How to provide the appropriate, relevant keywords for each of your photos. Keywording practice for beginners.
What is a keyword in stock photography?
A keyword or tag is a term that describes the appearance (color, size, age), time period (season, time of day), location (continent, country, city, street, house, outdoors), the mood of the photo, and the action that the person or animal is doing in the photo.
The captions and tags checklist of the British stock photo company Alamy is definitely a very useful help.
Why it is essential to use the right keywords?
All experienced stock photographers agree that without relevant keywords, your photo will simply “get lost” in the millions of photos stock photo agencies offer. Buyers write topical words and phrases in the search bar, based on which the system lists the appropriate photos.
If you fill in the 50-80 keyword spaces available for each image with irrelevant or misleading words, you can expect far fewer sales than if you only used relevant terms specific to your image.
The ideal number of keywords
There is no exact recipe for how many keywords are ideal to make your photos discoverable. In the following points, grouped by different aspects, I have gathered what you need to pay attention to, when you choose the 10-50 keywords that will ensure that customers will find your images.
Who, what, where, when, how much/many?
- Who? - If a person is the main subject in your photo, relevant keywords are:
- sitting, standing, running (action);
- smiling, happy, angry, surprised (emotions);
- 10 years, baby, old, youngman, elderly (age);
- Caucasian, African, Hispanian (race);
- American, British (nationality);
- boy, woman (gender)
- What? - If an animal or plant is the main subject in your photo, relevant keywords are:
- big, small, tiny (size);
- plant, animal, fungi (classification);
- insect, mammal (common type of animals);
- flower, leaf (part of the plant);
- red, yellow, green (color);
- Latin and common English name (if there are several, each);
- scientific classification (if it is a special creature)
- What? - If a building or landscape is the main subject in your photo, relevant keywords are:
- name (common name, with synonyms);
- wooden, metal, paper (material);
- vintage, new, renovated (age or state);
- Baroque, modern, Medieval (style);
- brown, beige (main color ot the photo)
- Where? - If the location is important / relevant:
- Europe, UK, London (location: continent, country, town, street, if important);
- European, American (location-related adjectives);
- Timber Industry Exhibition (event name in English and in the original language);
- indoors, outdoors, seaside, park, street (general location);
- urban, rural, village, town, city (general phrases of settlement)
- When? - If the time is important / relevant:
- March 15 2021 (exact date, but only if important!);
- spring, winter (season, if obvious);
- January, February (month, if obvious);
- morning, evening, night (time of day, if obvious);
- sunset, sunrise, dawn (general time, if obvious)
- How much? How many? - If there are one or two persons, animals or objects in the image, be sure to include the word "one" or "two". If more than that:
- three, ten (but only if important);
- crowd, group, pile (unspecified quantity)
Important keywords you should never omit
The most important keywords are as follows:
- Naming the subject of the photo: animal, bird, barn swallow, hirundo rustica (from general to specific)
- Location: Europe, UK, London, home, indoors (from the continent to the exact location). The continent should be included in almost all cases.
- Synonyms: always search for terms used by native English speakers! Use both the US and UK versions (e.g. color, colour).
- Main color: customers can even search for colors according to trends. If your image has a typical color (only one! don't list all the colors!), be sure to include it.
Accents, uppercase and lowercase in keywords
The language of stock photo sites is usually English, but some of them use automatic translations into different languages. You should definitely use English words for your keywords, because even if the company you are contributing allows you to use words in your own language (if different than English), there may be problems with the translation (it is virtually impossible to translate keywords without context).
The use of native words is advantageous if a local landmark, building, food, etc. is in your picture. In this case, you can use both the English and native original names. In my experience, buyers often search for native (commonly used) names.
Keywords are not case sensitive, so it doesn't matter if you capitalize the words or not.
The search engine of stock photo sites can't always cope with accented words, so I suggest that you enter non-English names without accents as your keywords. Every agency is different so it’s good to try out how search works on that particular website. For example, the Alamy search engine ignores accents, so it's not necessary to include both accented and non-accented keywords.
Using different word forms
Talking about actions, you should use the gerund (-ing form) and the verb root, too: sitting, sit, sits.
Singular and plural: in the case of nouns it is advisable to take both forms, since if the buyer type e.g. "European boys" into the search bar, s/he is not necessarily just looking for an image with more than one boys.
Related words and phrases can be added as a single keyword on most stock photography sites. It can also be useful to do so, because during the searches, if the buyer enters exactly the same complex term as the one you included in your keywords, your given image will be higher in the results.
Alamy's 'Alamy Measures' is a great help for photographers. It is a service that lists customer search data based on various criteria. Here we find specific (complex and simple) terms that we can also use when keywording our own photos.
The different keywording practices of stock photographers
You can examine the keywording techniques of stock photographers by scrutinizing the portfolio of a well-performing photographer. It is advisable to look at the newer pictures, as everyone is learning, changing, improving their technique. Here are some typical techniques you may want to observe:
- Minimum keyword quantity, 3-5 words or phrases. I discovered this technique in a portfolio containing exclusively botanical photographs. The photographer is confident that his plant specialties will still be found. He uses only the English and Latin names of the plants and the part of the plant (flower, leaf, etc.). Although, he has regular sales.
- Few keywords, but almost all of them are complex terms. More experienced photographers use this technique. They study what customers are looking for and use those compound terms (words in different order) so it’s almost guaranteed to appear on the first results page.
- Many keywords, and (almost) each word is listed as a separate keyword. This is typical for beginners. Its effectiveness is questionable because if a word is separated from its companions, in many cases, means something different, too.
- Singular and plural as a single keyword (e.g. animal animals). Because customers use the terms in either singular form or plural form (never both) in a search, you can use this technique simply to save keywords.
- Your name or nick name as a keyword. Experienced photographers almost always include their own names in their keywords because it allows them to track when someone is copying their keywords.
Misconceptions about keywording
- The more keywords, the more sales. Experience shows just the opposite. Accuracy and the use of relevant terms are far more important than quantity.
- Keywording is a necessary evil. If we call it evil if our images are discoverable, then it is. Many photographers spend more time tagging their images than photographing itself. Not by accident. A significant portion of stock photography is spent working in front of a computer.
- Name everything in the image. Every picture is about something. Keywords must describe this. Therefore, if there’s a fence in the background, but the subject of your photo is a dog sitting in a garden, then you need to gather terms about the dog, not the objects in the background.
Beginner stock photographers think keywording is some elusive, unattainable drudgery. In the beginning, it’s quite hard to imagine how to put together 40 keywords for an image. If you try my suggestions above, you’ll see it’s not so difficult. The right quantity and quality of keywords will come together in no time.
I can’t stress enough: the essence of stock photography is discoverability that keywords provide for your photos.