Keywording

Ambiguous abstyract image

Keywording is a pretty mundane subject. But I recommend not ignoring it. It is valuable to you and good discipline. I have tried to ignore keywords at times but I have always changed my mind.

What

The photo filing software you use probably has provisions for adding keywords to your images. It probably also has ways to add a lot of other meta data, like location or client or your copyright information. Use this other information, too. I use Lightroom Classic for my organization and keywording.

Keywords are simply arbitrary tags that add words or phrases to help you locate or identify your image later. This is important, the keywords are completely chosen by you and for your use, unless you work for an organization that enforces standardized keywords. I will assume here that that does not apply to you.

So they are only meant to be useful information for you. They may tag location or subject or color or mood or anything that seems relevant to you. You can add as many keywords to an image as you want. Perhaps there is an upper limit, but I have never found it or read about it. Again, let me emphasize that you decide what they are.

Why

Why go to this trouble? Because one of the problems with digital images is that we tend to collect a lot of them. And since they are “hidden” on your computer and not nice physical prints you can flip through, you need extra help finding things. Someday you will want to find a particular image or images of a certain subject or those pictures of a red cardinal in a winter snowstorm you took a few years ago. Keywords are one of the means of locating or grouping your pictures.

One of the challenges of keywording is to Goldilocks it: not too much, not too little, but just right. How do you know what is just right? That’s the challenge. Partly it has to be sort of backward looking. That is, when you find you can use your keywords to locate the images you want and it did not seem too much trouble to have added them, it may be just right. Sorry, not a really helpful description. The trouble is, your mileage may vary.

Strategy

Most photographers eventually determine a strategy for keywording that works for them. I have seen people who do a lot of wildlife photography who tag images with the common and scientific name of their subjects. That is too much work for me. Since I don’t shoot much wildlife I may only tag the occasional one with “elk”, or “deer”, or “pronghorn”. Or a very generic thing like “bird”.

Works for me. Would not work for some people I know. Choose an approach that is right for your needs.

There are places on the internet where you can find lists of keywords. I have looked at some of them, but they tend to be too detailed for me. Plus, since I did not create them, I have trouble thinking of the words the author chose. So I make up my own keywords as needed. A quick export of my keywords shows that I have nearly 2200 unique keywords in my main catalog. I am completely sure many people have far more.

For the most part, I use keywords to identify subjects, attributes of the image, and “housekeeping” information.

Example

Let me give a simple example. This is a somewhat randomly chosen image that seemed fairly typical of my keywording.

Sunset, wide open spaces

This image has 14 keywords currently. For the subject ones, it is identified as a cabin on the eastern plains of Colorado with interesting clouds. For the attributes that seemed important to me, it is a landscape, it is abandoned, it is made of wood, a sunset image, taken in summer, and showing an expanse of distance.

The potentially most interesting are what I term housekeeping keywords. I use these to track important information that often has nothing directly to do with the image. An example for this one is that it is copyrighted. Yes, all of my images are copyrighted technically at the moment I take them, but this extra level signifies that the image has been filed and accepted for copyright by the United States Copyright Office. In addition it has keywords indicating the copyright registration number and date of grant. Other example housekeeping tags are that it is in my Select5 group, one of my highest ratings, and it is used in this blog.

Why do it this way? Because I developed a system over time that works for me and is based on real needs that needed to be solved. I do not claim it is the only way to do things or that it is the best way. It is just the workflow I use. I encourage you to also adapt your tools and process to meet your needs rather than bending your needs to match the tools, or what someone has told you you should do – including me.

Worth it?

It is solely up to you to decide if it is worth it to you. It is to me. I often do searches to locate a particular image or a certain type of scene. The more identifying information I have, up to a point, the better. I also use smart collections sometimes to group together all images of a certain criteria. For example, I mentioned using a keyword for my selection level. I have smart collections that will show me, for instance, everything at select level 3 that has not yet been evaluated for possible promotion to level 4. This is a key part of my workflow.

I always keep in mind what I termed the Goldilock effect. If my keywords are not adding value for me I will modify or abandon the process.

