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Working with Metadata in Lightroom

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Lightroom can store away a lot of useful information with your images. Martin Evening discusses how to make the most of Lightroom's metadata features.
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With a folder-based organizational system, your ability to search for files depends on your ability to memorize the folder structure of the hard drive and know where everything is stored. Anyone who’s responsible for maintaining a large image archive knows that this method of file management soon becomes unwieldy. What you need is a cataloging program that can keep track of everything. Therefore, the trend these days is to use file management by metadata, a strategy in which you search for a file by searching its attributes, rather than trying to remember the name of the folder where you put something.

As your image library grows, you’ll come to rely on Lightroom’s Library module panels, such as the Find, Keyword Tags, and Metadata Browser panels, to narrow the selections of images in Lightroom. The real power of Lightroom is its database engine, which enables you to carry out specific searches and find the images you need more quickly. Lightroom is able to search the database quickly by using the metadata information that’s linked or embedded in images.

The metadata used in Lightroom falls into several types (see Figure 1):

  • Informational metadata such as the EXIF metadata tells you such things as which camera was used to take a photograph, along with other technical information such as the lens settings and image file type.
  • Custom metadata is used to enter information about who shot the photograph, how to contact the creator of the photograph, and the rights usages allowed.
  • Another type of metadata is the custom information you enter to categorize your images.
Figure 1

Figure 1 The Metadata panel.

Lightroom uses this metadata by a method fairly similar to the way in which a program like iTunes categorizes your music collection. For example, when you search for a music track on an MP3 player such as an iPod, instead of searching for tracks by folders, you search using the metadata information embedded in the individual music files. Most MP3 files have the necessary metadata information already embedded when you buy the music track. You can also use iTunes software to locate the metadata information automatically via an online database.

In Lightroom, the catalog information usually has to be added manually by the person who took the photographs. This process requires you to spend time entering this information, but the time invested in cataloging your images in the early stages reaps rewards in time saved when retrieving your files later. In most cases, you only need to configure essential metadata once to create a custom metadata template, and then you can specify that Lightroom apply this bulk metadata automatically to a set of imported photos. Of course, you can take metadata cataloging further and assign custom metadata information to individual images.

How you decide to catalog your images’ metadata depends on whether this information is important for the type of work you do. However, the effort spent manually adding metadata must be proportional to how useful that information will be later.

The Metadata Panel

Let’s look more closely at the Metadata panel. Figure 2 shows the default Metadata panel view, which displays a condensed list of file and camera information. At the top is a Preset menu with the same options as those found on the File > Import menu; click New to create a custom metadata preset setting. (I’ll discuss this option shortly.) Below are fields containing basic information about the file, such as the filename and folder.

Figure 2

Figure 2 The default view of the Metadata panel information shows just the basic file info metadata.

The Title, Caption, Copyright, Creator, and Location fields are editable. When you click in a blank field, you can enter custom metadata, such as the image title and copyright information. Below these fields are the image rating and label information, followed by basic EXIF data items. This data is informational only, indicating details such as file size dimensions, the camera used to take the photograph, camera settings, lens, and so forth.

Click the arrow button in the upper-left corner to access the Metadata panel view options (see Figure 3). You can select various panel views, such as the All view to show all information (see Figure 4).

Figure 3

Figure 3 The Metadata panel view options let you select different metadata information display modes.

Figure 4

Figure 4 The All view shows all available information about the image.

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