There is so much talk these days about image metadata. And for good reason, since metadata is at the heart of any system for organizing your digital photos. However, there are only two categories and only two sources of metadata. Understanding these basic aspects of image metadata will help you stay focused on the important things when organizing your digital photos. Read on to understand the only two sources of image metadata.
Two kinds of photo metadata
Understanding the only two kinds of photo metadata will help you focus on what is really important when you organize your digital photos.
Metadata is the most important aspect of you photo organization system
Photo metadata generated automatically
Automatic metadata is created by a device like your camera or phone anytime you take a photo. Any modern device for capturing photos or videos will record metadata about the photos just taken and insert them in the image files themselves (well…depending on the format…but we’ll assume you use the JPEG format).
What kind of automatic metadata is created by your camera?
Your camera or phone captures the most important piece of automatic metadata which is the date when the picture was taken. In addition, it will record the camera lens’ aperture, exposure time, ISO, GPS positioning and a myriad other data points that may or may not be relevant to you. This photo metadata is captured using the EXIF standard and saved inside the JPEG photo envelope.
Photo metadata generated manually
This contains information about the meaning of a photo. Or, to be more precise, it is the story behind a photo. The story of the photo is made up from some of the following things: Who is in the picture, what things they are doing in the picture and maybe why they are doing those actions.
The story of a digital photo captures the meaning of that photo to the photographer. And the only source of metadata for the story behind a photo is the photographer.
Manually created photo metadata is saved using the IPTC and XMP standards. This standard has specifications for user generated metadata like: keywords, description and categories. XMP is the modern standard using XML instead of simple data fields. XMP is more of an umbrella standard, a union of the EXIF and IPTC formats captured in a modern data structure.
Two sources of photo metadata
It only follows naturally that if there are only two kinds of metadata, automatic and manual, then there are only two sources of photo metadata.
On the one hand you have your camera that generates image metadata automatically, and on the other hand it’s you, the photographer, who creates efficient metadata manually.
The most reliable source of photo metadata
If setup correctly, your camera is your most reliable source of photo metadata. That’s right your camera it’s the most reliable source of metadata for your photos.
If setup correctly, your digital camera is the most reliable source of image metadata
As mentioned before, the photo metadata produced by your camera includes the most important piece of information which is the date when the picture was taken. A digital camera produces a lot more metadata like camera make and model, aperture, exposure time or if the flashes has fired or not.
In addition, if your camera has a GPS receiver it can also produce geographic information automatically and place it in your digital photos. This increases the amount of metadata produced automatically by your camera.
All this automatically generated metadata is saved in the EXIF format in your photos.
Why do I say your digital camera is the most reliable source of mage metadata ?
Well, because it’s automatic. Being automatic makes it reliable by definition… it just works without you having to think about it.
With one major exception…which forces you to think about your camera.
The one exception to having a reliable source of metadata is that if your camera is not setup correctly then it will produce incorrect metadata.
In other words if you go traveling to a foreign country in a different time zone and you fail to send your digital camera to the new time zone guess what? Your photos will have the wrong time and date recorded in their metadata.
Your digital camera is a reliable source of metadata but it is not very smart. Your phone on the other hand if you use it as a camera will be a lot smarter because it adjusts the time zone as you travel (if you have location services turned on).
The most important source of photo metadata
Your camera may be the most reliable source of metadata for your digital photos but it is you who are the most important source of photo metadata.
You as the photographer are the most important source of metadata for your photos
Why are you that important? It is simple!
You alone know exactly when and where that particular photo was taken. You alone know who is in the picture and most importantly what the picture means to you or why did you actually take that photo.
You alone as the photographer, know the story behind a digital photo.
However you and I are not a very reliable source of data because many times we can not remember when we took a picture or where a particular photo was taken. So that’s why we need help from an automatic device like a camera that can produce the correct photo metadata over and over again without us having to be involved.
This is why it is crucial that you have a system for producing metadata that is meaningful to you. I’m not talking only about having a date and a place but also a short description and keywords that will help you remember the meaning of a particular photo.
It is the meaning of each photo that we are trying to capture metadata for. The reason for creating metadata is that we could remember later in the future by looking at a picture and reading the metadata we can remember what it felt like to be in that particular place and time with the particular people that are in that specific photo. This is what it really means to have meaningful and memorable photos.
Two places to store photo metadata
You understand the two kinds of metadata and the two sources of metadata, but where do you store all this metadata. Conveniently enough, there are only two places to store metadata, and you should understand them and use them appropriately.
Store metadata in the image files
The most obvious place for storing metadata is in the actual image files. File formats like JPEG or TIFF as well as DNG allow for image metadata to be recorded inside the image files. This is the best place to store metadata, because your metadata then travels with your photos.
Another benefit of having metadata inside your image files is that it allows you to be independent of the software you are using for managing your digital photos. Software changes, but metadata remains…if recorded properly inside the image files themselves.
If new software comes along, it will just read all your metadata without you having to convert anything.
Store metadata in your folder names
Another important place for storing metadata is in the name of the folder containing a group of photos. This place is mostly overlooked by photographers and software creators alike. Like it or not, folders on a hard drive are the basic storage devices for computers. They are not going away anytime soon, so you better learn how to use them.
Having select metadata elements in the folder names is essential to quickly and visually finding your photos without needing any sophisticated search tool.
You must have only one system for creating efficient image metadata
Metadata is great! It is at the heart of being able to get your photos organized. We used to do it with film too, but we had a lot less photos.
Remember, the envelopes with developed photos? What did we do when we got new pictures “done” at the photo center? We wrote something about those pictures on the envelope like: “Kids’s Birthday 1991” or “Family vacation 1989”. That was photo metadata…not digital but written with a pen on paper.
The important thing is that you had a system for capturing meaningful metadata.
When it comes to digital photos we are mostly lost because we have way more photos and we keep producing lots and lots of photos. We are overwhelmed and we do not have a consistent system for capturing all the metadata from our cameras and our heads…and then we are confused and frustrated.
As a conclusion, you must have a system for capturing metadata and using it in folder names, image tags and geotags. Otherwise your digital photos will keep piling up and you will not be able to remember and enjoy those great memories you have captured in your photos.
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I recommend using Adobe Lightroom Classic CC via the annual Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. Lightroom has excellent photo editing capabilities. Yes, Lightroom has a steeper learning curve as you have to learn to keep your catalogs in sync with your hard drive. However, Adobe Lightroom makes most sense especially when you do lots of image editing.
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