The Importance of Keywording Your Photos

Falling Down

Over the course of the past few years I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of keywording. By keywording I mean the act of using software to add identification words i.e. keywords to individual digital photographs. Keywording is often confused with tagging as in when you tag your photos with identifying words on photo sharing sites like Flickr or Zooomr.

When I first started out in the online photo sharing world I was not aware of the importance of keywording my images. Instead I spent hours and hours and hours tagging my photos with descriptive keywords on Flickr. That was a mistake. It was a mistake because that time should have been better spent keywording my actual image files where I could permanently control this meta data and where it would have automatically been read by the various photo sharing sites anyways.

Even more important than keywording your images for today, will be keywording them for tomorrow. As technology creates new ways to utilize photo keywords, their inclusion with your photos will become increasingly more important. I really wish I’d spent more time keywording many of my earlier archive photos when I started out.

First let’s talk about how you keyword. Personally I use Adobe’s Bridge software to keyword mine. With Bridge keywording is pretty simple. You can keyword two easy ways with Bridge. You can create a directory of commonly used keywords and just check the boxes that apply to an image or you can also right click on an image and under the “File Info” menu item type in keywords.

Apple’s Aperture software also has keywording tools as does Adobe’s Lightroom. If you don’t have money to buy image keywording software you can always use Google’s Picasa software to keyword which is free.

The reason to keyword before uploading your photos online is simple. Once you keyword once it will forever (or until you change it) be associated data with that image. By keywording at the image level, you can then later use your computer to search the keywords to find image files locally on your computer — and by tying this meta data to your original images you should only have to enter that data once as it should be automatically picked up by most online services where you might want to host your photos.

Also, particularly as amateur photographers begin to sell their work online, it will be important that your keywords are useful in having your photography accessed for search.

So once you understand the usefulness of keywording your images locally on your computer, the next important discussion has to do with what keywords ought you to include in your photo meta data.

Some of the basics are as simple as Who, What, Why, When, Where and How. There is no exact science as to what and how you should keyword your images but here are some of the ways I keyword mine.

Who: This is pretty simple. Is there someone in the photo? If I take a photo of my friend Robert Scoble, I will keyword the photo with Robert Scoble. I’ll also add Scobleizer in there because this is Robert’s nickname. Sometimes I might also add the name of the company where someone works — but this is not as fool proof as people change companies and in the future Scoble tagged at Microsoft or Podtech might not end up being current. Usually if someone is particularly tied to a company I’ll use this. For instance, Getty Images’ CEO Jonathan Klein’s photograph will also get a “Getty Images” keyword. Who can also be a band, or a group “Stanford cheerleaders” for instance, or “Pussycat Dolls.”

The key here is to be as descriptive as possible. Is the picture a photo of a car? Then tag it car, automobile, auto. Maybe also tag it the make of the car, Ferrari, Dodge, Chevrolet (don’t forget Chevrolet keyword = Chevy keyword) Malibu, Camaro, etc. Is the photo a picture of a puppy. Then consider tagging it dog, puppy, black labrador, labrador, pet, etc.

This is where you enter in keywords associated with the location of your photo. In my case I always use the city. So I have many shots tagged San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, etc. I might also use this to tag even more specific location info. Eg. Market Street, 444 Market Street, Hyatt Regency, , etc. Some people also will include country and state, but I find that this is probably a bit overkill.

When is most useful when using a tag associated with an event. The date the photo was taken and uploaded is already automatically captured. But sometimes I’ll use a modified date/event like “photowalking 110507.”

Why and How are typically less useful for descriptive photo.

Other tips to consider: consider using both plural and singular keywords for images. Do you have a photo of a group of ducks? Consider keywording it both duck and ducks. Consider abbreviations. Is the photo of Market Street. Consider using both “Market Street” and “Market St.”. Consider using emotive keywords. Is the photo of a happy couple? Consider adding the keywords happy, love, affection, etc. You might want to include other techincal keywords. I use bw for black and white for instance. You might also want to include vertical or horizontal. Or macro, silhouette, aerial, day, night, etc.

Watch other photographers for how they are tagging. What are other common ways that they are tagging the same object. Baby = infant = child, etc.

Consider geotagging the photo at the photo level as well. I’m on a Mac an
d use Geotagr, a great free app that works with Google Earth and allows you to geotag your original image files.

Is there a particularly dominant color in the photograph? Consider adding that keyword in, green, yellow, red, etc. What about the extraneous objects in a photo. Is there a cake on the table in the background? Consider adding cake or “chocolate cake.” Is there a phone on the table in the background? Consider adding phone, telephone, etc.

