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Writing on the backs of photographs with a soft pencil used to be an everyday practice in the graphic arts. How else would the page designer know what caption to give a photograph? Sharing information about pictures and documents is essential for a successful publishing workflow—but where’s the soft pencil in an all-digital world? It’s called metadata, and it’s a tool that you’ll soon find hard to do without.

Data about Data

Metadata can include almost any information that can be stored as text: keywords, captions, descriptions, copyright information, related Web sites, and more. Metadata travels with your file, and you can call it up whenever you need it. Most digital cameras today automatically save metadata with every snapshot, including a date-and-time stamp and an exposure. Some cameras log a unique ID code so you can tell which camera shot a particular image.

And metadata isn’t just for photographic files. Adobe Photoshop, Acrobat, Illustrator, InDesign, and GoLive can all handle metadata. So you can add keywords to InDesign and Illustrator documents and PDF files, and later search your hard drive for those files without launching their respective programs.

It’s Easy to Add Data

Different applications handle metadata in different ways. (And some programs, such as QuarkXPress, hardly support metadata at all. You’ll need A Lowly Apprentice Production’s $180 XPert Tools Pro [] to read and display metadata in XPress.) In Adobe’s Creative Suite (CS) applications, metadata is hidden inside or alongside files, in a format called XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform). This is an open XML-based standard that some other applications (mostly asset-management programs) support. You can see and edit a document’s metadata by choosing File: File Info in any of the Adobe CS programs—except Acrobat, where you choose Advanced: Document Metadata (see “Add Metadata”).

The File Info dialog box offers several panels full of metadata fields along its left side. The two Camera Data panels contain read-only information, untouchable by anything but a digital camera. You can edit most of the other fields, but you’ll probably focus on the fields in the Description panel, including Document Title, Keywords, and Description.

Each metadata field has a small fly-out menu next to it, and each menu shows metadata recently added to that file or others—helpful when you want to apply the same metadata, such as your name, to more than one file. If you add a keyword to an InDesign file, that keyword will appear in the fly-out menu in the File Info dialog box of Illustrator and Photoshop files.

You can use Pound Hill Software’s free MetaLab utility ( to create your own panel full of custom metadata fields. For example, you can build a pop-up menu with a list of internal account codes. Then, if you use the File Info dialog box to apply one of the codes to each of your files, you can later search for files by their account code.

Because these applications save the metadata inside your files, anyone who receives them can open the File Info dialog box and see what’s there. So if you place your Web page’s URL in a JPEG’s metadata and then e-mail the file to someone, the recipient can figure out how to get in touch with you. Or if you put your name in an Illustrator file’s metadata before sending it to a magazine for publication, the artist-credit information is always available. (Of course, you can’t force anyone to look at the metadata, but at least it’s there.)

Some metadata travels farther than you might expect. If you use InDesign’s File Info dialog box to add a description of your document (such as “brochure with dog on front”), this information is embedded in any exported PDF file that includes that InDesign document. You can then use Acrobat’s Search feature to find all the PDF files on your hard drive, and even on the server, with the term “dog on front” embedded. Because Acrobat searches metadata along with the text that actually appears in the PDF file, it’ll find your exported file.

The flip side of this is that if you include personal or sensitive information in your metadata, you may want to strip it out manually with Acrobat or Photoshop before sending the PDF file off into the world.

File Browser Control

You can also use Photoshop’s File Browser to read and edit metadata. This works for not only Photoshop images but also InDesign, Illustrator, GoLive, and PDF documents. To work with files that aren’t in the usual Photoshop formats, choose Unreadable Files from the File Browser’s View menu (see “Browse for Anything”). If you choose a file that can’t handle XMP metadata (such as a Microsoft Word document), Photoshop will politely decline to deal with it.

The File Browser trumps the File Info dialog box for three reasons. First, it enables you to see and edit metadata without opening the file. Just click on a document, and the metadata appears in the File Browser’s Metadata palette (except for keyword metadata, which appears in the File Browser’s Keywords palette). If you can’t see the metadata fields you’re looking for, select Metadata Display Options from the Metadata palette’s fly-out menu. A pencil icon marks the editable fields; just click to the right of a title to add to or change the text.

The second advantage of the File Browser is that it allows you to apply metadata to more than one file at a time. For example, you can apply the same copyright notice to 50 Photoshop, Illustrator, and PDF files by selecting them all in the File Browser and using the File Browser’s Metadata and Keywords palettes. (Beware—you can’t undo this action.)

The third benefit is that, using the File Browser’s Search feature, you can locate files (again, any XMP-aware files, not just Photoshop images) that contain specific metadata. If you add color details to the Description metadata fields of a folder full of Illustrator files (for instance, “blue car,” “red truck,” and so on), you can later search for the word blue and locate all your blue illustrations. Without metadata, you would have to look at each file individually.

When you find the file you’re looking for, double-click on it to open it in Photoshop. Or control-click on the file to choose the opening application.

Extract Data

Now that you’ve added metadata to your files and images, you’re ready to retrieve the information. You can always open a file’s File Info dialog box or the File Browser to see the metadata, but when you’re inside a page-layout program, you’ll need another way to recall metadata from imported images.

There are two routes to this hidden information in InDesign. After selecting an imported graphic on your page, open the Info palette and choose File Info from the fly-out menu, or open the Links palette and choose Link File Info from that palette’s fly-out menu.

Save yourself time and avoid typing errors by selecting a field and copying it to the Clipboard. Say someone added a caption to an image in Photoshop: you can copy that caption and paste it into a text frame in InDesign—no more captions on sticky notes that get passed from person to person.

A bug in InDesign prevents you from copying data from the Link File Info dialog box more than once. Your only workaround (and it’s a bad one) is to close the InDesign document and reopen it.

Better Than a Pencil

It may take you a while to become comfortable with metadata, but once you do, you’ll never want to go back to pencil scribbles. Used properly, metadata is a crucial part of the digital workflow.

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