Keywording Your Stock Photos

Keywording Your Stock Photos

Keywording is probably the single most important step of preparing your images for sale on a stock site. 

You may have taken a beautiful image that fits a buyer’s needs perfectly, but if your keywords are inadequate, it will never be found or licensed. Fortunately, there are ways to improve your keywording skills. Here are the top tips from the PhotoShelter resident linguist, Kate Thomas.

Think like a buyer
Since of course buyers are who you want to find your images, it makes sense to keyword with that audience in mind.  Try to anticipate the ways in which your image could be useful to a buyer, and reflect that in your keywording.

Buyers search for images by both subject (actual content) and concept (ideas or mood).  They might also have technical requirements, such as the type of shot (aerial, close up, etc) or the amount of copy space.  It’s a good idea to keep all these concerns in mind while keywording.

Have a System
Keywording is commonly referred to as both an art and a science.  This is because while good keywording requires creativity and flexibility, it can and should be approached in a systematic way.  Many photographers find it simplest to tackle visual descriptions first, moving on to concepts and technical keywords later.

Visual Description
Imagine yourself describing your image to someone who can’t see it.  Try to forget any contextual information you know about how and where it was taken and focus only on the visual information.  The first words that come to your mind will probably be some of the more relevant and important ones to include as keywords. Literally describe all aspects of the image:

  • Are there people in the picture? If so, describe them specifically.
  • What colors are prominently represented?
  • What objects are prominently included in the picture – as key subjects of the picture?
  • Is the location relevant/worth mentioning? If so, be both specific and general: city street, and 5th Avenue
  • Are you using a special angle or other technical points worth mentioning? Panoramic etc.

On a second pass, list some of the items you may have missed.  Continue to look at the image holistically, and do not list insignificant details.  With each keyword you apply, put yourself in the shoes of a buyer.  If you searched on this keyword and found this picture in the search results, would you find it appropriate… or distracting?


Do: man, woman, seniors, kissing, couch, couple, living room, Caucasian, sitting, affection, marriage, romance, retirement, love, color, horizontal, 70s
Don’t:  socks, jewelry, floral patterned pillow, eyes, hands, ears, nose

Pay special attention to any people in the image- their clothing, hair color, build, and other aspects of their appearance might be important to a buyer. Think of the diverse markets buyers might want to target, and always indicate the ethnicity and age range for the subjects of your photos.  Age range is especially useful for children!

Also, describe the physical position of the people in your image.  Are they sitting?  Walking?  Looking at the camera with their arms crossed?

Here are some specific questions to ask yourself:

  • Age Range (newborn, baby, kid, toddler, teen, tween, 20s, 30s, 40s, senior (and/or mature adult) etc.)
  • Generation (Gen X, Baby Boomer etc.)
  • Ethnicity (Caucasian, White, Black, African American, Hispanic, Latino etc – cover your bases on what buyers might use in their searches)
  • Gender (man, woman, guy, girl, boy etc.)
  • How many people generally? (group, crowd, friends, etc.)
  • Is a family role relevant? (parent, sibling, sister etc.)
  • Is an occupation relevant? (postman, businessman etc.)
  • What action are they doing? (sitting, standing, throwing, etc.)
  • What is their emotional state? (happy or sad but also more subtle: concerned, disappointed)
  • Is an interaction being portrayed? (parent, scolding, child etc.)


girl, toddler, 2-3 years old, preschooler, child, African-American, black, bikini, bathing suit, pigtails, curly hair, black hair, smiling, looking out window, cute, playing, color, vertical


boy, teenager, young man, European-American, Caucasian, white, camouflage jacket, short hair, brown hair, hands in pockets


Include general and specific keywords
A photo buyer at a niche bird-watching website might be searching on a stock site for images of a very specific type of bird to feature in an article.  Meanwhile, a city tourism board might be putting together a travel brochure and looking for general nature images to attract visitors to their public parks.

There is no reason why these two searches must have mutually exclusive results.

Try to anticipate possible specific and generic uses of your image, and keyword accordingly.  If you use the keyword “bird,” also include the specific scientific or common name.  If you use the scientific or common name, also use “bird” and “animal.”

Keep in mind that stock sites differ in how they handle phrases.  If you use a phrase as a keyword, such as “pink hat” or “orange juice,” make sure to use “juice” and “hat” as separate keywords also, to be as general as possible.

Don’t miss the obvious
It’s great to include specific keywords for buyers who know exactly what they’re looking for. Not all searches are exact, however- so don’t miss the obvious keywords.  


A mother is also a “woman”
Strawberries are also “berries,” “fruit,” and “food”
Basketball is also a “sport” played by “athletes”
Chicago is also a “city”
And so on.

tiger, panthera tigris, big cat, feline, carnivore, animal, wild animal, blue background, color, horizontal, endangered

Buyers do not always search for images knowing what they want them to look like.  Very often they are searching instead by the concept they want to get across- humor, optimism, health, loneliness, etc.  

