[email protected] Sanad — Published On February 18, 2020 and Last Modified On July 11th, 2023
Algorithm Computer Vision Datasets Image Intermediate Python


Convolutional neural networks (CNN) – the concept behind recent breakthroughs and developments in deep learning.

Computer vision is a very popular field in data science, and CNNs have broken the mold and ascended the throne to become the state-of-the-art computer vision technique. Among the different types of neural networks (others include recurrent neural networks (RNN), long short-term memory (LSTM), artificial neural networks (ANN), etc.), CNNs are easily the most popular. These convolutional neural network models are ubiquitous in the image data space. They work phenomenally well on computer vision tasks like image classification, object detection, image recognition, etc. They have hence been widely used in artificial intelligence modeling, especially to create image classifiers. This article will introduce you to the concept of image classification using CNN and show you how they work on various datasets.

Learning Objectives

  • We will learn to build image classification CNN using python on each of the MNSIT, CIFAR-10, and ImageNet datasets.
  • We will learn how CNNs work for the image classification task.

Note: I will be using TensorFlow’s Keras library to demonstrate image classification using CNNs in this article. Keras API is an excellent framework to learn when you’re starting out in deep learning.

Table of Contents

Image Classification Using CNN

Firstly, let’s understand the basics of Convolutional Neural Networks (CNN).

If you’re new to the world of neural networks, CNNs, and image classification, I recommend going through these excellent in-depth tutorials:

You can learn all about Convolutional Neural Networks(CNN) in this free course: Convolutional Neural Networks (CNN) from Scratch
And if you’re looking to learn computer vision and deep learning in-depth, you should check out our popular courses:

There are various datasets that you can leverage for applying convolutional neural networks. Here are three popular datasets:

  • CIFAR-10
  • ImageNet

We will now see how to classify images using CNN on each of these datasets.

Using CNNs to Classify Hand-written Digits on MNIST Dataset

MNIST CNN | image classification using CNN
MNIST (Modified National Institute of Standards and Technology) is a well-known dataset used in Computer Vision that was built by Yann Le Cun et al. It is composed of images that are handwritten digits (0-9), split into a training set of 50,000 images and a test set of 10,000, where each image is 28 x 28 pixels in width and height.

This dataset is often used for practicing any algorithm made for image classification, as the dataset is fairly easy to conquer. Hence, I recommend that this should be your first dataset if you are just foraying in the field.

MNIST comes with Keras by default, and you can simply load the train and test files using a few lines of code:

from keras.datasets import mnist

# loading the dataset
(X_train, y_train), (X_test, y_test) = mnist.load_data()
# let's print the shape of the dataset
print("X_train shape", X_train.shape)
print("y_train shape", y_train.shape)
print("X_test shape", X_test.shape)
print("y_test shape", y_test.shape)

Here is the shape of X (features) and y (target) for the training and validation data:

X_train shape (60000, 28, 28) 
y_train shape (60000,) 
X_test shape (10000, 28, 28) 
y_test shape (10000,)

Before we train a CNN model, let’s build a basic, Fully Connected Neural Network for the dataset. The basic steps to build an image classification model using a neural network are:

  1. Flatten the input image dimensions to 1D (width pixels x height pixels)
  2. Normalize the image pixel values (divide by 255)
  3. One-Hot Encode the categorical column
  4. Build a model architecture (Sequential) with Dense layers(Fully connected layers)
  5. Train the model and make predictions

Here’s how you can build a neural network model for MNIST. I have used relu and softmax as the activation function and adam optimizer, with accuracy being the evaluation metrics. The code contains all the steps from data loading to preprocessing to fitting the model. I have commented on the relevant parts of the code for better understanding:

After running the above code, you’d realized that we are getting a good validation accuracy of around 97% easily.

Let’s modify the above code to build a CNN model.

One major advantage of using ConvNets over NNs is that you do not need to flatten the input images to 1D as they are capable of working with image data in 2D. This helps in retaining the “spatial” properties of images.

Here’s the full code for the CNN model:

In the above code, I have added the Conv2D layer and max pooling layers, which are essential components of a CNN model.

Even though our max validation accuracy by using a simple neural network model was around 97%, the CNN model is able to get 98%+ with just a single convolution layer!
CNN MNIST | image classification using CNN

You can go ahead and add more Conv2D layers and also play around with the hyperparameters of the CNN model.

Identifying Images From the CIFAR-10 Dataset Using CNNs

MNIST is a beginner-friendly dataset in computer vision. It’s easy to score 90%+ on validation by using a CNN model. But what if you are beyond beginner and need something challenging to put your concepts to use?

That’s where the CIFAR-10 dataset comes into the picture!

CIFAR-10 CNN | image classification using CNN

Here’s how the developers behind CIFAR (Canadian Institute For Advanced Research) describe the dataset:

The CIFAR-10 dataset consists of 60,000 32 x 32 colour images in 10 classes, with 6,000 images per class. There are 50,000 training images and 10,000 test images.

