Field Report:

The Non-Glamorous Side of Photography

Photo Keywording Strategy

(Originally published at In the Field in September, 2007 and updated for this blog)

Stock photographers complain all the time about how dreadful keywording is and how it is the worst aspect of the profession. Well this article is not about that.

Proper keywording is essential to selling stock photography nowadays. Without good keywording skills you would be hard pressed to sell anything through stock photo agencies because the industry has gone mostly digital in the past several years. Keywords can also help make your life as a photographer easier because it would allow you to find your own images in a database easier. Keeping track of and finding all of your images is easy if you only have a few hundred marketable images but when you have thousands of images like most pros then it is easy to forget images when one is pressed for time if one doesn’t have an efficient filing system set up. In this article, I will describe what I was thinking about as I keyworded the following image and offer my opinion as to what is necessary in order to keyword a photo properly.

Louisville Bats versus Norfolk Tides AAA Minor League Baseball Game, Louisville, Kentucky Photo: Louisville Bats versus Norfolk Tides AAA Minor League Baseball Game, Louisville, Kentucky

The most obvious keywords for any location shoot image should be geographic location so here are a few that immediately come to mind for this photo: Slugger Field, Louisville, Kentucky, southern, south, USA, United States of America. Personally I tend to leave the United States keywords out because I only shoot U.S. locations and I shoot very location-specific subject matter. If a photo researcher doing were to do an online stock photo search for a Kentucky tourism article or brochure, they’d likely type in something like “Louisville minor league baseball” or “Louisville team sports”, which is more than sufficient to bring up the necessary images since the odds of a Hungarian photo researcher needing my images from Kentucky are highly unlikely. Secondly, minor league baseball is generally thought of as an American sport, so it is unlikely that anyone would do a search on stock site for, “USA minor league baseball teams”. Now if I were keywording for a location such as Niagara Falls or San Francisco, of which the country of origin could be of multiple countries, then the need for country identifying would be more necessary. In this case however, since baseball is an integral part of American culture and history I decided to include the country identifier keywords since the images could be used in a broader sense than just the sport of baseball.

Once the location keywords have been determined, what next? Subject matter is another area in which one should explore for keywords. For sure, some images are more conducive to a high quantity of keywords than others say compare this baseball image with a general postcard scenic image of mountain such as Mount Shasta. There’s only a few relevant ways you can describe the Mount Shasta picture to be of any use to the photo researcher, whereas the baseball image can fit into multiple different image category genres such as lifestyle, travel, sports, inspirational, etc… For the baseball image for example here are just a few keywords to scratch the surface: hitter, hitters, hitting, batter, batters, bat, bats, batting, athlete, athletics, athletes. Knowing some historical information on your subject matter would be very helpful as well.

Synonyms: Every person has their own personal photo search style, so one should always include the singular and plural forms of the words in addition to synonyms of terminology that one might realistically use to find your image. One person might type in “Kentucky baseball pitching” whereas someone else might find my photo by typing in “minor leaguers tossing baseballs in the south”, so it would be to your best interest to include as many relevant forms of the terms as possible.

Vernacular: Be mindful of how your target market speaks because the terminology that they use might not be the same as yours. Slang to one person might be everyday speech to another. For example, my college roommate was from Idaho and never could understand what I was talking about when I said “soda” or “market” because he knew them as “pop” and “grocery store”. Knowing that linguistic insight, I would include those variations of the terms despite the fact that I would probably not use those same words myself in a conversation. Keywording strategy is all about covering the necessary bases.

Conceptual Descriptor keywords: This category of keywords describes the concept of your image. Advertising art directors are more likely to be searching for these types of keywords than an editorial buyer because advertising photography is typically used to illustrate a creative concept based off of a single message. While not absolutely mandatory for some of the images that I shoot, it could be beneficial to include these words anyway. To describe the baseball image, I could add keywords such as “determination, fortitude, reflexes, competition, competitors, etc…” For regular model-released lifestyle type stock imagery though, these sorts of keywords can make or break you financially. If you aren’t good at coming up with descriptory keywords for that type of imagery then chances are you will sell nothing because lifestyle images are all about illustrating a concept. If I were a “lifestyle” photographer specialist, then I’d probably pay a professional keyword specialist to keyword my images since this category of keywords is the most difficult to do effectively.

How many words are too much?: There has been a lot of debate over this since Alamy rolled out their new “Alamy Rank” image search engine prioritizing system a few months ago. Questions one must consider are: Are these keywords diluting the impact of my essential keywords? If so, is it worth leaving this keyword in at the potential risk of receiving a lower rank for a more important keyword? Does the stock agency put a cap on the amount of keywords that I can include per image, if so, then which words should I leave out?

There’s no way for anyone else to answer these questions for you because no one really knows the answers to these questions. My theory is that it’s best to know how your photos might be used and base your keyword strategy off of that assumption. For me, I’d rather just stay modest and not get too cute with every word in the dictionary if no one is likely to use those words. On the other hand, I see some photographers that will stuff 500 keywords into every image. I don’t know what other photographers are selling on Alamy, but my Alamy gross sales in the past year (2006 – 07) is almost $5 per number of images on average, which is higher than the commonly assumed standard of $1 per number of images annual average.