So although it’s much more subjective, it’s almost as important to include conceptual keywords as it is to describe the image visually.

A good, safe way to start adding concept keywords is to elaborate on and describe the keywords you already have.  For example, for a picture of pizza, you might add “greasy” and “delicious.”  As long as they make sense, you don’t have to necessarily agree with the descriptions you choose!

Some additional questions to ask yourself while coming up with concept keywords include:

  • Is there any feeling or mood that jumps out at you when looking at this image?
  • Does the image appear to be telling a story or addressing a particular theme?
  • Is the image symbolic of a larger idea?
  • If there are people in your image, look at their facial expressions and body language.  Are they expressing any obvious emotions?
  • What was your original motivation for taking the picture?  What were you trying to express?

Don’t Keyword Spam!
Although you want to be descriptive and anticipate the story a buyer might be trying to illustrate, you don’t want to make the conceptual leap by describing specific stories that could be applied to your generic image. For example:


Do: road trip, freedom, rebellion, adventure, woman, hand, car, window, driving, air


 Don’t: real estate crisis, homelessness, broken home


Once you get the hang of applying conceptual keywords, it can be tempting to take it to the next level and start looking for associations. But be careful!
If you took a picture of a goose, that’s what it is.  It can be identified more generally as a bird, but it can’t be identified by the name of a different type of bird.  So you should not use keywords such as “swan,” “chicken,” or “duck” for this image.  

This guideline is even more important to consider for images of famous people and places. Hillary and Bill Clinton obviously have a strong association with one another. But think of how frustrating it would be for a buyer to search for pictures of Hillary Clinton only to find pictures of her husband instead! Only use proper names as keywords if the people or places actually appear in the photograph.

Remember, your keywords should only reflect what you can actually perceive or derive from the image.


Do: beach, clouds, ocean, sand, secluded, color, horizontal
Don’t: beach umbrella, family vacation, sunbathers, bathing suit, swimming

When describing the setting of your image, try to focus on what it looks like, and don’t necessarily be held back by what it actually is.  You might know that you took your photo in a day care facility, but if it looks like it could be a school classroom as well, then that’s a good direction to go with your keywords.

Be careful about using specific place names, such as the names of cities, geographical features, or countries. If your image depicts a man inside a house in Colorado, but it could really be any man in any house, do not include “Colorado” or “Rocky Mountains” as keywords. If, however, the picture is taken outside the house, and the Rocky Mountains are clearly visible in the background, those keywords are useful.

In some cases, it might be acceptable to include place keywords if the image is very evocative of a specific place.  For example, an image of a koala could certainly include “Australia” as a keyword.

Photo Attributes
In many cases, it’s a good idea to include technical keywords about the image itself, completely apart from its subject matter or mood.  As always, any keywords you apply should refer to something you can actually see in the image.   

The exact model of your camera or lens is never interesting to a buyer.  In fact, don’t reference your photo equipment at all, unless using it leads to a very specific visual effect, like a Holga or a wide-angle lens.  

Here’s a short, incomplete list of the types of technical, photo attribute keywords that are appropriate:

  • Lighting– golden hour, backlighting, etc
  • Focus– bokeh, differential focus, etc
  • Photo Orientation– horizontal, vertical, etc
  • Color- black and white, color, etc
  • Exposure– long exposure, motion blur, etc
  • Techniques and Manipulation– light painting, HDR, etc
  • Stock Photo Category– nature, still life, portrait, etc

Keyword Format
Keywords should consist of individual words and short phrases. Long descriptions and sentences might not match up well with how the buyer searchers, and might be difficult for the search engine to find.
It’s important to make sure your keywords are formatted properly, with the correct punctuation, for the stock site you’re submitting to. Read all guidelines ahead of time to minimize the amount of work you have to do.

Also, always spell-check all your keywords very carefully.  This is extremely important because in most cases, images with misspelled keywords will simply not be found!


Do: man, writing, pen, paper, blank page, letter, notes, notebook, right handed, hand, color, vertical
Don’t: man writing, man holding pen, blank page in notebook, getting ready to write

PhotoShelter’s keywording engine, the Tagonomy, has the ability to recognize common phrases, such as proper names (George Bush, New York City) and compound nouns (hot dog, license plate.)

When deciding whether or not a keyword should be entered as a phrase, ask yourself if it would have the same meaning if the words were split up.  In the case of “hot dog,” those two words have very different meanings taken separately than as a phrase.  The names of people and places also fit into this category.  If you have keywords like this, it’s best to enter them as is and not split them up into individual words. 

However, something like “golf ball” is a bit more of a gray area. In this case, the phrase IS in the Tagonomy, but a golf ball IS a ball you use while playing golf, so keywording “golf,” “ball,” “golf ball” is not misleading and is perfectly acceptable.

