How good is your photo keywording?


Keywording is essential when licensing your photos. If your images don’t have the right keywords, people won’t find them in search, so are far less likely to buy them. That’s why they’re called keywords, not meh-words.

So what are good and bad keywords to use? How much keywording is enough for a photo?

In this article, we’ll look at some examples across a variety of images to shine a light on the most important keyword categories, and help you get your images sold.

People keywords

People tags are, unsurprisingly, among the most highly-searched. All images should have at least one people tag—even empty Alaskan landscapes (which should be tagged “no people”, in case you’re wondering).

For images that actually show distinguishable people, you should include information on the number of people, ethnicity, age, and gender. If you’re uploading images for Licensing, don’t forget to include a model release with ethnicity, age, and gender information.


The keywording on this photo is a bit meagre. We could flesh it out as follows:

  • People: One person, man, 20s, [specify ethnicity], handsome, serious, facial hair
  • Location: Entertainment District, Toronto, Canada
  • Setting: indoors, studio shot
  • Technical aspects: color image, head and shoulders, portrait, black background, looking at camera, horizontal image, copy space, side lit
  • Objects and colours: shirt, brown

Hate to repeat myself, but don’t forget the model release!


This photo was uploaded by me, the keywords and metadata person. I added no tags at all, which is ironic and shameful. To be fair, though, I wasn’t thinking of selling it.

I would recommend (to myself) adding the following tags:

  • People: Irish ethnicity, two people, man, child, 5 year old, 30s, family, red hair, brown hair
  • Location: Irish National War Memorial Gardens, Dublin, Ireland
  • Setting: outdoors
  • Technical aspects: color image, square image
  • Nature: trees, summer
  • Objects and colours: monument, jacket, jeans, green, red, grey
  • Themes: humor, teasing, cute, innocence

One advantage is that I know the people in this image, so if the picture were good enough to sell, I would have no problem getting model releases stating age, gender, and ethnicity.

Model releases are a prerequisite if you want to sell images with clearly-identifiable people in them. You may think you know someone’s ethnicity, age or gender, but if you’re thinking of licensing the image, you can’t just guess. It has to be in the signed model release(s). This is particularly important when it comes to ethnicity.

Location keywords

People need to know where an image was taken. It’s pretty simple, but people do forget! I would also recommend that you do not add more than one location—or for that matter, any inapplicable tags. (They really mess up search. Please don’t mess up search.)


So are the location tags up to scratch? Well, ‘Iceland’ is there, and I guess most people will usually search that rather than try to spell other places on the island. Nonetheless, this image was taken at Reynisfjara beach, so the tag should be added. Especially if the image were to be licensed, I would recommend adding the following tags:

  • People: no people
  • Location: Reynisfjara beach, Iceland
  • Setting: outdoors
  • Technical aspects: copy space, selective focus, black and white
  • Nature: landscape, scenics, mist, sea stack, sea, rocks, coast, seascape, beach, water.
  • Themes: beauty in nature

‘Copy space’ is a useful keyword for advertising designers, or anyone looking to overlay text on the image.


This photo is from Canada, our second most popular photo location after Iceland (I just made that up but it’s not that far from the truth). It has some great keywords: Hamilton, city, graffiti, street, downtown, building, rabbit, outdoors, sky.

Problem is, Hamilton is the name of loads of different places (Wikipedia lists 40 or so). So it would be helpful to add the tag ‘Ontario’ in the format ‘Hamilton – Ontario’. Here, ‘… – Ontario’ is what keywording types call a disambiguator.

For Licensing, the following tags would be good:

  • People: Incidental people [you can just see them if you look closely]
  • Location: Hamilton – Ontario, Ontario, Canada
  • Setting: outdoors
  • Technical aspects: color image, horizontal image
  • Nature: clear sky, sky
  • Objects and colours: building, brick, graffiti, drawing, rabbit, orange color, blue
  • Themes: youth culture, downtown

Notice the tag ‘orange color’ rather than just ‘orange’? This is because ‘orange’ could also refer to the fruit.

Image color and image orientation

Keywords like “color image”, “black and white”, “horizontal image”, and “vertical image” are so basic that they are easy to miss when you’re tagging your image. Thing is, they are important and highly valued by the image libraries that may acquire your photo.


Here are the image’s existing keywords: TTC, Toronto, subway, train, station, Bathurst, movement, moving, platform, wall, tiles, blur, people, waiting, window.

