Photo keywords & metadata are important

Properly sorting, keywording and cataloguing photos can be a bit tedious, but it does pay off. And modern tools make it quite a bit easier to do it right.

For most of the nine years that I've been shooting digitally, my image management system has consisted of carefully dated and captioned folders for each shoot. "IPTC metadata" was one of those weird, more-or-less-irrelevant things that was too tedious to learn and to deal with. I'd simply remember what I shot and approximately when I shot it, and dig out that folder from the file tree.

Well, that approach is starting to come back to bite me. I've already shot twice as many photos this year as last, when I shot twice as many as the year before. Remembering what's stored where is no longer feasible.

The solution is to add proper keyword tags to each photo. When I started out in digital, this was a tedious file-by-file operation involving often-finicky software, and some of the tools had the potential to bork one's files (necessitating a restore from backups) if you got it wrong. In 2012, with slick image management tools like Adobe Lightroom, it's relatively quick and painless. In Lightroom, you simply select a bunch of photos in the Library and start typing in the Keywording pane on the right sidebar. If desired, the tags can be added to the original file (as IPTC metadata) so they'll show correctly in the libraries of anyone you share it with.

With a well chosen set of keywords, searching the entire library becomes easy. Displaying all photos of sailboats in front of sunset-lit clouds is just a matter of pulling up the Library Filter bar, clicking Text, and setting "Keywords - Contain All - sailboat, sunset, cloud". (Most other professional image management tools, like Apple Aperture, have similar features with slightly different names.)

The hard part: What should keyword fields contain? I like to include:

  • Names of people and/or places in the photo
  • Broad descriptive terms (sky, water, wildlife, people, wedding, etc.)
  • Specific descriptive terms as subsets of the above (something tagged 'wildlife' might also be tagged 'bird, duck')
  • Descriptions of the photographic style (portrait, headshot, chiaroscuro, landscape, etc.)
  • If appropriate, colour or style keywords (red, night, high key, etc.)

Keywords should be short and to the point- words, not phrases. (Keywords longer than 64 letters won't fit in standard IPTC metadata fields.) Controlled Vocabulary's guides to keywording and captioning are useful reads if you need some hints on how to start organizing your photo library.

And now it's time for me to get back to keywording all those old photos. Only 10,600 to go....

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