Keywording in Aperture

So, finally, I've drawn together my thoughts about keywording in Aperture. My problem with keywording has always been more about "how can I make it easy enough that I will actually do it?", rather than "what should the keywords be?". I'll explain my personal taste for both, though.

I was inspired to look again at keywording because my father recently gave me a photo album assembled during the first few years of my life (roughly 1978-1983). It was more than a little awkward, though, when nobody could remember whether certain baby photos were my sister or myself. We ended up trying to fashion-date them from our parents' clothes, which is always a little hit and miss.

It struck me then that we already rely on a lot of metadata that the cameras write into the image's EXIF header for us. Even having the EXIF date for these images would have helped a lot with the genealogical forensics, but we can do so much better.

In Aperture, you have not only a hierarchical keyword structure, but also a list of arbitrary key-value pairs for every single image you shoot. This is insane power currently, I believe, hampered by what is a fairly weak interface to that power.

Anyway, again, I was looking for a way to lower the barrier to actually doing the keywording and I found it. The feature has existed in Aperture since 1.0 but the way it's presented in the documentation really led me away from considering using it on a regular basis.

The feature is Aperture's Keyword Controls in the control bar:


I always read the documentation on this feature in a way that implied that setting up these Keyword Controls was tantamount to the construction of some kind of grand edifice which should stand for all time. I can't explain why I thought of it that way, but I felt that creating a button set implied a permanence that I could never really get my head around.

It's nonsense, of course. The main thing I'm here to tell you is that these button sets are throwaway items. You can make lots of them. You can have the same keyword in multiple different sets. You can make a set that you use for a day and then delete.

The magic — if that's what it is — is that these button sets give keyboard shortcuts to your keywords. The first nine keywords in any set get the shortcuts Option-1 through Option-9, although the set of keywords can be arbitrarily large (I think). The second insight, that I think few people have noticed, is that you can cycle through these button groups using the shortcuts Comma and Period. This makes for really fast navigation through keyword groups.

A Working Example

I was playing at being James Duncan Davidson for the day and shooting the second day of the recent Scotland on Rails conference (Flickr Set). The day before the conference, I set up an empty project on my MacBook Air, which looked like this:


Everything in this structure is driven by the presence or absence of keywords. I made smart folders for each session, based on the keyword which was the speaker's name. I chose to use the speaker's name, rather than the number of the session or its title because the speaker's name would be more useful as a Flickr tag in the future. Here's the Query HUD for the keynote:


It's a little non-obvious to set these up because Aperture won't show any keywords in the Query HUD until there's an image in the project that bears that keyword. I believe this is new in Aperture 2 since, if I recall correctly, Aperture 1.x would show you every keyword in your database in every HUD. This is a generally good change, because it keeps the size of the HUD manageable. To work around this, I simply imported a dummy image and gave it every keyword that every Smart Album depended on, set up the albums and deleted the image. Once set, the keyword criteria stay set on the Smart Album even when all the images in the project are deleted.

The settings for the "+ No Keywords" album are also new in Aperture 2:


This album is populated with all the images that have no keywords. When I import, this is where all the images start off. The first step is generally to decide whether they're "general" images or specific to a particular session. I'll Cmd-click or Shift-click to select all the general or specific images, apply the appropriate keyword and then deselect the images. In a few clicks, all my images are both keyworded and automatically sorted into their respective Smart Albums. That's power.

There's Always Flickr

The end result of this shoot was to get some good images onto Flickr. To that end, I created two more Smart Albums: one for images on Flickr and one for images that need uploaded. Here are the criteria for the 'Flickr - Uploaded' album:


The "Flickr-To Go" album is similar, except it states that the image should be rated 3* or greater and have an empty "Flickr ID" field. FlickrExport can fill in this field for you when it uploads an image (turn it on in preferences).

Other Ways to Use Keyword Controls

I make, use and delete a lot of keyword button sets. If I'm going on a trip, I'll make a set with the names of places I expect to go. If I'm at an event, I'll make a set with the people I expect to be shooting there. I have one for commonly-photographed family and another for friends. I have one for April's friends. I have one for locations around Greenock and Glasgow.

You Know How to Keyword, Now What Do You Keyword?

You might know how to photograph, and have a great camera, but the enduring question is always what are you going to make pictures of? (Incidentally, that maxim is an incredible challenge. Keep it in mind, next time you get Gear Lust.) Similarly, these techniques are all great, but what are your keywords going to be?

Personally, I like to keep it simple: People, Places, Things and Events. I'm thinking that, in 20 years, I'm going to be much more interested in "who is this person?", "where was this photo taken?", "what is that?" and "why was I there?" than I will be in any particular note of the technique used. I mean, we have the EXIF data, so I can derive almost everything about the technique used from that information. Different kinds of photography will

I keyword places using a hierarchy like /Travel/{UK,Foreign/Continent}/Country{/Region}/City/Sub-location which produces such examples as:

  • /Travel/Foreign/USA/California/San Francisco/Golden Gate Bridge
  • /Travel/Foreign/USA/California/San Francisco/Yerba Buena Gardens
  • /Travel/Foreign/USA/California/Sacramento
  • /Travel/Foreign/Switzerland/Geneva/CERN
  • /Travel/Foreign/Greece/Athens/Acropolis
  • /Travel/UK/Scotland/Argyll/Isle of Mull/Craignure
  • /Travel/UK/Scotland/Glasgow/Byres Road

Names are much simpler: /People/{Family,Friends}/NameOfPerson. Events are keyworded thus: /Events/Event Type/Event Name/Participant Name. I find this keyword structure, along with my previously-blogged project organisation structure, helps me find anything I want to get back to with relative ease.