The Future of Metadata

21 August 2013

When you take a photograph with a digital camera, the camera inserts information about itself into the image file. This is called metadata and will usually note the shot parameters such as ISO, f-stop, shutter timing, lens focal length and whether flash is used. This is often referred to as the Exif metadata and was devised by Japanese camera manufacturers in 1995 and even includes a thumbnail copy of the image itself. 

Nowadays much more than Exif can be found in image metadata and one important item is the creator data. This should record who took the photograph so that a complete set of metadata can tell us the who, how, where and when of an image. Most DSLRs now allow the photographer to add identification to all images taken, and this should be an option for every camera, and GPS allows a record of the exact location. 

The proliferation of images on the web, especially amateur ones, is highlighting the need to identify photographs robustly and reliably. Registering a copyright is not required by law (by international convention) but experience in other areas of creativity suggest it is potentially useful. However, not only does photography generate more copyrights than pretty well any other creative activity but it is more difficult (if not still impossible) to search electronically for an image. 

One future scenario might be that every camera will have the option to automatically register the photographs it takes with a central database which will record the basic metadata for the image, including a thumbnail. This will become technically possible once mobile communications have advanced such that doing so is no more difficult or time-consuming than writing the image to the memory card. A camera out-of-range, such as underground, would upload its data once it can communicate again. 

The privacy implications for this are enormous, but is it an inevitable result of our interconnected world? What do you think?

Andy Finney is an RPS member and also writes for