With the move to a digital world, photography follows suit. Born-digital photography is becoming increasingly popular and prevalent. The term “born-digital” is just as it sounds. It means the files themselves were created and exist only in digital form, taken by a digital camera. There are no original copies of the photographs in analog–or physical–form.
The Still Picture Branch at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) accessions new photographic records from various Government agencies every year. With NARA’s goal to transition to electronic records, born-digital photography will soon be the most widely accessioned material in the Still Picture Branch.
While the transition to a digital copy may be daunting, there are many positives to born-digital photography. A clear positive for digital copies is that physical space is no longer the largest obstacle for housing records, however, one of the lesser-thought of positives is embedded metadata. Similar to a hand-written caption on the back of a photographic print, embedded metadata can provide identifying information found within the digital file.
There are three specific types of embedded metadata that are relevant for a born-digital photograph. First, there is EXIF Data (Exchangeable Image File Format), which is automatically generated in an image file by the camera that captured the photo, and usually includes technical data such as aperture, shutter speed, pixel dimensions, or date taken. Next is XMP Data (Extensible Metadata Platform) that encompasses the technical data created by an Adobe System (Photoshop, Bridge, Acrobat, etc.) to standardize the metadata as a whole. Finally, IPTC Data (International Press Telecommunications Council) is some of the most useful metadata because it includes information such as the creator’s information, copyright information, descriptions or captions, and more. It’s important to note, however, that not every single born-digital photograph will include all or any of the above metadata types.
First and foremost, let’s discuss how to find embedded metadata in a file. The metadata itself will not be seen in the image, however, it can be found in the file’s information, or properties. Accessing each file’s information is different on a PC or Mac, which we will outline below. However, the examples within this post display the metadata available via programs native to each operating system. In most cases, more metadata can be viewed using professional imaging software.
Accessing File Metadata on a PC
Select the file you would like to review in “File Explorer.”.
Right click the file name and select “Properties.”
A box will pop up that includes various information about the file, and you should select the tab labeled “Details.”
In the “Details” tab, you will find all the relevant embedded metadata. Please note that not every field will be included. Some files may only include information such as file size or resolution, however, others could include detailed information such as title, authors, copyright, etc.
Accessing File Metadata on a Mac
Select the file you would like to review in “Finder.”
After highlighting the file, press “Command + I.” OR Right click (Control + Click) and select “Get Info.” OR Highlight the file and navigate to the top bar and select “File,” then “Get Info.”
In the new window you can view the different tabs at the top with all the relevant metadata.
Now, let’s review metadata for born-digital photographs found on our online catalog within the holdings of the Still Picture Branch. From the metadata, we can re-trace our steps to the catalog. Ultimately we can use this information to locate where the photo is held and if there is any other identifying information in the catalog, that may not be in the metadata.
First, we see a photograph of a blue bird on a tree. If we look at the metadata, the title is listed as “Scrub Jay, Western,” which tells us the type of bird we see. In addition, in the tags is the name “Karney,” which is the photographer. Lastly, we can see the photo is dated as taken on March 12, 2004 at 4:27pm. If we search our online catalog for “Scrub Jay, Western,” we will come across this specific image, as well as other related photos.
Next, we find a photograph of what looks like an official meeting at a conference table. By just looking at the photograph, we do not know who is depicted or what is being discussed. However, upon inspecting the embedded metadata, we learn much more about the photograph. In the “tags” we see a variety of related information: “Dr. Bae – Young Lee; Seoul. Korea; Shinae Chun; Women’s Bureau; meets with; of Ewha Womans University; forum; wb;.” From this information and the included date, we can gather this was a meeting at the Women’s Bureau on May 6, 2008 with the director Shinae Chun and Dr. Lee Bae-Young, the president of Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea. While we can note that Dr. Lee Bae-Young’s name is mislabeled in the metadata, if we search the catalog for “Dr Bae-Young Lee” we see one file unit with numerous photographs of this specific meeting.
Another photograph to review is an image of a child petting a dog. From the photo alone, we cannot know the full context of what is depicted. In the metadata the full title reads “The Moore area was struck by a F5 tornado on May 20, 2013. Andrea Booher/FEMA.” While this does not give us exact information about this specific photograph, we can gather it has to do with a tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma in 2013 and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) response. If we search “Moore area” within Record Group 311: Records of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the holdings of the Still Picture Branch, we find numerous photographs of the recovery effort, including this photograph captioned as “Moore, Okla., June 7, 2013 — Zierra Bennet pets a therapy dog (Skyler) in the Red Cross Center in West Moore.”
While some images may be easy to identify by some, it helps to review the metadata to learn more. This photograph shows the National Archives and Records Administration building in College Park, Maryland. For NARA, the most recognizable building may be the location in downtown Washington, D.C. However, the metadata for this photograph indicates in the Title field this is “Archives II, early 2001.” The Archives building in College Park is commonly referred to as “Archives II,” or even “A2,” so the metadata helps identify the building, even if you haven’t seen it before. Instead of using “II” to search, if we search “Archives 2 early 2001” in the catalog, we find the exact photograph.
Switching gears, the next photograph shows a statue with the words “What is Past is Prologue.” The Title in the metadata reads “A1 Building Details,” which indicates this statue is in front of Archives “1” or the National Archives building in downtown Washington, D.C. If we search “Archives 1 Building Details,” we find a file unit with numerous photographs, including the photograph of the “Future” statue. To read more about the statues at the National Archives building downtown, see our blog post titled The National Archives’ larger-than-life Statues.
These are just some of the few examples of born digital photography and their associated metadata. By reviewing and critically analyzing the associated metadata, we can trace our steps back to where the photograph originated.
The photographs included in this post have no known copyright restrictions. If you have any questions about the images in this post or the holdings of the Still Picture Branch, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PUBLICATION OF PHOTOGRAPHS FURNISHED BY THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES STILL PICTURE BRANCH-RRSS
Generally, copies of photographic records held by the National Archives may be published without special permission or additional fees. The National Archives does not grant exclusive or non-exclusive publication privileges. Copies of Federal records, as part of the public domain, are equally available to all. A small percentage of photographs in our holdings are or may be subject to copyright restrictions. The National Archives does not confirm the copyright status of photographs but will provide any information known about said status. It is the user’s responsibility to obtain all necessary clearances. Any use of these items is made at the researcher’s or purchaser’s own risk.
Proper credit lines are encouraged in the interest of good documentation. They also help inform the public about government photographic resources that are available.
*Because so many of our requests for information cite credits and captions that appear in published works, the inclusion of a photo number in hard copy and electronic publications is of great assistance to both us and the public.
Examples of preferred credit lines are as follows:
- National Archives photo no. 210-G-C241
- Credit National Archives (photo no. 83-G-41368)
- Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 83-G-41430
- National Archives (210-G-A14)
If using a large number of our images, the National Archives will appreciate receiving copies of publications that contain our photographs. Such copies can be sent to the Still Picture Branch or the Library, National Archives and Records Administration.
One thought on “Visual Cues and Clues: Born-Digital Photographs and their Metadata”
That’s amazing how much information is available to us, that most people don’t even know. Thanks for posting.
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