What is IPTC metadata? And why should you use it? We explain what it is, why it’s useful and how to append it to your images.

IPTC metadata is the cornerstone of good image management and protection. It’s incredibly useful for news agencies, museums, image archives and other organizations, where a complete picture of image details is typically required. 

It’s also a key part of Google’s upcoming Licensable badge, which aims to make image sourcing and licensing straightforward, thus reducing the likelihood of unauthorized use.

Not sure how to use it? Here’s what you need to know.


What is IPTC metadata?

When we talk about image metadata, we refer to information that describes something about an image. 

Many of us are aware that an image will have a number of pieces of information attached to it, such as the camera that was used to capture the image and basic camera settings. These are part of metadata known as Exif data.

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The IPTC standard is separate to Exif data. While it works on the same principle, it allows us to go into more granular detail on the image and the conditions of its use among other things. 

It’s administered by the International Press Telecommunications Council (IPTC), a global standard body of the news media, who developed the standard in conjunction with Adobe. 


What’s the difference between Exif data and IPTC metadata?

Whereas Exif data concerns the technical details of an image, such as the equipment used to capture an image and the settings used at the time of capture, the IPTC standard focuses on the content of the images, together with their status with regards to ownership, rights and licensing. 

Because of this, the user needs to specify IPTC information themselves, rather than rely on a camera automatically adding it to images in the same way as Exif data is attached. Some basic IPTC metadata can be edited in most cameras, such as basic copyright text, and time and date of image capture, but the majority of it needs to be manually added in some way.

It is possible to program some cameras to automatically add a broader range of IPTC metadata to images as they are captured, but the nature of the information means that it’s only practical to add so much in advance. This is because the photographer will typically not be capturing the same thing over and over again, so certain details will not be relevant to every single image.

The current IPTC metadata standard is split into two schemas: IPTC Core and IPTC Extension. Between them, the individual fields cover three types of properties: administrative, descriptive, and those relating to rights.


Depending on the software you use to view and edit this information, you may see IPTC Core segregated into four sections: contact, image, content and status. 

These fields within these four sections allow you to add details like keywords, headlines and descriptions, together with the city and specific location of an image’s capture. Information on the image’s creator, such as their name, address, job title, phone number, can also be appended in individual fields, as can specific instructions on copyright and usage.

IPTC Extension

The IPTC Extension fields largely concern images that include people. Subjects in an image can be named, and details of their ages and the status of model releases can also be specified here. 

Other fields allow you to specify the origins of the image (film negative, scan, digital and so on), together with its maximum available width and height, in addition to other details.


Why is IPTC metadata useful?

The International Press Telecommunications Council (IPTC) has stated that its mission is to simplify the distribution of information. And while Exif data gives us a good idea of how an image was captured, it becomes difficult to keep track of exactly what an image contains (and so, how to find it) and how it can be used unless a more complete picture of its origins and content is embedded within the file. 

So it’s clear that, when used properly, IPTC metadata can be a powerful tool for a range of organizations when it comes to many aspects of image management, from basic categorization and discoverability, through to communicating terms of use to others.

Being able to view IPTC information can save a lot of time and hassle, even more so when images can be searched by keywords and pulled into a digital asset management system that supports the standard. And it’s easy to imagine a number of scenarios in which IPTC metadata can be of great use to a picture editor, researcher or archiver. 

Should a version of an image be required in a higher resolution or a different format, for example, or if there is some confusion over how an image can be used, IPTC metadata can be used to determine who should be contacted in relation to these matters. 

The knowledge that an image originated from a scan of a film negative can be useful here too, especially if the file has become corrupted or damaged in some way.

IPTC information is also used by Google when displaying information about an image in Google Images. While it will eventually be used to provide licensing information for images, it currently shows the creator’s name and copyright information (above).


Do I need to use both Exif and IPTC metadata?

Exif data is embedded within images as and when they are captured, so using it isn’t really a choice, more the reality of how cameras work. It is, however, possible to amend or strip it out from images, which is sometimes necessary for security reasons. 

IPTC information, meanwhile, will only be used if it’s either specified by the photographer beforehand or added after the image has been captured. So the default position is that photographers will have Exif data in their images but only very basic IPTC metadata, if any at all.

Clearly not every photographer needs to use IPTC information, and it can be a hassle to constantly amend this for different images. While some cameras do allow for a broad range of IPTC metadata fields to be added to images as they are captured, the option is limited to more expensive cameras targeted at press and sports photographers. 

Furthermore, this is only practical to a certain extent, given that many details included in IPTC metadata will not be applicable to all images. Your name and website won’t change between images, for example, but keywords, locations in which you shoot, and any models featured within your images are likely to.

Nevertheless, those working in situations in which they need to constantly send their images to clients have a clear interest in embedding basic information at the very least, such as contact and copyright information.


How do you add IPTC metadata to images?

Basic IPTC metadata, such as copyright information, may be filled in by the camera as it captures images. This isn’t necessarily presented as IPTC metadata in the camera, but you’ll find the relevant field is filled in once you examine an image on a computer.

Some other metadata may be specified by the user beforehand on a computer, before it’s loaded into a camera through its memory card or USB port. This can then be attached to images as they are captured, although you will typically be limited to adding the information that actually makes sense to attach to images globally.  

The remaining IPTC fields should be filled in after images have been captured using software. A number of software packages such as Adobe Photoshop, Bridge and Lightroom, allow for IPTC metadata editing, as do some proprietary software programs that ship with cameras (or are downloadable from camera manufacturers’ websites).

In Photoshop, for example, the user simply needs to click on File > File Info, before clicking on the IPTC option in the left-hand-side menu. Most fields allow for text to be entered freely, although some fields have drop-down options to help maintain consistency of description between images.

There are also a number of specialist software programs such as Photo Mechanic and Caption Pro, and these allow more advanced control over adding IPTC metadata.


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