These are your images and your process. Do what works best for you. But it is good discipline to enforce on yourself. I can say that if you go a long time ignoring something like keywording and decide later you should do it, it is a lot of boring work for a while.

The tradeoff for me is that keywords are valuable for my work and useful for my processes. I will put in the effort to do it. Taking a little time to think about an image from several aspects like subject and attributes and housekeeping has benefits for me. It is one of the steps that ensures I am curating my valuable assets rather than just accumulating a big bag of pictures.

Postscript

A growing trend is software that attempts to analyze your images and automatically generate keywords. One new one I’ve seen is Excire. Another system I have seen described is fotoKeyword Harvester. I’m sure there are more. Lightroom itself agressively tries to get me to let it scan to identify people. It’s little brother, now named just “Lightroom” also automatically tries to keyword images. All this comes with the increasing penetration of so called AI technology.

I don’t use these tools. As a matter of fact, I don’t trust them. All that I’ve seen will suck your images into “the cloud” for analysis. I have no sure way of knowing what will happen to them then. I am very protective of my rights and possession of my images.

Yes, I may be a Luddite, but it is not entirely out of ignorance. I am a Software Architect who had done AI work and even developed practical applications based on some of its research. I have some idea of the downsides of using it.

Besides, as I indicated above, my system is based on a network of keywords I have grown organically over a long time. I am not interested in some software system deciding to re-describe and re-interpret my image data.

So for the foreseeable future, I will continue doing my keywording manually.

Themes

Old, weathered boat

I have come to realize I am attracted to certain themes in my art. Before I fall off into art-speak, what I mean by a theme is just the simple dictionary definition: “a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation”. In other words, what subjects do we chose for our art. Themes tend to be bigger than a subject. A theme may tie several seemingly separate subjects together.

Think about artists you admire. Do you also picture the typical subjects they do? Ansel Adams – grand black and white landscapes of the west. Georgia O’Keeffe – modernistic flowers. Monet – impressionistic rivers and ponds in northern France. John Paul Caponigro – abstract and ethereal seascapes and landscapes. They tend to go together in our minds because we know they very often do these subjects.

Chicken or egg?

Do artists pursue themes because that is what they like or do they pick something to get known for? Kind of a trick question. It doesn’t have to be just one or the other. Sometimes themes choose artists. Sometimes artists choose themes.

What is available to us often has a huge impact on our themes. Ansel Adams lived in California. Yosemite and the Sierra Nevadas were his back yard. John Paul Caponigro lives in Maine. Seascapes are common to him. Monet lived along the Seine River. He painted what was around him. This is quite common. We tend to grow to love what we see most. I live in Colorado, right on the dividing line between the mountains and the arid plains. Both are beautiful to me. I see them every day. The more I see them the more I resonate with them.

Some artists deliberately choose themes or subjects to become known for. They want a “signature”. Joel Grimes is well knows for his commercial work and stark, gritty treatment. Some people become famous portrait artists or wedding photographers. In general these are things they have consciously decided to build their career around.

I won’t claim there is a right or wrong. If you pick a certain subject matter to build your career and reputation on, I hope you really love it. Otherwise you could be like these old rock bands still touring around whose audience only wants to hear their hits from 40 years ago. It would get very frustrating to me.

I am a searcher and explorer. Themes are less conscious for me. Looking back through my portfolio I can detect a few. The ones I have detected make it less surprising now for me when I find myself drawn to them. I recognize it and have come to expect it. That doesn’t mean I am not open to new things, just that I can see larger patterns in my work.

Very personal

Themes or typical subjects tend to be personally meaningful in some way to the artist. It is hard to keep on doing art you don’t care for. That is probably one reason we have themes. The subjects we are drawn to are somehow meaningful to us so we keep coming back to them.

I don’t want to go too deep on the need for meaning. Our themes do not have to align with deeply meaningful social or environmental causes for them to be meaningful. If they are meaningful for us, that is sufficient.

I used Georgia O’Keeffe as an example earlier. Her mentor and, later, husband Alfred Stieglitz promoted the idea that her flower pictures had deep sexual significance. It helped build her reputation in the modern art world of the time. She later vigorously denied this was true. She maintained it was only the form and color that was important to her.

