What is SIFT(Scale Invariant Feature Transform) Algorithm?

Aishwarya Singh 19 Jun, 2024
12 min read


Ever wonder how you instantly recognize a friend’s face, even from a blurry photo or at a different angle? It’s because your brain excels at identifying key features and making connections. The Scale-Invariant Feature Transform (SIFT) algorithm, a powerful tool in computer vision, mimics this ability.

Unlike humans, machines struggle to recognize objects in images with variations in scale or perspective. SIFT bridges this gap. By extracting distinctive features from images, SIFT allows machines to match those features to new images of the same object. This paves the way for exciting applications in image recognition, object detection, and more. In this article, we’ll delve into the SIFT algorithm and explore how it empowers machines with human-like image recognition capabilities.

Learning Objectives

  • A beginner-friendly introduction to the powerful SIFT (Scale Invariant Feature Transform) technique.
  • Learn how to perform Feature Matching using the scale invariant feature transform algorithm.
  • Try hands-on coding of the SIFT(scale invariant feature transform) algorithm in Python.

What is SIFT Algorithm?

The SIFT (Scale-Invariant Feature Transform) algorithm is a computer vision technique used for feature detection and description. It detects distinctive key points or features in an image that are robust to changes in scale, rotation, and affine transformations. SIFT(scale invariant feature transform) works by identifying key points based on their local intensity extrema and computing descriptors that capture the local image information around those key points. These descriptors can then be used for tasks like image matching, object recognition, and image retrieval.

Example of SIFT Algorithm

Take a look at the below collection of images and think of the common element between them:

Example of SIFT Algorithm

The resplendent Eiffel Tower, of course! The keen-eyed among you will also have noticed that each image has a different background, is captured from different angles, and also has different objects in the foreground (in some cases).

Human vs. Machine Recognition

I’m sure all of this took you a fraction of a second to figure out. It doesn’t matter if the image is rotated at a weird angle or zoomed in to show only half of the Tower. This is primarily because you have seen the images of the Eiffel Tower multiple times, and your memory easily recalls its features. We naturally understand that the scale or angle of the image may change, but the object remains the same.

But machines have an almighty struggle with the same idea. It’s a challenge for them to identify the object in an image if we change certain things (like the angle or the scale). Here’s the good news – machines are super flexible, and we can teach them to identify images at an almost human level.

Applications of SIFT in Computer Vision

This is one of the most exciting aspects of working in computer vision!

SIFT computer vision, or Scale Invariant Feature Transform, is a feature detection algorithm in Computer Vision.

SIFT algorithm helps locate the local features in an image, commonly known as the ‘keypoints‘ of the image. These keypoints are scale & rotation invariants that can be used for various computer vision applications, like image matching, object detection, scene detection, etc.

Advantages of SIFT Keypoints

We can also use the keypoints generated using SIFT as features for the image during model training. The major advantage of SIFT features, over-edge features, or HOG features is that they are not affected by the size or orientation of the image.

Example Demonstration

For example, here is another image of the Eiffel Tower along with its smaller version. The keypoints of the object in the first image are matched with the keypoints found in the second image. The same goes for two images when the object in the other image is slightly rotated. Amazing, right?

Example Demonstration

The SIFT Process

Let’s understand how these keypoints are identified and what the techniques used to ensure the scale and rotation invariance are. Broadly speaking, the entire process can be divided into 4 parts:

  • Constructing a Scale Space: To make sure that features are scale-independent
  • Keypoint Localisation: Identifying the suitable features or keypoints
  • Orientation Assignment: Ensure the keypoints are rotation invariant
  • Keypoint Descriptor: Assign a unique fingerprint to each keypoint

Finally, we can use these keypoints for feature matching!

Constructing the Scale Space

We need to identify the most distinct features in a given input image while ignoring any noise. Additionally, we need to ensure that the features are not scale-dependent. These are critical concepts, so let’s talk about them one by one.

Gaussian Blur

We use the Gaussian Blurring technique to reduce the noise in an image.

