Photo Annotation: Scanfest Follow-Up

As a follow up to the most recent Scanfest I’d like to lay out in more detail some of the options for photo annotation in particular. No matter what I’ve said about annotation in the past, (and I’ve said a lot) it’s better you read from the present backwards.

It’s been a learning process for me too and some things I’ve tried in the past, and might have even liked at the time, I wouldn’t go back to.

Photo Annotation

IPTC is a standard for annotating photographs. Sometimes ‘standard’ isn’t so standard, a lesson I’ve learned recently from Phil Harvey of ExifTool. Phil’s the master but his ExifTool is an advanced place to start.

For my purposes, annotation generally covers captions, keywords, cities, sub-locations, states/provinces, countries, sources and copyrights. Most of us know the pain of inheriting unidentified photographs. I’m trying to leave a different kind of legacy.

MediaDex has been defunct since 2008. Thankfully, it’s no longer available. It’s become Canto Single User. I had a trial of it briefly. It was as user-unfriendly as MediaDex was although it may have developed since then. Based on what I know about it, I don’t recommend it.

Photo Mechanic is my IPTC and GPS software of choice. It’s been developed slowly and carefully over a long period of time. I’ve never had a problem with it. It’s straight-forward for simpler tasks with many advanced options. It has its own busy user-forum. I think it’s great and I highly recommend it. A 30-day free trial is available.

IDimager is one I’m interested in trying. From what I’ve seen it’s in a class with Photo Mechanic, or may be even a step beyond. A 30-day free trial is also available. (Update: I now have a trial on my computer. You’ll probably want to stay away from this. The GUI is utter chaos and you won’t know if you’re coming or going. Photo Mechanic is still the choice.)

Both of the above also include GPS annotation, which is not IPTC. It’s part of the EXIF info.

There’s a cost involved but once you see the value in detailing your photos you’ll want to get it right. Consider this an essential tool in your family history arsenal of tools.

XnView is a good free option. It can annotate TIFFs as well as JPGs which puts it miles ahead of other free options which, generally, only work on JPGs. XnView is also a photo browser and light editor and many other things. The metadata always syncs perfectly with Photo Mechanic which favors confidence. It reads GPS by sending you to a list of maps at Wikipedia but it doesn’t write it. It has a few problems with field-lengths being too short and truncating data. It’s not my favorite for writing IPTC but it will get your feet wet. And it’s an amazingly versatile program. It would also make a good IPTC-viewer for the people you send your photos to.

If you’re using Picasa I’d highly recommend you stop and switch to XnView. I’ve written several times about the problems with Picasa. It gets updated occasionally so my complaints may be out-of-date. It has many other problems I haven’t even touched on yet because it gets so technical I hardly understand it myself. I will not have it on my main computer so the only way I can keep track is to bring out my old laptop occasionally to have a look. But, I’m not that interested; I consider it irrelevant.

Definitely get GeoSetter. This is new to me and also free and excellent for GPS, IPTC and general viewing of your metadata. It’s quickly becoming the one I use most often for GPS. The IPTC is based on Phil Harvey’s ExifTool so you get all Phil’s knowledge and brilliance in a user-friendly package.

In some software you’ll see options for tagging that have nothing to do with IPTC. It’s proprietary to the software. Best to avoid that; it’s a waste of your time.

Windows Live Photo Gallery (used on Vista and Windows 7) does some lightweight IPTC; captions & keywords. The September update is a train-wreck with the addition of a GPS option. Microsoft is working on a fix but this problem is just the tip of the iceberg. Stay far away.

Windows products, in general, and metadata are problematic across the board. I’ve uninstalled the entirety of Windows Live Essentials from my computer just to be on the safe side although massive damage has already been done. As I repair it there’s no point having the same scenario repeat behind my back. Chronic corruption of metadata goes back for years, according to Phil Harvey.

Adobe Photoshop Elements (up to version 8 which I know about) ‘does metadata’ in a manner of speaking, and the data is legit, but the Organizer is very badly laid out, chronically unstable and difficult to handle. The Yahoo mapping feature is next to useless. I use the Editor all the time but the Organizer really doesn’t have anything worth recommending. It hasn’t improved in any meaningful way since it was first brought out in Elements version 3. I don’t know about the higher-end Adobe products.

If you’d rather have an editor/annotator combo, ACDSee Pro is a definite contender. I prefer Adobe Elements as an editor because of the healing brush that’s so useful on old scratched up photos. But ACDSee Pro is way better as a file-browser, organizer and IPTC-er. It also has excellent PDF printing options where you can lay out your photos and metadata as you please. It reads GPS but doesn’t write it as there’s no integrated mapping. It’s nice grown-up software and still totally user-friendly.

One thing I’ve learned from experience is that the best time to annotate your photos is the minute they reach your computer. If you do it then, all the metadata will be preserved as you make copies for various projects later on. Also, you’ll remember things like ‘source’ when they’re new to you. Later, chances are you won’t.


If you’re scanning your photos as JPGs please stop doing that. JPG is a compressed format which means it squeezes about 90% of the quality (i.e. clarity) out of your original photos. TIFF is the way to go. Make a copy of your original TIFF scan and use that for editing. Then make a JPG or PNG copy if you want to use it for a blog post or emailing or other uploading to the Internet.

If you’ve already scanned your photos as JPGs, understandably it could be difficult to start over. At this point, it’s way better than nothing. If you feel a need to edit a JPG, it would be better to re-save it as a TIFF before you make any changes. It will prevent the photo from further damage. JPGs deteriorate every time you re-save; uncompressed TIFFs do not. TIFFs have various compression options. Either choose ‘None’ or ‘LZW’. LZW is a lose-less compression and the photos can be reconstituted to full size by re-saving with No Compression.

You might as well scan large. There’s two issues here. The resolution and the pixel-dimensions.

If you think you might ever want to reprint a photo, you can scan at 600 or even 1200 dpi. But, if the printer can only print at 200-300 dpi (commonly) your efforts are for naught. Otherwise 300 dpi is plenty since your computer monitor can only see about 96 dpi anyway. 300 dpi is considered standard photo scanning resolution. You can’t get finer detail out of a photo than what’s already there.

Pixels, as you view them on a computer screen, and the pixels required to print a photo are not the same thing. As an example of scanning ‘large’, the largest scan I have is about 4700 x 6400 pixels, scanned at 300 dpi. If I had a monitor large enough to view that it would be about 4 x 6 feet. It would print out at about 15″ x 21″.  I like this picture so much I considered wallpapering my kitchen with it. In a moment of madness. Obviously, 15″ x 21″ is larger than most people would want to print most pictures. But just to give you an idea.

I scan most things in the range of 2,000-3,000 pixels wide to make sure they more than fill my monitor which is presently 1280 x1024.

Obviously, this is not the be-all and end-all on this topic, just a short version of where I’ve come to.

3 thoughts on “Photo Annotation: Scanfest Follow-Up

  1. Diana Ritchie

    Thanks so much for this summary! I really was trying to pay attention during Scanfest – but oddly enough I was also scanning 😉 I appreciate you taking the time to summarize it all so nicely here.


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