What is Tagging?

Learn How to Organize and Tag Photos

Using Keyword Tags for Photo Organization
Photoshop Elements Organizer showing tags panel. © S. Chastain

You've probably heard the term "tagging" in the context of organizing digital photos. It's used on the Web to categorize Web pages through social bookmarking sites like del.icio.us and others. Adobe's Photoshop Album digital photo organizer brought the tagging concept to the mainstream for digital photography, and the popular online photo-sharing service Flickr also helped to spur the trend. Now many photo organizing software programs use the "tag" metaphor, including Corel Snapfire, Google's Picasa, Microsoft Digital Image and Windows Photo Galley in Windows Vista.

What Is a Tag? 

Tags are nothing more than keywords used to describe a piece of data, whether it's a web page, a digital photo or another type of digital document. Of course, people have been organizing digital images by keywords and categories for a long time, but it wasn't always called tagging.

In my opinion, Adobe's visual metaphor of the tagging concept in its Photoshop Album helped make the idea more accessible to the public. After all, a keyword or category is something abstract, but a tag is something tangible that you can visualize, like a gift tag or a price tag. Adobe's software user interface shows a very literal representation of the act of tagging. Your keywords are literally displayed as "tags" and you can drag and drop them onto your pictures to "attach" them to the photo.

The Old Way: Folders

The folder concept was once commonly used as a way of grouping and organizing digital data, but it had its limitations.

The most significant, especially for digital photo organization, was that an item could be placed in only one folder unless you duplicated it.

For example, if you had a digital photo of a sunset taken during your vacation at Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, you were faced with the dilemma of whether to put it in a folder for sunsets, for beach photos, or for your vacation.

Placing it in all three folders it would be a waste of disk space and create a lot of confusion as you tried to keep track of multiple copies of the same image. But if you only put the photo into a single folder, you'd have to decide which fit the best.  

The New Way: Tagging

Enter tagging. Categorizing that sunset picture is much less of a dilemma with this concept: You simply tag it with the words sunset, Indian Rocks Beach, vacation, or any other words that might be appropriate.

The true power of tags is revealed when it comes time to find your photos later. You no longer have to remember where you put it. You need only think of some aspect of the photo that you might have used in a tag. All matching photos associated with that tag can be displayed when you search it. 

Tags are especially useful for identifying people in your photos. If you tag every picture with the names belonging to each face, you'll be able to locate all your pictures of a particular person in an instant. You can also combine and exclude tags to further refine your search results. A search for "Suzi" and "puppy" will display all photos of Suzi with a puppy. Exclude "birthday" from the same search query and you'll find all photos of Suzi with a puppy except for those tagged "birthday."

Tagging and Folders in Perfect Harmony

Tagging does have some disadvantages as well. The use of tags can become unwieldy with no hierarchy in place. There's also a temptation to create a lot of tags or very specific tags so managing hundreds of them becomes as much of a chore as managing the photos themselves. But together with folders, captions and ratings, tags can be a powerful tool.

Tagging represents a significant shift in the way digital data is sorted, saved, searched and shared. If you're still using the old folder way of organizing digital photos, it's time to open your mind to the tagging concept. It doesn't mean the folder concept is going to go away, but I believe tagging is a valuable improvement to the hierarchical folder concept we were using.