Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Image Metadata: Viewing What I Wrote

This is part 5 of my series on metadata for scanned pictures.

Part 1: The Scanned Image Metadata Project

Part 2: Standards, Guidelines, and ExifTool

Part 3: Dealing with Timestamps

Part 4: My Approach

Part 5: Viewing What I Wrote (this post)

Part 6: The Metadata Removal Problem

Part 7: Thoughts after 4000+ Scans


Just because an image file contains metadata doesn't mean that the metadata is visible or recognizable as what it is. Lots of programs can display metadata. Each has its own quirks. I put only four pieces of metadata into my image files, but most of the programs I tested show only some of these. The fields that are displayed may be labeled differently from both the standard names and the names used by the program used to put the metadata into the file. Some programs apply a name from one standard to a field from a different one.

It is, as usual, a mess. The closer you look, the messier it gets. I've performed numerous experiments, and the stories I could tell...  

But I won't. The way to deal with the mess is to not look very closely. My goal is to produce image files with metadata that I can share with others. I already know how to view an image's metadata, so the real question is whether other people can see it. 

There's no reason to expect friends and family members, etc., to know anything about Exif, IPTC or XMP. However, they'll know descriptive text or a copyright statement when they see it, and if they see a date and time, they'll assume that's when the picture was taken. If they see another date and time that says something about when the picture was scanned or digitized, they are unlikely to be confused.

Inspired by Carl Seibert's survey of how different programs prioritize Exif, IPTC, and XMP when reading metadata, I examined a dozen programs to see how well they made the metadata visible for my sample side from part 3 (shown at right). Although a couple of the programs are aimed at more serious users, most of the 12 are stock apps that come as part of the operating system. They're the programs likely to be used by people with no special interest in metadata. All of the programs I looked at are free. 

The high-level takeaway is that the most important metadata stored in my scanned image files is pretty accessible for anybody who knows to look for it. Things could be better, but they're not bad. As such, my approach to embedding metadata in image files seems to be reasonable.

I scored each program I looked at on a 10-point scale. Points were awarded as follows:

  • 6 points if the image's metadata description is fully visible. If this requires making a window wider or putting a phone into landscape mode, that's fine. I used this description (from part 4 of this series) for testing:

Tim Johnson's equipment | Taken 7/1992 | Developed 8/1992 | Scanned 35mm slide

  • 3 points if the metadata description is partially visible, but can't be made fully visible. A partially visible description tells the person looking at the picture that descriptive information is present, but it's not as good as showing the entire description.

  • 2 points for showing the date when the picture was taken such that a viewer could reasonably assume that that's what the timestamp represents.

  • 1 point for displaying the copyright notice (even if it's only partially visible).

  • 1 point for showing the date and time scanned in a way that makes it recognizable as what it is.

I weight the description field heavily, because it contains the two most important pieces of metadata: what's in the picture and when it was taken. (Recall from part 3 that the "when taken" field holds only an approximation. The actual "when taken" information is part of the description.) If the description is visible, and especially if it's fully visible, that's all most people need.

I issue a big penalty for programs that engage in what I consider a grossly deceptive practice:

  • -6 points if the image's description metadata is not visible, but the program offers its own description field that, if used, stores the entered information, but not in the image file. In other words, a program loses 6 points if it offers a field that looks like an image's metadata field for a description, but isn't. 

Only one program incurred this penalty. I don't want to give anything away, so I'll just say that it carries a company name that rhymes with "Boogle".

The scores tell only part of the story. 10 means that a program can display all the metadata I store in a recognizable form, but it doesn't mean that getting it to do that is straightforward. For details, read the per-program overviews that follow.

Programs on Windows 10

Of the following six programs, three (Windows File Explorer, Windows Photo Viewer, and the Microsoft Photos App) are included with Windows. The other three (XnView MP, Adobe Bridge, and ExifTool) must be downloaded and installed separately.

Windows File Explorer and Windows Photo Viewer (Score: 6)

These two programs show image metadata the same way: on the Details tab of a file's Properties dialog. This dialog displays a limited-width view of the description (3 points) and copyright (1 point), as well as the "when taken" timestamp (2 points). There's no timestamp for when the image was scanned. The fact that the description is displayed twice and is labeled both Title and Subject is strange, but both fields are in the Description section of the tab, so I think things are clear enough. 

Both of these programs ship with Windows 10, but my understanding is that Photo Viewer is hidden in some installations in favor of the Photos app. From a metadata point of view, that's a big step backwards, as we'll see next.

Photos App (Score: 2) 

Clicking on "..." and selecting "ⓘ File Information" when viewing a photo in the Photos app brings up a panel with metadata information. Of the four fields I write into image files, only when the photo was taken is displayed (2 points). This is disappointing for a dedicated photos app, and it's notably worse than Windows Photo Viewer, which is the program the Photos app replaced.

XnView MP (Score: 10)

XnView MP is my default image viewer, and that was the case before I started worrying about metadata. Its score of 10 indicates that it shows all the information I put into image files, but the plethora of metadata viewing options takes some getting used to. 

