image. In other cases, annotators identify specific objects, segment an image into relevant regions, or identify landmarks, which are specific points of interest in an image. To ensure labeling accuracy, it is common to allow multiple annotators to label the same image, with majority voting to select the label that is most likely to be correct.

How Does Image Annotation Work?

Image annotation projects involve large scale annotation of images by teams of human annotators. The annotators must be well trained in the requirements of the project and adept at accurately performing the necessary annotations. 

Image annotation work typically includes the following tasks:

  • Preparing the image dataset
  • Specifying object classes that annotators will use to label images
  • Assigning labels to images
  • Marking objects within each image by drawing bounding boxes
  • Selecting object class labels for each box
  • Exporting the annotations in a format that can be used as a training dataset
  • Post processing of the data to check if labeling is accurate
  • In case of inconsistent labeling, the system should enable a second or third labeling round with voting between annotators

What Are Image Annotation Tools?

There are several open source and freeware tools available for annotating images. A common open source tool used in many large-scale projects is Computer Vision Annotation Tool (CVAT). Image annotation tools support the annotation process itself (for example, they enable drawing complex shapes on an image), and provide a structured labeling system so annotators can apply the correct labels to image artifacts.

Key features and capabilities of image annotation platforms include:

  • Efficient user interface—should support fast labeling, reduce human error, and be intuitive for the workforce without extensive training.
  • Ontology and taxonomy support—should be configurable to the label structure required for the machine learning model, including classifications, hierarchical relationships and custom variables. 
  • Annotation quality—accuracy in image annotation is paramount. An annotation platform should support multiple techniques for measuring quality including benchmarking (comparing annotation work to a gold standard) and consensus (comparing labels from two or more annotators who work on the same task). 
  • User management—should support remote user management, the ability to define supervisors who can review work by annotators, and collaboration features to enable supervisors to provide feedback on the work. 
  • Automation—advanced annotation platforms can reduce human error and make annotation work more efficient by automating complex annotation tasks. Automated pixel maps and label suggestions can be a starting point for human annotators.
  • Supports common formats—the tool should export annotation data in a simple format that users can easily understand and use in machine learning models.

Read our eBook: Designing a Synthetic Data Solution

Types of Image Annotation

Image annotation involves assigning labels to help artificial intelligence (AI) models detect certain aspects within a visual representation. Different types of image annotation help represent different aspects of an image.

These concepts are used in many types of image annotation:

  • Lines – lines can help annotate objects in an image to enable machines to identify boundaries.
  • Polygons – polygons help annotate objects that are neither symmetric nor regular. It involves placing dots across the dimensions of an object and manually drawing lines along the object’s perimeter or circumference. 
  • Markers – some annotations involve placing markers on coordinates in the image that have special significance.

Image Classification

Image classification enables machines to objects in images and across an entire dataset. The classifier is trained on a labeled dataset, learning to classify new unseen images into the same set of labels.

The process of preparing images for image classification is commonly known as annotation or tagging. This involves adding tags that describe objects or scenes in the image – for example, you can tag exterior images of a building with labels like “fence” or “garden” and interior images of the building as “elevator” or “stairs”.

Object Recognition and Detection

Object recognition, or object detection, enables machines to:

  • Identify a particular object in an image and apply the accurate label. 
  • Identify the presence of multiple objects, including the number of instances and locations, and apply the accurate labels. 

You can repeat this process using different image sets to train a machine learning model to autonomously identify and label these objects in new images. Object recognition-compatible techniques like polygons or bounding boxes can help you label different objects in a single image. For example, you can annotate cars, bikes, and pedestrians separately in one image. 

Landmarking

Landmarking enables machine learning models to identify facial features, expressions, emotions, and gestures. This technique can also serve to mark the position and orientation of a human body. 

For example, you can use data labels to mark specific locations on the face, like lips, eyebrows, eyes, and forehead, with specific numbers. Your machine learning model uses these marks to learn the different parts of a human face.

Image Segmentation

Image segmentation enables machines to locate boundaries and objects in an image. This technique achieves higher accuracy for classification tasks. Image segmentation involves dividing an image into several segments, assigning every pixel to specific classes or class instances. 

Here are the three classes of image segmentation:

  • Semantic segmentation—helps identify the boundaries between similar objects. 
  • Instance segmentation—helps identify and label each object in an image.
  • Panoptic segmentation—uses semantic segmentation to produce data labeled for background and instance segmentation to label the objects in the image.

Boundary Recognition

Boundary recognition enables machines to identify the boundaries or lines of objects in an image. These boundaries can include:

  • Regions of topography present in an image
  • The edges of a specific object

An annotated image can help train your models to identify similar patterns in unlabeled images. Boundary recognition is particularly helpful in enabling self-driving cars to operate safely.

