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Why EXIF Data Matters to You (Even If You Don’t Know What It Is)

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A look at an image in Picasa. EXIF data is displayed on the right hand side.

Hidden inside your photos is a powerful wealth of information. It’s called EXIF data and it holds the key to improving your photography, organizing your images, and protecting your privacy.

What Is EXIF Data, Anyway?

EXIF stands for Exchangeable Image File and it’s information that is recorded with every image file your camera (or smartphone) creates. EXIF data includes things like the time and date when a given picture was taken, type of camera, the resolution, and GPS data (if you shoot with a smartphone or GPS digital camera). If you want a ridiculously technical explanation of EXIF data, read this.

Why Should I Care?

EXIF data is the primary raw material that photo software and websites like Flickr and Picasa use to organize your images. If you want to organize images by the time/date you snapped them or where you where when you took them, it’s the EXIF data embedded in your image file that provides this information.

If you’re interested in improving your photographic skills, EXIF data can help you be a better photographer by linking camera settings with photographic results. Let’s say you love an action shot you took of your child racing across the soccer field. By studying the EXIF data on that image you can take the time to adjust your camera settings to match it the next time you’re on the sidelines. Conversely, if there are images you’re disappointed with, a peek at the EXIF data may reveal clues as to what went wrong (maybe your shutter was too slow or the ISO was too high).

Should I Do Anything with My EXIF Data Besides Stare At It?

While it might not be immediately obvious why you’d want to tinker with this information, there are a few cases where it makes sense. Let’s say you’re an avid Facebook user but are concerned about your privacy. Removing tell-tale markers, like your GPS coordinates and time/date information can help you preserve a bit of your privacy when you post that image online. Most desktop software will allow you to view and edit EXIF info — it’s here where you’d erase things like GPS coordinates if you want the photo to be untraceable.

Another major reason to edit your EXIF data would be to correct a mistake. Let’s face it, a lot of us forget to set a correct time/date on our cameras or forget to correct those time/date stamps in the camera during Daylight Savings Time. If you keep piling up photos with the incorrect time and date information, you make those images harder to find years down the road.

Finally, by adding EXIF data (things like tags, ratings, descriptions or captions) you make it a lot easier to find images as your photo collection grows. Most desktop photo software offers very sophisticated search functions that takes advantage of this EXIF data — you can search by keyboards, GPS,  ISO settings, the aperture and much more. You’re doing your future self a huge favor by making your image collection as searchable as possible. You do that by making sure you key in important data.

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Author:Greg Scoblete

Greg Scoblete is the editor of Your Digital Life. He has been covering the photographic world for the past ten years for a variety of publications including PDN, This Week in Consumer Electronics and Digital Photographer.