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



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.


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.”


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


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.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Richard Messsenger is from Nottingham, England, and is currently based just north of Manila in The Philippines. Photographic opportunities of all hues present themselves daily. However, he like projects with parameters to work towards, targets to aim for. Older, hair too thin, belly too fat, knees wobbling, but he still enjoys using his talents and enthusiasm to make photographs.

  • stacie.brito

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  • waledro

    I’m pleased to see this in writing as it’s something I think about quite a bit. I sometimes include some of these details in my photoblog.

  • Kay Hess Grogg

    Great article!

  • esoteric2000

    Informative, well written, entertaining and thought provoking. I liked the photos too.

  • Argy

    Good ideas. Why not take it a step further and record some of this metadata in the photo using unused exif or iptc fields. That way you have it forever and it stays with the image

  • Richard Messenger

    Phew! I thought it was just me … and Ian Weldon … thanks Waledro, I knew there were more of us out there!

    I do have some ideas as to how one might ‘manage’ Photographer’s Metadata, and I think you’ve just given me another. Writing it down, is a very good idea.

    Thank you.

  • Richard Messenger

    Thank you Argy. I’m glad you found something of interest.

    The closest I’ve come to what you have suggested is recording an audio note, but you certainly could make some sort of written record too.

  • Richard Messenger

    Most kind esoteric2000. I appreciate the positive thoughts.

  • Richard Messenger

    Cool! Thanks Kay! Very glad you enjoyed it.

  • Charles Masters

    Interesting article. It’s something that we all probably are aware of subconsciously, but to bring it to the fore certainly influences your perspective.

  • Jim Fredrickson

    Interesting piece. Your choice of photos is intriguing as well; they are suited to the topics at hand.

  • Richard Messenger

    Thanks Jim Fredrickson – appreciated!

  • Richard Messenger

    You’re right … we all are aware on some level … if oned could be fully aware, know exactly how much the Photographers Metadata influenced your judgment of the photo … I think it may well move anyone a few steps along in your photographic journey.

  • vtsenior

    Someone pointed this out to me years ago, though it sunk into my unconscious thought. It’s not something I consider when reviewing my images, especially for publication. After shooting an event, I usually try to process the images ASAP, while it’s fresh (and so I don’t procrastinate so much that it’s months!). I try to think about what the other attendees would find interesting, not letting my own feelings enter in, but I don’t always pull that off.

    But after this, I’ll start considering it more, separating what’s actually interesting at an event from this “Photographer’s Metadata” that makes ME more interested in some shots. Thanks for this examination. There’s some great shots in here too.

  • My name is Sam and I take pictures that I know more about than the people viewing them. Thanks, I feel better now.

    As you know, Richard, this is a topic we have often discussed in the past. Interesting to see you write it up. Good work.

  • Vee

    Interesting. It wasn’t until I read this that I realised I’ve always thought it, though not in as great a detail as you’ve articulated here. You’ve brought it to the forefront for me. And added another (now more considered) layer to my work. Thank you 🙂

  • Richard Messenger

    That’s good to hear Vee.

    Very happy to help in any small way.

  • Richard Messenger

    Yes, of course, you are right Sam.

    What is not quite so obvious is what effect that knowledge has on our assessment of our photos. And, how much that knowledge skews us away from the judgment of others, who do not share that information.

    I just posted a photo on flickr. It is a 7 year-old girl.. Across the bottom of the frame is a big red slash. I was very aware that others may well not process that, and realise that it is the back of a chair. They might, therefore, find it more distracting than I do. That’s the sort of thing which it might be helpful to know.

    Yes, I am flogging this one to death!

  • Richard Messenger

    It sounds like you’ve probably already got a much better developed capacity than most (in my humble), to separate the objective and the subjective. You already remove yourself and your prejudices from the centre of the equation which comes to some judgment as to the merits of the shot. My thought is that that is a big help in improving your photography.

    Glad you like the article.

    Glad you like the photos.

    Thanks for the comment vtsenior.

  • Interesting post Richard and definitely food for thought.

    Does this mean a photograph considered by someone to be a bad photograph, could in fact be a great photograph if the MetaData is what makes the image interesting?

