Labelling Digital Photos

Neal Underwood
January 13, 2009
First Draft, rev.


One of the seemingly best-kept secrets about digital photography and imaging is that within the computer image file is embedded a lot of important information about that image. Further, users can manually enter additional information to identify the contents of that image or edit pre-existing data. Better than writing the names on the back of a photo because this information accompanies the file as it is passed along.

The purpose of this narrative is to describe the barest essential information for the general computer user to view, enter and edit the image identification information. That will, unfortunately, require some tedious background discussion and definition of technical terms and acronyms that will appear. This is a technical, complex and confusing subject, so distilling it to a brief introduction was a challenge. This narrative presumes basic knowledge of computer use and general terminology. This discussion will apply only to PC's. Sorry Mac.

The term "image" here refers to a photo file from a digital camera or on a computer being a "still" (i.e. non-moving) photo. It can also refer to the output of a scanner. There are many different types of images from a technical perspective, the most applicable types here being jpg and tiff which are the primary focus of this discussion. (Other formats frequently seen, but outside the scope of this discussion, are BMP, PNG and GIF.) "JPG" is the type of image produced by digital cameras and is most often used for those displayed on the internet. "TIFF" or "TIF" is typically used for higher-resolution images produced for professional/commercial applications or archival storage. "Image" will usually be used generically here, but application of differing programs to a specific type will vary by type; try to make clear.


There are different standards that are in place to describe and access the information that is present and/or inserted into a digital image file. This is where things become technical and confusing. This will be just a very basic description, just enough to get through the buzzwords and acronyms and use the tools to access it.

The descriptive information contained within a digital image file is called "metadata" and that term is used frequently in the various discussions and documentation. "Metadata" has become an overused and confusing buzzword in cyberspace but in its most elementary definition is simply "data about data." Its more precise and correct meaning depends on the exact context of the discussion. In the context here of still images, it is simply the descriptive data about the image that is embedded within the computer file of that image. You will see the term metadata used constantly in the various other external discussions about images.

The embedded metadata in still image files is only visible or changeable by computer software programs specifically designed to access it. Further, the presence of this data does not affect and is ignored by software programs not designed to be aware of it. The embedded data in still image files falls into the following type/classifications/standards. These will be the acronyms/buzzwords that are used by the various programs and standards so that's why they are being presented. Unfortunately this is necessary since there is no consistent, authoritative simple descriptive terminology set for all this. The ones most common and important standards to know are: Exif, Comments, IPTC and XMP. It is also important to note that these standards are not mutually exclusive. Data from one or all of these standards can co-exist within a single image file.

About Dublin Core

Generally stated, the "Dublin Core" is a metadata description standard that can be used by applications across various computer software categories. In image processing one may see the term "Dublin Core" mentioned, but it does not directly affect routine use of image handling tools and is not necessary to know. It is used as a basis for the XMP standard. For those curious, more information: Dublin Core Metadata Initiative

Using Image Labelling Software

Following are examples of some software packages that can access, enter and/or edit image file descriptive data. A few I tried, others were mentioned on some websites. My comments are brief and based on versions of programs I had in January, 2009. Since the software industry is very dynamic, the features and capabilities of programs can change quickly.

Although standards exist for definition of the metadata, the products I tried display the data differently. They all differ in their description or identification of data fields, differ in menu structures and layouts and differ in placement of the same metadata elements among menus. That is, of course, confusing when comparing or switching between programs. It is important to ensure that important data be recorded in places where all subsequent users and their software can find it. A trial-and-error and testing approach may be necessary.

Also, be alert as to which of the following maintain only IPTC or both IPTC and XMP data. Some don't clearly say. It is also important that those that do support both are able to properly keep both sets in synchronization. Although XMP support has been slow to arrive, I think it may be the predominant standard in the future, so software that supports and reliably synchronizes with XMP should be preferred.


IrfanView is a totally free image viewer and editor available for a free download at IrfanView website. It is simple and straightforward to use. While not providing all the extended features of the purchased commercial packages, it still contains the most used functions and the absence of bloat means that it runs very fast. The user interface is typical for Windows. This write-up is based on version 4.22, current as of January 2009.

