Tagging photos to add metadata

4 March 2017

Scanned photos vs. “Born digital” photos and videos from your phone

Automatic vs. Hand-crafted metadata

Whether your image file is a scanned photo or a photo or video from your phone or camera, some metadata (data about data) is automatically contained within the file. For example, “born digital” pictures and video have the date and time automatically added in the file properties.

Other examples of “automatic” metadata:

  • Height
  • Width
  • Resolution
  • GPS/geographic location (if the camera has a location feature, and you have it turned on)
  • Flash source
  • Aperture
  • Exposure time
  • Camera make and model

We can add some additional metadata ourselves, which can be used to help describe the digital file and then find it again later on. It’s especially important to do some tagging when working with scans of old photos, which won’t have very much useful information attached to the digital file automatically.

Minimum: Rename the files

When I import from my camera, it is important to me to rename the file.

A typical image from one of my cameras has a file name similar to “DSC_001.jpg.” My file naming pattern includes when, where who, and/or what and also may have a basic description such as:

“2016-05-15 Sauk City WI Dance Recital.jpg”

files in folder

Even if I don’t make any other changes, I can tell by reading the file name what the picture contains. I won’t waste time opening this file if I’m looking for a picture of my dog, for example. Some programs will help with the file rename process by sorting your photos for you before you import them from your camera. If your camera or phone SD card contains photos accumulated over one calendar date, the import wizard might batch those files into separate dates. You can choose to let the program rename the files with this date included in the file name. Make sure the date and time are correct on the camera-side copy before you import the pictures.


The purpose of tagging is to help you find what you are looking for.

I always tag year, city, state, sub-location (such as “home” or “River Arts Center”) names of the people in the photo (in quotes), event name (if the photo is of a specific event), and which camera I used to take the photo.

I tag mostly the same way for scanned photos – year or era (1942, or 1940s), city, state, sublocation, names of the people or things in the photo, event name (if the photo is of a specific event) and “scan” instead of the camera name.

Step back before you start tagging, and think about what you might search for if you are trying to find this specific image.

Make some rules

  • Re-use existing tags whenever you can
  • Pick a format for abbreviations, names, and locations and use it consistently
    • Will you abbreviate it or spell it out? (St. Louis or Saint Louis)
    • Will you use nicknames or full names? (Jim or James) – I always use both as separate tags, such as “James Smith” and “Jim Smith” – both tags applied to the same photo. I might use the “Jim” tag but somebody else someday might use “James” as their search term.
    • How will you format phrases? If you don’t enclose them in quotes or make them all one string, the words will get separated into individual tags. “May Elementary School” will become “May” “Elementary” “School”
      • “May Elementary School”
      • MayElementarySchool
      • May_Elementary_School
    • Will you tag married women with their maiden name, married name, or both? I always use the maiden name, with the married name if I need a tiebreaker (I have two women named “Ida Wing” in my family)
  • Add as much information as you want. The goals are:
    • To describe the photo to people who might not otherwise know what is in it
    • To find the photo again later when you want to use it.