What Is Metadata and How Does It Work?

back pf print photos with handwriting

What is “metadata”?

Perhaps you’ve heard the term used but were unsure of its meaning. The definition: it’s “data about data”.
In photo organizing, it applies to both digital and print photos.
Digital images come with embedded metadata – such as EXIF and IPTC as well as capture time and location if GPS is on (capture time being probably the most important!) 

With print photos, the metadata is any info / writing on the back of the photo (or sometimes on the front, unfortunately). This info gives us insights into the stories that the photos represent. We’ll use this to help create a taxonomy (more on that below).

We often store digital images in folders – similar to the way we file our paperwork. Folders can work well, but their usefulness is limited if you don’t know where specific image (s) are. This is where metadata comes in.

Without metadata, it’s difficult to process digital photos in folders – or provide photo libraries with organized access to their directories. This is why large organizations use metadata to manage all their digital assets. Historical archives and museums rely on it to keep their collections accurate. This process works just as well for family photo collections. 

We often add metadata to our client’s recently scanned print photos, or to their existing digital collection. This step is fairly simple, especially in Adobe Lightroom or Bridge. Ideally, all the digital capture times will be accurate. This, of course, depends on the camera’s clock being set accurately. 

When scanning, the newly created digital files take on the date and time of scan. Therefore, the date needs to be adjusted to the time when the image was originally taken (or a best guess). This info can be added via Lightroom or in Apple Photos (but only via the Photos desktop version, not the app).

Creating a taxonomy is another important step with metadata, especially since we often use various words to mean the same thing.

For example: there are several words we use for a mother: Momma, Ma, Mum, Mother – but it’s best to choose the one used by you and your family. By establishing a list of specific keywords, the results will be consistent since you are using a controlled vocabulary. And your list will be shorter, too.

Hopefully, this gives you a good idea of why metadata is important for your photo library. It lets you sort through your photos in a much quicker fashion, saving you time and effort. After all, that’s what enjoying your photos is all about!