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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.

Found along the way

Out of the way find

One axis of photographic method is the spontaneity of the image making. That is, some artists carefully design and pre-plan every image and some live in the moment and eagerly take what they find. I cannot say one method is inherently superior, but I am strongly on the “found along the way” side. Nearly all my images are found accidentally. Well, accidental but I was deliberately looking.

In the moment

My photography is almost exclusively “in the moment”. I am a hunter-gatherer. Planning usually does not go farther than “it should be stormy tomorrow. Maybe I’ll head east to see if I can find some good shots without getting caught in a tornado.” Literally, being aware of tornadoes, hail, or serious thunderstorms is a primary consideration where I live. But that makes for some great images.

Why do I do this? The simple answer is “it works for me.” I am generally happy with the results I get, even if I sometimes come back with nothing. The thrill of the hunt is reward enough. It is a percentage game. Win a few, lose a few. I try not to be impatient. I love the quote from Ansel Adams that “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.

Perhaps I’m an endorphin junky. If I’m out and about my subconscious may recognize something, even if it it just a potential to be worked. It alerts me to it and this creates a burst of light/energy/warmth whatever. It is difficult to describe. But is is a joy and excitement of discovery. Each find creates a kind of high.

I’ve written about this before, but I still do not have good words to describe it. Luckily, I don’t have to understand it in order to be able to use it. It is the way I’m wired.


Wandering is a key part of my process. I never scout locations in any detail. I never go to famous, popular places to recreate a copy of someone else’s shot.

Instead, I meander through out of the way places. Places that would not be written up in any tourist guide. Ideally, places I have never even heard of. Most people would cringe at the idea, but it energizes me.

A problem with most of us is we have limited time and a tight agenda of places to go and things to see. Four countries in 3 days. This puts us in blinders. We get so busy working the plan that we do not have time for happy accidents.

Wandering training

The best training I had was when we owned a timeshare. Yes, I know, horror stories abound and most are true. I don’t recommend buying a timeshare. But ours had a wonderful effect on me. Trading for our slot gave us a week in a fixed location somewhere in the world. And our timeshares were generally in very out of the way places.

So we’re stuck in these weird places for a whole week. After a day or 2 to get familiar with the area we were bored and had to fill up time. So I learned to wander. To find the tiniest back roads we could (I won’t tell the rental companies about…). To head off, destination unknown and no goal in mind.

The benefits were incalculable. I learned that the more comfortable I got with a place the more new discoveries there were to uncover. A beautiful little country church, a tiny fishing village, rocky shores, lovingly tended farms, people in a obscure village, forest trails, and on and on.

We don’t have the timeshare any more, but I kept the lifelong learning of being able to find interesting, out of the way places.

Go out empty

I keep coming back to this quote from the great Jay Maisel: “Try to go out empty and let your images fill you up.

This is gold. It is hard for most of us because we are brainwashed to believe we have to plan everything and know exactly what we want. Maybe that works for you. It does not work for me. I suspect it does not work in general for those wanting to make art instead of record shots.

Don’t have a preconceived idea of what you expect to shoot. Don’t spend your time at the landmarks where all the other photographers gather. Be on your own journey. Shoot what you are drawn to., not what someone else expects you to do. If you are looking for something you will probably find it, but you will miss so much else along the way.

It is an easy tradeoff for me. I have proven to myself that going out empty is my best plan. The images I find fill me up.

Journey of discovery

It sounds like I do a lot of aimless wandering around. That is true. It is a joy to me and it’s how I do my art.

I am energized by finding new places, out of the way discoveries, things few other people photograph. These call me and make my photography worthwhile.

It is said that life is a journey, not a destination. Wise words. It is how we journey through life that makes the difference. Are we head down, staring at our phone as we pass through beauty and wonder, or do we look around and appreciate it? Even stop and walk through it and really take it in?

If we learn to be open to really see the things around us, and if we get off the beaten path and break new ground, we can have a wonderful journey of discovery through our whole life. Do you want to just get to the end or do you want to enjoy the journey and feel rewarded? I have discovered that the things found along the way add a lot of joy.