The important points that distinguish this dataset from MNIST are:

  • Images are colored in CIFAR-10 as compared to the black-and-white texture of MNIST
  • Each image is 32 x 32 pixel
  • 50,000 training images and 10,000 testing images

Now, these images are taken in varying lighting conditions and at different angles, and since these are colored images, you will see that there are many variations in the color itself of similar objects (for example, the color of ocean water). If you use the simple CNN architecture that we saw in the MNIST example above, you will get a low validation accuracy of around 60%.

That’s a key reason why I recommend CIFAR-10 as a good dataset to practice your hyperparameter tuning skills for CNNs. The good thing is that just like MNIST, CIFAR-10 is also easily available in Keras.

You can simply load the dataset using the following code:

from keras.datasets import cifar10
# loading the dataset 
(X_train, y_train), (X_test, y_test) = cifar10.load_data()

Here’s how you can build a decent (around 78-80% on validation) CNN model for CIFAR-10. Notice how the shape values have been updated from (28, 28, 1) to (32, 32, 3) according to the size of the images:

Here’s what I changed in the model:

  • Increased the number of Conv2D layers to build a deeper model
  • Added Max pooling layer
  • Increased number of filters to learn more features
  • Added Dropout for regularization(reduces overfitting)
  • Added more Dense layers

Training and validation accuracy across epochs:

Training and validation accuracy using CNN

You can easily eclipse this performance by tuning the above model. Once you have mastered CIFAR-10, there’s also CIFAR-100 available in Keras that you can use for further practice. Since it has 100 classes, it won’t be an easy task to achieve!

Categorizing the Images of ImageNet Using CNNs

Now that you have mastered MNIST and CIFAR-10, let’s take this problem a notch higher. Here, we will take a look at the famous ImageNet dataset.

ImageNet CNN
ImageNet is the main database behind the ImageNet Large Scale Recognition Challenge (ILSVRC). This is like the Olympics of Computer Vision. This is the competition that made CNNs popular for the first time, and every year, the best research teams across industries and academia compete with their best algorithms on computer vision tasks.

About the ImageNet Dataset

The ImageNet dataset has more than 14 million images, hand-labeled across 20,000 categories.

Also, unlike the MNIST and CIFAR-10 datasets that we have already discussed, the images in ImageNet are of decent resolution (224 x 224), and that’s what poses a challenge for us: 14 million images, each 224 by 224 pixels. Processing a dataset of this size requires a great amount of computing power in terms of CPU, GPU, and RAM.

The downside – is that it might be too much for an everyday laptop. So what’s the alternative solution? How can an enthusiast work with the ImageNet dataset? That’s where Fast.ai‘s Imagenette dataset comes in.

Fast.ai‘s Imagenette Dataset

Imagenette is a dataset that’s extracted from the large ImageNet collection of images. The reason behind releasing Imagenette is that researchers and students can practice on ImageNet-level images without needing that many computing resources.

In the words of Jeremy Howard himself:

“I (Jeremy Howard, that is) mainly made Imagenette because I wanted a small vision dataset I could use to quickly see if my algorithm ideas might have a chance of working. They normally don’t, but testing them on Imagenet takes a really long time for me to find that out, especially because I’m interested in algorithms that perform particularly well at the end of training.But I think this can be a useful dataset for others as well.”

And that’s what we will also use for practicing!

Steps for Image Classification Using CNN on the ImageNet Dataset

Step 1: Download the Imagenette dataset

Here’s how you can fetch the dataset (commands for your terminal):

$ wget https://s3.amazonaws.com/fast-ai-imageclas/imagenette2.tgz
$ tar -xf imagenette2.tgz

Once you have downloaded the dataset, you will notice that it has two folders – “train” and “val”. These contain the training and validation set, respectively. Inside each folder, there are separate folders for each class. Here’s the mapping of the classes:

These classes have the same ID in the original ImageNet dataset. Each of the classes has approximately 1000 images, so overall, it’s a balanced dataset.

CNN Imagenet | image classification using CNN
Step 2: Load images using ImageDataGenerator

Keras has this useful functionality for loading large images (like we have here) without maxing out the RAM, by doing it in small batches. ImageDataGenerator, in combination with fit_generator provides this functionality. ImageDataGenerator is a class in the Keras library in Python that is used to preprocess and image data augmentation:

The ImageDataGenerator itself inferences the class labels and the number of classes from the folder names.

ImageDataGenerator | image classification using CNN
Step 3: Build a basic CNN model for image classification

Let’s build a basic CNN model for our Imagenette dataset (for the purpose of image classification):

When we compare the validation accuracy of the above model, you’ll realize that even though it is a more deep architecture than what we have utilized so far, we are only able to get a validation accuracy of around 40-50%.