For every pixel in an image, the Gaussian Blur calculates a value based on its neighboring pixels with a certain sigma value. Below is an example of an image before and after applying the Gaussian Blur. As you can see, the texture and minor details are removed from the image, and only the relevant information, like the shape and edges, remain:

Gaussian Blur

Gaussian Blur helped in image processing and successfully removed the noise from the images, and we have highlighted the important features of the image. Now, we need to ensure that these features are scale-dependent. This means we will be searching for these features on multiple scales by creating a ‘scale space’.

Scale space is a collection of images having different scales, generated from a single image.

Hence, these blur images are created for multiple scales. To create a new set of images of different scales, we will take the original image and reduce the scale by half. For each new image, we will create blur versions as we saw above.

Here is an example to understand it in a better manner. We have the original image of size (275, 183) and a scaled image of dimension (138, 92). For both images, two blur images are created:

Gaussian Blur | SIFT( Scale Invariant Feature Transform) Algorithm

You might be thinking – how many times do we need to scale the image, and how many subsequent blur images need to be created for each scaled image? The ideal number of octaves should be four, and for each octave, the number of blur images should be five.

Gaussian Blur | SIFT( Scale Invariant Feature Transform) Algorithm

Difference of Gaussians

So far, we have created images of multiple scales (often represented by σ) and used Gaussian blur for each of them to reduce the noise in the image. Next, we will try to enhance the features using a technique called the Difference of Gaussians or DoG.

Difference of Gaussian is a feature enhancement algorithm that involves the subtraction of one blurred version of an original image from another, less blurred version of the original.

DoG creates another set of images, for each octave, by subtracting every image from the previous image in the same scale. Here is a visual explanation of how DoG is implemented:

Difference of Gaussian

Note: The image is taken from the original paper. The octaves are now represented in a vertical form for a clearer view. 

Let us create the DoG for the images in scale space. Take a look at the below diagram. On the left, we have 5 images, all from the first octave (thus having the same scale). Each subsequent image is created by applying the Gaussian blur over the previous image.

On the right, we have four images generated by subtracting the consecutive Gaussians. The results are jaw-dropping!

consecutive Gaussians

We have enhanced features for each of these images. Note that here I am implementing it only for the first octave, but the same process happens for all the octaves.

Now that we have a new set of images, we are going to use this to find the important keypoints.

Keypoint Localization

Once the images have been created, the next step is to find the important keypoints from the image that can be used for feature matching. The idea is to find the local maxima and minima for the images. This part is divided into two steps:

  • Find the local maxima and minima
  • Remove low contrast keypoints (keypoint selection)

Local Maxima and Local Minima

To locate the local maxima and minima, we go through every pixel in the image and compare it with its neighboring pixels.

When I say ‘neighboring’, this includes not only the surrounding pixels of that image (in which the pixel lies) but also the nine pixels for the previous and next image in the octave.

This means that every pixel value is compared with 26 other pixel values to find whether it is the local maxima/minima called extrema. For example, in the below diagram, we have three images from the first octave. The pixel marked x is compared with the neighboring pixels (in green) and is selected as a keypoint or interest point if it is the highest or lowest among the neighbors:

We now have potential keypoints that represent the images and are scale-invariant. We will apply the last check over the selected keypoints to ensure that these are the most accurate keypoints to represent the image.

Keypoint Selection

Kudos! So far, we have successfully generated scale-invariant keypoints. But some of these keypoints may not be robust to noise. This is why we need to perform a final check to make sure that we have the most accurate keypoints to represent the image features.

Hence, we will eliminate the keypoints that have low contrast or lie very close to the edge.

To deal with the low contrast keypoints, a second-order Taylor expansion is computed for each keypoint. If the resulting value is less than 0.03 (in magnitude), we reject the keypoint.

So what do we do about the remaining keypoints? Well, we perform a check to identify the poorly located keypoints. These are the keypoints that are close to the edge and have a high edge response but may not be robust to a small amount of noise. A second-order Hessian matrix is used to identify such keypoints. You can go through the math behind this here.

Now that we have performed both the contrast test and the edge test to reject the unstable keypoints, we will now assign an orientation value for each keypoint to make the rotation invariant.

