Tagging with Lightroom

by Wren McMains
(3/11/2012, updated 3/2/2013)

Lightroom doesn't play nice with other programs when it comes to keyword tagging.

[3/2/2013 Update: I said that a year ago when I first wrote this and now I'll add that almost none of the programs I've been using play nice together.
All the programs seem to put keywords in JPG files, but Adobe insists on putting the keywords for RAW files in their XMP sidecar files. Their excuse, we don't want to touch the "proprietary" RAW files ... but then they go and update dates in the RAW files if you tell their programs to. Some years ago I tagged my Nikon RAW files using Nikon Capture. The Adobe products would all see and accept these tags. Windows Explorer would also see the tags as long as you had an appropriate codec installed.
I just saw a demo of Windows Live Photo Gallery (which I'll call WLPG). What I liked best about it was the person demoing it said it kept all the metadata in the individual files (as well as its catalog). Since I knew the codec I was using for my Nikon RAW files allowed me to update several fields (Title, Date Taken, Tags, Ratings, Authors, Subject, and Comments) I thought maybe WLPG was the place I should do my tagging because it also had face recognition.
I tried some tests on my own machine and got all excited. Keyword tags worked just as I hoped. WLPG put them in the RAW files and my other programs could all see them. In addition what I added as a caption in WLPG appeared in the metadata of the NEF files (although twice, in both the Title and Comment fields). I was really excited!
But as I experimented more I found all kinds of issues:
  • If one of my Adobe programs had already created an XMP file, Lightroom (and probably Bridge, but I haven't confirmed that yet) ignores tags and other metadata added to the RAW file even if you re-import, synchronize, etc.
  • If I do face recognition in WLPG the tags are not added to the RAW files.
  • For JPG files, WLPG puts these tags in a field called People.
  • Elements which also does face recognition, but ignores these People tags (I have PSE 10, I haven't confirmed this in PSE 11). I'm guessing Elements only keeps information about people in it's own catalog, and doesn't even put it in JPGs, but I have yet to confirm.
  • Here's someone else that laments the lack of standardization in People tagging: Face Recognition Technology is limited by Standardization! They don't even talk about Elements which we know also does face recognization. At least WLPG can upload images to places like Facebook, Flickr, SkyDrive, etc. and I believe most will recognize the People tags, so WLPG may have the most standardization and at least the information goes along with the JPG.
  • Lightroom (I have version 4.3) doesn't seem to have ever heard of people tags. (I have yet to see what happens if you tag people in Elements and then import the Elements catalog into Lightroom, but I'm guessing it's not going to be nice.)
  • A GPS tag added to a JPG file in Lightroom is stored in the file and is recognized by other programs that deal with GPS tags. These don't seem to be what WLPG knows about when it add a "Geotag". Those seem to be text tags and I'm not sure where they end up.
  • I had forgotten that the codec I'm using for my NEF files is one Nikon released over a year ago (and has recently updated). For many years Nikon didn't have a 64-bit version of their codec and you had to use third party ones which couldn't write into the RAW files.
  • Canon still hasn't released a 64-bit version of their codec, even though most of their customers are now using 64-bit operating systems. I have no idea what their excuse is.
  • Most of the non-Adobe programs ignore XMP files, so they are easy to get separated from the corresponding RAW file. Adobe wants the world to think XMP is a standard, but it's not.
It will sure be nice when everyone plays nice together!
For now I guess I'll only tag my JPG files in Lightroom or Bridge. I really don't want to create XMP files unless I have actually processed the file in ACR or Lightroom.
I'm going to use WLPG to tag my Nikon RAW files. I'm not going to tag my Canon RAW files until Canon (or someone) provides a 64-bit codec.
I'm not sure what to do about People tagging. In the past I've always included the names of the people in the picture as keyword tags, but that's not what is meant by People tagging. People tags added to an image by WLPG are stored in the JPG and include coordinates which puts a box around the person tagged. If you then upload an image (to Facebook, etc.) the person is identified as you hover over them. I'll probably use WLPG because I know the information is put in the JPG and travels with it. I don't know why Elements doesn't recognize it.
-- End of 3/2/2013 Update -- ]

I group my keywords into categories to make them easier to find. Example excerpts from my keyword list:

              Mandarin Duck
              Cattle Egret
              Great Egret
              Reddish Egret
              Snowy Egret

              United Kingdom
                  Miami Zoo

In Bridge I might, for example, tag a JPG image with 3 tags: Mandarin Duck, Miami Zoo, Florida

I can look at this image in other programs, including Windows Explorer, and they all show the 3 tags. Because my "Pictures" folders (which I've renamed "Albums" because this name sorts near the top when folders are sorted alphabetically) are indexed, Windows can instantly find all Mandarin Ducks no matter what folder they are in (or all images with any combination of keywords). I don't need to use a database program.

