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Using a Controlled Vocabulary to Organize Digital Photographs

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This post is part of a series called Digital Asset Management Fundamentals.
7 Golden Rules of Digital Asset Management
Caption, Description, Title, ALT: How to Add Semantic Information to Images

The great thing about digital photography is you can take lots of photographs without worrying about costs. The challenging thing about digital photography is you can take lots of photographs. Instead of boxes, filing cabinets, and binders spilling a chaos of negatives and prints, we have computers, memory cards, and external hard drives packed full of image bits and bytes. 

Organization and sanity are possible. This article will guide you in building and using a powerful system of controlled keyword vocabularies to manage your digital chaos.

A disorganized directory of photographs
If you’re like me, your collection of digital photographs looks something like this.

From Digital Landfill

Colin Rowe, founder and president of Archimedia, is a digital asset management guru. He describes disorganized photography collections as “digital landfill.” The photographs may be saved, duplicated, and even backed up in a storage system, but if you can’t find what you need when you need it, your photos are just taking up space. 

Thinking like the professional photographer he is, Colin points out that you can’t sell photographs you can’t find. Or, if you can find the photo but spend hours looking for it, you’ve lost any profit and then some by spending more time searching than you earned from the sale. Slow delivery of a requested photo also undermines your credibility as a professional, decreasing the odds you’ll be approached again.

It’s equally important to be able to find photographs kept for a personal collection. You take photos because you want to remember and share your experiences — events and moments that cannot be repeated. If you’re unable to find those photos, you’re left with only memories that will fade over time. 

Lost photographs are also lost legacies. Whether corporate, professional, or personal, photos carry our stories forward. But not if they can’t be found or can’t be identified. Colin warns that the legacy can also be lost if only one person understands how the data is managed. If that one person retires, departs, or dies, the knowledge about the photos goes too.

To Digital Gold Mine

Archimedia works with large organizations and government agencies. For them, digital asset management usually involves months of project management, collating and sorting thousands of digital assets, cataloguing, and training. Just designing and implementing a cataloguing system is the work of Archimedia’s librarian, Tammy Moorse.

However, Colin is quick to emphasize the importance of digital asset management for an image collection of any size. “Take a look at your desk,” he says. “How would you identify the items on your desk? Would everyone else identify the items the same way?” Good point. I can barely find what I need on my own desk day to day, let alone find one item among a number several days from now. 

The work or organizing pictures can be laborious and boring but it’s not difficult or overwhelming. Tammy admits that even as a trained librarian who gets paid to catalogue, she appreciates the tediousness of the work. Nonetheless, it is important and with a few tricks and a regular commitment of small chunks of time, even the most disorganized collection can be tamed into usable assets.

Keywords, Tags, and Free Text

Full digital asset management involves naming conventions, folder structures, backup routines, and more. But at the heart of every digital asset management system is keywords, and that’s where we’re starting. 

Keywords are words or short phrases used commonly within a system to point to the meaning or subject of information. Keywords classify information and can be used to mark ownership. The system is not new. A glance through a library card catalogue will provide oodles of examples of keyword sorting. For example, on the library card below, the book has been identified with keywords such as “hiking” and “Illinois.” The keywords also include the author’s name, “Zyznieuski.”  

A library catalogue card showing the use of keywords

Tags are labels that have been applied to information. Tags can be used to mark information with keywords, codes, and open-ended information that is relevant only to the user. For example, the hiking book in the library card has been tagged with the keywords “hiking” and “Illinois.” It’s also been tagged with a code from the Dewey Decimal system of library cataloguing. If I owned a collection of such books, I might also tag them with personal information such as “family vacations” because I like to go hiking when on family vacations. That tag is only significant to me whereas the keyword tags mean something to everyone searching the information. Coded tags link to a standardized system. 

Captions and descriptions are bits of free text that describe or draw attention to something in the image that is not obvious. This is the place for tagging with personal information and information describing the context of an image.

Using keywords and tags is a proven system of sorting, and when used well, it’s robust and reliable. The Internet, for example, would be unnavigable if it weren’t for the use of search engines combing through keywords and tags. Similarly, you’d spend hours looking for a book in a library or bookstore if it weren’t for cataloguing with keywords and tags. The system brings the same power to organizing photographs.