Not bad! But ‘Bathurst’ also refers to several places, so ‘Bathurst station’ would be better; ‘blurred motion’ is more specific than ‘blur’. TTC can also mean lots of different things, so ‘Toronto Transit Commission’ would be better. Here is how full keywording would look:

  • People: small group of people, man, woman, adult
  • Location: Canada, Toronto, Bathurst station
  • Technical aspects: color image, horizontal image, blurred motion
  • Objects and colours: train, subway, platform, window, tiles, wall, black color, white color, text
  • Themes: waiting, commuting

Animals and plants example:

The existing tags on this image are pretty minimal (Ecuador, small, tiger, oncilla), although ‘oncilla’ is a nice, unambiguous one. The keyword ‘tiger’ isn’t helpful here since it generally refers to a completely different animal.

Recommended keywords:

  • People: No people
  • Location: Ecuador, Amazon rainforest, [specific location in Ecuador]
  • Setting: outdoors
  • Technical aspects: color image, horizontal image
  • Nature: oncilla, Leopardus tigrinus, feline, epiphyte, moss, leaf, tree
  • Objects and colours: green color, brown
  • Themes: animals in the wild, animals hunting, nature, biodiversity

Note the rather specific keywords ‘animals in the wild’ and ‘animals hunting’. These help distinguish clearly from domestic animals and from images depicting humans hunting animals.

Adding the scientific name of an animal or other lifeform is always helpful, as the scientific name (in this case Leopardus tigrinus) is rarely ambiguous and can therefore be safely translated across languages.

Objects and devices example:

This image does have the tags ‘car’, ‘highway’ and ‘road’, but the tagging fails to catch some of the prominent objects: rearview mirror, electricity pylon. Location is also missing, which is a keywording no-no. There is also no information about technical aspects such as lens flare.

Recommended keywords:

  • People: No people
  • Location: [Add specific location plus country]
  • Setting: outdoors
  • Technical aspects: color image, horizontal image, reflection, lens flare, blurred motion
  • Nature: sky, sunset, sun, cloud
  • Objects and colours: road verge, electricity pylon, rearview mirror, car, highway, road, yellow, red, black color
  • Themes: motion, travel, on the road

Some kind of filter appears to have been applied, so I would also add this information to the ‘technical aspects’ tags.

Food and drink example:

The existing tags ‘delicious’, ‘tasty’, ‘gourmet’ are subjective, which is OK. But we are missing keywords on the actual foods and utensils, as well as people, location, setting and technical aspects.

Recommended keywords:

  • People: no people
  • Location: [Add specific location plus country]
  • Setting: indoors
  • Technical aspects: color image, horizontal image, close-up, studio shot
  • Objects and colours: plate, spoon, white color, orange color, green color, yellow
  • Food and drink: food, carrot, cucumber, bell pepper, hummus, parsley, vegetable, vegetarian
  • Themes: healthy eating

The specific tag ‘healthy eating’ helps distinguish from ‘healthy living’, or healthy-looking bodies and the like.

Landscape keywords

I think it’s fair to say we have more than a few excellent landscape photos at 500px, so perhaps I should give some keywording tips for this category.


The location keywords are pretty good on this photo, although ‘Victoria’ is ambiguous and could be helpfully replaced by ‘Greater Victoria’. ‘Canada’ might also be a useful addition. ‘Black and white’ is great, but apart from ‘snow’, natural objects such as ‘tree’ and ‘lake’ are not mentioned—they are essential for nature and landscape images.

Recommended keywords:

  • People: One person
  • Location: Langford lake, Vancouver Island, Greater Victoria, Canada
  • Setting: outdoors
  • Technical aspects: black and white, horizontal image
  • Nature, objects and colors: landscape, scenics, winter, snow, tree, deciduous, lake, mist
  • Themes: solitude, contemplation, beauty in nature

Note the rather specific tag ‘beauty in nature’, which helps distinguish from images of ‘beautiful people’.

The individual keywords ‘black color’ and ‘white color’ would be unhelpful here, since the keyword ‘black and white’ is included.

Business keywords example:

If you want your images to sell, you could do worse than producing some nice, non-cheesy business shots. In this case, the keyword ‘media’ is very ambiguous and could be replaced with tags like ‘advertising’, ‘digital media’ and so on.

Recommended keywords:

  • People: one person, adult, 20s, woman, [ethnicity], blonde hair, long hair, smiling, attractive
  • Location: Toronto, Canada
  • Setting: indoors, office
  • Technical aspects: color image, vertical image, portrait, waist up, three quarter front view, low angle view
  • Objects and colours: window, wall, brick, jacket, yellow, brown
  • Business: business, businesswoman

Let’s not forget the model release, too. A property release may not be necessary in this case, as the property is not clearly identifiable—although it does look like 500px’s office! Also take care not to include any visible brands in business shots.

As you can see, a lot of the essential keywords fall into a few categories. When uploading images to Licensing, think about keywords for people, locations, setting, technical aspects, objects, and colors. If you do this, your images are more likely to sell—simple as that!


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