Read our eBook: Designing a Synthetic Data Solution

Challenges in the Image Annotation Process for Computer Vision

Here are notable challenges in the image annotation process:

Balancing costs with accuracy levels 

There are two primary data annotation methods—human annotation and automated annotation. Human annotation typically takes longer and costs more than automated annotation, and also requires training for annotators, but achieves more accurate results. In comparison, automated annotation is more cost-effective but it can be difficult to determine the accuracy level of the results.

Guaranteeing consistent data 

Machine learning models need a good quality of consistent data to make accurate predictions. However, data labelers may interpret subjective data differently due to their beliefs, culture, and personal biases. If data is labeled inconsistently, the results of a machine learning model will also be skewed.

Choosing a suitable annotation tool 

There are many image annotation platforms and tools, each providing different capabilities for different types of annotations. The variety of offerings can make it difficult to choose the most suitable tools for each project. It can also be challenging to choose the right tool to match the skillsets of your workforce.

Synthetic Image Data: An Alternative to Manual Image Annotation

Manual annotation of images is time consuming and error prone. This has given rise to a new approach that can provide image-based training data for machine learning algorithms. There are several techniques for generating synthetic images, similar but not identical to real-world images, which can help train a model. 

For example, if a model requires images of vehicles, instead of manually annotating thousands of images containing vehicles, it is possible to create a synthetic dataset with realistic images containing cars, motorcycles, boats, and so on. The major advantage of this approach is that the images come pre-annotated—because they are synthetically generated, the boundaries of relevant objects in the image are already known.

Additional advantages include:

  • Higher annotation quality—synthetic images with built-in annotations have annotations that are 100% accurate and not subject to annotator biases or human error.
  • Comprehensive annotations—a synthetic image has annotations of all relevant objects in the image, while human annotation commonly focuses on only specific items. 
  • Scalable—synthetic methods make it possible to generate a large volume of annotated images in a short period of time. 
  • Variety—synthetic images make it possible to train a model on edge cases that do not commonly occur in real life. For example, an autonomous car needs many examples of scenarios that could lead to an accident, but real life footage of such scenarios can be difficult to obtain.

Learn more in our detailed guide to synthetic data, and check out Datagen, the leading synthetic data platform for computer vision projects. 

Best Practices for Annotating and Labeling Images

Here are a few best practices that can improve quality and performance of image annotation projects.

Best Practices for Annotators

Include the following best practices in training and quality review of your annotation teams:

  • Label objects in their entirety—a critical aspect of labeling quality is to ensure that bounding boxes or pixel maps cover the entire object of interest. Also, if an image contains multiple relevant objects, all of them must be correctly annotated. Missing some of the objects can impair training performance.
  • Fully label occluded objects—an occluded object is an object partially obstructed by other objects in an image. Annotators should draw bounding boxes around the entire occluded object, not just its visible parts. If several objects overlap, they should be indicated with complete, overlapping bounding boxes. 
  • Maintain consistency across images—annotators must be consistent in their labeling. In some cases this can be difficult because of subtle differences between objects and features in an image. Review edge cases with annotators and make sure it is clear what label should be applied in each edge case. 
  • Use specific label names—in projects where the label set is not predetermined, annotators should choose the most specific label names possible. If there are multiple types of an object, these should be determined in planning phases and annotators should be trained to identify and properly name the different types.

Addressing Inconsistencies Between Annotators

It is common for different annotators to label the same image or object differently. This represents a risk to an annotation project, because inconsistent labeling can confuse the model and hurt its performance. Here are a few ways to reduce inconsistencies:

  • Provide clear guidelines—when annotators commonly disagree on an annotation task, it probably means guidelines for the task are not clear enough. Provide clear written instructions with visual examples showing typical cases and boundary cases. If there are specific annotators who commonly disagree with others, train them individually and ensure they understand how to perform the tasks at hand. 
  • Be specific—the more broadly defined an annotation task, the more room there is for interpretation and disagreement. Try to define annotation tasks very specifically, but take into account the knowledge and skills of the workforce and the impact instructions can have on annotation time.
  • Test reliability at small scale—once the team has annotated a small group of images, train a sample model and see if there are major issues. This early “smoke testing” can help discover problems in the annotations or label scheme and resolve them early in the project.
  • Check data heterogeneity—if your dataset is very heterogeneous, it will be difficult to reach agreement between annotators. A good strategy is to split heterogeneous datasets into groups, and have different annotators work on each group. This type of specialization can help reduce disagreement and improve annotation quality.

Read our eBook: Designing a Synthetic Data Solution