Metadata Mining

By Roger (13 August 2017)

Sorry to admit how long I've been absent from the blog (tl;dr: I had too many distractions). Let's get back to it, shall we?

Way back in 2013, I did a very basic blog about what photographic metadata is and how you can use it for understanding some of the technical parts of your photography (link). Over the years, we've written about other ways to use the metadata, especially through the use of keywords you add to your personal metadata pool. Today, I'm mining my metadata to find new insights into the photographs I'm making.

Most photographers use their metadata when they are trying to answer technical questions. Things like, which lens do I use most often; how many of my photos are lit with a flash; or how many iPhone photos have I saved. This data is available to you without any effort on your part. The camera automatically records the basic camera information, and it is captured by whatever digital asset manager (DAM) you use to import your photos.

Metadata from camera: Nikon D4, 200-500 zoom lens, f5.6, 1/1600, ISO 320

You can add metadata to your photographs by entering additional photographic details, such as keywords, locations, rating systems, titles, and descriptions. Mark and I strongly recommend this process to add depth to your metadata. Our strategies are slightly different, but we, both, use our metadata for insights into our photography.

You can, however, use your metadata for less technical information as you get more serious about pursuing your muse. This is the point where we get all introspective and do some navel staring to discover where we are on our photographic journey.

I’m making light of it, but you can use metadata searches to discover things about your photography you may not have considered before. It can give you hints to your photographic strengths and weaknesses or point you in new directions to experiment.

First, I'm going assume you enter the additional metadata, mentioned above, into your DAM. This step should be obvious, but, too often, photographers don't take the time for this. If you're one of those people, you're limiting the value of insights you can derive from your metadata, and you'll be unable to try this kind of exercise.

Here's a quick example of how you can use the locational information, for those of us who love to travel. I geo-tag all my images, including all my old, scanned photos from film. When I go into the Map module of Lightroom, I can see all the bubbles showing me locations where I have made photos. As someone who regularly looks for new destinations, the results from this search help direct me to new places.

I went to Maine, a few weeks ago, for just this reason. I hadn't been there since I was 18. The east coast of the US is easy for me, since Virginia is so centrally located, but my map shows me that it's time to head to some more of the western states in the near future. I've been to all 50 US states, but don't have photos from every state. My map of the earth shows me I still need to get to Africa and Antarctica, so I can say I've visited all the continents.

Photo locations from my main database

Let's look at something a tiny bit deeper. While I was in Maine, I was up for every sunrise. Most of them were too plain for my taste – meaning the skies were clear, so there wasn't as much color as I wanted. But one morning, we had spectacular clouds and color, with rays of light beaming through. While I was adding my keywords and doing some initial culling of the photos, my mind drifted off to another sunrise I really enjoyed, from a past photo session. I did a quick search of my keyword “sunrise/sunset” and found I have a little more than 2,200 photos of sunrises/sunsets, and 1,856 of them also have some sort of water in them.

Sunrise in Lincolnville, Maine

I had no idea the vast majority of my sunrise photos had a water element. It makes sense because I like reflections, and I've been around the water most of my life. Now, this isn't life-altering information, but the search showed me something I hadn't realized. Once you have the information, it's up to you what, if anything, you want to do about it.

If you're a new photographer, you're probably making photos of every topic in front of your lens. Great! Keep shooting and learning. However, some will be trying to get beyond snapshots and do some “serious” photography. They've heard they need to specialize in a genre or figure out their “style,” and they aren’t quite sure how to narrow down all the specifics. Look at your data.

Do a sort with your highest rated photos. What do you see? If you look at your best 100 images, and 98 of them are landscapes, you have some new information. It sounds to me like your strongest work is in landscapes. If you think your favorite genre is newborn photography, you need to look closer at the problem. Why aren’t babies represented in your best photos?

I'm not a big proponent for limiting yourself to just a few genres, but it can help simplify your message if you're looking for customers or want to keep your social media focused. On my Instagram account (follow me at @roger_dallman) I alternate between travel and people photographs because those are my strongest genres. Keep in mind that almost every big-time professional photographer shoots lots of different genres, even while they specialize in certain genres for their profession. You don’t have to limit yourself to primarily one or two types of photography; this is supposed to be fun.

I prefer people, but I wouldn't pass up a shot like this one.

There are many ways you can play with your metadata to discover information about your photography habits and trends. You'll get more useful insights if you have fully populated your metadata fields, both from the automatic data imported from your camera and amplifying information you add after import into your DAM of choice. So, next time you wake up in the middle of the night and have some free time, go in and see what your photography is telling you.


It's time, again, for the Kelby Worldwide Photowalk. This year I've signed up to lead (my eighth year!) a walk in Old Town Manassas. The photowalk is free, but you must register (here) to get in on all the fun. The photowalk is on Saturday, October 7th. We'll meet at the Manassas Amtrak Station, at 9 a.m. Hope to see you there.

Last year's photowalk crew, in Shepherdstown, WV