A cat teaches us some stuff about metadata
Take a second glance at your caption and keywords to do a better job of anticipating search queries. The Keywords field is just waiting to serve you by – among other things – providing a place for potential search terms that didn’t make it into your caption.
Long-time readers know that I suggest writing a caption for your photo in complete sentences, just as you would normally speak or write. Apart from being kind to your potential reader, doing it that way tends to ensure that the thought in the caption is expressed in words that human beings might actually use for such a thought. Well, one human being, anyway – you. Then, so goes the logic, when some future human, who often turns out to be – you (again) – types in a query to search for that picture there’s a good chance their search term will match something in your caption. With any luck.
But it never hurts to stack the deck in our favor. A recent family snapshot illustrates how.
Keywording according to Donut
At the top of this post you met Donut. Donut is a bright, affectionate cat. If not the most dignified of all creatures.
I had made some test shots with a new camera and I was filing away the resulting folder of images. These were mindless snaps of objects around the house, meant to test whether the rangefinder coupling on several of my lenses was up to snuff. We’re talking pictures of doorknobs, the corners of picture frames, magazines – pretty deadly stuff. I wrote a simple caption that said something like “Test images of stuff around the house, made with the Typ 246” and assigned it in bulk. The only keyword that seemed applicable was “test images”, but that was hardly necessary, given that I had just said that.
But wait, what’s this?
Then, mixed in all that dross, there was this picture of Donut, grooming his foot. That, I might actually want to find one day. You know how people are with their pets and kids. Every tiny thing the little beings do is a cultural milestone.
So, the foot grooming picture got 30 seconds or so of individual attention. “Donut grooms his foot on the living room rug”. In the Keywords, I added some categorical keywords. Donut is a member of the family. So, “family”. He’s a cat. So, “cats”. You can see a little of the cat-bedraggled rug. So, “home”. And “black and white”. Plus “Donut”. Because, well just because. And move on.
(I use Photo Mechanic’s spell checker to enforce a controlled vocabulary in my keywords field in the IPTC and Template editor dialogs. So these CV keywords were added with “fam, [enter], bla, [enter], hom, [enter] and so forth. They took about ten seconds to do, and they were clean, saved from my awful typing.)
Now, I realize that “Donut grooms his foot…” isn’t much of a caption. But there’s not too much else that I can say about the creature that doesn’t apply equally to 2,000 or so other pictures of him doing oh-so-cute stuff. And the task at hand was just to get this folder of test images off my laptop and gone to cold storage.
But wait. Over the next little while, the tiny hamsters in my brain started spinning their tiny little wheels. What if I wanted to find that foot-chewing picture later? Would I really say “grooms”? I didn’t say it like that just now, so maybe not.
So alright. Back I go to those keywords. I add “chews”, and “cleans”, and “licks”. I would never say “licks”. But somebody might. I’m right here, so what the heck.
Now… back to whatever I was doing….
No wait… again
Another few minutes go by. What about “foot”?. (The hamsters don’t spin their wheels particularly fast.) “Paw”? “Claws”? “Toes”? Back to the keywords again.
What did Donut teach me here?
But first, there’s the $64,000 question? Would I have found that picture later, even if I hadn’t beefed up the keywords? Yeah, I would have. At least I would darn well hope so.
Indeed, I probably would have searched “donut AND chews” rather than “donut AND grooms”. The picture wouldn’t have returned. But I know enough to know that when a search returns too few assets, or returns assets that don’t include what I’m looking for, I need to back away and use fewer search terms.
“Donut”. That would have brought a tsunami of cats. Well, a couple thousand. That sounds like an awful lot, but fact is, two thousand items is a fairly manageable search return. Worst case, it would have taken ten minutes or so, but I could have waded in and found the picture I was looking for.
Use the clues you have
The same smart librarian who taught me to broaden my search with fewer terms taught me that when my first search attempt fails by being too narrow and my second try is too broad, I need to use the tools I have at hand to refine my search.
One trick to try is to look at the unsuccessful returns. Check out the pictures. What do they show? Check out the captions and keywords? Are there clues there? If I read through some Donut captions, will I find “groom” or “foot”? That might suggest how the original caption writer might have expressed the thought.
As in most photographers’ archives, the original caption writer was me. It’s my collection. I write all the captions. Or most of them. So, yeah, it’s pretty darn likely that my third or fourth swing at this would have hit on “donut AND groom” or “donut AND foot”. Bingo.
Local knowledge of a collection can be a huge asset, too. (This is me talking now, not my old mentor.) Here’s another way that photographers’ collections differ from your general run-of-the-mill library. We shoot the pictures. We write the metadata. We – or our assistants – have a really good idea of what’s in the collection and how it’s likely to be labeled.
In this case, if I remembered this picture well enough to want to find it, it stands to reason that I would remember that I shot it in black and white. I’m enough of a gear head that I would probably have a good idea of exactly what camera I used, too.
Now I remember
I put “black and white” in my first batch of keywords. So, “donut AND black AND white” would have returned.
This is my own archive. Exif metadata is attached to my files. If I had an idea of the camera that I may have used, I could try “donut” and an Exif filter for “monochrom”. (Ze Germans. They spell that way.) Or even just “Leica”. Either would have done the trick just as well.
(In most cases, searching across both IPTC and Exif fields in Photo Mechanic Plus requires combining a search and a filter. No worries. That would save me from having to remember how to spell “Monochrom” anyway.)
Having said that, making those keywords better is better, just on general principles. By taking a few extra seconds to think through how a future search for a picture might look, we can strengthen our metadata and thus, our whole collection. The keywords I added when I revisited this picture should make things better. Hopefully, they will ensure that it will come back in a nice tight search return when or if somebody in the future looks for it.
A second look
And – different mentor this time – this adventure shows us that it’s a great idea – whether we are editing or writing metadata – to look away, then later take a second or third look at our work with “fresh eyes”. We may see what we missed on the first try. “No one-and-done!”, that mentor would bark at times when I might have really wanted to cut the corner and move on. I can hear his voice to this day.
Now to my list of mentors, I can add a cat. Donut has provided us with a parable that reinforces some fundamental library-science-for-photographers principles.
What have your pets taught you about managing your photo collection? Jump in the comments and let us know.