“I just want to use it; I don’t want to know how it works.” – Unknown
My Signal colleagues and I give out digital-preservation advice based on our research, our experiences and our understanding of best practices. We also try to pay attention to questions from the general public, with whom we interact at events such as the National Book Festival, Personal Archiving Day at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s Saving Our African American Treasures. By far, most of the questions we get asked are about digital photos and we are able to answer almost every question.
Our main concern is for everyone to back up and care for their digital photos. But, as information professionals, we’re also eager to explain the complexities of digital photos. We talk about file formats, such as JPEGs and TIFFs, and the effects of compression. We explain photometadata and show EXIF examples. We’ve made an informational video about photometadata, written about our project with the Stock Artists Alliance, and, as part of that project, interviewed photometadata evangelist David Riecks .
So, aside from encouraging people to back up their digital photos, we also encourage them to add descriptions to the digital photos. And that part is tricky.
Adding a description to a digital photo (also known as photometadata) is analogous to writing on the back of a paper photo. But honestly, writing on the back of a paper photo is a breeze by comparison. And there is a simple question people ask us to which we don’t have a simple answer: “How?”. Because it’s not easy. In fact, it’s much more difficult than it should be.
Photography professionals routinely use photo-editing software to add photometadata to their digital photos for copyright and business reasons. To them, the process is simple, mainly because they do it routinely. As the saying goes, “The obvious is already known.” However, the process is challenging for a newcomer.
The steps are usually a variation on this: starting the software, opening the photo, selecting the menu options File > Get Info and typing text into fields. The result is that whatever text you entered gets stored within the photo file itself.
To complicate matters though, the field names and terminology vary widely from program to program. Which fields should you use? Is “caption” the same as “description”? Which fields equate to writing on the back of a paper photo?
And to further complicate the process, depending on the software, a description added to a photo might not actually get embedded into the photo file; it might be visible only with the specific software you used to embed the description. Ultimately you want to embed the description so that it always remains stored in the photo file, no matter where the photo goes or what you view the photo on or with.
The larger problem is not so much with the photo-editing software. The problem is requiring people to use photo-editing software at all to add descriptions. And that’s a technological problem.
Given the choice, most of us would not bother. Or we would put that chore at the end of our long list of chores. It’s common for people to leave photos on their smart phones or SD cards and forget about them until they accumulate hundreds of photos. So it’s not realistic to expect people to struggle with photo-editing software and the tedium of adding descriptions to each photo.
The encouraging news is that it shouldn’t take much technologically to simplify the process, to maybe have a button on the camera that says, “Add Description.” Or a smart-phone app that has the same function. Click a button, display a Description field for the photo, type in text and you’re done.
David Riecks said that the idea is not new. “I raised this same argument at the first International Photo Metadata Conference in 2007,” said Riecks. Nothing came of it though, even though there were a group of engineers from major camera manufacturers in attendance. Riecks said that, still, it is up to the manufacturers to add this feature and make it interoperable with the current metadata schemas.
And if you send a digital photo to me into which you’ve added a description, I should be able to see that description as easily as I can see the title of a song playing on my smart phone. It’s just text embedded into a file, displayed on my device.
Duraspace’s Michelle Kimpton made a somewhat-related point about how consumers will accept a new technology — in her case, cloud storage — when technologists make it easy to use. She said, “These (cloud storage) technologies will become simple to use….when people see the value of cloud technology and that it’s drop-dead easy, then it will take off.”
The same could be said for an “Add Description” feature. People might be more inclined to add descriptions if it just takes the push of a button and a moment of typing. Of course, not everyone will add descriptions, just as not everyone writes descriptions on paper photos. But it’s nice to have the option.
The idea of enabling camera users to add descriptions via the camera is not new. Almost 100 years ago, a major camera manufacturer included an autographic feature on special cameras, enabling users to write captions on film. For whatever reason, that feature never became popular. Maybe because it was easier to write on the paper photo. But at least the company did develop the feature in response to a need.
Riecks points out that manufacturers react to what people voice and what the market expects, and manufacturers seek out suggestions for future improvements. He encourages people to consider contacting their camera’s manufacturer and simply asking for the feature. He has manufacturer contact information, and more, listed on the photometadata.org blog.
At the Library of Congress, we encourage people to add descriptions to photo files as a good archival practice. Modern digital photos automatically capture technical metadata, such as the date, time and geolocation of the photo. When digital photos come to the Library of Congress in collections, it would be invaluable to have them include descriptions, such as the names of the people in the photo and the occasion for the photo.
We hope that camera manufactures will implement this feature soon so that all photo takers can easily add descriptions to their photos if they like. As consumers and institutions accumulate photos and pass them along to others, those who receive the photos will appreciate the embedded information.
Another method for quickly identifying the contents of a photo (aside from just previewing them in the Thumbnail View of your files) is to name the files with a description of its contents, such as “schmuel_wedding.jpg” or “hawaii-sunset.jpg.” Make sure to delete any spaces in a file name; some programs get all weird when they encounter file-name spaces.
An even better naming practice is to include the date of the photo in the file name. “Year-month-day” is one way some divisions at the Library of Congress do it. So if I took a photo in Hawaii on July 2, 2011, I might name it “20110702-hawaii.jpg.”
Modern digital cameras get better all the time. I took this photo of the river near my house using my smart phone. It took just a few moments of poking and tapping at the screen controls to zoom, adjust the lighting, focus and shoot. And the photo is as good as anything I’ve taken on my “good” SLR camera.
Using this photo, I’d like to conduct an experiment with you. I used photo-editing software to embed Library of Congress attribution information into the photo. But I also embedded in the “Description” field a quote from Benjamin Franklin. Please download the photo and let me know:
1) if you can see the quote
2) which software or website you used to display the embedded information
3) whether you are an amateur or professional photographer.
Your experiences and input may help move the Add Description feature closer to a reality.