Orientation Assignment

At this stage, we have a set of stable keypoints for the images. We will now assign an orientation to each of these keypoints so that they are invariant to rotation. We can again divide this step into two smaller steps:

  • Calculate the magnitude and orientation
  • Create a histogram for magnitude and orientation

Calculate Magnitude and Orientation

Consider the sample image shown below:

Calculate Magnitude and Orientation

Let’s say we want to find the magnitude and orientation for the pixel value in red. For this, we will calculate the gradients in the x and y directions by taking the difference between 55 & 46 and 56 & 42. This comes out to be Gx = 9 and Gy = 14, respectively.

Once we have the gradients, we can find the magnitude and orientation using the following formulas:

Magnitude =  √[(Gx)2+(Gy)2]  =  16.64

Φ = atan(Gy / Gx) = atan(1.55) = 57.17

The magnitude represents the intensity of the pixel and the orientation gives the direction for the same.

We can now create a histogram given that we have these magnitude and orientation values for the pixels.

Creating a Histogram for Magnitude and Orientation

On the x-axis, we will have bins for angle values, like 0-9, 10 – 19, 20-29, and up to 360. Since our angle value is 57, it will fall in the 6th bin. The 6th bin value will be in proportion to the magnitude of the pixel, i.e. 16.64.  We will do this for all the pixels around the keypoint.

This is how we get the below histogram:

Creating a Histogram for Magnitude and Orientation

You can refer to this article for a much more detailed explanation for calculating the gradient, magnitude, orientation, and plotting histogram – A Valuable Introduction to the Histogram of Oriented Gradients.

This histogram would peak at some point. The bin at which we see the peak will be the orientation for the keypoint. Additionally, if there is another significant peak (seen between 80 – 100%), then another keypoint is generated with the magnitude and scale the same as the keypoint used to generate the histogram. And the angle or orientation will be equal to the new bin that has the peak.

Effectively at this point, we can say that there can be a small increase in the number of keypoints.

Keypoint Descriptor

This is the final step for SIFT(scale invariant feature transform) computer vision. So far, we have stable keypoints that are scale-invariant and rotation-invariant. In this section, we will use the neighboring pixels, their orientations, and their magnitude to generate a unique fingerprint for this keypoint called a ‘descriptor’.

Additionally, since we use the surrounding pixels, the descriptors will be partially invariant to the illumination or brightness of the images.

We will first take a 16×16 neighborhood around the keypoint. This 16×16 block is further divided into 4×4 sub-blocks and for each of these sub-blocks, we generate the histogram using magnitude and orientation.

Keypoint Descriptor

At this stage, the bin size is increased, and we take only 8 bins (not 36). Each of these arrows represents the 8 bins, and the length of the arrows defines the magnitude. So, we will have a total of 128 bin values for every keypoint.

Here is an example using pyplot in matplotlib:

import cv2 
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
%matplotlib inline

#reading image
img1 = cv2.imread('eiffel_2.jpeg')  
gray1 = cv2.cvtColor(img1, cv2.COLOR_BGR2GRAY)

sift = cv2.xfeatures2d.SIFT_create()
keypoints_1, descriptors_1 = sift.detectAndCompute(img1,None)

img_1 = cv2.drawKeypoints(gray1,keypoints_1,img1)
 pyplot in matplotlib

Feature Matching

We will now use the SIFT computer vision features for feature matching. For this purpose, I have downloaded two images of the Eiffel Tower taken from different positions. You can try it with any two images that you want.

Here are the two images that I have used:

import cv2 
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
%matplotlib inline

# read images
img1 = cv2.imread('eiffel_2.jpeg')  
img2 = cv2.imread('eiffel_1.jpg') 

img1 = cv2.cvtColor(img1, cv2.COLOR_BGR2GRAY)
img2 = cv2.cvtColor(img2, cv2.COLOR_BGR2GRAY)

figure, ax = plt.subplots(1, 2, figsize=(16, 8))

ax[0].imshow(img1, cmap='gray')
ax[1].imshow(img2, cmap='gray')
Feature Matching

Now, for both of these images, we are going to generate the SIFT features. First, we have to construct a SIFT object. We first create a SIFT computer vision object using sift_create and then use the function detectAndCompute to get the keypoints. It will return two values – the keypoints and the sift computer vision descriptors.

