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Adding Value to Your Image Archive with Keywords

Seán Duggan is a fine art photographer, author, educator, and an Adobe Certified Photoshop Expert with extensive experience in both the traditional and digital darkroom. His Lightroom Viewfinder series provides photographers with the tools they need to effectively use Lightroom for organization, editing, and printing. 

Adding Value to Your Image Archive with Keywords

by Seán Duggan

Maintaing a well organized image archive is an ongoing project. There is always work to do, whether it involves importing and editing new photos, or organizing and culling older images. One of the most important ways that you can “upgrade” your image catalog is by regularly adding keywords to your photos. In this article we’ll take a look at some essential keyword strategy for your photo library.

Adding Value to Your Archive

Keywords not only ensure that you can easily find the photos you’re looking for, but they also can significantly add value to your image archive. That value can be something that will impact you on a personal level, for the simple reason that you will enjoy your archive much more when you can easily find a photo when you need it. Value can also be measured in financial terms, because an image archive that makes good use of keywords will allow you to respond quickly to opportunities for monetizing your photographs. The more information you can add to your images that describes the scenes and people they contain, the more potential value they have.

Starting Points: Basic Keywords

How many keywords you apply to your photos, and what type of keywords, really depends on how you use your images. A portrait or wedding photographer might only need the names of the clients, or the location of the event venue. Stock photographers or those who use their images for illustrations, may find that more detailed keywords serve them better.

In their most basic form, keywords are a way for you to find a specific image, so you should think about what words or terms come to mind for a particular image or set of photos and use those as a starting point. At a minimum you should add keywords for the location where an image was made, the event it portrays, or, if you’re photographing people, the name of the subjects. You might also consider tagging files with the client name or job number if that makes sense for your business.

Apply Keywords on Import

If you use Lightroom, keywords can be applied as you import the images (look in the Apply During Import section in the right panel of the Import dialog). I would recommend making use of this feature if all of the shots on the memory card are of the same subject, event or were taken in the same location. Even if there are several locations represented on the card, you might be able to apply a couple of very general location keywords (i.e. Europe, Germany) that work for all the images on the card. Once the import is finished you can add additional keywords to further identify specific locations.

Beyond the Basic Keywords

Once you’ve applied basic keywords, consider what other terms might be appropriate for an image of group of images. As mentioned previosuly, how you use and search for your images (or how potential clients might search for them) should be your guide in how detailed to get with your key-wording. If you photograph for stock, or just want to be able to find an image based on the content or activity pictured in the scene, then you’ll likely want to get much more specific with your keywords.

Depending on your interests, you may find yourself adding very specific keywords. For example, someone who studies historical architecture might choose to add not only the name of the architect of a structure, but also the name of the architectural style, such as Colonial, Greek Revival, Art Deco, or a name that describes a general historical period (i.e. Renaissance, Baroque, Victorian). Or, for photographs of plants or animals, others might choose to include the scientific classification names.

Conceptual Keywords

In addition to being more specific about different elements within the image, consider also how an image might be used to represent an idea or a concept. For instance, in addition to basic keywords for the location and the primary elements in the scene, a shot of a container ship sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge might also have keywords that reference transportation, commerce, trade, and the global economy.

If you’re interested in creating and marketing images that can be used for illustrative purposes, try to think beyond the literal terms that describe the scene and what it contains. What else might a scene represent? Can certain images be used to portray ideas that are connected to memory or emotion? If so, then go ahead and add those keywords to it, even if it seems like a bit of a stretch. If someone is searching for images on a stock site and they enter a term related to a concept in the story or article they need an illustration for, your image is more likely to show up in that search.

An Essential Part of the Workflow

There is no one “right way” to use keywords. Every photographer will employ them differently depending on the type of images they shoot and how they need to access them. The only wrong way to use keywords is not to use them at all, because even the presence of a few minimal keywords can help you locate images. Key-wording your files may not be very exciting but finding images fast right when you think of them is exciting (OK, I’m a keyword geek, I admit it!). Making key-wording a regular part of your workflow will enhance your experience with your image collection. In a follow-up article, I’ll take a look at specific keywording techniques and strategies in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

Seán Duggan is the co-author of Photoshop Masking & Composting, Real World Digital Photography, and The Creative Digital Darkroom. He is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York City and leads workshops all around the world. See all of Duggan’s Lightroom tips below:

Lightroom Keywording Tips
• Adding Value to Your Image Archive with Keywords
Adobe Lightroom Tips for Beginners: Merging a Travel Catalog with your Main Catalog
Adobe Lightroom Tips for Beginners: The Island of Lost Files
The Lightroom-Photoshop Connection: Sending JPEG Files Back and Forth
The Lightroom-Photoshop Connection: Sending RAW Files Back and Forth


Tags: , Last modified: July 7, 2021