iStock Keywording Guide

There is a lot to consider when keywording a file for iStock: subject, setting, composition, themes, technical information and more. It can be easy to miss the forest for the trees, fleshing out less important information while overlooking keywords that are more important to the customer (and to your sales). This document will take you through a step-by-step process to ensure all the important information is covered.

Keywording a file can be likened to the “5 Ws” of journalism: Who, What, When, Where and Why. Four of these five basic questions will help you gather just about all the information you want to make sure is covered in your file's keywording, and we'll talk about the Whys at the end. However, we're going to blur the borders of the 5 Ws somewhat, in order to make the keywording process more intuitive.

One thing many keyword types have in common is that there are both broad and specific ways to present the information, for example, "Male With Group Of Females" vs. "Group Of People."

Okay, let's get started.

Your Subject: Who & What

What kind of file do you have? A portrait of an artist in her studio? A useful editorial product shot of the latest iWidget? Maybe a sunrise over a gorgeous misty landscape? The broader question is, what is the subject of your file?

Most of the time, the file's subject is one or more of the following: a person, animal or object. This means that a lot of the time, your What is also your Who. Let's start with keywording photos of people.


Surprisingly, the most common mistake made when keywording photos of people is not including the “people” keyword. Seems obvious, but it can be easy to overlook what's staring you right in the face. Start broadly, by including “people” in any files that contain people. Then, move on to the specifics:

  • How many people?
  • What are their ages, genders, and ethnicities?
  • What role do they serve, in society and to each other?
  • What activities are they performing?
  • What emotions are they displaying?

What do they look like? What sort of clothing are they wearing? What other interesting or unusual details about their physical appearance are worth noting?

How Many People?

A single person, or a group of people? No people?

Broad people-grouping terms: Small Group Of People (3-5), Medium Group Of People (6-10), Large Group Of People (11+)

Small Group Of People, Four People, Female With Group Of Males

Specific people-grouping terms: One Person, Two People, Three People, Four People, Five People

One Person, One Man

The keyword No People/Nobody should be included on any file that doesn't contain people, in order to help refine searches.

Incidental People should be used in files where people appear in the background, out of focus, or otherwise are not the main subject of the photo. If a file includes Incidental People as well as people who are the main subject, only apply the Group/Ethnicity/Role/Age etc. keywords to the people who are the main subject.

Age and Gender

For each featured person in the file, an Age Range as well as a Specific Age should be included. Often these age terms are combined with the subject's gender. We'll start broadly, and refine further as we go down the list.

Baby - Only for images that contain baby-age subjects

  • 0-6 Months
    • 0-3 Months
      • 0-1 Months
        • Newborn
        • Premature
      • 1-2 Months
      • 2-3 Months
    • 3-6 Months
      • 3-4 Months
      • 5-6 Months
  • 6-12 Months
    • 6-9 Months
      • 6-7 Months
      • 8-9 Months
    • 9-10 Months
    • 11-12 Months
  • 12-18 Months
    • 12-15 Months
    • 15-18 Months

Child- Only for images that contain child-age subjects.

  • Toddler
    • 18-24 Months
      • 18-21 Months
      • 21-24 Months
  • Preschooler
    • 2-3 years
    • 3-4 years
  • Elementary Age
    • 4-5 years
    • 6-7 years
    • 8-9 years
  • Pre-adolescent Child
    • 10-11 years
    • 12-13 years

Teenager- Only for images that contain teenage subjects.

  • Early Teens
    • 13-14 Years
    • 14-15 Years
  • Late Teens
    • 16-17 years

  • Young Adult
    • 18-19 Years
    • 20s
      • 20-24 Years
      • 25-29 years
    Gendered Terms: Young Men, Young Women

  • Mid Adult
    • 30s
      • 30-34 Years
      • 35-39 years
    Gendered Terms: Mid Adult Men, Mid Adult Women

  • Mature Adult
    • 40s
      • 40-44 Years
      • 45-49 years
    • 50s
      • 50-54 Years
      • 55-59 years
    • Gendered Terms: Mature Men, Mature Women
  • Senior Adult
    • 60s
      • 60-64 Years
      • 65-69 years
    • 70s
    • 80+ years
      • Over 100
    Gendered Terms: Senior Men, Senior Women


It is extremely important that the ethnicity declared in the keywords be backed up by the model release. Do not guess or assume a subject's ethnicity.

