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Photo Metadata

Originally written by Drew Millikin 2019

There’s a lot more to photos than meets the eye on screen. From the moment a photo is captured and uploaded across devices or shared online, there is a wealth of nested data. Sometimes, a user’s entire life is unknowingly displayed on the web for all to see, simply by virtue of the photos posted. This personally identifiable information (PII) is derived from ‘metadata’.

What is photo metadata?

In layman’s terms, metadata can be defined as the ‘DNA’ or ‘building blocks’ of any file. For photos, it is a package of all the basic (and complex) information that contextualizes and characterizes the image. 

Where does image metadata come from?

Metadata is automatically generated the moment media is captured on any device (i.e. smartphones, digital cameras, scanners).

Where is metadata stored?

Your photo metadata may be stored in 2 locations: 

  • Internally: typically, as soon as an image is captured, metadata is embedded within the image itself. This makes it easier to organize and locate the file among the tens of thousands of others that may be stored within your device. It speeds up your work, helps you track how an image is used, and is essential for copyright protection. Most devices let you control what info is captured via the settings or preferences.
  • Externally: when an image is transferred across devices or online platforms, the metadata may become separated from the image – either displaying it as part of the media or encrypting and hiding the information. In certain applications, such as photo editing software like Adobe Lightroom or DAMs, being able to view metadata can be extremely valuable. Such platforms also allow you to add additional information to the photo for specific uses and search-ability, such as keywords and face tags.

If you plan to upload your media to a social site, it’s important to be wary of what data is already tied to the image, and whether the same data is visible and carried forward when it is made downloadable from the site.

Here is a common example of internal metadata associated with an image that may also be separated and displayed externally on certain applications such as DAMs or photo sharing websites: