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How to Add Metadata to Archival Images

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In this tutorial, we’ll look how to add essential metadata—information about information—to your images. It's important to include metadata when you're managing photos: that little bit of extra information about the context and meaning of a photo turns your unorganised pile of old photos into a useful, properly organized photo archive.

Having metadata means you can easily search for and find pictures as your archive grows. It also means that you can store details within the images, and refresh your memory about them should you need to later.

Working with old photos is often like being a detective. For example, you have one photo, but you want to find another photograph that was part of the set. There's what you know about the photos in question—sometimes not much at all—and then there's what is missing but could potentially be found. Let's start with missing information.

Missing Information

In a previous tutorial, I mentioned about writing on a back of a photograph. Many old prints have information written on them and this is the first place that you should start looking for information if you don't know anything about the image.

Next, can you identify a place or a person? If you can see that the image is, say, from Sunderland, which is my hometown, then that would give the option of asking a local history group, like the Sunderland Antiquarians or maybe getting in touch with the local newspaper to see if they could give any more information about the photograph.

Social media is a great way to get something out to a wider audience, and maybe find somebody who can help to fill in the blanks.

“I thought history was Victorian, Edwardian and beyond. It's not, history is now and what people crave is what they remember as kids. It could be the 60s, could be the 70s and it’s vitally important that we now say to people, can you give us your old photographs? And once we've got them we can them digitize them for future generations.’ —Norman Kirtlan, Sunderland Antiquarian Society
Including too much can be as bad as having no metadata!

What to Include in Your Metadata

Once you have some information about your photograph you can start to add the data. Begin with a title which makes a photograph easily identifiable and try to keep it quite short. Once you start giving your images a title, you should be consistent with the structure and style. So you could, for example, start with the place and then any other information, like sunderland_mulberrypark.

Think about adding a catalogue number here, too if you're going to deal with a large amount of images.

Next comes a description: A caption that best suits the photograph. Include things like the photographer, if known, the place, and any people in the image. After that, add keywords.

The trick here is to use terms to describe the content in the photograph but also to keep it relevant and specific. If the image is a park full of people and there's a dog almost out of sight in the background, then tagging the image with ‘dog’ probably isn't the most constructive idea.

Think about what the main features are in the image, who is present, where they are, what the circumstances are and any other relevant information.

You can also include a copyright notice if youŕe thinking about sharing the image online.

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How to add metadata in Adobe Photoshop

How to Add Metadata to a Photograph

Most photo editing suites will allow you to admit the data in a way that will be able to be read and handled by different software. In Photoshop, click File, and then File Info to input your data.

If you look at the drop down button at the bottom you'll see the option to export. If you do this and save the file, you'll have a template for future images, which is really useful if you’re adding data to a large set.

Adobe Bridge will allow you to add metadata in batch, which is another big time saver if you are cataloguing a large volume of images. Metadata makes the file size larger but only marginally and it's really worth doing for the benefits of having an organised catalogue.

Image information often gets lost through the transfer of digital image from place to place, so having embedded metadata that's part of the file itself will mean that it's always with the folder unless someone purposefully deletes it.

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