For multi-ethnic people, include the relevant ethnicities as well as the term Mixed Race Person.

For files that depict a group of subjects of varying ethnicities, include the term Multi-Ethnic Group.

Relationship and Role

What is the subject's occupation or other social role, if depicted? If there are multiple subjects, what relationship (social or familial) do they have to each other?

Include the Couple keyword when the subjects are depicted in a romantic relationship, but not for friendships or working relationships. Differentiate between heterosexual and homosexual couples using the appropriate keywords. Include an age keyword (Teenage Couple, Senior Couple) for couples from the same age range.

The Husband and Wife keywords should be included for couples in wedding attire, or where a ring is visible. They should not overlap with the Boyfriend and Girlfriend terms.

Family relationships should be included when depicted in the image. For parents, One Parent or Two Parents, as well as Mother/Father/Daughter/Son. For two-generation families (one set of parents and children, including older families with adult children), include the relevant Family With X Children term, where X = 1-10.

For families that span three or more generations, use the "Multi-Generation Family" keyword instead of the above two-generation family keywords.

More on Keywording People


When an activity is key to conveying what the file is "about," please include it. Most of the time these will be verb-type keywords.


When a mood or feeling is strongly depicted in a file, please include it.

Clothing and Appearance

Include details about the person's physical appearance, traits and clothing, especially where key to the photo (fashion-type shots) or atypical (a child wearing an adult's clothing, for instance).


Amongst the other types of composition/technical keywords (see relevant section), include any people-specific ones such as Waist Up, Head And Shoulders, Rear View, Full Length, Looking Over Shoulder, Portrait, Looking At Camera, etc.


Keywording files with animals isn’t dissimilar to keywording files with people: in both cases it’s important to cover criteria like number, gender, age, activities, physical description, and most importantly, species.


Be specific AND general when keywording species. Including the general animal type, as well as species and subspecies, maximizes customers’ ability to find your file.

For example, including Amphibian, Frog and Poison Dart Frog on this image.

Number of Animals

Groupings are broken down similarly to the Number of People terms:

Broad Animal-grouping terms: Small Group Of Animals (3-5), Medium Group Of Animals (6-10), Large Group Of Animals (11+)

Specific Animal-grouping terms: One Animal, Two Animals

Additionally, some types of animals have species-specific terms for groupings, like Herd, Flock, Swarm, School, etc. Include these where relevant.

Animal Gender

Many animals are sexually dimorphic (the male and female have a different appearance or features), and some also have gendered nouns. Where this is the case (doe/buck, cock/hen), include the specific noun as well as the generic Male Animal/Female Animal, and when it’s not, use the generic nouns.

Animal Age

Like with the gendered nouns, some species have age-specific nouns, include these when relevant (kitten, calf, lamb, foal, silverback).

Animal Activity

Where activity is key to the file, please include it. Oftentimes, these are more broad verbs that can also apply to human activity, but occasionally are animal-specific (rutting, shedding, bucking).

Animal Appearance

Patterns, colours, texture, and other physical characteristics can help customers looking for specific types of images.

Animal Viewpoint/Composition

How much of the animal is included in the file? These terms often overlap with the ones used for people (Full-Length, Rear View, Side View) but terms like Animal Eye or Animal Tail should be included where specific parts are the focus.

Animal Themes

Some concept terms overlap for all types of imagery, but there are also some animal-specific ones to be used where appropriate, such as Working Animals, Pets, Livestock, Captivity, Endangered Species, etc.

Keywording Objects

There are fewer criteria to worry about when keywording objects, just type, number, and description.

Object Type

Very straightforward: what is it? As with animals, it is helpful to include general and specific types of object.

For instance, a basketball can be keyworded with Sporting Equipment, Ball and Basketball.

Object Number

As with People and Animals, it breaks down into broader groupings, and precise numbers. Note that these grouping terms should be used when the objects have a relationship of sorts, or are the focus of the image (a closet full of shirts, the ingredients for a recipe, a workman’s tools).

Broad Object-grouping terms: Small Group Of Objects (3-5), Medium Group Of Objects (6-10), Large Group Of Objects (11+)

Specific Object-grouping terms: One Object, Two Objects.

