It's a boon that digital photos can incorporate textual information, leaving behind some film-era complications, such as having to separately record a photo's caption or copyright status.
But there are some problems handling this so-called metadata, and now Canon, Adobe Systems, Apple, Microsoft, Sony, and Nokia have banded together to solve some of them.
The companies have formed the Metatdata Working Group and released a first set of guidelines that attempts to standardize some issues that can crop up as metadata travels from cameras to computers, software, and Web sites. On Wednesday, the group announced its work at the Photokina camera show in Germany.
"Whether you're a soccer mom uploading photos to a Kodak gallery, or a pro selling images on Getty, these are issues everybody deals with," said Josh Weisberg, Microsoft's director of digital imaging evangelism and the metadata group's chairman and founder.
For example, when moving a photo from one application to another, a vertically orientated photo can get rotated 90 degrees into a landscape orientation, or captions and descriptive keywords can get lost. Part of the problem is that there are multiple ways to record metadata, including EXIF (Exchangeable Image File Format), IPTC (International Press Telecommunications Council), and Adobe's XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform).
The working group has produced guidelines to try to bring common practices to metadata areas including keywords, description, creator, star rating, orientation, and location, Weisberg said. The group dealt with three file formats: TIFF, JPEG, and Adobe Photoshop's PSD.
The Metadata Working Group's guidelines are a free download from the Web site, and anyone is free to implement them without worrying about infringing any of the members' intellectual property, Weisberg said.
Being guidelines, others are free to handle metadata they way they want, but the collective clout of the working group members--the two major operating system makers, the top camera maker, and the top image-editing software maker--mean it's likely others will follow suit.
Up next: Handling raw images
There's more work to be done, though.
The working group got started on the current guidelines a year ago. Now, it's moving on to the next set of issues. "With the first version, we began with consumer scenarios. We're formulating a plan for a second version. It's our intent to address professional scenarios," Weisberg said.
One big issue is handling the profusion of raw file formats produced by higher-end cameras and commonly used by professionals and advanced amateurs. These formats are generally proprietary, so it's hard to handle their metadata. Windows does so by relying on software supplied by camera makers, but Adobe and Apple do their own reverse-engineering work to handle the metadata. So for example, unless a Windows Vista user has downloaded the appropriate support, the operating system's file browser software can't report when a raw photo was taken, even though that metadata is stored in the photo file.
"It is a goal to try to establish guidelines for where and how metadata is stored in raw formats," Weisberg said.
Another possible issue is handling metadata for photo licensing information, which could bring some rights management order to the today's image copying free-for-all, but that's tricky. "We're in the phase of capturing the problem," Weisberg said. "There are no standards in the industry for licensing images that are widely adhered to."