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Metadata and the Windows Vista Photo Gallery

Metadata and the Windows Vista Photo Gallery

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If you have ever applied a tag to a photo, given it a star rating, or changed the date or time it was taken, you’ve edited the metadata on the photo. The term metadata literally means “data about data”. Your photos are considered “data”, so metadata about your photos is simply information that further describes your photos.

The Windows operating system has always had mechanisms for storing and displaying metadata. For example, here is some of the information available for photos in Windows XP:

  • File Name
  • File Size
  • File type
  • Date last modified
  • Etc.

Windows Vista makes some improvements to the metadata system for photos. For example, here is some of the new information available in Windows Vista:

  • Tags
  • Date Taken
  • Rating
  • Caption
  • Image Resolution
  • Camera make/model
  • Shutter speed
  • Etc.

Some of this information is written to the photo by your camera (e.g. shutter speed, date taken, camera make/model). Some of it is added by you in an application like the Windows Vista Photo Gallery (e.g. tags, captions, and ratings).

In the past, you may have used third-party image management applications that allowed you to add tags (or other metadata) to your photos, only to find out later that those tags were locked in a private database that only that application could read. This makes it inconvenient to share your photos (or back them up), since the metadata didn’t travel with the file. In Windows Vista, our goal is “the truth is in the file”. That means that metadata you apply to your photos is part of the photo, and available to any application that knows how to read it. But how do we accomplish that?

EXIF, IPTC, and XMP – oh my!
There are a number of competing standards for imaging metadata. That is, different ways of reading and writing metadata for photos. One of the biggest standards, EXIF, is commonly written to photos by most cameras, but has many limitations. It’s somewhat antiquated, fragile, not very flexible, and doesn’t support international languages like Japanese very well. IPTC is a standard that is used pretty widely in journalism applications, but is undergoing a transformation towards an XMP-based system.

XMP is an extensible framework for embedding metadata in files that was developed by Adobe, and is the foundation for our “truth is in the file” goal. All metadata written to photos by Windows Vista will be written to XMP (always directly to the file itself, never to a ‘sidecar’ file). When reading metadata from photos on Windows Vista, we will first look for XMP metadata, but if we don’t find any, we’ll also look for legacy EXIF and IPTC metadata as well. If we find legacy metadata, we’ll write future changes back to both XMP and the legacy metadata blocks (to improve compatibility with legacy applications).

Hurry up and wait
It can be time consuming and resource intensive to read and write large image files. Because of this, The Windows Photo Gallery does all of its file activity in the background. When you query or tag photos in the Gallery, the instantaneous performance you’re seeing is the result of a database that caches metadata to provide a fast user experience.

Although you’re able to tag thousands of photos and move on immediately, the reality is that those files will slowly be updated in the background. If you have tagged a bunch of files, those tags will not be visible to other applications until the Gallery has finished writing to those files. There is a small indicator in the bottom left hand corner of the application to let you know what the Gallery's metadata read/write status is.

Hover your mouse over the small blue icon below the tree when it appears to see a tooltip with the following information:

  • Number of tag updates remaining (how many files the Gallery needs to read tags/metadata from)
  • Number of file updates remaining (how many files the Gallery needs to write tags/metadata to)
  • Number of thumbnail updates remaining (how many thumbnails the Gallery needs to generate from files)

When the little blue icon disappears, it means the Gallery’s database and the file system are in sync. If you still run into files that are out of sync…

Your mileage may vary
Although our goal is for “truth in the file”, we know that we won’t be able to achieve it 100% of the time for all files. There are some cases where metadata writeback is impossible, so we do the best that we can. Some of the cases where we can’t write back metadata include:

  • Insufficient permissions to write to the file
  • File type (or codec) doesn’t support metadata writeback (e.g. BMP, PNG, GIF, MPEG, etc.)
  • Corruption in the file (badly formed metadata, etc.)
  • File is locked for writing by another application

In these cases, the Photo Gallery will write the tags (or other metadata) to its own database, but since it is not in the file, other applications (and other parts of Windows) will not have access to the metadata. Other parts of Windows (e.g. Explorer, the Photo Viewer) may not allow you to write back metadata at all if it cannot be written to the file immediately.

The Gallery does retry writeback operations several times before giving up. Every time the Gallery starts up, it will retry files that it couldn’t write in previous sessions. So if you discovered that your tags weren’t getting written back to your files because they were marked read-only, simply clear the read-only flag, and restart the Gallery. This should cause all of your tags to get written to your files.

We will be posting more extensive documentation on MSDN in the coming weeks. Watch this space for an update!

- Scott Dart (Program Manager)