Object Description

Adjectives or verbs that contain information about the object in question. Is it Big, Small, Dirty, Clean, Shiny, Dull, Round, Flat? Is it Bouncing, Floating, Falling, Hanging? For groups of objects, are they Organized, Stacked, Heaped, Bundled?

Your Setting: Where & When

After capturing the essence of your subject with keywords, the next thing to do is capture its environment. Whether you’re shooting a white-background isolation of a laptop, or a high-octane motocross race, describing the setting accurately will help drive traffic to your file. Key components to doing this well are geographical region, location, season, and time of day.

Geographical Region

City, state/province/region, and country are essential for many files, especially lifestyle-type images and anything shot outdoors.

In the past, we have discouraged contributors from including geographical keywords on lifestyle-type assets, but as the worldwide demand for locally produced content has increased, we have come around to the need for customers to find content native to their region. So, we encourage geographical keywording on files where the setting isn’t necessarily the primary focus of the image.

However, certain types of shots in a truly generic setting (studio shots, object isolations, etc.) should forego geographical keywording, unless there is something to tie that studio shot to a particular location, such as a regional-specific electrical socket, a snow globe with Calgary in it, or a map.

Non-geographical Region

Now that we can pinpoint the geographical “where” of your image on Google Earth, we still need to know what kind of “where” the action is taking place. A synagogue, an auto body shop, a state park, a squash court? An apartment balcony, a bakery kitchen, a church confessional, the produce section at a supermarket?

Setting as Subject

When the setting is the focus of the image, as with landscapes, building photos, landmarks, and city skylines, be sure to include both the specific location, as well as the type of location. For example, St. Peter’s Basilica AND Church. Include the architectural style or aesthetic for these type of images as well. Additionally, where the setting is the subject, consider keywords like Skyline, Cityscape, Rural Scene, Extreme Terrain, etc.

Other Setting Keywords to Consider

Time of day

Noon, Day, Night, Dusk, etc.

Time of year

Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring. Best applied to images where the season is the subject of the image.


Arid Climate, Tropical Climate

Concepts & Themes

Concept and theme keywords are some of the broadest, fuzziest keywords, and also the most consistently over-applied on the site. We encourage you to shoot material with concepts in mind at the outset, rather than over-keywording for tenuously related concepts after the fact.

Tangential and speculative keywording doesn't help our customers, and ultimately takes up space in your file that could be used to include more valuable information about what's going on the the asset. We have seen many, many files in the past that are piled high with unrelated concept keywords, and missing the most basic terms to convey what's going on in the asset (for example, a file of a dog on a street with "pound" and "vet," neither of which were in the photo, but missing the "dog" keyword).

A lot of these issues come down to "end-use keywording," or keywording for possible uses of the file, rather than the content of the file itself. The thought process goes something like this: "someone might want this mountain landscape to use on a postcard, therefore I will add the keyword 'postcard.'" Or, "red wine has documented benefits for cardiovascular health, therefore I will add the keyword 'heart' to this picture of wine." We strongly discourage this kind of tangential keywording, as it dilutes search results for customers.

Good concept vs. Bad concept keywording

relevant: recreation, travel, hiking, healthy lifestyle

irrelevant: retirement home, parents

relevant: history, nostalgia, old-fashioned

irrelevant: girlfriend, housewife

relevant: happiness, adolescence, responsibility

irrelevant: insurance, accident

Composition and Technical Aspects

We've put these last in the list because, while they are useful to customers who "speak the language" of photography and video, they generate less traffic than the more straightforward keywords involving subject, action, setting, themes etc. After covering all your bases on these items, it's useful to round out your keywords with some of these when applicable.

Viewpoint Keywords

What point of view is depicted?

Front ViewRear View
Side ViewDistant
Close UpExtreme Close Up
Surface LevelHigh Angle View
Directly AboveAerial View
Unusual angleDirectly Below
Low Angle ViewProfile
Over the Shoulder

Technique Keywords

What sort of compositional, in-camera or post-processing techniques were used to create the image?

