Photographs as specimens: Adding value.

A well-labelled specimen.

When entomologists (or collectors in any other branch of zoology) collect a specimen or specimens, they know that they will have little value until they properly labelled. Labelling with the date and location are the minimum required, followed by the name of the collector, with ID added when determined. Each specimen will have this information entered on small labels that are pinned with the insect. The key understanding with any label is that the information given must be clear and concise to everyone, now and in the future. Personal abbreviations and codes that only the collector understands should be avoided.

On social media and in conversations with entomologists, I have come across the complaint that photographers are not adding enough information when submitting an image. Besides just mentioning where and when the photograph was taken, is there a way that photographers can more permanently attach this information to a photograph? Photographers who regularly document insects or spiders and who also consider themselves naturalists would do well to take the lead from entomologists by adding ‘collection’ information to images to increase their value as a possible source of data for science. What follows is my attempt to create a methodology for image file labelling and metadata use for nature photographers. Because I use Adobe Lightroom as my primary image organiser, and because it is the most popular image processing software available, I will use it to illustrate my points. Other RAW image processors should have similar attributes.

(Please add your suggestions to the comment section, especially if you see any problem with what I’m proposing)

Why is specimen labelling important?
The Label Data Standards for Terrestrial Arthropods by the Biological Survey of Canada gives a good overview:

“The label data associated with specimens are a permanent record of research that is as important as the specimen itself. The data may have to serve multiple functions for multiple users over a long time period; different studies and researchers require different information. Systematic revisions often use label data to establish the identity of examined specimens, to plot general distribution maps or to determine activity periods of a species. Ecological studies require more detailed information on habitats or host species. Ecological monitoring, conservation and management planning require precise georeferenced locality data to determine differences in species composition from site to site and to incorporate specimens into Geographic Information Systems for further analysis.”

Entomologists not only collect basic information for labelling, they may also collect extra information such as habitat, behaviour and weather conditions at the time of capture, and these are recorded in field notes.

“Field notes are significant sources of information related to scientific discovery… For example, field diary entries may describe habitats, meteorological events, personal observations, and emotional declarations. These additional data allow us to assess the intrinsic value of specimens, as well as use information in new ways: reconstructing historical ecologies, clarifying specimen’s provenance, and re-discovering localities.”  (from the Smithsonian Fieldbook Project)

Field notes are traditionally written in notebooks, but today they may initially be keyed into or audio-recorded in an app on a mobile device.

Image labelling is also helpful for the photographer by making each image easily identifiable and searchable. Those who share images with the scientific community can do much to increase the value of their images by providing proper labelling for each image when it is displayed, published or shared. There are a few ways to do this, the most valuable would be by supplementing the existing metadata that is attached to all digital images, but basic information can be included in the image file name, and using both methods would be the best approach.

What about Subject Identification?
For many macro photographers, identifying the subject in a photograph can be the first obstacle to deal with. How best to begin identifying your specimen is a broad subject with many avenues and will be left for a future article, however, in your initial labelling, identify the subject only as far as you are able to do with confidence and then update the file name when a more accurate ID has been found.

Using the image file name as a label. 
File names should be descriptive and consistent. The essential rules for searchability in file names are that words are delimited (separated) by dashes (not spaces or underscores) or capital letters and that the date follows the year-month-day (YYYY-MM-DD e.g. 2017-02-05 or just 20170205). In order to keep elements of the file name searchable, including for SEO purposes, avoid the use of all non-alphanumeric characters except the dash (-). In order to organise images consecutively, lead with the date then add the subject, location and photographer. For example, a tiger beetle photographed at the Opal Natural Area on the 15 June 2016 would have the label: 20160615-CicindelaLongilabrus-OpalNatAreaAlberta-ThysseA. The best time to add the image file name is when importing from the camera to the computer. The simplest way to do this is by creating a  customised renaming preset in Lightroom:

In the Import window, create a preset by going to File Renaming on the right side, select Rename Files, go the Template drop-down menu and select Edit, and this window should pop-up:

Add the elements you would like to include with each specimen’s file name, and then click Done. Name and save the new preset

You will now see those options for file renaming in the File Renaming panel.

If you are not using Lightroom to import images, there is software such as Bulk Rename Utility that will help rename photographs.

However, searching file names is not Lightroom’s strength. If you wish to search for specific words or dates in file names, you can use a free program such as Everything . (Be aware that if you use Lightroom as your image organising software, be sure not to make any changes to the image or image file name outside of Lightroom itself, or you will risk Lightroom marking the image as missing.)

Using image metadata to record subject data.
The great boon for the digital photographer is that much of the information has already been gathered by the camera when the photograph was taken. This information and more can be carried in the image metadata, which, for our purposes, consists of two types, Exif and XMP.

EXIF--Exchangeable Image File Format–is the technical data that is automatically attached to the image by the camera, at the moment the image was captured. Exif data can include date, time, the GPS location, the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO as well as the lens used, the focal length (even on variable zoom lenses), the distance to the subject, flash use, white balance, and colour space.