Maybe meaning is a very nebulous and personal thing. What is meaningful to me may not be to you. And vice versa. Or you may see meaning I didn’t when I made the image. I have never thought that pictures have significant meaning in themselves. The themes I discover in my work have meaning to me, but I do not try to force it on you. Maybe on the rare times I try to express my feelings in words the viewer may occasionally get a glimpse of the meaning there is to me. But I do not expect you to get one of my images and hang it on your wall unless you like it as an image and maybe, there is something there that is meaningful to you.

Consistent over long times

Themes tend to be a persistent feature of an artist. We are drawn to certain subjects. Maybe we understand there is a theme there that we are pursuing. But regardless, we keep coming back to certain things.

Our themes can fade with time and be replaced with new themes. We all grow and change our values and interests. This tends to be a slow process, but it happens for most of us. I hate to try to quantize it, but I would guess that when we find we are interested in a theme it will stick with us for a few years. Sometimes, for our whole life.

Unifying themes

Sometimes we find that several seemingly disparate subjects that interest us are really part of a unifying theme. This is a wonderful realization, because it unites large parts of our work and brings a new meaning, or realization to us to understand why we are drawn to it.

Let me give a personal example. I am drawn to old things that are worn and aged, but only certain ones. Some old things excite me and many are of no interest. Old rusted cars, abandoned buildings, old machinery, these have always been interesting subjects to me. As I’ve gotten older I have discovered the Japanese term wabi-sabi. I realized I was embracing the philosophy before I ever heard it expressed. It has become a unifying theme for many of the subjects of interest to me.

It is apparently impossible to succinctly and even correctly translate wabi-sabi to English. There are too many subtleties in the Japanese meanings. Some day I will attempt to write a better blog on it.

Here is one very compact description of wabi-sabi: “‘Wabi’ expresses the part of simplicity, impermanence, flaws, and imperfection. On the contrary, ‘Sabi’ displays and expresses the effect that time has on a substance or any object. Together ‘wabi-sabi’ embraces the idea of aesthetic appreciation of aging, flaws, and the beauty of the effects of time and imperfections. The two separate parts when put together, complete each other.”

I discovered that I am drawn to flaws and imperfections and the beauty of aging and the effects of time, especially of things that are bravely standing against time. This theme unites my collection of old rusty cars, broken down buildings, and broken flawed objects. I was happy to be able to wrap a higher vision around my old rusty things.

It makes us different

Our affinity for themes is one reason we can go out with a group of other photographers and still come back with our own unique images. We each have a different viewpoint. We are drawn to different aspects of a scene. Even if we shoot the “same” scene, we probably each have our unique viewpoint. This causes us to frame it differently, isolate a different part, emphasize different things.

Or, for some of us, even turn away from the classic landmark and shoot a different direction entirely.

Our themes help unify our images. They give a meaning and long term point of view to our portfolio. In another sense, our themes are an indication of our values and world view. What we are drawn to shoot are often things that are meaningful to us because of the themes we embrace. We still shoot other things, but something keeps drawing us in certain directions…

This image

The image with this blog was taken in Blaine Washington. It is on the seacoast right at the border with Canada. It is a lovely small town. I was across the harbor. There were good views all around of the harbor and the sea, but I was fixated on this great old boat. Rusty fittings, deteriorating paint, obviously it had seen better days. But it was still standing against the elements. That is encouraging. For me, a perfect wabi-sabi moment.

Vulnerable

Keep Out; Go Away

Being an artist is creative and rewarding. It is also a position that is vulnerable and lonely. I made my career in an objective, logical engineering world. In contrast, the artist’s world I live in now is based on opinion and perception. I have never felt so vulnerable and out of control.

Lone-wolf

A popular view is that the artist is a lone wolf. Fiercely independent, self-sufficient, going his own way regardless of what anyone thinks. To a certain extent, this is true. I think an artist has to have the fortitude to maintain his independence in the face of adversity and pressure to conform.

