Keywords. A cautionary tale

You’re about to hear a frank admission. When it comes to using keywords, I’m the laziest photographer in the world. There, I said it. So let me explain why you shouldn’t be. Lazy with keywords, that is.

You’ve heard the old saying “a stitch in time saves nine”? Whoever it was that came up with that must have been a keen user of keywords, because a little extra effort put into keywords early on will save you a lot of time when it comes to finding an image you need to use. To offer an excellent example of how much time keywords can save you, let me tell you how badly I’ve mismanaged an important project.

Well, not really mismanaged. And not really badly. But I can’t stop kicking myself all the same.

Context is in order. Back in January, I was at the Australian Open. The tennis one. (Funny how many people have said to me: “Open? Which one?”) I desperately needed a laptop with more grunt, because our MacBook Pro had neither sufficient drive space for the project nor the necessary grunt. On top of that, I suspected it was heavily fragmented (let’s argue that one some other time, OK?) and Aperture 2 was crashing with alarming regularity. Also, I really didn’t have the time to nuke and pave the machine to get that factory-fresh oomph back.

So I did something I rarely do. I called on Apple for a favour, and asked for a MacBook Pro loaner. It was good timing for such a request. If Apple had just released a new model I’d have been fighting for a place in the queue and likely would have been placed behind more worthy luminaries, such as Messrs Powell and Kidman. But being outside of a product launch window, it wasn’t a big ask to grab one out of the loan program.

Apple acquiesced and a couple of days into the event a lovely 17-inch MBP landed at the Melbourne Tennis Centre. Finding it was another matter. Rod Laver Arena has quite a rabbit warren to negotiate. In any case, on the third day of the two-week long tournament, I had the computing grunt I needed.

On my own MBP — the one which by that time had been cast aside — I had dutifully set up a whole bunch of folders, date-specific smart folders and entered keywords ready for the coming event. Among the keywords were the names of players — Federer, Williams, Haas, Tipsarovic, and so on — and others pertaining to certain kinds of pictorial specifics, such as: baseline, serve, smash, volley, net, umpire, ballkid, crowd ... that sort of thing.

Which brings us to one of A3’s best features: the “Duplicate Project Structure” option. If you’ve not spotted it, right-click on a project in your A3 library. There it is, fourth from the top, just above “Delete Project”. Careful which one you click.

The name is self-explanatory. What you end up with is a duplicate of a project with folders and smart folders set up for you, minus the images of the project on which the duplicate was based. Had A3 been available at the time, I could have duplicated the project structure, exported it, transferred it to the loaner MBP via sneakernet, and saved a lot of time later on.

But A3 wasn’t available and, of course, by the third day of the Open, it was too late to take the time to repeat all the preparation work I’d done on my own MBP. A big mistake. And that’s why I’m kicking myself now because if I hadn’t succumbed to laziness and instead spent just an hour or, at most, two hours preparing keywords and smart folders on the loaner, I would have saved many more hours compiling the photo book based on the event.

Shooting a major event such as the Australian Open is a bit like running a 100-metre sprint. If you notice half way through the race that your shoe laces aren’t tied, it’s not like you’re going to stop to make adjustments. Or that’s what I keep telling myself.

To give you an idea of why keywords would have made the compilation of the photo book so much easier, let me outline the project a little. Before leaving Melbourne, I had managed to edit out the “ones” and “twos” from all the shots that had been captured. These are the images that earn a one-star or two-star rating. Out of focus, badly composed, under/over-exposed, or just plain rubbish. What remained was anything with a three-star rating or better. 15,000 of them. Sounds like a lot, right? But remember there were two of us shooting multiple events, and often the same one, over 14 days. That’s a few more than 1000 usable pics from each day. Not that many.

I needed to cull that down to about 500 to consider for the book. In the end, about 150 were used. It’s difficult to explain just how hard this is to do if you’ve never compiled a book with that many source images to choose from, but I can tell you it is a painful experience — especially when you’re trying to be objective about your own work. And, you might be surprised to learn, it’s not as easy as just picking the very best shots, because five-star images won’t always fit a particular hole in a page and if that hole is a small one, it feels like a travesty to use the image that way. Like most photographers, I hate seeing a picture heavily cropped, so I'm not about to do it to myself.

Yet it would have been vastly easier with properly-assigned keywords. If you have a look at the double page spread above (my partner’s pics, those ones), you’ll see to the right of the layout a set of small, vertical images. It took about an hour to sort those images from the whole take from that game but it would have required a fraction of the time if the pics had been keyworded thus: Monfils, portrait, baseline, forehand, backhand.

Sure, the images were all contained within one date folder and, being from one game, were displayed more or less contiguously, but the thing about a big project is that continually scrubbing through hundreds of pictures to gather a handful that are useful for a particular fit in a layout, and then re-scrubbing through the collection if you want a variation on the image (a landscape aspect, for instance, instead of portrait) gets very, very, very tedious. Exhausting, in fact. And it gets more tedious if you’re compiling a montage layout comprising different subjects captured on different dates.

Instead, you make keywords work for you. The more the merrier. Any keyword that will later help you find an image faster is a keyword worth storing. Remember, too, that keywords work in conjunction with other sorting methods, such as ratings, dates and even image metadata. So if I were looking for a picture of Roger Federer that I knew to have been taken in the first week of the tournament, and was an image of him serving, and had a four-star rating or better, and had a quirky flavour (yeah, “quirky” can be a keyword), then keywords and metadata would likely have found it faster than the way I did find it: by opening one project at a time (I had each day stored as a separate project) and scrolling through the take.

So if you’re not into using keywords, here’s my advice. Make a start. Today. Make it a habit. Before long, it’ll be second nature to you to assign keywords to images.

Try this. Go to A3’s Metadata menu. Choose New Keyword. Now look at the bottom of A3’s viewer/browser. You’ll see a bunch of default keywords as buttons plus a blank text entry field. Start making up keywords. Make the keywords describe the kind of images you want to shoot. Here’s a few to get you started: skateboard, crash, spectacular, injury, skull, fracture, ambulance, hospital, angry, parents, castigating, child, for, not, wearing, helmet.

Now go out and find that picture story. Go on. Off you go. Make it happen.

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