The Key is in the Keywords

by Doug Johnson


Dentists know a thing or two about healthy teeth and you may have heard Dr. Molars say, “You only have to floss the teeth you want to keep”.

As photographers using image editing programs like Aperture, iPhoto, Lightroom, Photoshop, etc., this anecdote could apply in some ways to our image file organization — meaning, “You only have to add keywords to the files you want to find”. It's an easy task to do each time you edit or add image files and if we integrate the task into our everyday workflow, finding any file you want becomes a piece of cake. Yes, you’ll be able to find that “needle in a haystack” from images taken yesterday or years ago without much effort.

Some folks might be asking, “What’s a keyword?”

The FreeDictionary.com describes a keyword as: A word used as a reference point for finding other words or information. As photographers, that information is the keyword metadata attached to image files.

People use keywords when they type into the Google search box to find web pages. It's no different here, except we’ll be adding the keywords in our image organization software so we can search for our photographs.

It's certainly easy to find your photographs if you just started taking pictures and taking the time to add keywords might seem unimportant. That will change over time, however, and become much more challenging as your library of images becomes gi-normous. And it will, I promise! So, why not make adding keywords a “good habit” right from the start?

If you’re someone like me who had previously added thousands of images into a photo library, adding the appropriate keywords to all those files might seem like a daunting task and It certainly would be if you tried to complete the whole task in one sitting. If you approach the task in smaller bites you’ll be done before you know it. For example, try adding a few when you're looking at existing files to do a certain project, or how about when your downloading a cool movie or music from iTunes — you get the idea.

Getting started is simple, but there are a few things to consider now so the keywords you’ll acquire over time are easy to manage as well.


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  • The camera/lens and exposure metadata is already written to the image file when you take the photo and is searchable, so It would be redundant to add any of this information as keywords. The industry also calls this specific type of metadata — “EXIF data” or Exchangeable Image File Format data. Now you can really impress your photography friends!


  • Keep it simple whenever possible and use one-word descriptions that have meaning to you. These could be adjectives, verbs and or nouns that will help in your search when you need to find a photo. Examples:
    • Adjectives: cute, blue, round
    • Verbs: running, blowing, blurred
    • Nouns: waterfall, boy, Kevin, cloud


  • Here’s a good list of keywords for the image above:


  • When you're adding keywords, always separate the words with a comma, and a space between them (or they will be considered one keyword). Good keywords: big, Martha, dog - Not so good: big Martha dog — Martha might get a little upset if she found out and not because her dog is big — you get the point!

Keywords can be added to image files in nearly all image editing programs. These days that includes Aperture, Lightroom, Photoshop and iPhoto.



In Photoshop’s Bridge organizer, the place holder is labeled “keywords”.



In Lightroom you’ll add keywords in the Library Module and since most folks are using this program as their “go to” editing software, let’s look little more closely at adding keywords in this program.

When you open the Keywording panel (green) in the Library Module there are a few places to add the words. These are labeled Keyword; Tags (yellow), Suggestions (blue) and Set (red).



  • "Tags" is the place to type in and add your keywords to one or more image files that have been selected in the grid mode.
  • "Suggestions" is a list of recently used keywords that are continually updated with the most recent words that you added. You can click on these to add keywords to one or more image files that have been selected in the grid mode.
  • "Sets" are a group of keywords. You can create the group (as a preset) or use the ones that LR created when it was installed. These are words you frequently use to describe images such as winter landscape, wedding, food or even the names of relatives in your family.

The Keywords List panel in Lightroom is a reference for all the keywords you’ve added over time. This is “the place” to edit your growing list of keywords —meaning organizing and deleting words. It's also another place to add a keyword to other photographs, although it's not the most convenient or logical place to do it.



Once the image files have one or more keywords (metadata) attached, they are now searchable using the text filter. In Lightroom this is located above the image display window in the Filter Bar. Just type in a keyword and “Bing Botta Bang” there’s the images you were looking for — Wahoo!

Pro tip: Sometimes your filter bar may hide itself. If you do not see your filter bar, verify that you are in the grid view by tapping "g" on the keyboard. If you still don't see your filter bar, be sure to tap the "\" on the keyboard.


Benjamin Franklin once said “For every minute spent organizing, an hour is earned”. I couldn’t agree more and you will too!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Doug Johnson

Doug Johnson is a Colorado native now living in Missoula, Montana. Before a life-changing pursuit of photographic art, he was an outdoor educator for more than 20 years, passionately teaching people backcountry skills in navigation, mountaineering, avalanche awareness and wilderness first aid. Since graduating from RMSP’s Summer Intensive program in 1996, Doug’s work has covered many diverse projects in the documentary, commercial, fine art and educational fields. Assignments have taken him from coyote shooting in Wyoming to the last stages of a woman’s life to the graffiti-covered alleys and abandoned buildings of Denver. He is currently involved in an ongoing project called Art Music, which fuses the art of photography with live musical performance. His educational philosophy is fun, intuitive and full of creative persistence. No matter where you are in your photographic journey, Doug’s balance of the aesthetic with the technical can help you further express your unique vision.

Doug teaches workshops all over the U.S. and abroad. Find out more at dougjohnsonphotography.com!