Imagenet CNN | image classification using CNN

There can be many reasons for this, such as our model is not complex enough to learn the underlying patterns of images, or maybe the training data is too small to accurately generalize across classes.

Step up – transfer learning.

Step 4: Use transfer learning (VGG16) to improve accuracy
VGG16 is a CNN architecture that was the first runner-up in the 2014 ImageNet Challenge. It’s designed by the Visual Graphics Group at Oxford and has 16 layers in total, with 13 convolutional layers themselves. We will load the pre-trained weights of this model so that we can utilize the useful features this model has learned for our task.

1. Downloading weights of VGG16

from keras.applications import VGG16

# include top should be False to remove the softmax layer
pretrained_model = VGG16(include_top=False, weights='imagenet')

Here’s the architecture of the model:

imagenet CNN architecture | image classification using CNN

2. Generate features from VGG16

Let’s extract useful features that VGG16 already knows from our dataset’s images:

from keras.utils import to_categorical
# extract train and val features
vgg_features_train = pretrained_model.predict(train)
vgg_features_val = pretrained_model.predict(val)
# OHE target column
train_target = to_categorical(train.labels)
val_target = to_categorical(val.labels)

Once the above features are ready, we can just use them for training a basic, Fully Connected Neural Network in Keras:

Notice how quickly your model starts converging. In just 10 epochs, you have a 94%+ validation accuracy. Isn’t that amazing?

| image classification using CNN on Imagenette dataset

In case you have mastered the Imagenette dataset, fastai has also released two variants that include classes you’ll find difficult to classify:

  • Imagewoof: 10 classes of dog breeds – a larger batch size and a more difficult problem to classify.
  • Image网 (“wang”): A combination of Imagenette and Imagewoof and a couple of tricks that make it a harder problem.


In this article, I have tried to compile the different ways in which CNNs are used for image classification. Hope it gave you an insight into how you can build different models on different datasets from scratch. It also explained how transfer learning is used to improve the accuracy of the task.

Apart from the datasets we’ve discussed above, you can also use the below datasets for building computer vision algorithms. In fact, consider this a challenge. Try image classification using CNN on these datasets.

  • Fashion MNIST – MNIST-like dataset of clothes and apparel. Instead of digits, the images show a type of apparel (T-shirt, trousers, bag, etc.)
  • Caltech 101 – Another challenging dataset that I found for image classification

I also suggest that before going for transfer learning, try improving your base CNN models. You can learn from the architectures of VGG16, ZFNet, etc., for some clues on hyperparameter tuning, and you can use the same ImageDataGenerator to augment your images and increase the size of the dataset.

Key Takeaways

  • CNNs work well on computer vision tasks like image classification, object detection, image recognition, and more.
  • We’ve looked into building image classification CNN using python on the MNSIT, CIFAR-10, and ImageNet datasets.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. What are feature maps?

A. A feature map is a set of filtered and transformed inputs that are learned by ConvNet’s convolutional layer. A feature map can be thought of as an abstract representation of an input image, where each unit or neuron in the map corresponds to a specific feature detected in the image, such as an edge, corner, or texture pattern.

Q2. Which CNN algorithm has the best accuracy?

A. There are many CNN algorithms for many different tasks, such as object detection, object recognition, image segmentation, etc. However, some of the most commonly used CNN architectures that have been proven to have high accuracy on various computer vision tasks include VGGNet, ResNet (Residual Network), InceptionNet, DenseNet(example of a deep neural network), and YOLO.

Q3. What is the difference between CNN and other machine learning algorithms?

A. Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs) are a type of Deep Learning algorithm that is primarily used for image classification and object recognition tasks. Here are some key differences between CNNs and other machine-learning algorithms:
1. Unlike machine learning algorithms, CNNs can learn relevant features automatically as part of the training process.
2. CNNs have a unique layered architecture consisting of convolutional, pooling, and fully connected layers, which are designed to automatically learn the features and hierarchies of the input data, while Ohter ML algorithms have different architecture.
3. CNNs can be computationally expensive due to their large number of parameters and complex architecture. Other algorithms, such as decision trees and random forests, are typically faster and more computationally efficient.

About the Author

Mohdsanadzakirizvi@gmail.com Sanad
[email protected] Sanad

A computer science graduate, I have previously worked as a Research Assistant at the University of Southern California(USC-ICT) where I employed NLP and ML to make better virtual STEM mentors. My research interests include using AI and its allied fields of NLP and Computer Vision for tackling real-world problems.

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One thought on "Image Classification Using CNN (Convolutional Neural Networks)"

Afroj Alam
Afroj Alam says: July 05, 2023 at 2:27 pm
Dear Sir, I need an image dataset of both hands for rheumatoid arthritis detection. Plz do the need full things Reply

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