Everything starts with the Edit menu, which includes entries for "Edit comment...", "Edit IPTC...", and "Edit XMP...". For purposes of viewing metadata, none of these is correct. What you want is "Properties..." (also on the Edit menu). Selecting it brings up a window with multiple tabs, including one for each of Exif, IPTC, XMP, and ExifTool.

The Exif tab does the best job of showing all the metadata I embed, with each of the four fields clearly labeled and near the top of the window. On its own, this tab scores a 10.

The IPTC-IIM tab also shows all the fields, but the timestamp for when the image was scanned is unrecognizable unless you know that the hexadecimal codes for the relevant timestamp fields are 0x3e and 0x3f. No "normal" person would know that, so the IPTC tab loses the point for showing the date/time scanned and ends up with a 9. 

The XMP tab shows everything, but I'd expect the similarity of the names for the "when taken" and "when scanned" fields (DateCreated and CreateDate) to sow confusion and uncertainty. I give the tab credit for neither, and it gets a 7.

The ExifTool tab shows the results of running the copy of ExifTool that's embedded inside XnView MP. The amount of information can be overwhelming, but everything's there. It's there three times, in fact, once each for Exif, IPTC, and XMP. Taken by itself, the ExifTool tab scores a 10, but the Exif tab remains the easier way to get the information.

Adobe Bridge (Score: 10)

Bridge is Adobe's free companion to Photoshop and Lightroom. It's designed to organize and manage photos, not to change their appearance. Using Bridge, you can view and edit metadata, but you can't change what a picture looks like. 

It's reasonable to expect people who use Bridge to have an above-average familiarity with image metadata.

Bridge's metadata panel is divided into several sections, including ones for Exif, IPTC IIM, IPTC Core, and IPTC Extension. XMP appears to be missing until you recall (from part 2) that IPTC Core and IPTC Extension are sometimes used synonymously with XMP. No single section shows all the fields I write, but everything is present: the IPTC-IIM and IPTC Core sections have the description, "when taken" timestamp, and copyright notice, and the Exif section has the "when scanned" timestamp.

ExifTool  (Score: 10)

ExifTool is a command line program, though GUIs have been built on top of it. It's the go-to power tool in the image metadata world, and it didn't take me long to regard it as the source of truth for metadata in image files. Different programs label the metadata they show in different ways, so when you look at a field value, it can be hard to know exactly what you're looking at. Some programs lie. The Preview App on MacOS, for example, has tabs for Exif and IPTC, but there are conditions under which the values on those tabs come from XMP! Since metadata in image files can be seen only with the aid of programs that know how to read it, how do you know which programs to trust? I trust ExifTool.

It's hard to imagine anybody using ExifTool without knowing about Exif, IPTC, XMP, and the various fields they offer. I therefore score ExifTool with the expectation that it's being used by somebody who brings a fair amount of metadata knowledge to the table. Such users can be expected to recognize the difference between DateCreated and CreateDate. With that in mind, ExifTool scores a 10.

ExifTool's output on the sample slide is an unwieldy 96 lines long if you let it show you everything (which is the default), but if you ask it for only the fields I put into it,

exiftool -S




         '.\The Brown Experience 1985-1993 031.jpg'

you get this in return:

Description: Tim Johnson's equipment | Taken 7/1992 | Developed 8/1992 | Scanned 35mm slide
Copyright: © 2022 Scott Meyers (smeyers@aristeia.com), all rights reserved.
DateTimeOriginal: 1992:07:01 00:00:00
CreateDate: 2022:01:14 17:54:46

The copyright symbol (©) is displayed incorrectly, but that's a problem with Windows PowerShell (where I ran the command), not ExifTool.

Programs on MacOS Big Sur

Each of the three programs I tested on MacOS is included with the operating system.

Finder (Score: 6)

Right-clicking on an image file in the Finder and choosing "Get Info" brings up this window:

It shows the full description in the metadata (6 points), but though timestamps are shown for when the file was created and last modified, there is no sign of the "when taken" and "when scanned" timestamps. The copyright notice is similarly missing. The Finder thus gets a score of 6.

Photos App (Score: 8)

Clicking the ⓘ while viewing a photo in the Photos app brings up its Info window:

It shows the full description (6 points) as well when the photo was taken (2 points), but the "when scanned" timestamp and the copyright notice are not shown. The score for the Photos app is 8.

Preview App (Score: 10)

Viewing image metadata with the MacOS Preview app reminds me of using XnView MP, but with a twist. With XnView MP, the Exif tab shows metadata from the Exif fields, and the IPTC tab shows metadata from the IPTC fields. That's not always the case with the MacOS Preview app. Regardless of how a tab is labeled, it may show metadata drawn from Exif, IPTC and XMP. That's disturbing, but, fortunately, irrelevant for my purposes. Writing the same metadata to corresponding fields in Exif, IPTC, and XMP means that it doesn't matter which field gets read. The Preview app's Exif tab, for example, shows when the photo was taken and when it was digitized (i.e., scanned). This information is correct for my image files, although it's actually pulled from the IPTC metadata instead of that for Exif.

On its own, this tab gets a score of 3: 2 for the date/time when the picture was taken, and 1 for when it was scanned.