Keywords in Photography

Digital images are tagged with metadata — text data embedded in a digital image that provides information about the image. Some information is added to the metadata at the time of exposure; for example, file size, dimensions, and camera settings. Photo cataloguing software allows you to also add custom information to the metadata. Typically, this includes the photographer’s name and copyright information, a caption or description, and, if being organized, keywords. 

Photo cataloguing software keeps a record of all of the keywords you’ve used. My Lightroom catalogue has a list of over 1500 keywords. That may sound impressive but, in my case, it’s just a list of words I’ve freely chosen that meant something to me at the time I applied the keywords. 

A partial list of keywords from a Lightroom catalogue

Worse, I’ve used the same keyword to mean different things (homonyms) and used multiple tags for the same concept (synonyms). For example, I’ve used the keyword ORANGE to identify photographs of oranges and to identify photos that are predominantly orange. Thus, if I search for photos of an orange, I’m also going to get orange sunsets in my results. I’ve also used the keywords DOG, PUPPY, and CANINE to identify photos of dogs. If I do a search for DOG, I will miss all of the photos tagged with PUPPY and CANINE. And, being Canadian, I’ve managed to use both American and British spelling for my keywords; for example, GREY and GRAY. If I don’t remember to include both spellings in my search, I will miss half of my gray (or grey) photos. 

That would be why, despite an impressive list of keywords, a keyword search in my Lightroom catalogue provides me with a random mash of photographs.

A disorganized Lightroom library of photos

Controlled Vocabularies

The key to effective tagging is to control the keywords you use to tag your photographs. Called “controlled vocabularies,” limited lists of keywords have also been around for a long time. Aristotle used them when classifying animals; the British Museum has been using them since the 18th century and the Library of Congress since the 19th. Many stock agencies fastidiously control their keyword list so purchasers can find the photos they need.

The challenge is building the controlled vocabulary and diligently using that limited list of keywords. 

How to Build Your Controlled Vocabulary

To build your controlled keyword vocabulary, you’ll need two things: the keywords and a structure that makes the keywords usable. Although I’ll describe them as two steps, you’ll find yourself working with the list of keywords and structure together. Once you have your controlled keyword vocabulary, you’ll need to apply the keywords and keep your keyword vocabulary current.

Step One - Choose Your Keywords

Choosing your keywords can be both fun and frustrating. This is an activity that requires a creative person to think within a rigorously maintained structure. 

Colin Rowe recommends starting with a broad look at your whole collection, thinking about how someone else would describe what they see in your photographs. Ignore the context and instead, think about what’s in the photos. You are not describing why the photos were taken but what the photos are about.

A restaurant interior with dishes food and beverages

This photograph, for example, was taken at the opening of a restaurant. That’s the context. But to describe the photo for tagging, I would use keywords such as RESTAURANTS, BEVERAGES, and FOOD. 

When I asked Colin for his golden rules for choosing keywords, he deferred to Archimedia’s librarian. With a background in art history and a graduate degree in library science, Tammy Moorse understands both the creative and controlled aspects of choosing keywords.

