Ten things you should know about keywords

Photo by Bruno Martins on Unsplash

Keywords sound like the perfect way to find your photos later. You can create any number of keywords for any purpose and they’re supported by just about all photo-editing applications. What could possibly go wrong?

There are, however, some pitfalls to be aware of, and it’s best to find out now rather than much later on when you’ve already gone too far down the keywording path to turn back.

1 You can’t embed keywords in RAW files

Surprised? You can attach keywords to RAW files in suitable software, but you can only embed keywords in JPEG and TIFF files because RAW files are designed not be modified.

Any program you use to catalog or browse RAW files will add keywords to the catalog database or to sidecar metadata files/folders stored alongside the image and NOT within the RAW file itself.

This means the keywords you’ve applied to RAW files are likely to be visible ONLY to the software you applied them with. Within that software, keywords appear to work the same way for RAW files, TIFFs and JPEGs. Outside it, your TIFFs and JPEGs may have the keywords you’ve applied embedded within them, but your RAW files won’t.

(Technically, you can embed metadata in Adobe DNG files, but this format has problems of its own and most of us would rather stick with our original RAW files.)

2 Not all software embeds keywords

Even though TIFFs and JPEGs support keyword embedding, not every program does it. You may find you have to go looking for a keyword/metadata embedding option and that by default any keywords are stored in catalog or metadata files, not in the images themselves.

In Lightroom, for example, you have to follow these two steps (quoting Adobe): (1) Choose Edit > Catalog Settings (Windows) or Lightroom Classic CC > Catalog Settings (Mac OS). (2) Click the Metadata tab. (3) To write adjustments and settings metadata to XMP, select Automatically Write Changes Into XMP. For RAW files, these will be XMP sidecar files.

In Alien Skin Exposure X4 and ON1 Photo RAW 2019 you have to select images and tell the software to embed the metadata – they won’t do it automatically. It’s good if you don’t like software modifying your images in any way, bad if you didn’t know your keywords were only ‘virtual’.

3 Your software could lock you in

This is what happens when you want to organise and RAW files alongside TIFF and JPEGs, which is such an extremely useful and natural thing to do that many of us now rely on it completely.

Lots of programs now do this brilliantly, including Lightroom, Capture One, Exposure X, ON1 Photo RAW and so on. The trouble is that the metadata you apply to RAW files is locked in to that particular software for the reasons above.

This isn’t a problem if you’ve chosen a RAW cataloguing/editing tool that you’re going to stick with for ever (are you sure about that?), but if you like to mix and match your software you need to be aware that RAW file metadata does not always travel well.

4 Is this a problem?

Using non-destructive RAW cataloguing/editing tools is like doing a deal with the devil. You get some very obvious advantages, but you get drawn deeper and deeper into that software’s proprietary processing and organisational system.

If you find a program you love and intend to stay with forever, that’s not a problem. You’ll need to export processed files before you can share them with others, and this will embed any metadata (including keywords) stored by the software, so the whole you-can’t-keyword-RAW-files thing becomes a non-issue.

But now and again it’s worth just doing a sense-check on how many non-destructively processed images you have in your catalog and just how in heck you could ever migrate to another application if you ever wanted to.

Read more: The ticking time-bomb of non-destructive editing

5 Keywording reality check

How much time do you want to spend anticipating a problem you might never have? Basically, keywording is doing definite work right now in anticipation of possibly saving some time later. Has all the time you’ve spent applying keywords in the past definitely produced at least that much time-saving in the present?

6 Can you get a machine to do it for you?

Machine-learning and auto-tagging are interesting new technologies that are advancing very quickly. Why tag images manually yourself when you can get your computer (or some server somewhere) to do it for you? For all its other faults, this is something Lightroom CC (the cloud version) gets right. How long will it be before all software tags your images automatically?

7 Do keywords suit your personality?

Whoa, what’s this? But it’s a good question. Keywords can work well for random organisers (that’s a personality type) who don’t mind a chaotic, patchy and makeshift system they can adapt or drop according to their needs. It’s not so good for complete cataloguers (ahem, I know this type) who cannot tolerate a partial system of sporadic/partial/disorganised keywording.

8 The pain of retrospective keywording

Retrospective keywording on a large library can be such a long, soul-destroying job that you never finish it and leave your library less organised than when you started, so that keyword searches will show you SOME of your relevant images, which is probably no use at all for the complete cataloguer personality type above.

9 How useful have your keywords been – really?

When you’ve found the images you need in the past, is it because you used keywords or because you remembered roughly when you did the shoot and found a folder with the right name? Folders are a crude organisational system but they are software-independent – hurrah!

10 Leveraging metadata templates

This was the most boring heading I could think of for an equally boring-sounding job – but many applications do indeed offer metadata templates for use when you import images into a catalog or browse folders full of photos. It all sounds a bit prim and over-organised, but try it – you may find it takes away some of the tedium of keywording and actually proves useful.

Closing thoughts

Keywording can work very well if you are a systematic worker who uses a specific set of software tools and a definite workflow. If you swap and change between software applications, computers and workflows, keywords may not provide the consistency or reliability you’re hoping for – and they may not offer a proper return on your time investment.