Lightroom Keywords

lightroom_cs3_50×50.gifI've been digging into Lightroom and continue to be excited about the ability to use my digital photo library in many new ways. Lightroom has a lot of power, and so far I've mostly been working in the Library module. The Library module is all about metadata, data about data. Metadata is information about the photos themselves, like where it was taken or who is in the picture. There are four primary tools in Lightroom's Library module for Folders, Collections, Keywords and Metadata Browser. Every digital photo you have ever taken (you do take digital photos right? if not, stop reading now) is loaded with metadata known as EXIF data. Your camera puts simple information like the date and time in there, as well as more complicated data about the focusing information of the camera or even the serial number of the camera used. This is all neat but not terribly useful. Mostly what you want to do is find pictures of a person or thing, and that isn't simple. This is where Keywords come in.

Keywords, or Tags, can be used in Lightroom to attach generic words (tags) to a photo for retrieval. When you first fire up Lightroom there are no real guidelines for how to use Keywords. I thought I would post some of my best practices for others.

  1. Don't belabor keywords. If you find yourself thinking too hard about it, just add the keyword. There isn't a big cost to having more keywords than less. Put the anal retentive OCD in you to the side for a while.
  2. It's just the picture. I don't like to put a keyword on something that isn't obvious. For example, Vacation is one of the first keywords that people may apply to pictures from a vacation. This is what a Collection is for, not Keywords. Very few pictures have a Vacation as the subject, only then should it have that Keyword. My litmus test is "Is this a keyword a total stranger would identify with this photo?"
  3. Don't misuse metadata. Let's say you go to France and take pictures. Don't Keyword them as France, that is what the IPTC location fields are for. They are perfectly setup for information like this and then use the Metadata Browser to retrieve. Just reference #2 above and apply the Keywords that are self-evident.
  4. Hierarchy is cool. At first the idea of Keywords being inside of other Keywords seemed odd to me. Continuing to think of this as Tags, this wouldn't make any sense and would make some people become violent. Indeed this is immensely cool in Lightroom. If you take pictures of Monarch Butterflys, just apply the keyword "monarch" or "monarch butterfly" (make them synonyms and save yourself the stress) and have that contained in "butterfly", which is contained in "insect". Bingo! You get a ton of categorical metadata.
    1. I use this one for people a lot. For example, I tag all people in every photo and put those people in groupings for their family, and then group the family into groups recognizing our relationship to them. For example, "Friends", containing "Doe's", containing "John Doe". Identify John Doe and you instantly get the broader groups of "pictures of the Doe's?" and "pictures of friends?"

Keywords are immensely powerful, and if you disagree with me feel free to apply vacation and France keywords all day long. No harm, no foul. I would note that putting the metadata in the right spot, the place best suited to it, will make life easier in the future. For example, if you put location information in the IPTC location fields, you will likely get geocoding and other mapping software leverage out of the box. If you use keywords, I doubt any other software will be able to leverage it. The basic issue here is Keywords are designed to be lightly structures (heiearchy is all you get), and others can contain much more structured metadata.

Have a different take on Keywords in Lightroom? Let me know what you think!