Do You Make This Major Audience-Killing Blunder With Every Photo You Upload?

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How to make your pictures
more “findable”

 All the pictures above have one thing in common. Can you spot it? if you answered “they are all titled ‘Untitled” you are spot on.

Frankly, I’m at a loss to explain why so many photographers do this. One of the great benefits of the Internet age is the ability to share our pictures with the world, no matter how good or bad they might be, or whether the world wants to see them or not. In the past, most of our photographic efforts were only seen by a handful of people – family, friends, and maybe some bored relatives. Today, every one of us has access to a potential audience of millions.

Another benefit to posting pictures online is the ability to generate some income from them, even if we’re not professional photographers.

Picture this: an art director and copywriter, sweating away in a high-profile ad agency, have just come up with a brilliant idea for an ad. But the ad requires a b+w photograph of a man riding a bicycle in the rain in London with St Paul’s in the background. So the art director goes in search of the picture online (or instructs a junior to do so).

Now it just so happens you uploaded that exact picture a week ago to your Flickr stream. However, you’re quite an “arty” photographer so you called the picture “Untitled”, and didn’t add anything to the description. So there your brilliant picture sits, unseen by anyone except those in your Contacts list.

The art director (or his assistant) types “man on bicycle in rain in london” into the search engine. Immediately, the bots scurry around the WWW seeking a satisfactory response to the request. Unfortunately, they run right past your picture without even glancing at it. Why? Two reasons:

    1.) The bots (or spiders, or call-them-what-you-will) cannot “read” pictures. They can only read text. So if you don’t provide any text for them, other than “Untitled”, they’ll ignore your picture and you lose the potential for a bob or two on that picture
    2.) The term “Untitled” is irrelevant to the search query – the bots are looking for words like “rain” “bicycle” “man” “london” and so on. They are not looking for the word “untitled”.
search results volume for term untitled
381 million search results for the term “untitled”. That’s some competition you’ve got there.

But, as soon as you give a picture a proper title, good things start to happen. Below is a screen grab of a Google search query result for the term “lake glencairn pictures”. Well whaddaya know!? It just so happens that I have some pictures taken at said lake a couple of years ago and, as luck would have it, I actually used the term “lake glencairn” in titles and descriptions and stuff. Because this user typed “pictures”, in the search field, Google knew that pictures were required and placed a few before position #1 in the organic search results, including two of mine.

lake glencairn kwazulu-natal search result
Nine pictures before position #1 in the organic search result and two of them are in my Flickr stream. I get another visit which could possibly lead to a sale. If they had been called “Untitled” would they have shown up? I don’t think so.

Incidentally, I have a WordPress post about the same subject, which came in at position #12 for this particular query, in other words, Position 2 on Page 2 of the search results. Not bad for a few minutes “work”. Another thing to keep in mind; Google didn’t put these pictures there because it likes them. (Remember, Google can’t judge the aesthetic quality of a picture, it can only “read” text.) It put them there because each one has a piece of text attached to it that in some way is relevant to the search query. It may be a title, a description, an “alt” tag, or something else, but it’s there.

This is the simple principle behind search engine optimisation, or SEO . To date, I’ve sold a grand total of three pictures to art directors of varying stripes simply because those pictures showed up in search results. (And, as Woody Allen once famously remarked: “90% of success is just showing up.”) They are probably not the best pictures available online of the subjects, but they were obviously the best or most appropriate pictures of those that did show up. The art directors may quite possibly have chosen other pictures if they’d known about them, but perhaps those better shots were all titled “Untitled”. Three pictures is not a lot, but I don’t make a living with photography so all three occasions were happy bonuses for me.

Of course, you might not care a fat rat’s arse if any of your pictures ever sell to anyone or not. So what? There’s another important reason to say more about your pictures than “Untitled”.

Viewers like information about pictures. Where, when, what, under what circumstances a photograph was taken, stuff like that. Info helps us to appreciate the picture more. Publications like Life, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, the National Enquirer, or any other magazine or newspaper would never dream of publishing pictures without some supporting information. When you don’t put any descriptive text with your photographs you actually spoil our enjoyment of your pictures.

“Untitled’s” abstract beginnings

The “Untitled” title has it’s roots in 20th century art. There are a few uses of it before then, but it was relatively rare.

Then, as painting became more and more non-representational, or purely abstract, pioneered by Wassily Kandinsky from about 1910, it became increasingly difficult for artists to come up with meaningful titles for their works. It was difficult to title seemingly haphazard splodges of colour and a few squiggles as “Picnickers on Salisbury Plain”. Kandinsky got around this problem by using titles like “Improvisation No 27” or “Composition No.19”.

