Photographer’s Metadata – What it is and How to Use it

PART ONE – THE KNOWN

Photography metadata

PHOTO 2 DPS 0001 Richard Messenger Photographer s Metadata

As a photographer, there is a huge amount of information which is easily available to you in your image file. Every single photograph is accompanied by a mass of information, the EXIF (Exchange Image File format) or metadata. However, I think there is more information, which very few photographers acknowledge at all. For a long time, I have been calling it Photographer’s Metadata. In this article, we’ll look at what that means, and how you can use it in your photography.

As the word metadata has emerged into more common use, this has not necessarily been accompanied by a full understanding. Just to clarify a little, data’ is simply information. It might be presented in different ways, with words, numbers, pictures even. Broadly, metadata is defined as data about data. The photograph is the data, and the Exif is data about the photograph, Exif is therefore, metadata.

Making use of the Exif can be very helpful, but it is a big topic, and it is worthy of a bigger discussion.

PART TWO – THE UNKNOWN

PHOTO 3 DPS 0001 Richard Messenger Photographer s Metadata

What is Photographer’s Metadata?

With any photograph, there is a huge amount of information which is known to only one person. Truly, there is a lot which is known only to you, the photographer, the person who made the photograph. You may like to use some other term like “emotional baggage” or “personal context”. You can choose to think of it in whatever terms you like, but I think this is massively significant information, which needs to be grasped as a truth, BUT probably needs to be handled very carefully. All that additional information that only you know is what I call Photographer’s Metadata.

Here is an example

A large number of people on the planet will know that this is the Taj Mahal (below). That data is hardly unique to the photographer. A subset of those people may know that it was taken from the opposite side of the river which runs at the back of the Taj Mahal site.

Photographer's Metadata - What it is and How to Use itSome photographers, meteorologists, keen geographers, or others, may start to guess what time of day it was taken, the time of year, etc. They may be able to check some of that, and other technical details in the Exif, and start to come to conclusions based on that data and their thoughts about it all. Their thoughts will have varying degrees of truth, and varying degrees of effect on the perception of the photograph.

Information, known only by the photographer

When I was sat in the back of the taxi approaching the Taj Mahal, with all my senses being assaulted, I thought, “It is the Taj Mahal! How the heck can I take a photograph which offers anything different, anything worthwhile, a photograph which has not been done a thousand times before?” No one else knows that I had that thought. Now, I hesitate to use the word “unique” but I have never seen another photograph like the one above. We are now getting into the territory of what I have termed Photographer’s Metadata. Things that only you, the photographer, know about the photograph which you took. Only I know the conversation I had with myself in the back of a taxi, and that original question changes the way I see this photograph.

Only the photographer (yes, me!) knows that I walked away from the groups of people, that I was very much on my own when the photograph was taken. I was temporarily in a small oasis of still calm. Likewise only the photographer (still me) knows that I needed to go back over the river, to the site of the Taj Mahal itself, before sunset and the gates being closed. So, I had to work quickly. It was moderately cool and breezy. The crows were indeed crowing. Only I know how many shots were taken to achieve this one photograph, that this one was chosen for the position of the crow in flight.

A man appeared about three meters ahead of me, was talking to me, holding out his hand for money.

Photographer's Metadata - What it is and How to Use it

It affects your perception of your image

The point is quite simple, really. However, I believe that it is very complex in its consequences. The point is that ALL of this, all the information, and probably more, has an influence on my perception of the image. All of the things which only you know will affect your perception of your photographs.

How others will see your image without this data

Photographer’s Metadata is part of the joy of taking photographs, of adding to your cache of memories. However, you might be well served by examining it very carefully, considering what it is that only you know. Then, you need to try to make some judgments. Firstly, how does the Photographer’s Metadata change the way you look at the photograph? Secondly, how will everyone else, without the benefit of that information, see the photograph?

Please take a few moments to consider one or more of your own photographs. Think about all the circumstances of that image, try to relive the context of it being taken. No one else on the planet knows what is in your head, your thoughts, memories, and feelings in respect to the photograph. Again, how does all that change the way you perceive the photograph? What is that others do not know and which, therefore, cannot have a similar effect on their perception of the photo?

A typical shoot

Thinking of a typical photographic expedition. Only you, the photographer, would know that you had done some research using The Photographer’s Ephemeris. That you had put the alarm on for 4:30 a.m. to get to the identified spot at the optimal time. Only you know that you couldn’t manage to get around the barbed wire fence and that your choices were restricted by keeping the fence out of the frame.

Only you know about the over-zealous security guy who was nagging at you; that it was very hot; that the lens you had on the camera was not ideal; the wind blasting the sand around did not encourage you to change it; only you know that there was an ugly building just out of the shot; that the last time you were there, camels had been strolling through the frame. This time you were unusually blessed by a few wisps of clouds in the sky, your stomach is rumbling, and you are going to have to respond to the call of nature soon, and is this light going to get better or worse?!