    This extra data may explain how difficult the photos was to get for the photographer for whatever reason, making the seemingly bad photo, really, something special.

    Or does it remain a bad photo?

  • Lynne KH

    Hi Andrew, generally, I find it hard to be objective about my own images simply because of the circumstances surrounding the making of that image. As aptly put in this article, there is all that metadata on we, as the photographer, are aware of. My own take on this, is simply that if the image is made “stronger” purely because of the unseen metadata, then maybe it is not that great an image to begin with. The image may have incredible personal value because of the “cost” of getting the image, but to a viewer maybe not so much.

    To other photographers that may be made aware of the “unseen” metadata, maybe we can appreciate the effort and skill involved in making the image, but that still does not make a poor image a great one.

    For myself, this will be a huge growth stepping stone, because if I take the time to document this “unseen” information, maybe it will help bring a more objective perspective when evaluating my own images…..which I think is maybe the point of Richard’s article.

    Thanks for making me think!

  • Richard Messenger

    Thank you Andrew.

    In answer to your first question, I think the simple answer is ‘no’. If you were to share the story of a the Photographer’s Metadata, you might move someone, someway towards sharing your perception of the photograph. But, in the final analysis, I do not think that anyone can fully share your story, can they? I’ve learned that it can really be very random how people respond to photographs, and you pretty well have to accept their individual take on it. It is even so random, that it will change from day to day.

    An example. You might have an old photograph of your parents. It is not helped by the fact that it is technically poor, but neither does it include many clues to why you are so fond of it. You might be immensely fond of the photograph because it is the first time your dad let you use the camera, because you know the location, and the sun on your back, and that you ate wonderful ice-cream sundaes immediately afterwards … no one can share that, can they? It probably is not a great photo, and never will be, to anyone but you.

    I thought I’d got a short answer in mind! I just want to add that none of these things are absolute, on some sort of linear scale, marked from 1 to 10. It’s like one of those record producers, with the big mixing desk, and all those different sliders which he can tweak. Does that make any sense? Different aspects, different styles, different people, different types of photograph … so many sliders!

  • Richard Messenger

    I hope you don’t mind if I jump back in.

    Brilliant! You’ve got the idea as I am seeing it Lynne, and you are considering it and are applying it perfectly. The starting point is, as you say, that it is difficult to be completely objective about your own photographs. A part of that is Photographer’s Metadata.

    It might be very simplistic to say it, but if you do not intend to ‘publish’ your photographs in any way, then the Photographer’s Metadata does not really matter two cents. No need to be concerned. I think it might be just the same for those who play musical instruments. My take would be that you should play for your own pleasure first. Then, if you find that extends to pleasing others too, you can decide just how far you want to be influenced by that. For the photographer, it would be at that point, when you decide that you want to please, even engage others, that Photographer’s Metadata comes into play.

    Also, and this might be more practically helpful, I think the first point of application of Photographer’s Metadata is deciding what is within the frame. Very often, it seems to me, deciding how much of something is included within the frame. You will, as the photographer, know that that is a chair. However, is there enough of a visual clue for viewers to know that it is a chair? Or is just an awkward shape getting in the way of things? You know that the tree was at the end of a row of trees. Would the sharing of the story to others be helped if there was more of a clue that that was the case?

  • Loving this thread and reading both your thoughts Richard and Lynne.

    It’s a difficult to choose which side of the line to walk on in regard to the two sides of the discussion. As a photographer, I have to photograph the way I see. I’m shooting for me first then an audience, client, family or piers next.

    If I think it’s a good photo, isn’t it? Don’t we owe it to ourselves to stay true to our vision, whether that is influenced by the meta data or not?

    I think you Richard, have nailed exactly what I’m thinking, just beautifully when you say, “My take would be that you should play for your own pleasure first. Then, if you find that extends to pleasing others too, you can decide just how far you want to be influenced by that.”

    The key, in my mind, is to not be overly influenced by others.

  • Richard Messenger

    Can I wrestle with you a little? I’m not sure what the two sides are. I see it as a such a multi-layered, nuanced topic, that there are not different sides, just so many different responses to different circumstances. Perhaps I am missing something?

    After that, I agree with every single word in every single way.