The Golden Rules for Choosing Keywords 

  1. Use as many keywords as necessary but not more than you need. Unless you have at least 5 to 7 photographs that represent a concept, you don’t need that keyword. Instead of three photos with HIGH HEELS and four with PUMPS, you only need DRESS SHOES or even just SHOES.
  2. Don’t use buzzwords. PHOTOBOMB or SELFIE might mean something now, but they likely won’t mean much a few years from now. 
  3. Literalism is key. Nicknames, figures of speech, and metaphors do not belong in a keyword vocabulary. A photograph of four people sitting around a conference table might suggest BRAINSTORMING, but should be tagged instead with ADULTS, OFFICE, and TABLES.
  4. Avoid ambiguous words and homonyms. I used ORANGE, for example, to describe both the fruit and the colour. BALL could be a dance or a toy, and TRUCK could be a VEHICLE or a HANDCART. When you can’t avoid homonyms, distinguish between the two by making one a phrase. The clearest examples are the words LANDSCAPES and PORTRAITS. To distinguish between the subject and the orientation, use LANDSCAPES for photographs of landscapes, and LANDSCAPE ORIENTATION for photos that are wider than they are tall. The same applies to the words PORTRAITS and PORTRAIT ORIENTATION.
  5. Don’t use duplicate words or synonyms to describe the same thing. PLAYGROUND and FIELD could both be used to describe a PARK. I used CANINE, PUPPY, AND DOG to identify photographs of dogs. Pick one of the synonyms and stick to it.
  6. Avoid regionalisms and use words others will recognize and understand. For example, depending upon where you live, RUNNING SHOES, RUNNERS, SNEAKERS, KICKS, PLIMSOLLS, or TRAINERS can all be used to describe ATHLETIC SHOES. It’s best to stick to the universal term, ATHLETIC SHOES.
  7. Pluralize all words that could be singular or plural. For example, use SHOES, not SHOE; and use CHILDREN, not CHILD. By pluralizing all words, you won’t have to remember whether you used singular or plural. And in most cases, if you put the singular in as your search term, you will pull up photographs tagged with the plural. In contrast, if you search with a plural term, you are likely to miss any photos tagged with the singular.
  8. Choose your language and stick to it. If you’re using American spelling, use ARMOR, not ARMOUR. If you’re using British spelling, use CATALOGUE, not CATALOG. If you’re Canadian, make your choice and be consistent. Similarly, if you choose to keyword in French, Spanish, or any other language, use the same language for all keywords. 
  9. Think about the context of your collection to refine your vocabulary. You and I may both photograph buildings but we may photograph them for different purposes. For example, you might look for different architectural styles and thus would want keywords such as NEOCLASSICAL, GOTHIC, and ROMAN. My interest may be more in structure, so I would want keywords such as SINGLE FAMILY HOME, APARTMENT BUILDING, and CHURCH.

Resources

Thankfully, you don’t have to start your keyword vocabulary from scratch. Tammy recommends taking advantage of established lists that have been tested over time. Start with the keyword list provided in your photo cataloguing software, for example, but be sure to delete the keywords that are not relevant to your collection. Then if you need inspiration or guidance, move on to the following online resources:

Step Two - Set the Structure

A list of keywords is a start, but they’re likely not organized in a system that makes them easy to recall, use, and update. A well-designed keyword vocabulary needs a structure that groups relevant terms together in a hierarchy. A structure makes keywords easy to find and helps you to see when and where you need more (or fewer) keywords.

Working with the keywords you already have, group relevant terms together. A fashion photographer, for example, might group together keywords describing clothing (GOWNS, BUSINESS SUITS, OUTERWEAR), models (MALE, FEMALE, BLONDE, ADULTS, TEENS), and locations (BEACHES, ART GALLERIES, RESTAURANTS). 

Once you have your keywords loosely grouped, organize the keywords into a hierarchical structure with broader terms at the top of the hierarchy and more specific terms further down. For example, a nature photographer might have a hierarchical structure like this:

Animals
  > MAMMALS

    > BEARS
      > GRIZZLIES

You’ll know as you build your keyword vocabulary how deep your hierarchies need to be and how to break them down. Colin Rowe recommends keeping your hierarchies to three tiers or less, although Tammy acknowledged that she has built hierarchies with four tiers when the situation has called for it.

At each level of your keyword hierarchy, group the related keywords together. Continuing with our example above, the keyword hierarchy as it expands might look something like this:

Animals
  > MAMMALS

    > BEARS
      > GRIZZLIES, POLAR BEARS, PANDAS

Of course, you can have related keywords clustered at any level of a hierarchy. For example, at the level of BEARS, I might also have MOOSE, ELEPHANTS, and CAMELS. 

Tammy recommends that you add a general category to any controlled keyword vocabulary. This category is where you will place any proper and corporate names. 

Your hierarchy can become cluttered if you are working just in single lists on a notepad. Consider setting up a structure in a spreadsheet or similar tool to keep your keywords organized as you build your vocabulary. Tammy uses a simple sheet of four columns. Using a spreadsheet offers a few advantages, notably the ability to sort columns and search for words. As well, if you are spreadsheet savvy, you can export your spreadsheet as a tab-delimited .txt document, which can then be imported into some photo management programs as hierarchal keyword lists.

A hierarchy for a keyword vocabulary in an Excel spreadsheet
A hierarchy for a controlled keyword vocabulary built in Excel

I’m a visual person and prefer using using mind maps for this purpose. I’ve seen other people create their keyword vocabulary with post-it notes on a wall. It’s not as slick and easy as a spreadsheet, but use what works for you. Check out a few online resources and apps for ideas. My favourites are MindNode (available as an app and for desktop) and Creately (available online and for desktop).

