How to Label Your Digital Photographs

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1930's-era photo album of Robert Tracy Powell. Kimberly Powell

How many times have you exclaimed in delight over the discovery of an old family photograph, only to turn it over and find out that absolutely nothing is written on the back? I can hear your groan of disappointment all the way from here. Wouldn't you give just about anything to have ancestors and relatives who took the time to label their family photographs?

Whether you own a digital camera or use a scanner to digitize traditional family photographs, it is important to take some time and label your digital photos.

This can be a bit more tricky than getting out a pen, but if you learn to use something called image metadata to label your digital photos, your future descendants will thank you.

What is Metadata?

With respect to digital photos or other digital files, metadata refers to the descriptive information embedded inside the file. Once added, this identifying information stays with the image, even if you move it to another device, or share it by email or online.

There are two basic types of metadata that can be associated with a digital photo:

  • EXIF (Exchangeable Image File Format) data is automatically captured by your camera or scanner at the time it is taken or created. The EXIF metadata stored with a digital photograph might include the date and time the photo was taken, the type and size of the image file, camera settings or, if you're using a camera or phone with GPS capabilities, the geolocation.
  • IPTC or XMP data is data that is editable by you, allowing you to add and store information with your photos such as a caption, descriptive tags, copyright information, etc. IPTC is the most widely used industry standard, originally created by the International Press Telecommunications Council for adding to a photograph specific data including the creator, a description, and copyright information. XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform) was developed by Adobe in 2001 off of IPTC. For the end-user's purpose, the two standards are pretty much interchangeable.
     

    How to Add Metadata to Your Digital Photos

    Special photo labeling software, or just about any graphics software program, allows you to add IPTC/XMP metadata to your digital photographs. Some also enable you to also use this information (date, tags, etc.) to organize your collection of digital photos. Depending on the software you choose, the available metadata fields may vary, but generally include fields for:

    • author
    • title
    • copyright
    • caption
    • keywords or tags

    The steps involved in adding metadata descriptions to your digital photos varies by program, but usually involves some variation of opening a photo in your graphics editing software and selecting a menu item such as File > Get Info or Window > Info and then adding your information to the appropriate fields.

    Photo editing programs that support IPTC/XMO include Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop Elements, XnView, Irfanview, iPhoto, Picasa and BreezeBrowser Pro. You can also add some of your own metadata directly in Windows Vista, 7, 8 and 10, or in Mac OS X. View a full list of software applications that support IPTC on the IPTC website. 
     

    Using IrfanView to Label Digital Photos

    If you don't already have a preferred graphics program, or your graphics software doesn't support IPTC/XMO, then IrfanView is a free, open-source graphic viewer that runs on Windows, Mac and Linux.

    To use IrfanView for editing IPTC metadata:

    1. Open a .jpeg image with IrfanView (this doesn't work with other image formats such as .tif)
    2. Select Image > Information
    3. Click on the "IPTC info" button in the bottom-left corner
    4. Add information to the fields you choose. I recommend using the caption field to identify people, places, events and dates. If known, it is also great to capture the name of the photographer.
    5. When you have finished entering your information, click the "Write" button at the bottom of the screen, and then "OK."

    You  can also add IPTC information to multiple photos at once by highlighting a set of thumbnail images of .jpeg files. Right-click on the highlighted thumbnails and select "JPG lossless operations" and then "Set IPTC data to selected files." Enter information and hit the "Write" button.

    This will write your information to all of the highlighted photos. This is a good method for entering dates, photographer, etc. Individual photos can then be further edited to add more specific information.

    Now that you've been introduced to image metadata, you have no further excuse for not labeling your digital family photos. Your future descendants will thank you!