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My photo collection is pretty meagre but I've noticed that over time I seem to have moved between tagging photos with the plural of a noun, like "bridges" or "mountains" and at other times, the singular "bridge" or "mountain". Anyway, it got me wondering whether anyone has any thoughts on which way is preferred, or if there are advantages/disadvantage/conventions etc.

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Even though it's not in the context of photography, I think I'll defer to these people's answer. (To cut to the chase: plural is preferred.) – mattdm Feb 25 '12 at 1:49
@mattdm - nice link, thanks! – ninesided Feb 25 '12 at 2:44
Singular or plural doesn't matter as long as you are consistent. If in doubt, tag in a language that makes no distinction between the two, like Chinese. – ibz Apr 20 '12 at 2:40
up vote 5 down vote accepted

I think it is most important to consider how you will use tags to actually retrieve and categorize photos. If you need to search for a photo using the word "birds" you will(and should) search for "bird" to find both forms of the word. This is really the end of the debate as far as I am concerned. I can tag with either in cases like this but when I go to search that is where it becomes important to consider the most general form.

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... like foot? =) – SoftMemes Feb 25 '12 at 11:38

As somebody who has worked in the book and magazine publishing industry for more than a decade I can say with certainty that it matters less whether you use singular or plural words, and more that you are consistent with their use.

That said, I always aim to use the singular version of the tag.

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+1 for consistency! – ninesided Feb 25 '12 at 4:55

Photo Contents or Containers of Photos

You generally have two options when it comes to tags. The first option is to infer that a tag has direct meaning about the subject of a photograph or its traits. The second option is to infer that a tag is a container of photographs that have certain subjects, or subjects with certain traits. With the former, you would want to use a singular or plural tag as appropriate to the contents of your photos. With the latter, you would want to use plural tags to indicate that tags are containers of photos that have certain subject types or subjects with certain traits.

Subjects and Traits

I've used the terms subjects and traits. When tagging photos, I try to tag them such that I can search either by what kind of subject the photos contain, by the traits each subject in a photo may contain, or combinations of both. A subject is usually the thing you took the photo of...a person, an animal, a landscape vista such as a mountainscape/waterscape/skyscape, a flower, etc. A trait is an aspect of either the subject or some primary element of the photo. In the case of a portrait, it may be the color of the subjects hair, gender, type of subject, type of photograph, etc. In the case of animals, traits may be the type of animal, its color, the animals state (rest, running or flying, hunting or foraging, etc.). In the case of a landscape, a trait might be the time of day, the location, the season, etc.

Containers of Subjects with Traits

Personally, I use the container approach...subject tags are various "photo albums", and as containers, they are always intended to contain many photos. Most of my subject-related tags are therefor plural. When it comes to traits, I do not always use plural, however when it makes sense I do. In the case of colors, I always use singular form, as plural form just comes off a little odd (i.e. "reds" vs. simply "red"). In the case of action traits, such as an animals state, I use whatever seems most logical: running, foraging, hunting, flight, perched, preening, mating, swimming, lounging, etc.

In the event that I actually need to search by the plurality of subjects in a photo, I simply tag them with an appropriate keyword. I have used various terms that indicate the plurality of subjects that fit properly. In the case of a herd of animals, I'll tag the photo with "herd". In the case of a flock of birds, I'll tag the photo with "flock". Sometimes I'll use more specific terms, such as "harem" for a herd of elk ladies with their elk bull. The plurality of subjects can usually be accommodated with an appropriate "plurality keyword". It should be noted that this is not always entirely effective. An example of a recent photo I took that included a flock of lounging Ring-Billed Gulls along an the edge of ice pack on a lake, with a lone Goldeneye Duck in the foreground. I tagged the photo with "flock", however there is no decent way to associate the flock with just the gulls, at least not with the tools I use. The tags were:

birds, fowl, waterfowl, gulls, ring-billed, lounging, flock, ducks, goldeneye, swimming, ice, water, white, blue, gray, brown

I also use Lightroom as my organizational tool of choice. Lightroom offers some extremely powerful library organization tools, with keywords (their form of tags) central to most of it. Lightroom supports some pretty extensive keywording features that can help you organize and search very large libraries of photographs. Personally, I would prefer a better way of tagging that better involved subjects and traits, such that I could associate traits with individual keywords. It would also be helpful to involve hierarchical tag structure in searches, allowing me to search say only birds>fowl>waterfowl>ducks & swimming. But, what Lightroom offers is currently good enough that it satisfies most of my needs.

