Thursday, March 15, 2012

Metadata for images means always knowing your subject

So, here we have a beautiful shot. My question as a photographer is what is the metadata? From USA Today Andrew Kantor sheds some light on this subject:

My parents have piles of photos from "The Old Days" in albums and in boxes that they'll show me every now and again. I can usually recognize my folks, but I hardly ever know who's with them.
Trouble is, neither do they. They didn't write much if anything on the back, which results in descriptions like "That's us with some friends in, oh, 1954 or 55."
This drives me batty and I am determined not to leave a similar legacy. The fact that most of my photos are digital makes that easier. I've adopted a naming scheme that will ensure I at least know the date a shot was taken and who's in it.
Every file begins with the date (e.g., "05-0930") followed by the subject (e.g., "Sam and Reese Jumping.jpg"). So I know it was taken on Sept. 30, 2005, and that it's Reese standing next to my son.
But you can do more with digital photos than simply giving them smart names. You can use metadata. Metadata is information about the photo that's embedded in the JPEG or TIFF file — details such as when it was shot, the photographer's name, a caption, keywords, etc. Perfect for leaving a useable legacy.
But will you still love me tomorrow?
Metadata isn't new. Photo-sharing sites let people attach descriptions and keywords to their digital pictures online.
Trouble is that if you put your photos on one site (say, Flickr) and then switch to another (say, SmugMug) or use more than one site, all the work you did adding descriptions and keywords is lost.
It would be better to have that information in the photo itself for two reasons. First, you always have that data in the photo no matter where you save it or post it. Second, you don't have to re-enter all that information when you use different services.
Even before online photo sharing, there was plenty of software for organizing digital images, including adding metadata. The problem is one of standards. You don't want to use some software to add notes to your images, only to switch programs or operating systems and lose them all.
Two of the more popular programs were ACD Systems' ACDSee and Cerious Software's ThumbsPlus.
Several years ago I tried and liked them both. But I had one big problem: I felt I would be trapped with the software.
When I started playing with ACDSee, I realized it used its own technique to embed metadata. That meant that if I spent hours entering descriptions and dates and keywords, I would lose it all if I changed programs.
I liked ThumbsPlus because it stored the images and information in a standard database. But that still meant I was married to the software unless I found another package that used the same database.
I settled instead for simply using my computer's folders to organize images: I have them by topic, with subfolders by year and then month. Ask me for a shot of my brother from last year, and I look in /Family/Don/2004.
This lets me organize my images, although I didn't think it gave me the advantages of metadata. That's why I created that file-naming scheme. I got excited at one point when I realized that Windows supports basic metadata in images: Right-click on a JPEG and choose Properties to see the information.
The problem is that Windows' system is proprietary. I can give a file a description, but if open it in Photoshop that information is nowhere to be seen. That's why proprietary metadata is useless.
What I didn't realize was that there was a standard for metadata out there. In fact there are two complimentary ones. But, with digital photos still a new thing, it wasn't publicized. Further, at the time neither ACDSee or ThumbsPlus supported it.
Finally the standards that have been around for a while have made it to the mainstream. That means no more worry about being married to a product, and being confident that the dates, descriptions, and key words I add to my photos will be there no matter what I do with them.
If you don't know me by now…
The standard for metadata in images is called XMP, for Extensible Metadata Platform. It was developed by Adobe as an end-all, be-all metadata standard for all sorts of files, but it's found it's most important place with images.
XMP is based on XML, which is the worldwide standard for, well, defining standards. (Read more about it in my column from last April.)
You might not have heard about XMP, but if you work with digital images you might know about two standards that are 'merged' into it: EXIF and IPTC.
EXIF (Exchangeable Image File Format) is a metadata standard for images that's mostly concerned with technical information: the date the picture was taken; what kind of camera was used; the aperture, shutter speed and other settings; the image's resolution, etc. It's embedded automatically by your digital camera.
EXIF is very useful for technical types, but the more important one for me is the International Press Telecommunications Council's Information Interchange Model— commonly known simply as IPTC data. It's what most news organizations use to keep notes about an image, and includes fields for title, description (caption), author (photographer), date, location, etc.
Adobe Photoshop has supported IPTC for years, but Adobe figured that XML was a Good Thing and worked to"XMLify" all the metadata in digital images. The result was XMP.
There are a lot of software packages that support IPTC, XMP, or both. Adobe and IPTC (the group) developed the specs for companies to use to synchronize old IPTC data with the new XMP standard.
Translation: Whether you put your metadata in your images using XMP or just IPTC, today's software will support it. No more proprietary schemes.
Most photo-sharing sites that allow captions and keywords will extract them automatically from XMP/IPTC data if you use it in your uploaded images. And adding it is easy; IPTC is supported in every photo editing and organizing software package worth its salt. (One exception: Adobe's Photoshop Album. It still doesn't support IPTC.)
The cool thing is, you don't even need to use a commercial package. There are programs out there that simply work with XMP/IPTC and to some extent EXIF data.
My hands-down favorite is a free program called PixVue. It's an image annotation and organization package that integrates nicely with Windows — right-clicking on an image will let you choose "Annotate" and edit everything.
I could spend a lot of paragraphs singing the praises of PixVue. Suffice it to say that I've found the combination of using my folder structure to organize my images and PixVue to handle the metadata is the slickest, cleanest way I've come across to manage my photos.

Above is what I mean about the data, it is all there. Date and time says full sun, ISO at 800 says maybe not so full in a volcanic event. What else can you find, the info is there.
And, thanks to there finally being a standard for all the captions I'm going to write, I don't have to worry about liking it as much tomorrow.

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