Once you’ve made more than even a few hundred photographs, it’s very useful to have structured ways to look back through them and find ones you remember, as well as gathering together particular themes that develop in your photography.
After tens of thousands of photographs, tagging is absolutely essential.
Otherwise the tendency is to just discard your entire life’s work so far, because trying to view and organise them is overwhelming.
So here are five of what I feel are the best ways to tag your photos.
I do this mostly in Flickr, but other applications offer a similar function. I’m not going to go into the technical how to, as it’s fairly self explanatory.
1. Subject Tagging
This is probably the most obvious place to start, tagging a photo by the object(s) it depicts. For example, tree or car or people.
You can then add more specific subsets of these objects, so you might use tags like leaves or branches or oak for trees, Rover or wheels or bonnet for cars, and woman or man or legs for people.
You can also zoom out the other way, so a picture of a few trees you might also tag as woodland or forest or nature. A car might also be tagged as transport or vehicle. And the people image might also be tagged family or festival, and so on.
If you did no other form of tagging, subject tagging alone would enable you to easily find images by the subject they contain, and it’s well worth the few seconds it takes in the long run.
2. Descriptive Tagging
Next, use tags that describe the picture, and the objects within it.
You might use materials like metal or wood, and can also include textures like grain or rust or shiny.
Another useful approach is describing the light, so sunlight, shadows, flare, night, morning and so on can be very helpful. You might add seasons too.
Personally because I tend to photograph many old and decaying objects, I frequently use tags like weathered and worn and abandoned.
Imagine you’re discovering this photograph for the first time and trying to describe it to someone who hasn’t yet seen it. What are all the adjectives you can use to give them, quite literally, the full picture?
3. Project Tagging
Photography projects can be a fun and inspiring way to gather together photographs along a theme, over a long period of time.
I don’t think most people decide on a project then go out and photograph nothing but this theme for a week, then feel the project is over. It generally happens over a far longer period – and with hundreds of other photographs not necessarily connected to the project being made in between.
A common approach here is to tag your photographs in the first two ways above – by subject and description – then notice the themes that are naturally developing.
You can then go back and tag these photos with the name of a project that you feel is developing, plus do the same for any new photos you make in the coming days, weeks and months that also fit this project.
The best example I have from my own photos is a project I’ve been doing for years, called Those Places In The Woods.
It consists of images of various mysterious places I’ve found where evidence of human activity is still present in woodland, but then nature has started to reclaim the man made objects.
If/when I want to publish a collection of photographs for this project, I’ll just go into my Flickr, type the project name in the search box, then have all the photos conveniently collected together.
4. Equipment Tagging
I reached a point with photography where I realised the kit you use isn’t all that important.
With film, there are probably dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of SLRs and 50/55mm lenses that are much the same in operation and will give very similar results.
But to get to this point I tried probably a hundred cameras and lenses to find out for myself.
During this period I found tagging essential, to be able to make any kind of comparison and let my favourites rise to the surface.
So when I loaded a camera with film and set out for a photowalk, I would note down the camera, lens, film, location, and any out of the ordinary factors, like if the film was expired or redscale, or if I was deliberately overexposing by a couple of stops, and so on.
These would all translate to tags on the photos once I’d had them developed and scanned.
As with subject tagging, there are different layers here.
If you use, say, a Minolta X-700 SLR, you could tag any photos made with this camera with Minolta, Minolta X-700, X-700 as well as 35mm, SLR, film camera and so on.
Same with the lens. A Minolta Rokkor 50/1.4 can be tagged Minolta, Rokkor, Minolta Rokkor, Minolta5014 (this tends to be the common tag abbreviation on Flickr for “Minolta 50mm f/1.4) and so on.
And finally for film you can use general film tags, like film and 35mm, the name of the film eg FujiFilm, Superia100, the speed eg ISO100, and any unusual aspects like expired, redscale, overexposed, b/w etc.
Again I would emphasise this kind of tagging only really comes into its own if you use a range of different cameras, and it’s most useful for film cameras where on any one photowalk the camera, lens, film and other factors may vary from the previous one, so you need a way of tracking the results.
These days with my focus being almost entirely on digital compacts, I don’t use equipment tagging at all, for a number of reasons.
First, because I don’t really care which camera I used, the final image is more important. Second, because I don’t use that wide a range of cameras. Third, because each camera has less variation with no film or lens to change, and finally because the EXIF data saves the camera name anyway, along with focal length, aperture, ISO and shutter speed, should I need these!
5. Location Tagging
Finally, there are many kinds of photography where location tagging is very useful. You might visit places regularly over a period of months and years and want to track how they evolve.
You might just want a way of remembering which trip included that beautiful little church in the middle of nowhere, or that gorgeous tranquil lake, or that fabulous 1930s architecture.
If you use a camera phone or a modern digital camera, then this kind of geo-tagging is built in. But since most of us here don’t use anything that modern, we can do it manually.
One shortcut here is to take a phone camera with you and make say one shot at the start of the photowalk, with the location tagging enabled. Then you can use this to tag the rest of the photographs you take and keep in this same place.
Personally this isn’t a kind of tagging I use much, as either I generally remember where I was, or the location is irrelevant and the subject is the most important aspect.
But for some it’s invaluable, and certainly I admit there are photos of a particular part of a churchyard or church I took years ago, say, where it’s not possible to tell from the picture where it was, so location tagging would have been helpful.
Hopefully you can see from these five ways of tagging how invaluable it can be for your photography.
In fact I can’t really comprehend how I would organise and find my past photos without it, it’s essential.
Not only to be able to go back and find photographs of a particular place or subject, or review all the image made with a certain camera, lens or film, but also to observe and gather together the themes and projects that naturally evolve in your work.
A final tip I would add is when you have multiple photographs that can be tagged the same, select them all, then enter the tag once, rather than selecting each image separately and typing in the tag multiple times. You can change which photos you’re selecting from the current batch as you go to make it as easy as possible.
How about you, do you use tags? If so, how? If not, how do you organise and search through your photographs?
Please let us know any tips you have in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).
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