How to Identify a Mystery Font
Posted on 26th July 2016
Hello, all! Over at the fantastic WHAT FONT IS THIS? Facebook group, people frequently post a picture of an object and ask for help to find out the fonts used on that object. I have decent luck identifying these mystery fonts, so I wanted to share my techniques. I'm going to be taking a photo, adjusting it, and running it through a few of the font-identification websites so you can see the whole process.
Find or take a picture of the mystery font:
Here's a picture I took at the grocery store of a frozen pizza box -- I liked the font that's being used for "deliciously dairy-free". I'll admit right now, I could have framed this picture much better. If you're taking your own shot, try to get a picture of the product straight-on, so there are fewer adjustments to make later. (In my defense, it was really cold holding the freezer door open, so I took this quick.)
Rotate and adjust proportions:
First off, crop the part you want and rotate it (or use the skew, distort, or perspective tools in your image-editing program) so that it's as level and uniform as possible. If the font looks obviously stretched or squished, you can also try to compact or expand it. Fortunately, I don't think this font has been stretched at all -- the lowercase "o" is usually a good guide. Since it looks fairly round here, I think this font is presented at its original dimensions. I've used a guideline in Photoshop to make sure I've rotated the picture so that the font is laid out straight.
Adjust the colors:
I've used the "black and white" tool in Photoshop (Image ^ Adjustments ^ Black & White) in order to convert the picture to grayscale. I've taken advantage of the color sliders here -- move a slider toward the white end, and any instances of that color in your picture will go lighter; move a slider toward the black end, and that color will go darker. I've boosted green to the dark end, and the yellows and reds to the light end, so that I can get black text on a white background. (If you're starting out with light text on a white background, I recommend using the "invert" tool first. The online identifiers like black-on-white much better than white-on-black.)
Separate the letters:
Use your lasso tool to select each letter, copy it, and paste it into a new layer. This is an especially important step with a connecting script font -- you want the identifier tools to see each letter as a separate object. You may need to guess about where one letter ends and the next begins; take a look at the last letter in the word for an idea about how far up the tail goes at the end of the letters in a connecting font. Note: you don't need to grab every letter -- I'm only going to select a few here. You only need one instance of each letter (so I don't have to do every "e"), and you should make sure to get the really distinctive letters in there (like that lowercase "s" -- it's a very different shape than you usually see).
Tidy up and space out the letters:
I ended up choosing eight letters. And how handy, they spell out a couple of words! It isn't necessary to rearrange the letters like this; I just find it a little more fun when I can turn them into something silly. Make sure none of the letters are touching, and crop your image to get rid of anything else. I also like to put a new layer filled with plain white behind the letters, so I know that no stray other stuff will confuse the identifiers. You can also color in any parts that turned out blotchy -- I've touched up all of the letters except the "f" with black, and you can really tell the difference. Save your image, and you're ready to hit the web!
Now, on to the font identifiers!
My personal starting point is WhatFontIs.com, primarily because they seem to have a better catalog of script fonts, and that's what people usually want help identifying. As with most identifier sites, you upload your image, and it breaks the letters down one by one. Type in which letter corresponds with which image. Be sure to type the uppercase letters in uppercase and the lowers in lower, or else you'll get bad results.
WhatFontIs will give you 100 results, which means that a lot of them won't look anything at all like the font you're looking for -- after all, there likely aren't 100 fonts that are similar to the one you're seeking. But a lot of the time, the one you're looking for will be up in the top 10. For this experiment, we found our font with the #1 result! (And the #2 result, because WhatFontIs will give you a separate result for each place the font is available for purchase.) Victory!
What the Font is a part of MyFonts.com. It's my second stop if I don't find what I'm looking for at WhatFontIs. It isn't as great with script or handwritten fonts, but it's a monster when it comes to serif and sans-serif fonts. It operates much the same way as WhatFontIs, with the added bonus that it'll pre-fill the boxes where you type your letters in with the letters it thinks it's seeing. In this instance, it got them all right. However, keep an eye out -- often it will substitute 8 for B, or zero for o, among other swaps.
As opposed to WhatFontIs, which gives you 100 results every time, What the Font will only give you the results it feels are really close to a match. In this case, it was so certain that it only returned one result. Fortunately, it's the right font. Another victory!
My third stop, if the first two don't work out, is Matcherator. There are actually two versions: FontSquirrel Matcherator and FontSpring Matcherator. I haven't discovered much of a difference between them -- the FontSquirrel one says it's powered by the FontSpring one, so I think it's the same tool, only hosted on sites with different appeals.
The Matcherator also tries to identify and auto-populate what letters it's seeing, but as you can see here, it isn't quite as spot-on as What the Font was. And yet, still, even though it thought some of the letters were numbers and it couldn't figure out that lowercase "a" at all, it gave me the correct font as the first result. FYI, you can go up there and manually correct its assumptions about what letters are there, so that you get better results. I just didn't need to. (Also FYI, I now have the tune for "867-5309/Jenny" stuck in my head. If you do now too, you're welcome.)
FontEdge is my site of last resort, if all three of the others fail me. It often gives results the others don't, but it's also much harder to figure out how to use. You have to click on the big empty space, import your image, then click on each individual letter in the image. It'll put those letters down in a row at the bottom, where you need to manually identify which letter is which. It'll also give you a pop-up that you need to make extra sure that you have the letters' case input correctly.
You can also see why FontEdge is my last stop by the results it gave me. For the other three identifiers, the correct font was the number one result. FontEdge, however, gave me around 100 results, none of which was the correct font. So it's kind of a crapshoot. Either it gives you nothing, or it's the only site out of the four that gives you the right result. Weird!
But Missy, you ask...
What about things that are most likely handwritten, and I want to find a font that's similar? Can I use these same techniques? My answer: you bet your sweet bippy you can! Let's do it!
Here's a greeting card I saw at the grocery store. I took a picture of it specifically because it isn't using a font -- the text is all hand-written. (I apologize in advance, because I didn't open it up to see the punchline. Let's just say ... um ... "one to do the cooking, and one to do the cleaning.") Anyhoo, you can tell it's hand-written by comparing the same letters throughout the words. The letter "o" appears a lot, and none of them looks like any of the rest. But we can still use the same techniques in order to find a font that's similar.
As with the other example above, I rotated the image so everything sat straight, then fired up "Black & White". I dialed yellow, green, and cyan toward the white end of the spectrum, and that cleared out the background really well without making the letters themselves too muddy.
Since none of the letters were connected, I didn't have to grab each one individually -- I just copied the "MOR" and "IKELY" (I didn't need the "e" from "more" or the first "l" from "likely" because "ikely" already had both letters.) You may notice here that I painted in a very thin line connecting the two parts of the lowercase "i" -- if I hadn't done that, the font identifiers would all see the body of the "i" and the dot as two separate characters.
Here are some of the best matches from WhatFontIs (since I knew it'd give me 100 options). None of them is exact, but they all have some features of what I like about the original hand-written text. You may be wondering why I input an image that reads "MOR IKELY" and the results are all "IMKEOLRY". That's because I didn't put the letters all in one line -- it's two stacked lines, and WhatFontIs took them one by one from left to right, not caring that some of them were up high and others were down low in my JPG. So keep that in mind -- it's less confusing if you just lay them out in a straight line.
PS - If you want to join in and use these techniques to help others identify fonts, come join the WHAT FONT IS THIS? group on Facebook!
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