Unfortunately, there is a cost to being this lone wolf. A lone wolf is, well, alone. He is isolated, vulnerable, having to go it alone. It’s a position where you don’t have a support infrastructure. You don’t really have people to build you up when you are knocked down. You don’t have people to take care of things and offload work from you – you have to do everything yourself. This can get debilitating at times.

Some artists maintain a network of mentors, confidants, and collaborators. I envy them.

Courage

For me, one of the hardest things is to have the courage and determination to keep pressing on. I am not a natural marketer. It is hard to “put myself out there”. Making noise for myself is a very uncomfortable thing. Especially when I am continually getting knocked down emotionally and passed over.

An artist has to believe in himself. To believe he has a vision and a message that people should pay attention to. This has to carry him through rough patches when things seem to be going against him. When you seem to be a lone voice in the world, this can be hard to maintain.

Coming in in the morning with a fresh resolve can be trying. Sometimes it is difficult to say “I am an artist; I believe in myself and know I have something to bring the world”. And act on it.

Rejection

Rejection is a part of life, especially for an artist. We have to expect it, even seek it. If you are not being rejected, you’re not trying.

But it takes a toll. I think even the strongest pay an emotional cost when we are rejected. It’s like being back in school and not being picked for the team or not receiving the scholarship or just not being asked to sit at the table with the “cool” kids. You know it is going to happen sometimes, but it still leaves a bruise.

With rejection the world seems to be telling me I’m not good enough. That I don’t stack up to the competition. That I probably should just give up.

But the world is a bitter and heartless place. I have to shrug it off and believe my own inner voice rather than a message some stranger is giving me. I have to believe in myself, even when others don’t.

Indifference

Possibly even worse than rejection is indifference. When my art seems to not matter at all to anybody. When everything seems to be futile.

This is another tool the world uses to try to crush the aspirations of most artists. and it works a lot of the time.

I sometimes think I would rather have someone write me and tell me they hate my work. At least they took a moment to acknowledge it. (No, it’s an exaggeration. I’m not really asking you to tell me how much you hate what I do.)

Will power

This has been much more negative than I usually am. Vulnerability can do that. Rejection and isolation can be cumulative.

But I think the real point I am trying to make is that these things will come. They happen to everybody. The question is, what am I going to do about it?

I said an artist has to believe in himself. That is kind of trite, but nevertheless true. Being vulnerable or discouraged or feeling isolated are part of what we have to accept if we call ourselves an artist. If we are feeling down are we going to pick ourselves up, metaphorically, and find the will to go on? Or are we going to pack it in and stop doing our art? It is our call. Nobody else can decide.

I know of artists who claim to seek rejection and collect rejection letters. Good for them, if they are telling the truth. But good for them regardless, because the attitude is right.

If I apply for something and get rejected, I have to understand that just means I was not right for that exhibit or the juror was looking for a different style or the gallery has a different culture. The rejection was not a legal certificate from a higher authority saying “you’re not an artist and you should give this up immediately.”

I am an artist. I believe in what I do. That has to come from inside. If I listen to what other people say I will doubt myself. If I doubt myself, it will inhibit my creativity and my ability to express my vision and my will to apply for that next opportunity. I’m a lone wolf.

Vulnerable

Back full circle to the idea of vulnerability. Yes, I am vulnerable in the sense that I am out there, on the edge, exposed to the world, all alone. I have to take the hits and survive. I have to have a strong enough belief in my ability that it can carry me through the rejections and indifference.

This can be one of the hardest parts of the art world. Many artists are introverts and somewhat shy and self doubting. We have to get over ourselves and put our work out there for the world to deal with. Rejection will come, but we have to go on if we believe we have something worthwhile.

I will close with a favorite quote from Theodore Roosevelt, popularized recently by Brene Brown:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

To me, this is what it is about. I have to be in the arena to become what I want to be.

Kill Your Darlings

Field of giant hamburgers

Artists, especially photographers, need to kill our darlings. I have received this advice before, but it is seldom a happy or welcome activity.

Why in the world would any artist want to kill their darlings? These are our babies! We are in love with them! We need them! It makes no sense.

