Tagging and foldering in Photo Gallery

In this 14-minute screencast I interview Scott Dart, who blogs here, about how tagging works in Vista’s Photo Gallery. I wanted to look over Scott’s shoulder, rather than do this myself with my own photos, because Scott’s been managing a lot of photos in this app for a long time, and he’s in a position to reflect on the evolution of his tag vocabulary.

The metadata storage strategies discussed here lately are just plumbing. What you see in this screencast is the payoff: An application that will be, for many people, the first experience of a style of personal information management that relies on tagging and search as much as, or more than, on folders and navigation.

Conventional wisdom was that people could never be bothered to invest effort in tagging their stuff. What del.icio.us and then Flickr and then a host of other web applications showed is that people will invest that effort if the activation threshold is low and the reward is immediate. On the web, the rewards are both personal (I can more easily find my photos) and broadly social (I can interact not only with friends and family but with like-minded photographers everywhere). On the desktop, the rewards will mainly be personal and more narrowly social (friends and family), though if photos can bring their tags with them when they travel to the cloud, the broader social rewards become available too.

One of the fascinating threads in this screencast is the interplay between foldering and tagging. In principle you don’t need a folder hierarchy rooted in the file system, and doing away with it entirely would reduce the concept count. In practice that’s not yet possible, if only because cameras don’t produce endless streams of uniquely-identified files. When DSCF0004.JPG rolls around again, you have to put it into a different file-system folder than the last time.

It’s too bad, really, because those file-system folders serve little other purpose. They’re conceptual clutter that obstructs your view of tagging, and of tag-oriented search and navigation, which is where all the action really wants to be.

A further complication is that, unlike most of the popular tag systems on the web, tagging in Photo Gallery is hierarchical. You don’t have to use it that way, you could keep a flat list of tags, but the system invites you to nest your tags in a way that seems folderish but that has a magical property. The same thing — not a copy of the thing — can be in two or more places at once.

It’ll be fascinating to observe what people make of this. For example, that magical same-thing-in-two-places property may seem less magical to the majority of folks who don’t know what I know about directory structures on disks. I experience cognitive dissonance when I see a “real” file-system hierarchy and a “virtual” tag hierarchy living in the same navigational tree. But somebody who never had a strong sense of the difference between those two modes might not be bothered at all.

Are people actually using tags to organize and search for their photos? According to Scott, data from the opt-in software quality metrics (SQM) feature — which relays anonymized usage data to product teams for analysis — says that they are.

How private tag vocabularies develop, and what happens when they intersect with the web, are two processes that I’d love to be able to study over time. That raises an interesting question. Can I access that SQM usage data myself? Could groups of willing participants pool their data and do independent analyses of it? It’s our data, there’s no reason why not. Does anyone know how?

37 thoughts on “Tagging and foldering in Photo Gallery”

  1. “This is nothing new”

    I’m not claiming that it’s new, I’m just observing that it’s about to hit the mainstream in way that hasn’t happened yet.

    That being the case, it would be interesting to see similar screencasts that would compare the various approaches that are being taken in Picasa, Photoshop Elements, and others — some hierarchical, some not.

    If such screencasts don’t exist I’d be willing to help get them made. The more we see and understand the flavors of tagging that can exist, the better individual and collective taggers we will all become.

    This emergent phenomenon of people annotating digital artifacts — for both personal and shared use — is a really big deal, way bigger than any one implementation or vendor.

  2. Thank you very much for this post. I watched the screencast, tried it myself for ten minutes and now I’m hooked!
    Perhaps other software (like Picasa) use simulair techniqs, but now that it is integrated in the OS I’m willing to use it. I checked out the Photo Gallery earlier, but didn’t see the added value. Now I do. :)


  3. I’ve just got around to finishing off tagging my photos, and coming up with a tagging structure. I’ve gone for the deep hierarchial tags approach, eg Places/England/London/(sub places in london), Events/Birthday/21st and People/Friends/My Bob.

    It would be great if Windows Photo Gallery did Geocoding too, so I could search within an geographical area (if the photos had latlongs in the metadata).

  4. It is a pity that there is no standard for these tags so that they can be used between applications.
    Not even between Microsoft’s applications.
    I have used MS Digital Image Suite for some time and like it a lot. It has nice hierarcical tags and works well even with a fairly large amount of pictures. It is unfortunate that Vista does not use the tags in the same way or is at least able to read those tags correctly.
    What’s worse, something in Vista (possibly the Media Player) _changed_ all the tags in all my photos so that they did work in Digital Image Suite any longer. I restored a backup, but soon enough the tags were changed again. I have now removed the Picture directory from the Library in Media Player, and the tags have not be destroyed since.

