Metadata For Stock Photographers

For stock photographers of any subject, appropriate use of metadata is the single most important administrative tool used to generate sales. Sure, the task is mundane, repetitive, and does not call for the use of any creative skills.

I understand that today’s photographers already feel hindered by spending so much time behind their computers rather than behind their viewfinders. Fortunately or not, this is just how the photography industry has evolved.

An In-Depth Guide to Selling Stock Photos

Rather than fight it, it should be embraced! In this post, I will discuss the best practices for the inclusion of metadata (emphasis on keywords) in your own images. While I will focus mainly on landscape photography, most of these practices can be translated to any other subject as well.

What’s so great about metadata anyway?

So why should you concern yourself with metadata? Simply put, a buyer cannot license an image that cannot be found. Whether you are selling your images through a licensing agency, or directly from your own website, searching by keywords is a buyers’ primary means for locating imagery.

Okay, you convinced me. So what should I include in the metadata?

Applying keywords to you images goes beyond simple terms such as “lake” or “forest”. More specifically, which lake? Which forest? State? Country? Even the county or nearest city will often prove to be helpful to a buyer.

When in doubt, include all the information you have available. And be certain it is accurate! If a photographer identifies a location incorrectly, it can be very expensive for your client to correct the mistake. In many cases, the client is likely to remove you from their supplier list if you become known for submitting incorrect information. Profit margins are small, and they just can’t risk it.

Take, for instance, an image of a church. It’s a beautiful country church, exceptionally executed with proper exposure and great composition. You may ask yourself, why isn’t this image selling? Perhaps its the keywords associated with the image. Did you include the church name, synod, and location in the metadata? Not only should this information be in the image description, but it should also be reflected in the keywords. Also consider synonyms that are associated with the keywords used to describe your photo. It could be that buyers are searching for a “rural church” while you have it keyworded as a “country church”. It’s best to cover all your bases!


Another important thing to consider is whether or not your photo contains people. If it does not, be sure to include the keyword “nobody”; if it does, use the word “people”. You can even take it a step or two further by indicating an age group, such as “baby”, “teenager” or “senior”. Gender and ethnicity are also important. Any other information regarding the people in the photo should be included as well (think: “family”, “candid”, “business”, etc).

A note on conceptual keywords

Beyond these basic principles, it is equally important to consider more obscure terms to attach to your photo. These are commonly referred to as conceptual keywords. For example, what mood does your photo depict? If an image strikes you as “dramatic”, “inspirational”, or “serene” then by all means, be sure to include these keywords as well.

Anything to exclude?

Contrary to the importance of including all relevant keywords, it is equally important to exclude words that do not correspond to the image. Some photographers include irrelevant terms in hopes of increasing their visibility in search results. I can tell you from experience that photo buyers find this practice extremely annoying. Nothing is more frustrating than paging through hundreds of search results only to find that none of the images fit the keywords used. Do everyone a favor and stay away from this practice.

Image descriptions

Keywording and image descriptions go hand in hand. Once you have developed a system for keywording, the same principles can be applied to the description (or image title). A description for a landscape image should follow a general guideline that looks something like this: {Name of Specific Location, City, County and/or Region, State, Country}. For example, a photo of Munising Falls in Michigan should read:

“Munising Falls, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Alger County, Michigan, USA”

Contact information

Lastly, be sure to include your contact information in the metadata. Complete metadata should be included not only in the high resolution files delivered to your client, but also in the low resolution comp versions that can be pulled from your website. (If you are using a licensing agency, be sure that the agency includes this information in their comp versions as well).

I’ve heard many horror stories where a designer pulls a low res comp image to use in mock up, only to discover after the project goes live that the contact information was not included. They are then forced to either spend hours searching for the image again, or find a new image. It would be a shame to miss out on a potential sale because of missing information!

Developing a process for metadata

There are a few different ways to accomplish the task of entering the data into your images. If you really feel that keywording is not for you, there are many online sources that will keyword your images for you. Of course there is a price associated with such a service, but the results are exceptional and tailored to industry standards. As an added bonus, it requires little information from you, the photographer. However, if you’d rather do keywording in-house, simply dedicate some time for yourself or an assistant to enter the metadata into your photos after a shoot. Whichever you choose, I advise to do it as soon as possible, while the information is fresh in your mind.

If you decide to do it yourself, you may find it helpful to develop a checklist of questions to ask yourself. Below is an example of a sample questionnaire to consider when keywording your photos.

  1. Is there people in your photo?
    1. Age
    2. Gender
    3. Ethnicity
    4. Setting (family, friends, business, etc)
    5. Model released?
  2. Are there animals in your photo?
    1. Species (common name)
    2. Region (such as North American, African, etc)
  3. If your photo is a landscape image:
    1. Country?
    2. State?
    3. Specific location
    4. Identifying characteristics
      1. Waterfall, beach, forest, mountain, sea, lake, etc…
      2. Season
  4. Conceptual Keywords. Examples include: Inspirational, Motivational, Serene, Dramatic…

Any last bits of advice?

Proofread, then proofread again! And feel free to share your thoughts in via Twitter or Facebook.

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