Does Anyone Really Know How To Play Tag?

Digital photography has meant that darkroom skills have now been largely replaced by desktop skills. But photographers — amateur and professional — have to wrestle with another new challenge, and it’s one that’s often taken for granted: choosing the right keywords to tag the image.tagcl.jpg

It sounds like a minor detail, something to worry about for a minute or two after the photo has been taken and is about to be uploaded. But if you want the photo to be seen — and in particular, if you want it to be sold — then picking the right tags is crucial. After all, it doesn’t matter how good a picture looks; if a buyer can’t find it, you’re not going to sell it.

There’s a real lack of good advice here. Worse, there’s a lack of hard evidence that particular tags are more effective than others. When iStockPhoto adds new tag options to its site, for example, it just provides its photographers with a list. It doesn’t explain which terms are most in demand or which of two tags with similar meanings is the most popular. Flickr does supply a cloud of the most popular tags but it’s noticeable that the biggest words are terms like “party” and “wedding” rather than “surfing” or “oceanography.” They’re the sort of tags that friends and relatives are going to use, not commercial buyers.

And again, they only tell you what tags other photographers are using, not how viewers are looking.

Missing the point entirely is location tagging. Yahoo! Research Berkeley has brought out a neat gadget that lets camera phones automatically add location tags to their images for upload to Flickr, but how useful is it? The name of the town is always an obvious tag, but do you really need to include the ID of your nearest cell tower? It’s hard to imagine someone searching for photos taken near cellID 24.

Clearly, the tags you choose are going to depend on who you hope will see the images. For family and friends, a name will do. If they toss that into Flickr, with perhaps one other identifier for the John Smiths, they should get where you want them to go.

For commercial viewers though, the situation is much more complicated. Tags will need to include general terms such as “beach” as well as specific words such as “pebble” or “dune” to help the searcher focus. They’d also need to contain a good mix of seasonal words such “Christmas” and “summer” as well as terms that are sought year-round, such as “fir” and “sunbathing.”

[tags] tagging photos [/tags]

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