Let’s determine the keypoints and print the total number of keypoints found in each image:

import cv2 
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
%matplotlib inline

# read images
img1 = cv2.imread('eiffel_2.jpeg')  
img2 = cv2.imread('eiffel_1.jpg') 

img1 = cv2.cvtColor(img1, cv2.COLOR_BGR2GRAY)
img2 = cv2.cvtColor(img2, cv2.COLOR_BGR2GRAY)

sift = cv2.xfeatures2d.SIFT_create()

keypoints_1, descriptors_1 = sift.detectAndCompute(img1,None)
keypoints_2, descriptors_2 = sift.detectAndCompute(img2,None)

len(keypoints_1), len(keypoints_2)
283, 540

Next, let’s try and match the features from image 1 with features from image 2. We will be using the function match() from the BFmatcher (brute force match) module. Also, we will draw lines between the features that match both images. This can be done using the drawMatches function in OpenCV python.

import cv2 
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
%matplotlib inline

# read images
img1 = cv2.imread('eiffel_2.jpeg')  
img2 = cv2.imread('eiffel_1.jpg') 

img1 = cv2.cvtColor(img1, cv2.COLOR_BGR2GRAY)
img2 = cv2.cvtColor(img2, cv2.COLOR_BGR2GRAY)

sift = cv2.xfeatures2d.SIFT_create()

keypoints_1, descriptors_1 = sift.detectAndCompute(img1,None)
keypoints_2, descriptors_2 = sift.detectAndCompute(img2,None)

#feature matching
bf = cv2.BFMatcher(cv2.NORM_L1, crossCheck=True)

matches = bf.match(descriptors_1,descriptors_2)
matches = sorted(matches, key = lambda x:x.distance)

img3 = cv2.drawMatches(img1, keypoints_1, img2, keypoints_2, matches[:50], img2, flags=2)
drawMatches function in OpenCV python

I have plotted only 50 matches here for clarity’s sake. You can increase the number according to what you prefer. To find out how many keypoints are matched, we can print the length of the variable matches. In this case, the answer would be 190.


In this article, we discussed the SIFT feature-matching algorithm in detail. This site provides excellent visualization for each step of SIFT. You can add your own image, and it will create the keypoints for that image as well. Another popular feature-matching algorithm is SURF (Speeded Up Robust Feature), a faster version of SIFT. I encourage you to explore it as well.

And if you’re new to the world of computer vision and image data, I recommend checking out the below course: Computer Vision using Deep Learning 2.0

Key Takeaways

  • SIFT (Scale-Invariant Feature Transform) is a powerful technique for image matching that identifies and matches features invariant to scaling, rotation, and affine distortion.
  • It sees widespread use in computer vision applications, including image matching, object recognition, and 3D reconstruction.
  • The SIFT technique generates a scale space of images with different scales and then uses the Difference of Gaussian (DoG) method to identify keypoints.
  • It also computes descriptors for each keypoint, which can be used for feature matching and object recognition.
  • You can implement SIFT using Python and the OpenCV library, which provides functions for detecting keypoints, computing descriptors, and matching features.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. What is the difference between SIFT and SURF?

A. SIFT and SURF are both feature detection algorithms in computer vision. The main difference is that SURF is faster and more computationally efficient than SIFT, but SIFT is generally more robust to various image transformations.

Q2. Can you draw only the keypoints or the keypoints with descriptor vectors as well in SIFT?

A. In SIFT computer vision, you can draw both the keypoints and the descriptor vectors. Using the drawKeypoints function in OpenCV, set the flags parameter to cv2.DRAW_MATCHES_FLAGS_DRAW_RICH_KEYPOINTS to visualize the keypoints with their size, orientation, and descriptor vectors as arrows.

Q3. Is grayscale a necessary step in SIFT?

A. Yes, you must convert images to grayscale in SIFT computer vision because the algorithm works with single-channel grayscale images. Without this step, the algorithm cannot accurately detect keypoints and compute descriptors.

Aishwarya Singh 19 Jun, 2024

An avid reader and blogger who loves exploring the endless world of data science and artificial intelligence. Fascinated by the limitless applications of ML and AI; eager to learn and discover the depths of data science.

Frequently Asked Questions

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Responses From Readers


Matang Panchal
Matang Panchal 09 Oct, 2019

You have made this article very simple to understand, Great Work. One Question , How can we decide that images are matching or not, Because as shown in the last image few keypoints are matching and few are not matching, so what would be the deciding factor?

