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Can a Photo Tell Your Ethnicity?

Do you want to know if an app can tell your ethnicity based on a photo? The answer is no, it can’t – learn the reasons why in this post.

It is easy to understand why we are tempted to want to be able to upload a photograph and learn about our ancestry. These days, there isn’t much that we can’t get access to in just a few clicks.

It’s no surprise that we would also want to be able to find out where our ancestors lived just by uploading a photo to an app or website.

Can a Photo Tell Your Ethnicity_

Even though it would be amazing if we could really learn something about where we came from from our picture, a lot more goes into determining how we look than just the places where our forefathers were born.

Apps can’t guess what ethnicity or nationality you are based on your picture

It is not possible for an app or software program to tell you where your ancestors were from. While there are lots of cellphone apps, and even websites, that promise they can tell our ethnicity based on looks from a photo, it just isn’t possible for it to be accurate.

Most of us have varied ancestry with our ancestors coming from many countries around the world. For example, my great-great grandparents were born in a half-dozen different countries.

Ethnicity photo apps are not accurate

An app cannot really tell me what nationality I am based on looks from a photo. It would be exceedingly difficult to design an accurate program to do this, and to this date, no accurate software for this purpose exists.

To demonstrate how inaccurate cellphone apps are at estimating ethnicity, I decided to try out a popular app called Gradient. It’s not free, but there is a free trial that you can sign up for.

First, I’ll post my ethnicity estimate based on my photo, and then I will post my ethnicity estimate based on my DNA below.

I’m not picking on this particular app – just so we are clear. In fact, it’s the most accurate one of all of the applications that I tried using my photograph.

So, if you are going to a try an app to get an ethnicity estimate from a photo, it’s the one to try.

The app was easy to use and has a nice interface, as well as lots of other fun features. It just can’t give me an accurate ethnicity estimate based on a snapshot of my face:

An example of a cellphone app and whether it an estimate ethnicity
This is me outside of a Tim Horton’s in Montreal in January 2020. Boy, was it cold!

To be clear, I have no known ancestors born in Finland, Norway, or France, and I have been researching my family tree for almost a decade and have gone back many generations. My great-grandfather was born in the Netherlands, which would account for much more than 3% of my total DNA.

Comparison between app results and DNA test

Compare the estimate to my ethnicity estimate from Ancestry DNA based on my actual DNA analysis. While we don’t inherit DNA from all of our ancestors, the following ethnicity estimate is a very good approximation of my recent ancestry:

Mercedes Brons ethnicity estimate to compare to photohgraph estimate
My Netherlands ancestry is likely accounted for in the Germanic Europe percentage

What do you think about the accuracy?

What’s my final opinion of these apps for estimating ethnicity by photograph only? It’s fun entertainment, but it doesn’t tell you much about where your ancestors really came from.

In other words, it’s not a substitute for a high-quality DNA test. Ethnicity tests from a picture just can’t replace a quality ethnicity test based on DNA or a family tree built with careful research.

As a side note, you can read more about my ethnicity estimate results to know what you might expect in my post “Example of Ancestry DNA Results“.

Plus, with all of the available filters and varying quality of cellphone cameras, there is no guarantee that any given photo is a good representation of what a person really looks like.

(Yes, I am looking at you, Instagram. We know no one looks like that or lives that life!)

Phenotype does not equal ethnicity

Ethnicity has little to do with how we look, or our “phenotype”. It’s our language, culture, history, religion, nationality – and many more aspects of our identity that determined our ancestors’ ethnicity.

Have you ever heard the word “phenotype”? Phenotype are observable traits of an organism.

You and I are organisms. Complicated, talking, walking and thinking organisms – but still organisms.

How we look is our phenotype

In people, it means, basically, what we look like. Our eye color, hair color, skin color, characteristics of our facial structure, height, and other features, are all observable traits.

They are what other people see when they look at us.

Ethnicity, on the other hand, according Wikipedia’s definition, is a “category or people who identify with each other” typically because of a shared heritage, language, national origin, or cultural traditions. People who share an ethnicity often identify as belonging to a particular ethnic group, such as the Slovaks of Eastern Europe, or the Igbo of Nigeria.

Our phenotype can be observed by other people, and by artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. These are the types of technologies used on the websites and mobile phone apps that claim to be able to tell your ethnicity from your photograph.

Our ancestry is not what determines how we look

Our phenotype is a result of our genes and their interaction with our environment, but genetic expression is much more complicated than most people make it out to be. In other words, the way we look is not as simple as where our ancestors came from.

Most of us have ancestors from all over the world, and so it is impossible for a photograph to tease out all of the regions of the world that might match your DNA.

I can’t tell you how many times I get inquiries each week from someone saying that they were sure they had roots in a particular region because their great-grandmother “looked” that way in a photograph. You can’t tell someone’s ethnicity based on looks.

This happened in my family, too. It turns out that my great-grandmother likely did not have recent Native American ancestry because this region did not show up in her daughter’s DNA results.

Humans, like technology, are unable to accurately estimate someone’s family tree based on a photograph.

How to get an accurate ethnicity estimate

For those who truly want to know where they came from, you can learn to use your DNA results to discover more about your family tree. Ethnicity estimates based on a DNA sample, usually taken from saliva or a cheek swab, are far more accurate than estimates based from a photograph.

Many people believe that these DNA tests are expensive, but they really aren’t. The cost of DNA testing for ethnicity, which really is to find out where your ancestors likely lived, is cheaper than dinner for two at most sit-down restaurants and can range from $39-99.

This is sure to reveal much more about your ancestry than software analyzing your photograph ever could show you!

Getting an accurate ethnicity estimate is as easy as taking a simple DNA test with one of the top four DNA testing companies. As I mentioned, it’s not as expensive as you might think, and you will have your results in just a few weeks.

The companies that have the most accurate ethnicity estimates are as follows. You can click on the sponsored links below to get your test today.

If you purchase using the link(s) below, I might receive a very small commission at no extra cost to you. I appreciate you using these links because it helps me support the work that I do on this website, so thanks!

I use these companies on a daily basis for my own DNA results and to help my readers learn more about their ancestors. In addition, I have used these companies personally and have many relatives who have taken their tests with these companies, too.

After you order your test, don’t forget to come back to the Who Are You Made Of blog to find hundreds of free tutorials and articles to help you get the most from your DNA results.


I hope that this post helped you understand why an ethnicity estimate based on a photograph is not an adequate substitute for a DNA test or building a family tree. If you are interested in learning how to build a family tree, definitely check out my book, Family Tree Building Basics: A Book for Beginners, which you can get immediately as a PDF download or in softcover on Amazon.

If you have any questions about something that you read in this post, or if you would like to share your own experience using these ethnicity estimate by photo apps, I would love to hear from you in the discussion below.

Thanks for stopping by today!

Can a Photo Tell Your Ethnicity Pinterest Pin

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Magnolia Webb

Wednesday 27th of December 2023

If i did a DNA test I would probably get: 65% - European 20%- Native American/ Asian 20%- Spanish (North American)


Sunday 3rd of December 2023



Thursday 2nd of November 2023

I just want to try


Thursday 16th of March 2023

I just want to try


Friday 6th of August 2021

Btw Dna can't tell you about your ethnicity either. If you read the actual disclaimers they tell you its just a guess and the the default is something like 80% wrong 20% accurate and that's being generous.


Saturday 29th of January 2022

@KingK, You just simply made up. Don't be an ignorant. Science is not something like that.

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