Keywording And Image Search

Keywording BJP July 2009

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Word up 


Everyone knows an image is worthless without the keywords needed to find it, but how many photographers are aware of what it takes to get images at the top of the list for weary researchers?


What, in other words, is good keywording?


‘Relevant, accurate, and consistent’ says keywording and controlled vocabulary expert Liisa Kaakinen ( who keywords Amana images for Getty, Corbis, Alamy and others.


Throwing words at the image is not the answer, she says. ‘It’s irritating to researchers and some sites like Alamy’s downrank images with keywords of lesser relevance. Photographers have to be wise to the markets and adopt a professional approach to keywording.’


The problem is the elasticity of language. Several words may express just one idea or object, particularly when you include regional variations. ‘Wellington boots’ for example, is synonymous with ‘gum boots’ ‘rubber boots’ and ‘wellies’.


Added to this, one word can have differing meanings. A search for ‘spade’ brings up some puzzling images until you realize there are people with the surname ‘Spade’. ‘Stick’ retrieves cinnamon, dynamite, celery, and a celebrity at the Pooh Sticks Championships, amongst other things.


 All this makes the life difficult for people searching for images. ‘People want pictures fast’  says picture researcher Charlotte Lippmann . ‘We are not paid to spend hours searching through endless pages of results.’


Using a controlled vocabulary helps with accuracy and consistency.  At its best a controlled vocabulary is a logical hierarchy of ‘Preferred Terms’. Used with suitable software it will retrieve ‘Narrower Terms’, ‘Broader Terms’, ‘Related Terms’ and ‘Synonyms’ so that all relevant keywords are tagged to the image, even if they are not visible to the image buyer. In conjunction with a checklist of term categories (age range, location, actions etc) the controlled vocabulary can handle ambiguities and give users focused results. This is how keywording is done in larger agencies. The thesaurus sits behind the search to ensure that whatever word a researcher enters as a search term, suitable images will be retrieved.


Photographers with limited resources may baulk at the idea of exhaustive keywording , but they are not alone. Photographer David Riecks from has created a keyword tree which photographers and agencies can purchase and then add to for their own use. Not surprisingly, he is a champion of the controlled vocabulary.  ‘People who do keywording freeform may think of terms once, but the next time round they’ll have forgotten them’ he says. Like all tasks in the digital workflow, the mantra is ‘do it once and use it many times’.  


Riecks warns photographers to work on the vocabulary before launching into keywording. ‘The worse thing you can do is start keywording and creating your tree at the same time,’ he says.


Good controlled vocabularies follow standard rules to create logical, expandable systems. It is worth taking the advice of an expert if you are creating your own tree. ‘Photographers don’t need to start with complex vocabularies’ says Kaakinen, who creates keyword trees for photographers as well as agencies.’ But it is important that the structure is sound. If it isn’t frustration will follow.’


The requirements of the large agencies differ. Getty asks photographers to enter for 4 or 5 keywords and adds other relevant words in house, while Alamy asks for them to supply all keywords including synonyms and associated words, but has three categories of keywords, Essential, Main and Comprehensive. To cope with the differences in agents’ requirements, Riecks advises photographers create a full keyword list first and selectively remove words for distribution to different outlets.


Understanding your market is important too. Keywording an image is not just about what’s in the image, it’s also about the ideas or concepts that could be illustrated by it. ‘Try to think about ways an image might be used’, says Kaakinen. ‘Keep abreast with trends. New buzz words are continually coming into vogue and you need to be aware of them.’ Riecks advises photographers to focus on  specialist keywords others may not think of when keywording for Getty.


Keywording considerations affect workflow and software decisions too.  ‘My philosophy is to apply keywords as early as I can’ says David Riecks ‘I apply them to the RAW files in Photo Mechanic and then refine them later when I have made my selection. Some people do keywording after selecting images. It’s down to your own workflow.‘


It is worth investigating your image management software as there are currently many glitches in the way keywords are handled. The handling of hierarchies, synonyms, placeholder keywords and merged vocabularies all need to be assessed. Most importantly says Riecks, you need to ask ‘Can I get the effort out?’ Your tree structure with all its relationships needs to be easily exportable.


Stock library keyworders typically manage around 80 images in a day, but numbers depend on how much automated and batched keywording can be done. Productivity can be enhanced with good software, but the field is still relatively new. For photographers a newly launched product from Imense will be of interest. Image Annotator enhances productivity by doing some of the keywording automatically, using visual recognition to note number of people in the image, space for text and other  features. The photographer can make use of the inbuilt controlled vocabulary and list of associative words to add the remaining keywords, exported in the format required by their agents.


Visual search techniques will increasingly help users find images more easily, but most experts agree they will work best in conjunction with sound keywording and controlled vocabularies, at least for the foreseeable future.


 Some hard pressed photographers will find the prospect of keywording their images too much, and anyway, says Riecks  ‘Some of them are not suited to it.’  He advises outsourcing or using an assistant in these cases. But a word of warning from Liisa Kaakinen who does quality control for outsourced images. ‘Don’t think you can leave at that’ she says. ‘Quality control will always be necessary and you need to understand what you’re doing.’ A grasp of the principles of good keywording is important whichever way you go.



© Sarah Saunders, Electric Lane

First published in British Journal of Photography, July 2009