Photographers generate lots of images

OK, let’s get this out to discuss. One of the distinctions of using a camera is that images are (usually) quickly created. We tend to shoot many variations of a scene looking to capture it best. We take “brackets” of exposure, focus, lighting, etc. to work through subtle differences that may make an image stronger.

This is one of the key differentiators of photography to other 2 dimensional art forms. A painting is constructed slowly from the ground up on a blank canvas. The artist selects and only adds the elements he feels make the image stronger. A photographer starts with an existing scene and decides what to include or exclude, often in a instant. The resulting image is often a small slice of time. The process is totally different.

But besides being different, it is usually fast, fluid, immediate. We have the ability to change our perspective and try out variations. Each one may be a great image in its own right.

On a productive day in a great location, I may make hundreds of images. A painter may only make one, and that’s if they are working very fast.

This very fact of photography causes a problem for us.

We love our images

Ah, the beauties we see on our monitor. Most of them are lovely and lovable. Sure, I discard the ones that are unintentionally out of focus or that have unintended shake or movement. I may exclude the ones where the lighting was bad. And there are the ones where I have to admit the concept just didn’t work or my execution was poor. I can say goodbye to them without much grief.

But the “good” ones, well, they are all good. A well composed image captured with a great camera with a super sharp lens using good technique may be technically excellent. Any one of them is my work. I am proud of them.

I can’t just delete most of them and tell myself they are not as good as I would like. It is the work I made. I created these. They are mine.

Editing is hard

Editing is where is starts getting real. Editing is one of the steps that separate the great from the good. It is very hard for many of us to do as brutally as is called for.

For me, it helps to have a cooling off period. With time I can usually take a cooler perspective on a shoot. Sometimes a day or 2 is sufficient. Sometimes it takes years. Yes, there are groups of my images where I couldn’t be really honest with myself for up to 10 years.

I do my sorting and grading in Lightroom. I have used it since its initial beta release. My exact process of how I file and mark them is probably not of interest. I will just say that I go through many levels of exclusion before arriving at a set of “portfolio” images.

My initial pass culls out the imperfect images (if perfection was what I was going for), duplicates, and things that just didn’t work. These are thrown away unless I believe there is some redeeming value to them. And that is exactly the problem I am talking about here – I think that most of my images have redeeming virtues.

A second or third pass may look over a shoot and select the few defining images out of the set. These are marked for further processing. This process is repeated several times with increasingly strict criteria, usually with long pauses to gain perspective. In general, the best image of a shoot is not going to progress up the chain just because it was the best of its group. It has to provide some reason for being considered a top contender.

Editing is necessary

The editing process has been very good for me to internalize, even if it is painful. I realize now that without brutal editing I don’t have anything worth saying. That is, if I show you thousands of images because they are all “good” and I don’t have the discipline to choose between them, you will quickly tire and go away.

When I can be honest with myself and exclude great images that do not capture my artistic intent, then the ones I keep to show are stronger. You don’t want to look at everything I saw and was interested in. You only want to see very strong images.

Going through the pain and being honest with myself is not fun. But it is necessary to end up with art.

Fewer is stronger

It has been said that your portfolio is only as good as the weakest image in it. This has taken me a long time to internalize. Fewer is stronger.

Editing is a challenging and imperfect process. I know I make mistakes. I know I sometimes let my love for an image or a location or an event cloud my judgment. I am trying to learn.

Take an arbitrary category on my web site, like Landscapes. I haven’t checked exactly, but let’s say I have well over 1000 landscape images I consider “portfolio quality”. That doesn’t work and it is unrealistic.

By forcing myself to pare them down to, say, 50 images, I am able to present a strong set of art for you. It hurts. I have to exclude hundreds of images I consider wonderful. Indeed, some of my all time favorites have to go. But if I do it well the set that is left is strong and I will not be ashamed to show them to anyone.

The ones that didn’t make the cut? I keep them, of course. I love them. Sometimes at a later date I see something new in an image that I did not perceive before. Maybe it gets bumped up. Still, it is my responsibility to edit brutally and only show you the survivors.