Sanjay Dasgupta
Sanjay Dasgupta 10 Oct, 2019

Thanks for a very interesting and informative article. Is it possible to publish links to the image files to allow readers to easily try out your code?

sasi reddy
sasi reddy 12 Oct, 2019

Your explanations of this stuff are the best on the web. Thanks so much, I always learn something new from these tutorials. The amazing article was written over there.

Samuel Armoo Jones
Samuel Armoo Jones 13 Nov, 2019

Thank you so much Madam for this article. I think so far this is the best article I've come across concerning image matching using SIFT Technique and its really detailed. Please I would like to know all the mathematical equations used in this technique and if there's any article or link that talks about that I'll be very grateful if I can have access to them. Thank you once again.

Parth Goel
Parth Goel 20 Dec, 2019

Excellent article. Got me out of a jam. Thank you so much

Seb 21 Mar, 2020

Hi Aishwarya, thanks for this clear Tutorial. Just struggle with one thing, the local maxima / minima selection: Do we have to go through each octave? And wich scale is in the selected octave the scale for comparison? Thanks.

Faiz 01 May, 2020

Really great explanation. Have been looking everywhere for explanation on hand crafted features (HOG and SIFT).Also wondering if you have written an explanation on independent component analysis (ICA) and independent subspace analysis(ISA).Thanks.

Machine_learner 15 May, 2020

Superb explanation of SIFT. The best found on internet.Thanks a lot

Machine_learner 15 May, 2020

Superb explanation of SIFT. I search everywhere on internet for an easy explanation and I found a right place.Thanks a lot

Humble_Student 18 Feb, 2022

Great explanation, I really enjoyed it. No blabbering, very concise, and actual examples on how its done. Thanks!!

Gowri S
Gowri S 26 Feb, 2022

Very nice article, everything needed to understand are explained so well.

Rakesh 21 Mar, 2022

Amazing article ! I have just started learning ML, couldn't understand completely this article but got some idea, Regression ! will make these concepts clear to me. Thanks !

Erich 21 Apr, 2022

Dear Aishwarya Singh, really a superb article! Excellent! Thank you very much for that!

Andy Harrison
Andy Harrison 11 May, 2022

Excellent article! Are there methods in OpenCV that would allow me to apply a transformation to either of the images based on the keypoint matches?

Kevin 05 Jul, 2022

Thanks for the article, Aishwarya. It's easy to understand and follow along with the given diagrams and figures. I would say it's one of the best web articles available on the internet for SIFT features. It is a 100% recommended article for people who are studying computer vision.

chaithanya 12 Aug, 2022

is sift helps for detecting faces in crowd

vatsav 25 Sep, 2022

how can i find limit the number of keypoints in an image to highlight the most important keypoints? any thoughts would be appreciated

Sahil 03 Oct, 2022

This is brilliant work, Aishwarya! Thank you soo much :)

Isabela 17 Oct, 2022

Aishwarya, this is the best article I've ever read about SIFT! I was having a hard time understanding this subject from other sources, but you've simplified everything. Thank you so much!

Mukesh 18 Mar, 2023

Aishwarya Singh, I discovered this article by chance. Glad that I did. It beautifully explains the SIFT descriptor concepts. Mukesh Rao

Shirin 12 Aug, 2023

A great article with very clear explanations. Thanks alot

zhangshengli 07 Nov, 2023

This is such a great share, thank you so much!

wh 20 Dec, 2023

The article is nice. Thank you for preparing this. I have some questions: 1. When we are calculating the magnitude & orientation do we do that for each key point or the local neighborhood of the keypoints? 2. When we are creating histograms for magnitude & orientation in the y-axis do add up all magnitudes which correspond to the same angle range?

yaswanth 27 Dec, 2023

Wonderful explanation. but it's better to put math behind it for key point localization. it leads to better understanding about how the key points are actually selected and how the outliers are removed.

M Djamaluddin
M Djamaluddin 22 May, 2024

Good article, very clear explanation. The only missing, same like any other articles about SIFT that I read, is the explanation of how to combine all the keypoint detected in one octave with all the other octaves. It says that all the keypoints detected after step 2 is in one scale space (1 octave), what about keypoint of next octave (half of the original size), how to combine those with the keypoint in the first octave?