One thing to avoid though is keyword spam. Like all spam, as keywords increasingly begin to be used for photo search inevitably photographers are tempted to apply common keywords to images that don’t contain them. I’ve seen lots of photographs where a photographer will just randomly dump 80 popular keywords on an image irrespective of what is in the image. dog, cat, vacation, sunset, baby, flower, etc. quickly will fill up the tags of a photo of a pencil for instance. Don’t be this guy.

Do you keyword your photos? What other tips would you share with people in terms of keywording strategies.

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  1. Good info, as always.
    I would also suggest being consistent in how you tag. I always use lowercase letters in my tags, and type them as a single word. For example San Francisco is tagged as sanfrancisco. This makes it much easier for me to search my own photos, and at least on Zooomr, “San Francisco” and “sanfrancisco” seem to be equivalent search terms.
    If I were starting over, I might choose to use nicer looking tags, but for me, this works well.

  2. Bo Nash says:

    I also often tag colors. Not just “is this a picture of a RED truck” but if a photo has an overall color, I’ll tag that as well.

    While this may get “yellow car”
    yellow car photo

    This one may get “orange” because the overall tone of the image is orange:
    orange photo

    It sometimes helps because if I’m working on a mosaic sometimes I’m looking for a certain range of colors just as much as I’m looking for a certain subject.

  3. Markus says:

    Wow! Great post Thomas!

    I guess people ask this question a lot: I want to buy a new camera. At the moment I’ve the Canon A80 which is very old.

    I want to spend max 600-700USD (or 500 Euro) My goal is to learn more about photography. Trying to reproduce some of the effects I see on Zooomr or Flickr.

    Would be great if you or anyone with a lot of experience can tell me a good camera. It would be great if I could also make great shots when there is light in contrast to the dark outside.

    Best Regards


  4. prophead says:

    If, however, you’ve been using tagging on Zooomr to keyword your photos all is not lost, you can still use ZooomrBackup to get a copy of your original image with your tags as keywords.

  5. Jonester says:

    Great post… need to do that. I always forget.

  6. Thomas Hawk says:

    If, however, you’ve been using tagging on Zooomr to keyword your photos all is not lost, you can still use ZooomrBackup to get a copy of your original image with your tags as keywords.

    Good point Prophead and thanks for building that! 🙂

  7. Nate Green says:

    maybe I’m missing something here, but i thought when you keyword photos with something like Bridge/Photoshop or Aperture, those keywords are kept in separate files or in a database somewhere. How do you add keywords to photo files so that they stay with those files?? What about keywords in iPhoto?

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thomas, is there a standard format for date tagging? In your example, you use the USA format of month/day/year, but a lot (most?) of the world uses format of day/month/year. Should we tag with both date formats?

  9. Alan LeClair says:

    I’m with Nate Green. I use a PC and tag in Adobe Bridge. It creates a separate file for the tag data. This is not uploaded to Flickr. Is there a setting that allows the XMP file data to get pulled by uploaders?

  10. Steven says:

    Thomas, you mentioned Geotagr. Do you have a pointer? Other than this post, google just turns up a web-based tool and a Widows-based one.

  11. Joseph says:

    I agree with the tagging aspect, but be careful how it’s done.

    As someone pointed out, “tagging” a photo doesn’t always write those tags to the image’s metadata (EXIF or ITPC). Further, if you shoot RAW, good luck tagging the actual file (and not just a record in some database).

    Personally, I find the tagging functionality in ACDSee to be very easy. Plus, it tags the actual file.. not just a database record.

    Then import the tagged files into the image database / editor system of your choice.

    That’s my workflow, anyway.

  12. Ulrich says:

    You are right, it is important to tag / keyword photos at the file level instead of using flickr or other services to tag them only after upload. Once tagged / keyworded at the file level they are marked for whatever service or application it might be needed.

    I use Lightroom for all my tagging / keywording.

  13. Thank you for sharing this informative advice about keywording.

    I spent some time this morning experimenting with my photos to see how they crop up in searches by adding keywords to the exif data.

    I did this using the main search feature in Flickr using words I had not tagged in Flickr but had added as a keyword in the exif data… and sure enough it found them quick as a flash.

    Thus I assume by giving my photos keyword data they will be found much more effectively by a whole variety of software and web applications than if I just gave them tags in Flickr.

    One thing I will add though, if I want to search for one of my photos using Flickr’s organize feature, then that searches tags only and will not find keywords from the exif data.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Great article, Thomas. Certainly gave me a poke in the ribs about keywording.

    Regards state and country, I’m surprised you think they’re overkill.

    How would you go if you were looking for photos taken in Springfield, for instance? What state? What country?