Another reason abstract artists sometimes avoided using titles was because they didn’t want their own feelings or views about their work impinging on the viewer’s gut-level reaction to it. They didn’t want to impose any of their own preconceptions on the viewer. It was up to the viewer to come up with his, or her, own title or not.

This is fine for non-representational art. For photographers it’s a cop out. It’s also counter-productive in this Internet age. Even quite abstract titles like “Contemplation”, “Anger”, “Meditations”, “Improvisation no. 27”, and such like, are better than “Untitled”.

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3 reasons to use “Untitled”

1.) The photographer can’t come up with a “catchy” title. If this is you then relax, you don’t need a catchy title, just  a bit of info will suffice, e.g., “Rainy day, Oxford Street, London”, should do the trick. This helps the viewer put the picture in some sort of context, and it helps search engines find the picture, which increases viewership beyond the confines of the limited number of contacts you may have on any social media platform. My most popular WordPress post is simply titled “Views of Johannesburg from Langeman’s Kop”. This is not clever or catchy, it’s nothing more than a description of what the post is about.

NOTE: An easy way to name any picture: Simply take a look at the picture you’re uploading and write a couple of words that describe it, e.g., “Fisherman with nets, Porto”, “Yellow cabs, New York”, “Stonehenge”, “the Kremlin”…see, it’s not difficult.

ask others to name your untitled picture
Of course, there’s always the ultimate cop-out…get others to come up with a title or caption.

2.) The photographer is lazy. Writing titles and captions (yes, we should do captions, too, although I must admit there are a few pictures in my Flickr stream without captions) can be a pain in the behind, especially if you’re frequently uploading dozens of pictures. But for the title “Untitled” to display, you have to physically type it into at least one field of the upload form (assuming there is a form that allows you to do so). If you’re going to take the trouble to write “Untitled”, why not take the trouble to write one or two words about the picture, e.g., “Kestrel landing”. Is that too difficult? Sometimes I look at a picture and think “What a cool shot. I wonder where/how/when/why it was taken?” I look for the info only to find “Untitled”, with no further details provided.

3.) The photographer is pretentious. Personally, I think the “Untitled” title belongs firmly in the realm of abstract art, where it may make some sense. I don’t think it has any place in photography, especially in street photography which is the genre all the examples in this post belong to. But you’ll see the same thing in any genre. I think by simply naming a picture “Untitled” you rob the viewer of valuable information that may enhance their appreciation and enjoyment of the picture, you rob the search engines of a chance to find the photograph in a search, which may in turn rob you of income.

Everything that applies to “Untitled” applies to camera-assigned file names, e.g. DSCF20141011. This doesn’t help anyone find anything, in fact it’s even worse than using “Untitled”, and to me, is discourteous – if you can’t be bothered to tell me anything about your picture, why should I be bothered to look at it? Even the term “Untitled” shows that the photographer may have given at least some thought to the title. A camera file name doesn’t. Or perhaps you think your camera is better at naming your pics than you are.

bad title for a picture
Camera file names are not great for SEO. I won’t nit pick the typo, we all make them.

Some of the pictures I’ve uploaded here in small fragments with photographers names blacked out (this is not a naming-and-shaming exercise) are very good. Too bad so few will see them.

You can find the Street View Photography group on Facebook here.


2 thoughts on “Do You Make This Major Audience-Killing Blunder With Every Photo You Upload?”

  1. My gut feeling, based on no information whatsoever, is that laziness (and perhaps innocent ignorance?) accounts for 80% of these Untitled images. You would need to be very pretentious indeed to go with “Untitled” as a conscious choice.

    1. And yet, Gavin, I think many people do go with this as a conscious choice. It just happens too often to be otherwise, particularly in the field of street photography. I’ve seen pictures, and I’m sure you have, too, that, while they are titled “Untitled” actually provide some info in the caption. Go figure. I think the laziness factor does play a part but I think it applies mostly to pictures with camera-assigned file names, although I’ve even seen a few of those with a bit of info in the caption. And if you’re going to take the trouble to write a caption, why not write a heading at the same time, or use what you were intending as the caption for a heading instead? It’s much better for SEO purposes. Here’s another thing; most platforms won’t automatically fill in the word “Untitled” if you leave the title field blank – they just won’t display anything (unless you leave the camera-assigned file name/number there). Invariably, to display the word “Untitled”, someone must consciously put it there. Other strange titles I’ve seen include an ellipse (…), and a star, or asterisk, and one or two other symbols.

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