XMP (IPTC)–the Extensible Metadata Platform–is a flexible, cross-platform method to add data to an image. The great benefit is that it is customisable, allowing you to add data which is then accessible to anyone using the correct software. With RAW photographs, XMP data is attached to the image in a side-car file but when sharing it is best to embed the data with the image by saving as DNG or exporting in TIFF or JPEG format.

NB. Because Lightroom is preset to save these metadata changes only to the catalogue, it is important that Lightroom also write your changes to XMP in case the catalogue becomes damaged or for when you share RAW files. In Lightroom go to the Edit menu, select Catalogue settings, click the Metadata tab and make sure that Automatically write changes to XMP is selected.

Adding the collector’s data in Adobe Lightroom.
The first step is building your own copyright and contact information preset to include with every image you import. In the Library module, go to Metadata on the right side. Open the Preset drop-down menu and select Edit.

Fill out any information that you would like to include with all of your own imported images. That should include at least your name and an email address. Name the preset and click Done. When you are importing, select this preset to apply to your images. The import panel is also a good point to add Keywords that are universally applicable to all the images in the current import. When you have finalised your keywords choices, click Import to add your settings to each image in the current batch.

Adding Field Note data to individual images.
Once imported, the Library module allows for metadata in an image to be further expanded, first by adding further refined keywords and by utilising other IPTC fields. I suggest using the Title field to repeat the same basic information as suggested for the file name (i.e.  20160615-CicindelaLongilabrus-OpalNatAreaAlberta-ThysseA), using the Caption field for a more readable version and the User Comment area for field notes. Field note data can include habitat, weather conditions, plant and animal interactions, behaviour, population, and phenological information followed by who or how the ID was determined. The GPS info will be in place if your camera is so equipped, but if not use your cell phone or a hand-held GPS to record locations, or get a best possible latitude and longitude reading from Google Earth later. The IPTC Image subset can also be used to elaborate on the location.

The Perils of Image Metadata
Not all images sharing situations (for instance, when sharing on Facebook) require a full set of metadata. There may be times when the location of a threatened species or habitat should not be generally known, in which case it may be best to strip out the precise location metadata before sharing.

Exporting metadata
Lightroom does not yet have a method of exporting the metadata in a list view. In order to see the metadata in a spreadsheet layout like Microsoft Excel, you will need a plugin such as ListView, available at the Photographer’s Toolbox.

At first glance, the suggestions I have made may seem excessive, but they are actually not very time-consuming once the presets are made and as you gain experience with the method. The metadata information for your subjects will now be available for anyone to view in their own software. I will begin using this process myself this year, and I will provide some updates along the way. There are advantages to collecting and adding this data to your images. Besides having well-organized and searchable images, you may be able to contribute to science by adding information on known species. Photographer-naturalists may even be in the position of being able to discover new species: while a voucher specimen is still best, the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature allows for the description of new species without a preserved type specimen. (Although there are some that disagree!)

Thanks to Felix Sperling for kicking-starting the idea.

Do you have your own photo-labeling method? I’d love to know! Please share in the comments below.


Label Data Standards for Terrestrial Arthropods by the Biological Survey of Canada

More on file naming conventions can be found at the University of Edinburgh.

Best practices for data management at Stanford Univerity Libraries.

A list of field note apps from the Bruna Lab, University of Florida.

IPTC Photo Metadata

Keeping a Field Journal, American Museum of Natural History.

A free digital photo metadata viewer and editor: PhotoMe.



  1. Hey Adrian,

    Great post, thanks for all the info. With respect to adding GPS coordinates to photos, there are several smartphone apps out there that will save your location for you and (as long as your camera is set to the correct time) will add the coordinates to your photos post photo shoot based on where you were when. I have used Geotag Photos on my last few trips and have found it very easy to use. I highly recommend it!


  2. You might also want to be aware of the Audubon Core standard adopted by Biodiversity Information Standards (TDWG). From the abstract:
    “The Audubon Core is a set of vocabularies designed to represent metadata for biodiversity multimedia resources and collections. These vocabularies aim to represent information that will help to determine whether a particular resource or collection will be fit for some particular biodiversity science application before acquiring the media. Among others, the vocabularies address such concerns as the management of the media and collections, descriptions of their content, their taxonomic, geographic, and temporal coverage, and the appropriate ways to retrieve, attribute and reproduce them. “


  3. Just above this message entry area on your webpage,,
    below where it says “Post a Comment”, it states: “Your email is never published nor shared.”

    Did you mean to write, “Your email ADDRESS is never ….”? Or, did you mean to say “Send me an Email” rather than “Post a Comment”?

    I.e., who is my comment being “posted” to, and who is reading my “post”.



    1. Comments are visible to the public and are posted below the article, but your email address is not accessible. If you wish to contact me privately, you can use the Contact page (linked to in the left sidebar) or the email address that is shared on that page.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.