  5. “It is a pity that there is no standard for these tags”

    In fact there are several metadata standards in play, which of course creates its own problems.

    “I have used MS Digital Image Suite for some time and like it a lot. It has nice hierarcical tags and works well even with a fairly large amount of pictures. It is unfortunate that Vista does not use the tags in the same way or is at least able to read those tags correctly.”

    Hmm. Did not know that, thanks for the tip.

  6. Great article and screencast :)

    However, I was a bit let down during the screencast when the “Sunset/Sunsets” issue came up. I was completely expecting an explanation of which is better to use in a tag–singular or plural nouns. For instance, say I have a picture of a single flower and another picture of a field of flowers. When I go to search for one of them–not the other–I may be out of luck. As I type in “flower,” both pictures will show up in the results since “flower” is contained both pictures’ tags. If I wanted to search only for pictures with multiple flowers, I could type in “flowers,” and then I wouldn’t see the picture with only a single flower. But what if I wanted to search for only pictures of single flowers? I could never do that with Windows Photo Gallery’s search method. I’ve been trying to find a way to be able search for singular-only, plural-only, and all pictures, but so far I only know how to search for plural-only and all. Of course, I could add more tags to the picture with a single flower, like “single,” but then if I searched for “flower single,” that could also refer to a picture with a field of flowers where each flower had a “single” petal. Of course, adding tags adds clutter, so I’m probably going to have to nest my tags. But I was really hoping this issue were be addressed at that point in the screencast. Still, it was informative nonetheless.

  7. “I was completely expecting an explanation of which is better to use in a tag–singular or plural nouns.”

    That’s a great question. I’m sure there’s not one single right answer, but we’re rapidly approaching the point where differences in our conventions — singular vs. plural, embedded spaces allowed or not, case-sensitive or not — will matter. Not only for our personal use of tags but more critically for our collective use of them.

    Heaven help us, we’re going to need…tagging standards.

    Meanwhile, in trying to answer your question, I checked to see if quoting an exact query — e.g. ‘flower’ — would isolate a singular tag. But nope, it doesn’t.

    I also discovered an exception to what was said in the screencast about assigning multiple semi-colon-separated tags. You can’t do that with Photo Gallery’s Add Tag feature, but you can in the Right-Click->Properties dialog. Though arguably that then qualifies as a feature of the shell, not of the app.

    The semicolon is another standardizable thing, of course. What’s the general way to delimit multiple tags. In the wild today I’m aware of spaces, semicolons, and commas? This /will/ cause problems.

  8. To bad Vista destroys the meta data already in the file so other applications can’t read it anymore. The interface is a very nice copy of f-spot to bad you can only use Microsoft’s solution once you’ve used it the first time.


    MS is on the right track with the emphasis on tagging. Just test things so it doesn’t break the existing functionality.

  9. Jon,

    In 2000 I started work on a windows explorer replacement called XTend. I stopped doing it a long time ago, not because it lacks value but because the market wasn’t ready. There are some interesting parallels to what you are talking about here. In particular XTends’ core concepts:
    1) Don’t hidden content in deep hierarchies.
    2) Use ‘tagging’ to organize content by letting tags be combined to create virtual folder *paths*
    3) Replace the idea of ‘Save As’ which is well past it’s *used by date* with the idea of ‘Save With’. So you can save documents with tags, or more generally with anything else, like other documents, emails, urls etc.

    I have a couple of old (circa 2003) screencasts here: http://www.base4.net/blog.aspx?ID=14

    I wish I had the time to do this again now, because I believe the world has been ready for about the last 18 months for something like this.

    This whole area of Filesystems and meta-data is so interesting, so keep up the good posts.


  10. Jon

    The presentation cuts off after just a few seconds?

    As Scott says “when the selection model…”

    (no timeline on your player)


  11. With Photo Gallery, the truth is not entirely in the file; there’s still a database involved and it can get out of sync with files. This impacts interactions with other applications — even Adobe Photoshop Elements, which uses the same tagging format. The problem is that Photo Gallery doesn’t notice when metadata becomes out of sync with its internal database, except under very specific circumstances.