Photographer's Metadata - What it is and How to Use it

Only if you are able to acknowledge the Photographer’s Metadata, can you then make decisions as to what you want, or need, to do with this information. Grasping this additional truth could be a massive help in letting you make judgments regarding your photographs. I will try to give you some practical help.

What to do with the Photographer’s Metadata

It is all the things which you, the photographer, know about the making of the photograph which, very likely, no one else on this planet has any idea about.

It is knowing that your passport has been stolen, that you think you met the girl of your dreams a week ago, but she has no interest in photography. If you hurry back, the hotel will still be serving breakfast. Look at the detail on those columns, you must photograph those later. But which angle would be best? That entrance archway, is someone please going to walk through it soon? Please, someone, walk through it soon, or should I just move on? All this and more encompasses the Photographer’s Metadata.

Photographer's Metadata - What it is and How to Use it

So what?

What does all this matter? I think it matters a great deal that you are at least aware of Photographer’s Metadata. Only if you are aware of it, can you then decide whether you need, or want, to do anything about it.

A few months ago, I was so happy to listen to the very talented wedding photographer Ian Weldon being interviewed. It was early in 2016, on The Photography Xperiment Podcast with Andrew Hellmich. I’ve heard others dance around the edges of the topic of Photographer’s Metadata, but Ian Weldon fully embraced everything that I have been thinking about for several years.

He was asked about his workflow and he proceeded to describe how he downloads the photographs after he gets home from a wedding shoot. Nothing too shocking there yet. He then said:

” … and usually I leave them for two weeks and don’t look at them at all … the whole wedding, don’t look at it, don’t even entertain looking at it. I do that to take myself away from any emotion that I had at the wedding. The thing is it’s kind of that guy who I was talking to, that I had a really great conversation with, that photograph of him might not be a great photograph, I might just think it was because he was a nice guy.”

Validation!

Of course, I was happy! You are bound to be happy when someone articulates the same ideas as you, aren’t you? Particularly so when that person is a very individual and successful photographer who has clearly given his craft a great deal of thought.

Ian Weldon then went on to say, “So I have to kind of take a step back from it, and distance myself from the wedding somewhat, so then I can make a judgment on the photography, rather than the relationships I had with the people while I was there. I’d leave it six months if I could! But I don’t really think the clients are going to be happy about that.”

Atomic half-life?

I must have been paying some attention in physics classes because I have often thought of the lingering effect of Photographer’s Metadata as being something like an atomic half-life. That is the time an isotope takes to decay, to lose half its radioactivity.

Photographer's Metadata - What it is and How to Use it

A professional wedding photographer is talking about the effect that his emotional investment in the taking of the photographs has on his judgment of those images. Ian Weldon has arrived at a time of two weeks as being sufficient for enough decay of those emotions. He said he would leave it six months before looking at the photographs again, before starting to edit them, if he thought the clients would accept that. But what Ian Weldon is saying, I think, is that the emotions from the wedding have sufficiently decayed enough for him to be reasonably objective by the time two weeks have elapsed.

Do you recognize this process with yourself whatsoever? It is difficult to speak with confidence about the perceptions of others, and it may well be argued as a positive thing, that Ian Weldon is more than commonly in touch with his emotions. Without wishing to encourage you to be prone to being on the psychiatrist’s couch, I suggest that might be why he is such an interesting photographer.

Photographer's Metadata - What it is and How to Use it

Is this something for you?

If you think that this is all a load of tosh, I don’t think there is much which I can do or say to convert you to this particular religion. On a psychological level, perhaps you have never noticed that you respond differently to the same photographs on different days. On a physiological level, it has been demonstrated that we even perceive colors differently at different times of the day.

Photographer's Metadata - What it is and How to Use it

As important as I think it might be to acknowledge the truth as I see it, I do also fully acknowledge that there is a massive range of ways in which we individually perceive and process our experiences. The classic old/young lady still makes the point well.

Photographer's Metadata - What it is and How to Use it

Acknowledgement

With the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery program, the recognition of reality, by stating your name and, without equivocation, that you are an alcoholic, is a very good start. Probably an essential one. Of course, it is completely up to you if and how you choose to take on this information.

However, I would suggest that if you simply acknowledge Photographer’s Metadata you will have taken the first couple of steps towards handling it. “My name is Richard, and I know things about this photograph which no one else knows.” On its own, simply acknowledging that truth is a good couple of steps. It might help you decide which shot to post to your favorite social network(s). Or help you to choose which one to give further, time-consuming, detailed post-processing. It might help you decide which one to enter into a contest.

In short, awareness of Photographer’s Metadata will give you a chance of being more objective in your assessment of your own photographs.

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