If I now import this image into Lightroom, Lightroom knows that I've only added three tags, but it also knows what categories these tags were sub-keywords of and adds the 3 keywords to the proper parent categories (even if they didn't exist).

So far, so good. This is exactly what I want.

The problem is that Lightroom now decides to update the metadata for this image (even though nothing was changed in Lightroom, the image was just imported).

In this example, it adds the keywords: Birds, Ducks, Places, and USA (when the image is viewed in other programs, even though Lightroom only reports 3 keywords).

When I look at the image in Bridge (or other programs) it now has 7 tags.


  1. If you're going to use Lightroom you need to eliminate upper-level category names you don't want added as keywords. In the examples above, I will probably make each state and country a top-level keyword (to avoid adding the keywords "Places" and "USA" to most of my images). And I might make Ducks a top level keyword; I might leave Egrets under Birds, but I might remove the word "Egret" from all the sub-keywords under Egrets.
  2. If you already have established a keyword list in Bridge, I recommend you export it from Bridge and import it into Lightroom before starting to use Lightroom.
  3. I recommend immediately checking the "Automatically write changes into XMP" under the Metadata tab of Catalog Settings every time you create a new catalog. If you don't Lightroom won't update keywords in your image files, even JPG files. This is very important if you use programs other than Lightroom. It's not as important if you only access Photoshop from Lightroom and use the "Export" command in Lightroom to create EVERY copy of an image you access outside of Lightroom ... but that's not the way I work.
  4. If you're like I am, and use various programs to work on your images, be sure to use "Synchronize Folders..." under Libraries when you get back to Lightroom.

Failure to do so might get you a message like this: "The metadata for this photo has been changed by both Lightroom and another application. Should Lightroom import settings from disk or overwrite disk settings with those from the catalog?" and you're given a choice of which data to use, but by then you've probably forgotten what the other change was.

Other times you might see an icon like this in the top right corner of a thumbnail shown in the grid or filmstrip:


This indicates another program has changed the metadata, but sure to tell Lightroom to synchronize the folder (or read the metadata from the file).

By not synchronizing a few times I've then gotten an error message that says something like "error writing metadata to the file" ... when this happened I couldn't find any solution other than deleting the file (which reminds us how important backup copies are). Note: This error only occurred using Lightroom 4, everything else I've reported above applies to both Lightroom 3 and 4.

In the past I've written about why I like programs that store keywords in RAW files. Lightroom doesn't, it still stores keywords in an XMP sidecar file. After all the problems I've had with keywords that Lightroom made a complete mess of in JPGs, maybe it's just as well it doesn't mess with the RAW files. In the end I had use Lightroom to completely remove all keyword tags from about 10,000 JPG images and then re-tag using Bridge. (This was the only way I could remove all the extra tags and levels ... for example, most of my images reported Florida as being a sub-keyword of Florida. This happened when Lightroom put the Florida keyword someplace other than the USA and I tried to fix it by having Lightroom move those tags under the USA, but since there was already a Florida, it made it a sub-keyword and I never could fix the mess.)

Bottom line: Guess I'll reorganize my keyword list (removing category names I don't want included as keywords) and go ahead and try using Lightroom for cataloging (since I've already paid for version 3 and the cost of the version 4 upgrade isn't bad). Personally I still like the ACR interface in Photoshop CS (maybe just because I'm use to it), but I need to wait for CS 6 to get all the features Lightroom has now.

A VERY NEAT feature which I really like in version 4 is Map ... even if your camera doesn't record GPS info when you take pictures, this feature lets you Geo-Tag your images. You can then Map your images and locate images that were taken nearby. So far it seems that Lightroom plays nice with other programs when it comes to geo-tags. If I'm viewing an image in FastStone which I've geo-tagged in Lightroom, I can click on the GPS icon and FastStone uses Google Earth to zoom right to the location I specified as the geo-tag.

Suggested next choices: Site Map