Natively, IrfanView can display Exif metadata. Apparently, it only works with JPG files.
Image > Information
will bring up the "IrfanView - Image properties" menu. This panel displays the technical data about the image. At the bottom of the panel are two buttons additional to the "OK" to close. Click on the "Comment" button on the lower right to display (but not edit) any previously entered comments. On the lower left is a button "IPTC info." Under native IrfanView, clicking on this button results in an error message: 'Can't load PlugIn "IPTC.DLL"! / Please download PlugIns from IrfanView homepage!' "PlugIns" are additional software program modules that expand the capabilities of the host program. In this case, IrfanView requires plugins to access and update the Exif and IPTC metadata. There are apparently no plugins to create XMP data and I have not seen "XMP" mentioned in any IrfanView menus or documentation. Two separate plugins are shown:

I don't think the current version of IrfanView can edit descriptive metadata for TIFF files which will require one of the other programs.

Installing IrfanView PlugIns

Installing IrfanView PlugIns is quick and simple.

One can now enter/edit Comments and IPTC data. Note that the IPTC data menu appears to precisely follow the IPTC definitions, teminology and data structure layout - so it sounds "newspaperish." Descriptive text is entered in the "Caption" field (Caption(tab)/Caption:(field) which corresponds, for example, to the General(tab)/Description:(field) in PixVue. This is independent of the "JPG Comments" field (JPG Comments(button)/Comment:(field)) and the content must be manually duplicated in each of those fields. (Copy and paste works well.) The apparent main photo title heading entry box is found in the following section: Origin (tab)/Object Name: (equivalent to "General (tab)/Title:" section in PixVue, for example). Also, when entering just the descriptive metadata, Irfanview does not modify the Windows file date as do some other programs, such as PixVue.

iTag Photo Tagging Software

A FREE utility program to tag JPG, TIFF and other image files with Title, Description, Rating and Keywords. Its initial display does not show the array of IPTC fields that Irfanview does, but there may be ways to enter others. There is a "Tag Bucket" option I haven't figured out. Information entered using iTag is written to the both IPTC and XMP headers of each file which is a significant advantage. Disadvantages are that it requires Microsoft .NET to be installed and only runs on Windows XP or Vista. Annoying, but does seem to work well.

Download at: iTag


Another free photo editing tool that provides capability to enter Exif, IPTC and XMP data. Its one-time website appears gone so it appears the original developer has gone out of business but the program is still downloadable from some sites.

PixVue has a rather unusual mode of operation that is not obvious, is not effectively communicated and took me some aggravation to figure out. Initial installation of the program proceeds typically. However, from the Start > Programs > PixVue menu, only the "PixView Help" option is displayed which is the user help and documentation file (generally good). PixVue itself does not launch like a regular program. Instead, it is necessary to go into Windows Explorer, or a similar file listing routine, right click on the image file to bring up the file's selection menu and then select either "PixVue" to perform some typical photo image tasks or "Annotate" to use PixVue's software edit the photo's metadata. I initially found this method to be somewhat awkward (maybe I'll get used to it), but I really like the layout of the metadata editing panels and clear descriptions of the data fields. And it seems to work. Note that is does modify the original Windows file date, unlike IrfanView, for example, which does not. Offhand, I do not see a way to turn off the modification. So, I could also recommend this program for quick, basic editing of the photo's metadata.

See: Softsea - PixVue info.
and Softsea - PixVue download

Ulead PhotoImpact

PhotoImpact has been my favorite photo image editor for a number of years. It is inexpensive and has most of the capabilities of its much more expensive competitors. However, I have found IrfanView to be much faster to use for quick browsing of individual or groups of images, so use it more frequently. Its reported image editing capability potentially make it a complete substitute.

The last version I have used is 7 which cannot display or edit the extended metadata. It can only display basic Exif information through: View > Photo Properties. Reportedly, later versions, possibly starting with 10, can display and edit the extended data.

Adobe Photoshop

See "Labelling Digital Photos" - Scroll to Adobe Photoshop section


BreezeBrowser is a commercial product costing $89. I mention it only because I like its data entry screen much better than the others. Much clearer, from a general user perspective, layout and description of the general user meaning of the various data fields. But I wouldn't pay $89 just for that.

See for more: BreezeBrowser website trial download.
"Labelling Digital Photos" - Scroll to "Breezebrowser" section

Google Picasa

Picasa is an implementation of a web photo album, but I have not used it. From "Labelling Digital Photos"
"Google's Picasa (as of v.3) [Version 3, still as of January 2009] uses an older implementation of IPTC. To make Breezebrowser IPTC data show up in Picasa (Google uses the IPTC Description field for its Caption field) - go into "File > Preferences" and under the General tab select (add a checkmark) to "Also Store IPTC data in Legacy IPTC IIM format". That will make Breezebrowser's IPTC descrition [sic] field compatible with Picasa."

This procedure or technique may be possible with other software programs but I have not tested it.

Technical Notes and Warnings

For Further Reading:

General and "how-to" article