I talk to a lot of photographers each year and am always curious to learn how people organize their digital photographs for later retrieval. Some come up with file naming schemes that include the subject in the title, others build elaborate electronic folder systems to help them organize their photographs by subject and/or date that the image was made. While those are perfectly valid organizational techniques, they just won’t work for me and my memory. Photography has been a life-long passion of mine and I have no intention of slowing down anytime soon. I invest time assigning keywords to my images so that at some point in the future, I can still find that great image of a Loon feeding its chick I made in 2009.
Digital photograph files are designed so that some information can tag along with them. When you make an image in the camera, information like the camera model, lens, f-stop and exposure are all automatically stored in the file as a piece of information called metadata. Metadata is just a fancy word that means information about information and in the above example the metadata is information about the exposure data of the photograph that was just made. Other pieces of information can be stored in the metadata by a photographer using software include the image’s rating, caption, GPS coordinates and keywords.
When I keyword images I try to imagine the sort of terms that I or some third-party might use to search for the image in the future. In the case of my Loon image, I’ll include information about the subject, their common and scientific name, along with keywords that are descriptive of the behaviour or action depicted in the image, the location the image was made and a rating from zero to five stars. For the image under discussion, I’ll use my photo management software to assign the following keywords (each separated by a comma) to the image:
babies, baby, british columbia, canada, chick, common, cute, eat, eating, feed, feeding, float, floating, gavial immer, immature, insect, lac le jeune, larvae, loon, loons, swim, swimming, young
You can see that I use a lot of synonyms along with singular and plural terms that might seem repetitive or redundant. But, I’m not exactly sure how I might want to search for this image in the future and so I choose to err on the side of too much information instead of not enough.
I keyword my images before I begin making derivative images for printing, email or the web. This way the keywords I’ve assigned to the original image follow along as derivative files are created. This technique provides me with a system allowing retrieval of a single image out of the hundreds of thousands I’ll accumulate over a life time of photography.
Let’s imagine it’s April of 2040 and I’m looking for a nice image of a Common Loon feeding its chick. I have a vague recollection about having made such an image but no real idea of when or where the image might have been made. I fire up my photo management software and tell it to retrieve my 3-star or better rated images with the keywords “common, loon, feeding, chick” in it. Before I can blink my software has provided me with the image I’m searching for along with others that match the criteria.
Assigning keywords to images is a time consuming task, but for me it is an invaluable tool that lets me pluck one image amongst thousands from the recesses of time. Most modern photo management software includes the ability to assign keywords to images and I encourage you to learn to use the provided tools to keyword your images for future reference and retrieval.