Photo Keywording 3.0

Keywording probably has to be the least popular part of any photographer’s workflow. Creating the images is always fun. Even editing and enhancing your pictures requires almost as much creativity as technical skill. But listing the words that a searcher might use to find your photos is about as enjoyable as reading a thesaurus – which, of course, is often part of the process.

It is important though. While stock agencies do provide categories for their image libraries, buyers generally prefer to search rather than browse, typing in the terms that they consider the most important. Miss the words  a searcher might use, and you’ll cut yourself out of the running for a sale. The first problem then isn’t just deciding what your picture portrays but trying to second-guess how other viewers might see it — and then including all of the possible different terms that they might use for the same motif.

“Not only does an interpretation of an image vary from viewer to viewer (add to this cultural differences) but also we have the flexibility of natural language,” explains Liisa Kaakinen, a professional keyworder who also teaches photographers and libraries how to categorize their images. “‘Pool’ can refer to a body of water, billiards game, swimming pool etc., and Wellington boots can be called ‘Wellies’,’ Rubber boots,’ ‘Galoshes,’ ‘Gum boots’ etc. Even with rigid and solid keywording rules in place keywording is always changing – language changes as do the market demands.”

And those changing demands don’t just come from buyers. They can also be found across different agencies. There is no one standard set of keywording rules that can be applied universally, so photographers need to know the rules for each agency to which they’re submitting.

The Key Difference between Getty and Corbis

Some companies are more helpful than others. Alamy requires photographers to include all variants, synonyms and even misspellings but Getty and Corbis both employ thesauruses on their sites so photographers need only include the most specific terms. The sites then add the synonyms and lexical variants, such as plurals, themselves. Getty also asks customers to clarify search terms with more than one meaning to ensure that the site turns up useful results.

But even for those two companies, the giants of the stock industry, the differences in their use of controlled vocabulary — set terms with pre-defined meanings — can lead to some head-scratching for both photographers and customers. Getty, for example, defines a “mid-adult” as aged 30-39; Corbis uses the same term to refer to someone aged 25-45.

“My favorite one is the keyword ‘Looking at camera,’” says Liisa. “At Getty this means the model is looking directly into the photographer’s lens, i.e. the viewer, whereas at Corbis this means looking at the device shown in the image. Corbis uses ‘Eye contact’ when the model is looking at the photographer’s camera.”

Keyworders then need to use a little creativity themselves to ensure that the buyer gets to see their photos. Sara Woodmansee, Senior Editor at, a part of Ron Chapple Studios, says that she tries to get around the age problem by using multiple age ranges for models whose appearance might allow them to fall into more than one category. Models, she points out, can often look younger or older than they really are.

And to enable buyers to find pictures of models looking directly at the cameras, she uses the phrase “Looking at viewer” which she hopes can be understood on any site.

“The question is if I use ‘looking at viewer,’ and a site’s ‘normal’ accepted phrase is ‘looking at camera’ will the site ignore my phrase?” she asks.“Hopefully not, if they have a good synonym system in place.”

Sara’s approach also increases the risk of employing too many keywords. She tends to use anywhere from 20 terms to as many as 40 or 50 for a particularly complex photo, using a base list that covers ethnicity; age range; gender; number of people; emotion; nouns; actions; concepts; description; indoors/outdoors; format; and sometimes location. While the numbers can be flexible though — and depend on the nature of the image — relevance is key. According to Liisa Kaakinen, nothing deters buyers more than irrelevant search results, and some agencies even penalize photographers who use unrelated terms.

One Photo, Five Minutes

Bearing all that in mind, says Liisa, and after some serious training, you can expect to be able to process around 80 images in a day — about one photo every five minutes — a figure confirmed by Sara Woodmansee.

“It does depend on the subject matter, of course.  Images of ‘people in action’ take more thought, obviously, whereas landscapes or still-life are easier,” she says.

One option then is to skip the whole thing and automate the process. ImageKeyworder is a program that automatically adds synonyms and variants to images. It even has templates to add similar sets of keyword to similar photos, and now has a dedicated Alamy mode to combat that site’s special demands. But even ImageKeyworder won’t usually shorten the time spent adding the phrases, Yvan Cohen, director at OnAsia, the program’s creators, told us. While you could get through up to 150 editorial images a day with ImageKeyworder, conceptual photos will take much longer. The service largely optimizes the workflow, making it more comprehensive and efficient by drawing on a structured and managed thesaurus.

Perhaps the best solution to the difficulties created by keywording then is to think ahead. Grab as much information as possible during the shoot so that whoever is doing the keywording knows exactly what the picture is about, what it shows and where it was taken.

“I have known keyworders who get images and have no earthly idea what they are looking at,” says Sara. “Then they spend a lot of time researching the photo when they could be keywording…. [I]f I was photographing a welder working, I should ask and take notes on the equipment the welder is using, and the proper terms for his technique used.”

That a picture speaks a thousand words might be an old cliché, but its description of a photo’s  narrative power is a flattering one too. Until a stock agency asks you to write them all down.

6 comments for this post.

  1. Bob Davies Said:

    Awesome post, I've spent a lot of time investigating this issue and more often than not seeing underconsidered posts about it's complexity. It's refreshing to see such a well thought out article 🙂


  2. Douglas Said:

    Nice post. Your blog is one of the best I've come across addressing the business of photography. Keep up the good work!

  3. T. C. Knight Said:

    Thanks for this post. Keywording is my downfall. I usually can think of no more than 5 to 10 keywords for any photo I take. I photograph a business in which I have spent most of my life so I KNOW what the essential keywords are. Yet, I still can't fill that field like it should be filled. Thanks for pointing to some further resources to accomplish this task.

    T. C. Knight

  4. Rick Waggoner Said:

    The unfortunate thing with the thesaurus approach is the keyword limit placed on photos by websites. I've found that a chunk of my keywords get cut quite often, and therefore don't add too many variations in spelling each word (ie. British English versus American English).

    I think there's also something to be said for the different mindsets people have when surfing the internet versus searching a database. In the traditional database people would enter every possible thing in the photo. So if a girl was wearing earrings, for example, you would add the keyword "earring". That would be as opposed to only entering "earring" when the photo is specifically of an earring. I tend to keyword with a more database like approach, which is likely why I end up with some keywords getting cut. That said, one search that keeps showing up again and again is "gold tooth" or "gold tooth smile". I'm not sure why someone is searching for that, but am glad that the photos I have with people and their gold teeth are marked with that level of detail. The thing is "gold tooth" starts with the letter "g". Had someone been searching my photos for "washing hair", there's a greater chance they wouldn't find it because "washing" starts with "w", and the keywords that get cut are toward the end of the alphabet since Lightroom exports the keywords in alphabetical order.

  5. Dave Brown Said:

    I'm curious to try that ImageKeyworder, do you have any idea on what the price is for it? I can't imagine it would be too expensive, but then again i've been suprised before.

  6. Sharon Sedano Said:

    I'm looking at using the Imagekeyworder and based on what i've read as far as reviews. It looks like it performs very well. The price isn't too bad either.

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