Whenever a photo is taken with a digital camera, data relating to that photo gets stored with the image in what’s known as the Exchange image file format (Exif).
Knowing how to use that Exif data can help you gain insight into the camera settings of both your own and other people’s photos. Seeing what settings worked well together in a great photo (or didn’t work well in a bad one) can help you improve your photography skills.
Data About Data
The Exif data is what’s called metadata (data about data). Some data is more significant and useful than the rest. Within it you’ll find the information you probably know already – camera make and model, image dimensions, copyright information, etc. But you’ll also find information about the exposure, whether or not the flash fired, metering mode, distance to subject, and plenty more.
You can view the Exif data on your camera, on your computer, and on photo sharing sites such as Flickr and 500PX.
Here’s a screenshot of the Exif data being displayed in Adobe Photoshop after choosing ‘File Info...’ from the ‘File’ menu.
To view this information in Windows right-click on the image file and select ‘Properties,’ then select the ‘Details’ tab.
If you’re using a Mac, open the image file in Preview, then select ‘Show Inspector’ from the ‘Tools’ menu and select the ‘Exif’ tab.
Note: Adobe programs create a file with the same name as the image but with the extension ‘xmp’. This stands for Extensible Metadata Platform and contains the Exif data for the image.
As you can see, the EXIF data includes all the information about the exposure. My camera was set to manual mode. My shutter speed was 1/320 sec, the aperture was f/2.8, the ISO was 100, and I used my spot meter. It also shows that my flash fired.
In these examples, we’re looking at data from the RAW file. But the data is also stored in other file types such as JPEG and TIFF.
About the only thing it doesn’t tell you is whether a photo has been manipulated during post-processing.
How Is This Information Useful to Beginner Photographers?
When you first start out, and you’re still getting used to your first camera, the Exif data can help you learn. If you took a photo that didn’t turn out the way you thought it would, the data may show you why.
For example, seeing that the shutter speed was 1/4th sec will help you understand why your photo was blurred. To shoot at such a slow speed you need to use a tripod to avoid camera shake.
And seeing an aperture setting of f/16 will help you understand why so much of your image is in focus. You could then look at the Exif data of an image where more of the composition is out of focus to see what its aperture setting was.
Use Exif Data To Make Comparisons
The Exif data can also help you compare images you’ve made. Looking at the lens data can help you understand when it’s best to use that lens. Compare the same aperture setting on two different lenses. It will help you learn more about depth of field.
Comparing the same image shot with two different focal lengths is also a useful exercise. These three photos were taken using different lenses (as shown in the Exif data).
Analyze and Anticipate
Analyzing the Exif data of your photos can help you plan and improve future photo sessions of the same subject or situation. Studying the data on photos from an annual event will give you insights into what you did well and where you can improve.
The Hmong people in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and other countries (including the US and France,) hold awesome New Year festivals. The celebrations include various sporting competitions such as kart racing, crossbow shooting and top spinning, which can all be challenging to photograph.
So before I go to the festival each year I look back at photos I’ve made previously. The Exif data from these images reminds me of the settings I’ve used in the past. When I arrive I know which lens will give me the best photos for each competition, and what shutter speed I’ll need to capture sharp action in the kart racing.
Analyzing data from photos of subjects you don’t photograph can also be helpful. On websites such as Flickr and 500px the Exif data is often displayed alongside the photos, and so you can use it as a reference. When you’re photographing new subjects, especially ones that require special camera settings, look at the Exif data of other people’s photos. It could save you a lot of time and stress.
Making the most of the tools you have will help you become a better photographer. Next time you wonder why a photo worked (or didn’t work) so well, take a look at the Exif data. You may be surprised what you can learn.
Do you use the Exif in other ways? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.