    Also, on Flickr, if I – as an Australian – wanted to know what Wisconsin, USA was like, your photos would miss out.

    State and country may not be necessary on your system, but are invaluable on Flickr et al where people do search for those as keywords.

    Thanks again for the great piece (found via Scoble’s Twitter)

  15. Andy Frazer says:

    I still don’t tag my photos because I can’t seem to get Bridge and Breezebrowser to recognize each other’s tags. Bridge is simply too slow for thumbnailing and organizing (and I don’t like the wasted space on the screen), and BB doesn’t have some of the pre-edit features that Bridge has. But if I add meta-data in one tool, the other one doesn’t recognize it.

    Has anyone else solved this problem? Maybe I’m doing something wrong?



  16. Thanks for the education on keywording. Tagging is something I do extensively on Zooomr, but after reading your post, I’ve searched out the keywording feature on Picasa, and have started using it.

    As far as date formats, go, I highly recommend using an unambiguous date format such as 14NOV2007. Photo sharing, especially on Zooomr, is for the world to enjoy, and you want your tags to work for as many people in as many places as possible.

  17. Robby says:

    Thanks for this post, Thomas!

    I really like XnView for adding keywords to photos–it’s free and has a lot of functionality! As for dates, I always use the format YYYYMMDD or YYMMDD because alpha-numeric sorting will always result in a chronological list.

  18. I am still not clear on the difference between keywording and tagging: probably just semantics.

    In any case, I have learned (I believe) that I should “keyword” my photos – perhaps with Picasa? – on my hard disk before I load them up to a net application (such as Flickr)as the FILE will have those included keyword “properties” available for search engines.

    Have I understood this?

  19. Siebbi says:

    I’m keywording my pictures almost always but it takes a lot of time. Sitting the whole day in front of a computer job-related in the office it’s really tiring to continue this kind of work at home. But I see the importance of keywording like you explained in your post. Unfortunately it takes so much time and energy for me so there’s too less left to process many pictures. So I will never have such an output of pictures like you. This is really annoying. My archive of unprocessed pictures is growing fast. Currently I’m stuck with post production in February.

  20. Mandar says:

    For those who are having problems keeping the keywords in the image file vs. as a separate data file. Using Photoshop, go to menu File -> File Info and you will be able to edit all the embedded file information. This can also be done using Irfanview or most other graphics programs.

  21. Steven says:

    Joseph said “Further, if you shoot RAW, good luck tagging the actual file”

    Photo Mechanic seems to do that just fine. I use it to properly name and keyword/tag my images as it pulls them from the memory card, and all that info stays with the file, is there in Photoshop, and is written to the eventual jpg that then gets uploaded.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Nate Green hit the key point.


    most free application do NOT do this. They store the metadata separately and then you are trapped using that app forever, and the metadata does NOT go to web services.

    I have found that the most popular & free apps… notably Picasa and iPhoto… do this.

    One free and very nice app that doesn’t is the Microsoft Photo Gallery built in Vista and now abailable for free as part of Windows Live on

    It’s easy to use, fast, does bulk tagging in a number of ways and puts the metadata into the photo file where it belongs.


  23. Another resource for learning about keywording is Controlled Vocabulary.

  24. -gary says:

    Nice thing about Lightroom, that may well be in other packages, is inherited keywords. I tag all of my photos by city. In Lightroom, I have nested keywords of United States->Arizona->Phoenix. When I drop a photo into Phoenix and export it for upload, Arizona and United States are automatically added to its keyword list.

    I also tend to put suburbs and smaller towns under their larger neighbors. Littleton Colorado, for example, would be United States->Colorado->Denver->Littleton.

    If I’m tagging something from my hometown of 1,500 that isn’t anywhere near a major city, I will use the county name. That usually means a lot in rural areas, but would be lost on larger metropolitan areas. United States->Oklahoma->Kiowa County->Snyder.

  25. Ma-roof says:

    Good info I should say.

    However, I feel that using keywords to store places might be suboptimal. The IPTC core keywords and the XMP have native fields for Country, State/province, City and Location. These will mostly be the same for a batch of photos, and so can be added immediately at import. One needs to add separate keywords only if the location requires resolution further than that provided by the Location field.

  26. i couldn’t believe there are so many readers here….does anyone know the alt tag to the image?

  27. […] Keywording is important because these keywords will be automatically read as tags by sites like Flickr and Zooomr. It also allows you better to search your finished imagery in the future on your computer. The Importance of Keywording Your Photos. […]

  28. […] Keywording is important because these keywords will be automatically read as tags by sites like Flickr and Zooomr. It also allows you better to search your finished imagery in the future on your computer. The Importance of Keywording Your Photos. […]

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