Keywording is not a rocket science so there’s no need to go Shakespeare to find keywords your images. All it takes is some common sense and a little understanding in how your images are used.

Photo Keywording Software: iView Media Pro, Adobe Lightroom, Apple Aperture, BreezeBrowser, FotoStation, IDimager, Image Info Toolkit, Photo Mechanic, Image Keyworder, StockView / METAmachine, fotoKeyword Harvester

The above listed software programs can help you batch keyword images in addition to allowing to create / purchase a controlled vocabulary catalog of keywords ensuring that you’ve got all your bases covered. I’ve tried to keyword images with trial versions of iView, Lightroom and Image Info Toolkit. These programs don’t really fit into my imaging workflow however at the moment so I do not use these programs. However, for many others it is well worth the investment. Eventually I will probably incorporate one of these into my workflow however.

Keywords: Louisville Bats; AAA Minor League Baseball; teams; team; sports; sport; sporting; America’s Favorite Pastime; Louisville; Kentucky; Kentuckiana; South; southern; USA; United States of America; Norfolk Tides; Slugger Field; pitcher; pitching; pitch; ball; balls; bat; batting; batter; batters; umpire; umpires; umpiring; catcher; catchers; catch; catching; infield; infield; field diamond; diamonds; grass; grass; backstop; back stop; stops; backstops; people; player; players; man; men; athlete; athletes; athletics; hand-eye coordination; compete; competitors; competitor; competition; competing; anticipate; anticipation; anticipating; reflex; reflexes; determined; determination; hitters; hitter; minor leaguer; minor leaguers; tossing; toss; tosses; flamethrower; flamethrowers; fireballers; fireballer; speed; fast; quick; speedy; quickly

Try to enjoy your next keyword session. 😉

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July 18, 2008 - Posted by | Digital Workflow, software, stock photography | , ,

8 Comments »

  1. As I came to your site seeing your interview I find myself looking at keywording. I certainly find it a problem both for general SEO and stock photography. – What a pity you can’t explain Alamy rank!

    I’m certainly doing much better than the $1.00/image that you mention but I’ve just re-kewyorded (is there such a term) my whole collection again and waiting to see if it makes a difference.

    You mention that you shoot mostly USA images. – well I live in Bulgaria and I don’t think that anyone in Alamy shoots more of Bulgaria than I do – but for Bulgaria as a keyword I don’t come up front at all. this is a pity for buyers because my coverage is quite comprehensive with good images.

    One more thing – do you follow the Alamy blog because it showcases a keywording tool with an Alamy Specific mode. I’ve downloaded the trial from http://www.imagekeyworder.com/
    Haven’t tried it yet.

    I like your site but I can’t see an rss feed – am I missing something?

    John Rocha

    Comment by John | July 29, 2008 | Reply

  2. Thanks John. The RSS feed is below the Recent Comments on the column to the right.

    Comment by Richard Wong | July 29, 2008 | Reply

  3. I haven’t tried the Image Keyworder yet either. I read some complaints on the Alamy email list that specialists get penalized on the Alamy Rank unfairly but I haven’t followed that much lately.

    Comment by Richard Wong | July 29, 2008 | Reply

  4. […] Previously I wrote about stock photo keywording and software so I thought I’d offer some thoughts on picture captioning. What got me to […]

    Pingback by Photo Captions « Field Report: | January 4, 2009 | Reply

  5. Great article. The thing is these days, many distributors insist upon compliance with a very specific set of metadata guidelines unique only to them. These typically include adherence to specific grammatical rules, restrictions on word/character counts, keyword prioritization, synonym-tolerance, etc. So it’s not enough unfortunately to construct a single set of great keywords. Ideally, you may need as many as 30 different set variations (one for each distributor you intend to place your images for sale with). This is something we make available to our keywording clients and it seems to work really well for them. We talk more about this on our site – http://www.worldmetadata.com

    Comment by Tom B | March 24, 2009 | Reply

  6. Hi Tom. That is an interesting service that you have in that you can customize each set for a specific agency. The problem with Alamy mainly is trying to decide which are your top priority keywords, of which you have about 50 characters to fit them into.

    Comment by Richard Wong | March 29, 2009 | Reply

  7. Richard, thanks for the kudo. I know what you mean with Alamy, but we’ve actually got that covered. Without giving too many trade secrets away, I can tell you that the heart of our approach is a weighted keywording system that gives certain keywords more priority over others (depending on context of course). With an Alamy set, the highest priority words get placed into the Essential field, then the next most important groups of words get bumped into Main, Comprehensive, and so on. The next part of the equation is to make sure the results adhere to restrictions on character counts, formatting rules, etc. Because of the prioritization aspects of their system, I do acknowledge that subjectivity enters into the Alamy conversation more-so than with other distributors.

    Comment by Tom B | March 29, 2009 | Reply

  8. […] to use their product, I agreed to provide them with a review. In the past I’ve written about photo keywording strategy so that would be a good primer into how I approach keywording. So without further ado, let’s […]

    Pingback by Keyword Smart Software Review « Field Report: | April 10, 2012 | Reply


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