If you go browse my web site I hope you agree.

Let me know what you think. Do you suffer from an abundance of riches?

What is the Cost of Digital Imaging?

An extensively processed image

Digital photography is liberating. We are not limited to 36 frames on a roll. It doesn’t cost anything to shoot an image, so shoot anything you see. Wait, is that true? Is digital photography really free? What is the cost of digital imaging?

The film days

Ah, the good old days, right? Not really. Almost everything about digital imaging is better. For 35mm cameras, which is what I will discuss, film came in rolls containing up to 36 frames. Yes, I know there were some weird specials, but let’s ignore those. A roll cost several dollars and processing it cost about as many more dollars. It seems like my metric was that it cost $.50 per frame. And that was in the 1980’s. In todays dollars that might be $1-2 per frame. After you finished a roll it took several days before it was processed so you could see what you got. Horrible. Primitive. Intolerable by todays standards.

Even a medium size memory card might hold hundreds of raw images and thousands of jpgs. The equivalent of that in the film days would be a large, heavy, expensive bag of film.

And when you were traveling with the film, you had to take it out to be x-rayed at the airport. If you were shooting “high speed” film, say 800 ISO or more, you had to put them in lead lined bags or try to get the agents to hand inspect them to prevent fogging by the x-ray machines.

Of course, when you go on a trip you have to carry all that bulky, heavy film back home. You usually did not want the expense of mailing them and the risk of them being lost in the mail.

What a pain. And I won’t even mention the cost and problems of a darkroom.

Digital solves the problems

Along comes digital imaging. The cost of shooting comes rapidly down and the quality of the images comes rapidly up. Very soon digital is clearly better than film. On Amazon today professional grade 64GByte SDHC cards are $12. That is unbelievable! A card like that will hold hundreds, maybe a thousand raw images. Say 1000, that makes the cost per image $0.012. And then you load them into the computer and erase and reuse the card. So the actual cost per image in virtually zero.

All is rainbows and unicorns. What can be bad about that?

Does digital imaging really cost?

Yes. A lot!

For one thing, for professionals, sensors now generate huge files and we need large, fast memory to capture them in camera. My current camera uses XQD memory cards. They are very fast, but a 120 GByte card costs $200 – on sale. That is steep, but not the problem.

Then there is the infrastructure problem on my computer. Loading all this data on the computer takes up a lot of disk space. My main storage is currently a fast 20TByte RAID disk. Since I am a fanatic about backup (seeYes, You Need to Backup“), the relevant data is backed up every day to another 12 TByte RAID disk. It is also backed up to yet another 12 TByte RAID disk. In addition, hourly Time Machine backups rotate to 2 other external disks. And then there is offsite backup… All of this gets expensive and requires a fair bit of maintenance. I’m drowning in data!

But that is still not the biggest cost.

Time is money

The true cost of digital imaging is time. Time to load, file, tag, grade, and process. It is easy to get completely buried in a backlog of images to process.

I’m mostly an outdoor photographer. Let’s say a productive day of shooting might bring back 400 images. That is about 20-30 GBytes of image data. Those have to be loaded in to the computer – I use Lightroom for all my image management. They have to be tagged by location and keywords added to assist in filing and locating. Then there is the difficult process of grading to filter out the best. My process involves at least 6 passes of review. Then there is processing of the best images. Since I am a fine art photographer, the images may be extensively processed, partly in Lightroom and partly in Photoshop.

At this point, maybe I have selected 20 images from the day’s shoot as my “keepers”. Doesn’t seem bad, but the true cost of this is several days of difficult computer work, maybe even a week, to handle 1 day of shooting. And it is quite possible that 1 or more of the images may require an extra week of Photoshop processing to get to my standard. I have been over a year behind in processing at times.

So, the main cost of digital imaging is the time to process them. If you are just culling through to find a few jpegs to post to Instagram, no big deal. But if you are doing fine art professionally, you can quickly get buried in computer work. It is a cost to count carefully.

Note

Let me know what you think and what topics you would like me to write about. I welcome your input.