If you use a keyword as a phrase and it’s not actually in the dictionary, you image will still be found if someone searches for that phrase. So if you feel your keyword is a common phrase, or something with an idiomatic meaning that is very different from the individual words, go ahead and use that phrase as your keyword. If your keyword is a long description or something that might not be a very common phrase (“pink scarf,” “man walking through the forest”), then please make sure you also include the individual keywords (pink, scarf, man, walking, forest).


Do: license plate, car, Cadillac, classic car, bumper, old, chrome, horizontal, color
Don’t: license, plate, car, Cadillac, classic car, bumper, old, chrome, horizontal, color


Do: pink, scarf, woman, flowers, looking to side, young woman, Caucasian, square, rosy cheeks, color, brown hair, early twenties

Number of keywords
There is no magical number of keywords that will work for all images. However, it’s a good rule of thumb to aim for about 5-10 keywords at the minimum. In most cases, 10-25 is a good amount. Using 50 or more keywords is almost certainly overkill.

But in general, keywording is a balancing act. Not enough good keywords and your image might be overlooked; too many and you will wind up frustrating the buyer and damaging the quality of the search results. Rather than focusing on reaching a specific quantity of keywords, you should focus on the quality. Make sure your keywords are above all, accurate- and thorough enough without getting bogged down in irrelevant details.

Synonyms, Stemming, and Search
Read the keyword guidelines of whatever stock agencies you are submitting to- some keywording engines, including PhotoShelter’s Tagonomy, operate on a controlled vocabulary and are able to automatically provide synonyms for your keywords. 

The search engines of many stock sites, including the PhotoShelter Collection, also apply stemming to search terms.  This means that when buyers do a search, they will be able to find images whose keywords match a different variant of the search term (eg- buyer searches for “trees,” will also find images tagged with “tree.”)

If your stock site does not provide stemming, you might want to add more keywords to make sure different forms of words are covered (eg- cook, cooking or beautiful, beauty). 

If your stock site does not provide synonyms, spend some time carefully adding words that are very closely related to your existing keywords (ocean/sea, United States of America/USA).  For this task, don’t use a thesaurus indiscriminately.  If you’ve never heard a word before, or it does not apply to your image, don’t use it as a keyword.

Bottom line- get acquainted with how your site’s search engine works, and use that knowledge in your keywording.

Inaccurate Keywording
The more keywords you add, especially if they are varied and diverse, the more times your image will come up in the search results. 

That’s not necessarily a good thing. It’s only a good thing if the keywords you’ve applied are accurate and appropriate for the image.  When a buyer does a search, they expect to find what they looked for.  Using completely inaccurate keywords might get your images viewed more often, but they won’t be helpful in getting your images sold.  Please stick to using keywords that are straightforward and make sense.


Do: dress, window, curtain, blue, kitchen, breeze, drying, laundry, sunlight, apartment, house, clothing, color, vertical
Don’t:  dancing, regret, garden, friendship, broken, celebrate, boxes

More keywording tips
Keywording is admittedly difficult, but it’s essential in getting your images found and sold, and it can be a fun challenge to develop your keywording skills.  Here are some additional ideas to make it easier on yourself if you get a little stuck.

Ask Someone Else
You might want to simply ask another person to look at your images and say whatever comes to mind.  Ideally, this would be someone who doesn’t have any background info about your images and has never seen them before.

Use Software
It’s often possible to save time by applying keywords to your images using some form of photo editing software. Very often this software will allow you to create templates of frequently used keywords, or even to import an existing controlled vocabulary or create one of your own.  All of these solutions will save the pain of having to keyword similar images consistently over and over again.

Find Similar Images
Come up with at least a few keywords you might use to describe your image, and search for these on stock sites, other photography sites, or a general internet search engine.  When you find images that resemble yours, take a look at their other keywords for inspiration. 

Please note you should never copy another image’s keywords in their entirety.  It’s rare that any two images that were not from the same shoot should have exactly the same keywords.  Always make sure any suggested keywords actually apply to your image, and that they are not flatly inaccurate or too much of a stretch.

Use a Keywording Service
If you are really too busy to do your own keywording, there are several companies that will keyword your images for you, for a price.  Below is an example of a professionally keyworded image.


baked, close-up, color image, cookie, dessert, focus on foreground, food and drink, in a row, indulgence, large group of objects, no people, powdered sugar, round, snack, still life, sweet food, temptation, unhealthy eating, variation, vertical, white

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 6 comments for this article
  1. sad at 2:57 pm

    Hey, nice article, thanks a lot.. But 2-3 weeks ago I could see the photos but now they can not be seen. I checked with various computers but no image.. can you reupload them please? your article is really useful

  2. Pingback: A Few Key Words About Keywords « Jeff Sinon Photography

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