    The thing for me is an awareness. If you have an awareness of the fact that others cannot share your perceptions, that is a very healthy start. As I’ve said, you can than decide what to do with that, how far to dig into it, and how much you choose to respond. But simply having an awareness is a good start!

    I’ve got some ideas cooking as to how one might deal with PM (can we call it that?).

  • This is so true, I I love the concept that the photographer is in every photograph, and what you’re writing about is a more structured awareness of what we bring to every photograph. If we can harness this awareness, we can all become better photographers 🙂

  • Richard Messenger

    Nice one Dan! Always know I’ll get some understanding and insight from you.

    Our presence can often be seen in the faces or those we take portraits of.

  • Karen Garay

    This is a great article! I’ve always “tried” to look at my photos objectively, but I never thought through the reasons this extensively. I have definitely noticed feeling differently about my photos after a few weeks (or months), especially as this site helps me learn so much about improving my skills. As I learn new skills, I tend to see my older photos more critically. I suppose most of us do that. Also, thanks for sharing The Photographer’s Ephemeris, I will definitely be making use of it!

  • Richard Messenger

    Many thanks Karen. I very much appreciate your positive comments.

    In truth, I think one of the joys of photography is the need to live in both sides of your brain. To have some sort of artistic vision but, at the same time, be able to work that machine in your hands. I mention this because I think old photos have not just lost some of their emotional hold on you, but very often you can see that you might have made some better technical decisions. Is that the same for you?

    Ah you noticed Photographer’s Ephemeris! There is another one which you might look at, it is a phone app (unfortunately only iOS), which is called, rather strangely, PhotoPills. It is a bit of a jack of all trades, including a Depth of Field calculator, Time Lapse and Hyperfocal calculators … and more.

    All the best!

  • I guess for me, the two sides I wrestle with daily is…

    Is this photo good enough or am I too connected to the circumstances around the image and this is clouding my judgement.

    The problem with over analysing this is I am connected to every image I make, that’s why I make it.

    If I unduly “worry” what others think before sharing it or are unduly upset, or influenced by the lack of likes, comments, shares, feedback or praise then who am I really shooting for?

    I think Ian Weldon would have had to overcome and still does, every time he posts an image. His work polarises. If he was unduly influent by critics, he’d never post anything and may never develop the style he has.

    Sure, Ian leaves his images for a few weeks before deciding if they are good or bad but he’s still connected to them… that can’t be removed.

    Meta data or not – it’s the photographer who has to decide if the image is good or not.

  • Richard Messenger

    Got you! Yes, I can see that is where the road forks. Your perception or theirs.

    I think discussions on flickr have helped. Also showing my photographs to largish audiences, without them knowing that they were mine, and seeing the reactions, was helpful. Helpful in helping me accept that you really can’t control what others think. I also realised that a lot of my pleasure from a shot was to do with whether I thought I had extracted the best from the situation. Straight out of the Photographer’s Metadata drawer!

    Yes, totally agree, that Ian still has to wrestel, but he has taken at least the first couple of steps in realising the effect of PM, trying to take account of theat emotional tie, and making some practical decisions to help deal with it.

    Yes! It should be down to whether you, yourself like the shot. It is nice if others do, but if you are shooting to please others, that could lead down a very slippery, I think unsatisfying, path. But, each to his/her own!

  • George McCane

    One of the things I find helpful to me in helping me remember “The Photographer’s Metadata” is having a photographer’s journal. In it I right the typical things like the date, time, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and any other important information I feel crucial to the production of the photograph on technical terms. I also include an area in my journal for the song that I was listening to at that particular time (I listen to instrumental music that does not really have words or words that I know). Was the music a babbling brook, perhaps an eagle catching the wind through its wings as it flew by or perhaps a Native American playing a flute that is spiritual in nature. What were my thoughts as I listened to that music and then when I get home, I listen to the same music as I listened to while taking the picture(s). I find processing the image with the same music I was listening to helps to put me in the same mood I was when I took the picture and often helps me envision the thought process I had at the time of taking the picture and helps me process my picture to be uniquely mine. After processing my image, I place the picture on the opposite side of the information of the journal with double sided tape. If it is not exactly what I want, I can adjust my settings in Photoshop.

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