Hierarchies and Synonyms

Two additional tagging features of Lightroom specifically (and possibly other tools) include Keyword Hierarchies and Keyword Synonyms. Both of these features give you more ways to organize and utilize your tags. Hierarchies simply let you create a non-flat, or nested, organization for your keywords. You could have a tag hierarchy such as the following:

  • Nature
    • Landscapes
      • Mountainscapes
        • Mountains
      • Waterscapes
      • Skyscapes
        • Sunset
        • Sunrise
        • Daytime
        • Clouds
  • Behaviors
    • Animal
      • Sleeping
      • Standing
      • Walking
      • Running
      • Sprinting
      • Foraging
      • Hunting
      • Killing
      • Mating
      • Flying
      • Swimming
      • Fishing
      • Nurturing
      • ...
    • Emotional
      • Happy
      • Sad
      • Angry
      • ...
  • Life
    • Animals
      • Mammals
        • Ungulates
          • Cervine
            • Deer
            • Elk
            • Moose
          • Equine
            • ...
      • Birds
        • Raptors
          • Hawks
            • Red-Tailed
            • Coopers
            • ...
          • Eagles
            • Bald
            • Golden
            • ...
          • Owls
            • Horned
            • ...
      • Fowl
        • Waterfowl
          • ...
        • Landfowl
          • ...
    • Plants
      • Trees
      • Flowers
      • Mosses
    • Fungi
      • Mushrooms
      • Lichens
  • Colors
    • Red
    • Orange
    • Yellow
    • Green
    • Blue
    • Purple
    • White
    • Gray
    • Black
  • Portraits
    • Hair
      • Color
        • Gray
        • White
        • Light Blond
        • Blond
      • Style
        • ...
    • Skin
      • Color
        • ...
    • Age
      • ...
    • Face
      • ...

Synonyms allow you to associate keywords together as meaning the same or mostly the same thing. When searching for a given tag, if it has any synonyms, photos tagged with those synonyms will be included in any results. I use synonyms sparingly, as overuse can greatly reduce the effectiveness of search to narrow down results, however they do have their uses at times.

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Nice! Great answer. One thing that occurred to me in your comment on "red" vs. "reds" is that there's a difference when using adjectives as tags. A tag "reds" would imply photographs where the subject is exploration of that color. The tag "red" isn't really the singular of the same noun; instead, you're using the adjective red to describe a feature of the photograph. With the color, that's pretty clear, but with other areas of photography, there's more ambiguity — I'm thinking, for example, of "portrait" (adjective describing portrait photography) or "portraits" (plural noun).... – mattdm Feb 26 '12 at 4:28
@mattdm: Thanks. :) Excellent point about the plurality of traits, and I actually have two root keywords in my lightroom keyword hierarchy: Portrait (under which is hair color, skin color, age, etc.) and Portraits (under which are my...rather few...portraiture photos in subject groupings.) I threw in the wrong root keyword in my example hierarchy here, but you've pretty much got it nailed. – jrista Feb 26 '12 at 6:07

To quote another answer, "Most, if not all, search engines do stemming and thus they will provide the same result set for "dog" as for "dogs" they will often return similar result sets for "swim" and "swimming"."

This is true if you are talking about Google, Bing, or Yahoo, but not if you are talking about stock house search engines. While a few of the big ones do, most do NOT stem plurals or verb endings. Some are capable of stemming regular plurals, but not irregular.

I highly recommend my series of blog posts where I analyze various stock houses and how they deal with keywords and search:

The truth is, you are definitely best off keywording the singular and plural of every keyword, while this may be redundant for some stock houses, redundancy is not spam, just extra useless keywords. On the other hand, at stock houses that don't stem, these keywords will lead to your images being found in additional searches, and therefore should lead to more sales.

I agree that consistency is key, but you need to consistently keyword both singulars and plurals.

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As far as I know for a photo with two cars you should put both tags: car and cars.

Also it depends on where you use your photos, I upload my photos to stock agencies and most of them say that for a relative photo put both plural and singular tags, but there is one agency that uses different system, so they say to put only singular tags for photos with multiple objects.

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I am an advocate of plural. Tags are categories; think of them as labels on shoeboxes. A shoebox with the label "birds" contains pictures of birds. Singular is appropriate for cases when there really is just one of something, as with proper names. If it's often important to distinguish the number of birds, that should be a separate tag or even separate metadata field.

But I agree with others that it's good to be consistent. If you're doing it on your own, go with what makes sense to you and stick with it. If you're working with software or other people, try to arrive at a group consensus. Modern search software should handle returning results in either case, so ultimately I think it's a matter of organizational niceity rather than practical importantance.

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I agree if you see a tag as a collection of photos, it definitely makes sense to name something "birds", rather than "bird". – Ferdy Feb 28 '12 at 19:14

Much of the information about tagging is dated and will cause you a good deal of grief. Pluralization is a good example. Most, if not all, search engines do stemming and thus they will provide the same result set for "dog" as for "dogs" they will often return similar result sets for "swim" and "swimming".

In the past, a recommended best practice was to use both singular and plural because of the lackluster implementation of search. But that's pretty 1995. I would suggest concentrating on the quality of your keywords as regards describing what is actually in the image. I would also recommend against using keywords that describe things that are not in the image (spamming). Sometimes there are gray areas -- for example, when you shoot an (discreet) image of a person getting a massage at a luxury resort, do you put "resort" in the keywords even though there is no resort pictured? So concept keywords can be ok if not overused.

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