    For detail, see:


  12. I wish the demo had included drag and drop to assign tags — very handy.

    Your cognitive dissonance was exacerbated by starting with the folder hierarchy — one never needs to use folders, and most users won’t start there (if only because folders are at the bottom of the tree).

    I wish the Date section of the tree had an option for newest year first (descending). I have 10 years of photos, but want 2007 more often than 1997. Sorting within the content area does diminish this gripe (and I keep the Dates section collapsed). (Grouping and sorting are more flexible in Photo Gallery than anywhere in the shell.)

    FWIW: some cameras do assign unique filenames.

    Many will pooh-pooh the Fix tools, but they are easy and handy. This is a great free app.

    The Picasa comparison overlooks two things. Picasa writes little text files in every folder AND that data doesn’t travel with a picture. Tag a photo, email to me, and I have the tag, too.

    peace, mjh

  13. I am very new at tagging and was wondering how to back up photos with the tag hierarchy. Can I only backup the actual files in the folder structure or can I back up from my tagging lists? If so, how is that done? I want to backup to a flash drive, not a cd.


  14. It seems that tagging is such a cool concept now, all those social sites now use tags, technorati uses tags, youtube uses tags, even customessaymeister.com starts to use tags. What I can say for sure is that tagging is more effective than categories, because people tend to look for things, names, brands, etc. and they like not having to think what category that name falls under.

  15. I really liked the presentation. I have used the tags in adobe photoshop album when it first came out but forgot abut it when I reformatted my computer and lost all the data related to my albums i had created.

    You mentioned towards the end of the video that while you were on a trip you had your laptop with you and tagged some pictures on there and then moved them to your desktop. What happends to the tags when you transfer the pictures over? Is the information stored whithin the pictures themselves or is it XML files?

    I recently purchased a laptop with Vista on it, and I would like to start using the tagging feature but when I upgrade my desktop to Vista, how will I be able to merge all the photos and their tags?

    I hope you can take the time to enlighten me.

    Thanks and good work on the video.

  16. Yann – the tags are stored in the pictures themselves. We’ve blogged about this quite a bit over on our team blog, this post is a good starting point: http://blogs.msdn.com/pix/archive/2006/08/16/702780.aspx

    Assuming that you (as a user on your machine) have permissions to write to the file, and the file types support embedded metadata, you should have no issues. Wherever you copy the files from your old machine to your new one, the metadata should travel with them (since they are part of the file) and get read by the Photo Gallery on the new machine automatically.

  17. When I tagged my pictures using tag hierarchy the search no longer finds any of the tags in the hierarchy except the top one, what is the point of nesting tags in this way when the search cant find any of the tags ?

  18. “When I tagged my pictures using tag hierarchy the search no longer finds any of the tags in the hierarchy except the top one”

    I’m not seeing that behavior. Can you illustrate it, for example using Jing?

  19. FYI – there is an updated version of Digital Image Suite which makes the tagging mechanism work with Vista.


    Previous versions of Digital Image Suite wrote metadata in such a way that Vista could read it, but it did not understand Vista’s metadata. With the update, metadata read/write works in both directions. We’re behind in getting this information up on our blog!

    The Microsoft link is dead. Is there any way to still get this update so I can fix my old Digital Image 2006.


  20. Hi

    I have a question about WLPG tagging hierarchy. I have a group set like the following

    Lets say I have a photo tagged with all three. If I want to search Jane and John – I get that photo with Jack in it as well. Is there a way to exclude a tag?

    Thanks for your help,

  21. I have a similar question to Tom’s. If I have photos tagged with Jack and some tagged with Jill, and both Jack and Jill appear together in some of those, is there anyway to sort the photos to show pictures that include both Jack and Jill and omit the pictures that contain them alone?


  22. > is there anyway to sort the photos to show
    > pictures that include both Jack and Jill
    > and omit the pictures that contain
    > them alone?

    In Vista’s desktop search, the query…

    tag:(jack jill)

    … does what you want.

    Alas, that query is not (to my knowledge) supported in Photo Gallery.

  23. Can you export by tag? Say I want to give someone copies of certain pictures – I want to do it based on tag. How to I send just those pics to an external hard drive and keep the tag structure so that person knows what photo is what? But they may not have this program. I’d like to almost export tags into folders. Can that be done?

  24. But… how do I search tags? No luck there? I want to search them in a box and then apply them to new batches. Is taht possible or do I have to continually type?

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