Updating Metadata for Digital Photos – Keeping It Simple


If you’ve been to RootsTech or other genealogy conferences perhaps you’ve seen sessions on editing metadata for your digital photos, scanned documents, etc. If this is a new concept for you, prepare to be overwhelmed and frustrated. There is a ton of information on this topic and several methods for updating your metadata. It can be tough to understand it all and you might just give up on the idea. I will attempt to describe the very basics and demonstrate some simple methods that have worked for me. I’m certainly not an expert on this topic, but I hope this can help you.

Note: The instructions in this article will work for .JPG files. It may not be the same for other file formats such as .TIF, .BMP, .GIF, etc. It doesn’t appear that you can work with the metadata for .PNG files. Also, if you’re using a Mac, well, you’re on your own. I have no idea if any of these techniques will help you. Sorry. And, why would you use a Mac? That’s silly.

What the heck is metadata?

Metadata is the data that describes other data. Or in this context, it’s the information about your digital image and your files already have some metadata embedded in them. Metadata can cover a wide range of information, such as the date that the image was created, the author, copyright, title, description, tags, camera/scanner make and model, etc. I mostly only bother with 3 pieces of information:

  • document title (sometimes referred to as object name). Some programs will show this when you hover your mouse over the image. This is where I put a simple description, like the name of the person in a photo.
  • caption (sometimes referred to as description). Some programs will show this in yellow text at the bottom of your image when previewing it. This is where you can put whatever you want. Put the place, the date, the names of the people in the photo, or even a URL.
  • create date, the date that the image was created. More on this later.

Why bother?

By adding metadata to your images, it becomes part of that image file. If the file is shared with others this information goes with the image. It’s the equivalent of writing on the back of a photo so you and others can know who’s in the photo, etc. This way you won’t need to keep this information elsewhere with some kind of cross-reference system.

However, depending on how the image is shared, the metadata may not be retained. For example, if you upload a photo to Facebook and then someone right-clicks the photo to save it, they won’t have your metadata because they’re really grabbing a modified version of the photo that you uploaded. Facebook and many other sites will modify the image, making it smaller in size and resolution, etc.

Also, some programs don’t keep your metadata in your new copy of the image. If you update your .JPG in PhotoShop Elements, adjust the lighting, crop it, etc., and then save it as a new version of that file, you’ll be happy to see that the metadata will be preserved (except for create date) in the new file. But if you modify the image in Gimp and save it as a new version, the metadata is lost in the new file. These are examples of just two photo editing programs. Do some experimenting on your own.

My Methods

Title and Caption/Description

I use a handy little free program called Irfanview. I adjust my Windows settings so that this is the default program used when I double-click a photo from Windows Explorer. Irfanview can do a lot of things but I’ll just describe the metadata stuff. I double-click a photo and then press “I”, and then “I” again. The first “I” is for Image properties. The second click of the letter “I” is for IPTC info. Once in this screen, I update the Document Title and Caption and then press the Write button. Done!

There are two categories of metadata, EXIF and IPTC. What’s the difference? Who knows? Just use IPTC.

Editing IPTC metadata with Irfanview

Create Date

Now, what about the create date? If I’m working with a scan of old photos or old documents I usually don’t bother changing this date. It will be the date that the scan took place, not when the photo was taken. However, for my personal photos from my digital camera or phone, I like this to be the correct date so I can rename and sort my photos based on the date and time. Usually my camera puts in the correct date and time and I don’t have to do anything. But what about when the camera was wrong and you need to change the date or time?

Here’s where it gets a little tricky. I haven’t found a lot of programs that let you modify this date. You would think that within Windows Explorer you could just right-click the file, go to properties, and fix stuff like this, but you can’t. For this, I use another program, PIE – Picture Information Extractor. They offer a freeware version but if you want editing ability you’ll need to purchase the commercial version for $29.

Within PIE, I click on the thumbnail of the image I want to modify. Then I press Ctrl-S (or from the menu, Metadata, Set Date and Time. You can either enter the Fixed date and time or use the Difference option to adjust the date or time with an offset (for example you could set the time back 2 hours).

The really cool thing about PIE is the ability to use the Auto Rename feature. You can set up a custom rename template and rename your photos based on this create date so your photos will be sorted sequentially on your hard drive with the date and time as part of the filename (something like 20160105_223915_01.JPG for year, month, day, hour, minute, seconds, and then a sequential number). This just makes the world a better place, right? No more vague filenames like DSCF39234.JPG.

Changing Create Date with PIE

Other Things To Consider

Remember that some programs don’t preserve your metadata when you make a copy from the original. However, it’s easy to open two files at a time with Irfanview and copy/paste your text from one to another.

There’s a free program out there called ExifTool by Phil Harvey that does about everything related to metadata. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a command-line utility. If you’re an uber geek and miss the good old days of DOS and writing batch files with parameters and such, then this is the tool for you! It can read, write, and edit metadata. You can almost think of it as more of a metadata scripting language than a “program”. It’s pretty cool but I only use it in special circumstances.

Good luck and feel free to add comments so others can share from your wisdom.



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