The IPTC tab shows everything and thus gets a 10, though I take a dim view of the decision to display the date and time digitized between the date taken and the time taken:

The Preview app also has a TIFF tab. I don't know what kind of metadata this tab is supposed to show, but since all the tabs can show metadata from Exif, IPTC, and XMP, the labels don't really matter. Here's the TIFF tab for the sample slide. It shows the full description (6 points) and the copyright notice (1 point). The value it shows for the "Date Time" field corresponds neither to when the photo was taken nor to when it was scanned, so no points for that. The tab gets a score of 7.

The more I use the Preview app to look at image metadata, the less I like it. It right-justifies field names with respect to the center of the window, and it left-justifies field values with respect to that center, and, as you can see, this leads to a lot of wasted space on the left side of the window. I've often found that widening the window doesn't cause the text inside to be reformatted, so I've had to play games to get all the metadata properly displayed (e.g., force-close the app and then reopen it).

Programs on iOS 15

Photos App (Score: 8)

As of iOS 15, touching the ⓘ icon or swiping up while viewing an image displays the Info pane, which includes the image's full description (6 points) and the date and time it was taken (2 points). There's no sign of the copyright or "date scanned" metadata, so this app gets an 8.

Prior to iOS 15, accessing an image's metadata typically involved saving the image to the Files app, then using the Files app to view the embedded metadata. That continues to work on iOS 15, but it's more cumbersome, and my experience is that even though it displays more metadata fields than the Photos app's Info pane, it doesn't show any of the fields I write to my scanned image files. It would get a score of 0 if I officially evaluated it, but since I'm running iOS 15, I'm going to pretend I know nothing about the Files app workaround.

Google Photos App (Score: -4)

I'm generally impressed with Google's products and services, but the impression its iOS Photos app leaves on me is a depressing mixture of disbelief and anger. 

Pressing "..." while viewing a photo brings up its Info sheet:

It shows the "when taken" timestamp (2 points), but there's no sign of the "when scanned" timestamp, the copyright notice, or the description. Instead, there is an "Add description..." field, which, being empty, suggests that the image lacks a description. For my files, this is not just untrue, but triply untrue, because my scanned image files have description metadata in each of the Exif, IPTC, and XMP fields. As a company, Google knows this, because Google Photos in the cloud (see below) displays the embedded description. 

But that's not the heinous part. Should you, noting the the empty description field, succumb to temptation and put information into it, your text will not be stored in the metadata in the image file! Instead, the information you enter will be stored separately by Google. The same is true of any other edits you make on the Info sheet, e.g., "Add a location" or "Edit date & time". The Info sheet is a place to enter image metadata, but it's not a place to enter image metadata that will be stored inside the image!

This is reprehensible behavior. Hiding metadata present in a image while offering users the chance to add metadata that you'll keep private is...well, words fail me. But math doesn't. I slap on the -6 penalty for grossly deceptive practices, and Google's Photos app for iOS ends up with a record-setting low score of -4.

Cloud Services

There are lots of cloud-based photo storage services. I tested only Google Photos and iCloud Photos, and to be clear, I did it via their web browser interface, not via an app on a computer or mobile device. Among the many services I did not test are Facebook, Flickr, SmugMug, Amazon Photos, Microsoft Onedrive, Degoo, and photobucket. I welcome your comments about viewing image metadata using these services.

In a 2017 blog post, Caroline Guntur wrote,

Many cloud platforms and social media sites will not upload, or retain the [metadata] in your photos. Some will even strip the information completely upon download.

In a later post in this series, I will address what happens to metadata when you move image files around (e.g., upload or download them, email them, text or IM them, etc.). My testing shows that uploading an image to both Google Photos and iCloud Photos has no effect on its metadata--at least not for the four fields I care about. 

Google Photos (Score: 8)

Clicking the ⓘ symbol while viewing a photo opens its Info panel. That panel displays the full metadata description (6 points) as well as the "when taken" timestamp (2 points). The copyright and "when scanned" fields are missing, so the Google Photos cloud service scores an 8.

Like the Google Photos iPhone app, the Google Photos cloud service displays an inviting "Add a description" field at the top of the panel. As with the iPhone app, metadata you enter here is not stored in the image file, but instead in a Google database. 

Unlike the iPhone app, the description metadata already in the file is shown, albeit with the label "Other." Because Google Photos in the cloud displays the description metadata embedded in the file, there's less chance the person viewing the photo will think there's no description for it and will avail themselves of the "Add a description" field. I therefore withhold the six-point penalty here that I impose on Google's iPhone app.

iCloud Photos (Score: 2)

As far as I can tell, the only metadata visible for a photo viewed using the web browser interface to iCloud Photos is the date on which it was taken. It's displayed above the photo being viewed:

That yields a disappointing score of 2. Apple's apps on MacOS and iOS do notably better, and my impression from looking at Apple's support pages is that they expect you to use those apps as much as possible. If you don't have an Apple device, well, presumably that's an incentive for you to get one.


cwhii said...

Javascript for putting img tag's title & alt values from the source file within the HTML file would be handy.

Scott Meyers said...

Can you please clarify? I'm not sure what you mean here.