The following is a guest post by David Riecks, leader of the Photo Metadata Project.
Storing information about your images inside the image itself provides a number of useful benefits. Digital photographers may refer to this as embedded photo metadata or just metadata for short. For professional photographers it’s an easy way to let potential publishers know they took the photo and how to contact them.
Storing this information inside the image can’t prevent others from misusing the information but it can help others know more about the image: who is pictured in a photo, what they are doing (and maybe why) as well as where and when it was taken. However, all of those benefits are lost if this metadata doesn’t “stick” to the image as it travels from one computer to another and onto the web.
A recent survey by the International Press Telecommunications Council — done as part of the Embedded Metadata Manifesto — was conducted to raise awareness of the problems that can occur when using many of the social media networks and photo sharing sites. This survey shows that a number of the more popular services strip this embedded information from images when the images are uploaded to the services or processed on their servers.
[See also the video of IPTC Managing Director, Michael Steidl, “Do embedded rights metadata of photos survive social media systems?“]
While some comments on news blogs claim that professional photographers are raising this issue because they are only concerned about maintaining copyright or attribution information, it’s not that simple. That is because most methods of storing this information use one of three different storage “containers” within a digital image to hold the information. If copyright or contact information is removed, that almost always means that captions, locations and even the date the photo was taken will be lost as well.
A recent example concerns a controversial photograph that people thought was taken by master photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, rather than Andrej Vasilenko, despite the modern clothing and backpack.
However, it’s not just about proper attribution or maintaining your copyright notice, it’s also about preservation. For example, while many people may know some well-known online images (like Dorothea Langes Migrant Mother”), if they downloaded it, would they know where or when it was taken if we lost all the metadata, including the caption? Most documentary images will have little cultural value if we don’t know at least a few of the basic Who, What, Why, When, Where and How’s of the image in front of us.
One of my neighbors stored all of his digital photos on a big desktop computer with multiple hard drives but he didn’t have his images backed up. After an electrical-power surge, the motherboard and all the hard drives were ruined. The neighbor had uploaded images to Facebook, so he thought that not everything was lost.
But Facebook re-sized his images when they were uploaded and during this process either their metadata was removed or Facebook stored this information separately from the images. All my neighbor had left were smaller versions of the images with the same date stamp (representing the day they were downloaded). This meant it wasn’t even possible for him to sort the photos into any chronological order.
If you were a musician, would you consider uploading your MP3 audio files to a site if you knew that the process removed the name of the song, the album it was from, the name of the band and your copyright notice? If you wouldn’t do that, then why should it be different for photos?
At its heart, the Embedded Metadata Manifesto explains that the information users add to digital files is critically important, and once it is added it should not be removed.
I’ve yet to encounter a social media or photo sharing network that warns me, when I upload my images, that the work I’ve done to add captions will be undone. Some will actually pick up the caption information and put that on the page where the photo is shown, so the assumption would be that the other information you added earlier would still be there.
For more information, visit the survey page and see whether the service(s) you use preserve your photo metadata. Dont forget that with most networks, you can always link to an image on another network when sharing that file. This way you can rest assured that the image will retain its embedded information and your friends can still see your work.