Long ExposureDefocused
BacklitSepia Toned
Copy SpaceFocus on Foreground
Digitally Generated ImageSeamless
Cross-ProcessedMultiple Exposure

Series Keywords

Is the image part of a set of assets that are strongly related, by model, setting or theme? Subsets of this category include things like Day In The Life Series and Day And Night Image Series.


Possibly the sole contentious composition keyword on the site, what is and isn't a background image has been a point of debate for a long time now. The most useful Background files (usefulness in this case referring to the most downloaded) are almost all full-frame images centred around colour, pattern, texture, or all three.

Video-Specific Keywording

Many video techniques are motion-specific, and don't overlap with still asset types. These typically describe camera movement, focus changes, and other factors such as whether a clip is loopable. Crane Shot, Dolly Shot, Dissolve, Handheld, Lockdown, Loopable, Panning, Rack Focus, Reverse Motion, Slow Motion, Tilt Up, Tracking Shot, Zoom In, Shaky, Time Lapse.

The keyword Implied People should be used in videos (not still photography) where someone is implied by the action (moving vehicles, the pages of a book turning where the page-turner is out of frame, etc.) but not explicitly visible in the clip.

We've prepared a Video Keywording supplement that covers an array of video specific terms you should consider. Keywording Supplement – Videography Part I - Video Techniques.

Audio-Specific Keywording

We have a separate audio-specific vocabulary that contains keywords applicable to Audio assets only, mostly audio-specific meanings of already existing keywords. However, the majority of keywords applicable to audio files overlap with other media types as well.

When keywording music, it's important to cover the following:

  • Genre (Blues, Salsa, Heavy Metal, Big Beat, etc)
  • Main instruments used (guitar, marimba, snare drum, zither, etc)
  • Themes and concepts presented in the lyrics, if present
  • Emotions or mood conveyed by the music (spooky, mournful, relaxed, cheerful, etc)
  • Musical techniques used in the composition (arpeggio, crescendo, rapping, counterpoint, etc)

When keywording non-musical types of audio files, typically keywording for the types of objects/subjects generating the sound, and a verb (jangling, rattling, barking etc.) will be enough. However, some sounds have no specific "real-world" counterpart. For these, onomatopoeia (whoosh, thud, beep, buzzing) can be useful, as well as industry terms (cut, stinger).


Why does good keywording matter? Thorough, accurate keywording across our vast library of content provides the best possible search experience for our customers, which will keep them coming back and also draw in new customers with a superior search experience. Also, since some our content is shared with our sister sites, keeping things specific and focused helps their customers' search experiences as well. Finally, with the keyword ceiling being capped at 50 tags, you want to make sure they are focused on providing as much relevant information as possible within the limited space.


All of the images used were sourced from the portfolios of the following Contributors:

Angelafoto | HeroImages | Moodboard_Images | hocus-focus | Bim| diane555 | Alija | Thomas_EyeDesign | Fotonen | Pro-syanov | IS_ImageSource | Dean Mitchell | Yuri_Arcurs | powerofforever | DaydreamsGirl | ZoneCreative | aldomurillo | GlobalStock | Lokibaho | CEFutcher | Kontrec | mammuth | Rubberball | caracterdesign | okeyphotos | mediaphotos | Snowleopard1 | mbbirdy | nullplus | volschenkh | gui00878 | Andyworks | KeithSzafranski | predrag1 | EMPPhotography | perets | cjp | WLDavies | titlezpix | KenCanning | apomares | RobertoGennaro | skhoward | mattjeacock | helenecanada | ollo | evirgen | LifesizeImages | franckreporter | xavierarnau | Clicknique | bluecinema | gioadventures | Young777 | Deejpilot | shaunl | Grafissimo | titlezpix | ewg3D | Lisa-Blue HultonArchive | sam74100 | gollykim | vgajic | Casarsa | vuk8691 | aqualandphotography | Alphotographic | cglade | craftvision | millann | DavidCallan | AlexSava | photovideostock | XiXinXing | nesharm | LeoPatrizi | Wicki58 | luoman | iconeer | ImagineGolf | pixdeluxe | andresrimaging | s-cphoto | mxtama | andrearoad | real444 | pictore | OJO_Images | JGould | jahtik | myshkovsky | andipantz | wragg

Article written by the illustrious Jordan Lane(Keywords) with some assistance and pestering from Lobo.

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