Hierarchical Keywords


Today’s Question: What are your thoughts about whether or not to use hierarchical keywords? It seems like they could greatly automate a workflow.

Tim’s Quick Answer: I don’t consider hierarchical keywords to be a critical component of a workflow for organizing photos, but in certain situations they can certainly be very helpful.

More Detail: Hierarchical keywording is actually a subject I’ll address in today’s GreyLearning Webinar presentation on “Keywording Strategies and Workflow”. A hierarchical keyword is a keyword that exists within a defined hierarchy.

For example, a Bald Eagle is an Eagle, an Eagle is a Raptor, and a Raptor is a Bird. Based on this relationship, when we are talking about a Bald Eagle we also know we are talking about a Bird. If you define a keyword hierarchy where a Bald Eagle is defined as being a Bird, you can simply add “Bald Eagle” as a keyword and “Bird” will be related by association.

In the example above, “Bird” would not actually be added as a keyword to the image when you add “Bald Eagle” as a keyword. However, in software such as Lightroom Classic, after adding “Bald Eagle” as a keyword, a search for “Bird” would include the bald eagle photo in the search results.

This example demonstrates the potential workflow advantage of hierarchical keywords. Instead of adding multiple keywords from a given hierarchy to a photo, you can simply add the “lowest” keyword in that hierarchy. So you could add “Bald Eagle” as a keyword to a photo, and the photo would be searchable based on related terms Eagle, Raptor, Bird, and Animal.

That said, creating hierarchical keywords can be rather time-consuming. In addition, hierarchical keywords can result in a somewhat cluttered keyword list, since many of your keywords may now have a relatively large number of “parent” terms associated with them.

For my own workflow I have reached the conclusion that hierarchical keywords do not provide adequate value to justify the additional work and clutter that is involved. That said, for photographers who submit photos to stock photography agencies, hierarchical keywords can represent a considerable advantage. This is especially true since software such as Lightroom Classic enables you to include the “parent” keywords in the hierarchy based on the keywords you actually added to a photo, even if those parent keywords were never added to the metadata for the photo.

So, on balance I don’t personally feel it is worthwhile to make use of hierarchical keywords. However, some photographers can certainly achieve great benefits from their use.