A hierarchy for a keyword vocabulary in a mind map
A hierarchy for a controlled keyword vocabulary built with a mind map

Step Three - Tagging

Applying the keywords is the tedious part of the task, Tammy admits, “even if you’re a librarian paid to do this.” Starting while a collection is small is the easiest option. Even if your collection is large and you do nothing more than tag everything new you add to your collection, you’ll be off to a start. Once you see the benefits of digital asset management, you’ll be motivated to tag your entire collection.

Tammy recommends setting aside small, regular chunks of time to work on tagging, and to work with photographs in batches. For example, if I were tagging photos I took while bicycling in the Netherlands, I could tag all of the photos in the collection with the keywords EUROPE and NETHERLANDS. Then I can break the collection down into smaller groups to be tagged with city names.

Similarly, apply whatever keywords you can when importing your photographs into your photo cataloguing software. Even if you can only apply keywords from the first hierarchy, part of the work is done. If at all possible, take the time when importing after a shoot to complete tagging all photos. Include the needed time within the time you’ve set aside for a shoot. For example, if you know a shoot will take you five hours, set aside seven so you have enough time to import and tag right away. It’s easier to tag when the subject is fresh in your mind and you’re in the process of managing your photos anyway.

Two final points about tagging. First, when tagging, apply each keyword along the hierarchy, not just the last keyword you need. In my example of photographs from the Netherlands, I would apply EUROPE, NETHERLANDS, and the city. Later, when I need photos from anywhere in Europe for a project, I don’t need to search for every European country I’ve visited. Simply searching for EUROPE will get me the whole collection.

Second, remember to look across your hierarchies when choosing keywords. Many photographs require tagging from more than one hierarchy. For example, if I photographed moose while travelling in Canada, I would want to tag my photos with NORTH AMERICA, CANADA, and MAMMALS and MOOSE.

Step Four - Use Your List and Keep It Current

It’s one thing to build a controlled keyword vocabulary; it’s another to use it. When in a hurry, it’s tempting to apply just what comes to mind, but a controlled vocabulary only works if it is … well, controlled.

If you’ve imported your keyword vocabulary into your photo cataloguing software, the software provides you with keyword prompts. Sometimes, though, your imported list won’t have what you need or perhaps you haven’t been able to import your keyword vocabulary and, instead, added the vocabulary to your software bit by bit. I keep my keyword vocabulary close at hand just for this reason. I’ve set up my computer so that when I boot up, the computer automatically loads my keyword vocabulary in the background. When I’m working with my photographs, I check my vocabulary to pick the best keywords to apply. If I need to add a keyword to my vocabulary, I can amend my keyword vocabulary right away.

Colin and Tammy both advocated thinking of your controlled keyword vocabulary as a living document. This is not something you create once and never look at again. You must keep the terminology current, add keywords when the need arises, and also remove or change keywords when the words aren’t working. They advocate caution, however, if removing or changing keywords. If you decide, for example, that you don’t need the distinction of COWBOY BOOTS and WINTER BOOTS, and could, instead, use just the keyword BOOTS, make the change in your controlled keyword vocabulary and search for and update any photographs tagged with those keywords.

Don’t Stop There

Digital asset management is an art. It takes some trial and error to find the system that works for you, but the rewards are worth the effort. Photographs are, arguably, a photographer’s most important asset. Equipment can be replaced but not the photos taken with the equipment. Effectively managing your photos protects your assets and saves time. Colin estimates that 1 in 8 hours of a photographer’s time is spent looking for and retrieving a single digital asset. If you are looking to sell or re-use or share your photos, digital asset management is a time saver and thus, also a money earner.

To learn more, explore the following resources:

Also be sure to check Tuts+ tutorials on Digital Asset Management

Conclusion

Organizing your collection of photographs will help you in a number of ways. It will streamline your workflow, get your photos out faster, and prevent operator error and lost photos. Organizing your photos also helps preserve your collection for the future. A number of methods and structures can be used to organize any digital assets, but keywords are at the heart of all systems. A controlled keyword vocabulary adds power and effectiveness to your organizing methods by eliminating typing and spelling errors, removing confusion and ambiguity, and applying consistency.

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