How can I increase my descriptive vocabulary?
November 21, 2007 8:20 AM   Subscribe

How can I increase my descriptive vocabulary, particularly for the purpose of tagging photos?

I like to tag my photos, but I'm not very good at describing what they are photos of. For example, I tend to have a lot of photos tagged "building", when I'm sure there are more interesting words I could be using. This is the first result on Flickr when I search for building:

It's an interesting building, but the words that spring to my mind seem inadequate: fancy, tall, turreted, asian...

As an example of where my vocabulary is apparently not so bad, I know the difference between chair, sofa, settee, couch, seat, pew, bench, chaise longue, stool, pouffe... and so on. What I'm looking for is to be able to describe other things in similar detail.

I recognise that this is similar to what authors have to learn to add color to their prose, so an equivalent question might be: how do they do it? Is there a better way than spending a lot of time with a dictionary?
posted by hoverboards don't work on water to Writing & Language (13 answers total)
Using colorful language could help you in prose, but I don't think it would help in tagging photos. What you want to do is identify the characteristics that people who would be looking for that particular photo would search for.
posted by demiurge at 8:34 AM on November 21, 2007

Not a dictionary, but perhaps some sort of vocabulary-building book or software? Or a thesaurus...take words like you've mentioned above and find their synonyms.

These are among the ways writers learn to add color to their prose. They also read widely. Not just widely, but omnivorously, compulsively. In a way, reading is practice for writing. When you absorb words, you also emit words.
posted by lhauser at 8:36 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

The words that sprang to your mind are fine, and not at all inadequate. The more descriptive the better. Sometimes the most obvious tags are overlooked - what about architecture? Or landmark? Think inside the box and outside it. When you post a photo, search for others who have take photos of the same thing and study their tags for ideas. Consult a thesaurus.
posted by iconomy at 8:38 AM on November 21, 2007

Thirding a thesaurus. Once you start learning synonyms for words that you frequently use (particularly adjectives) your whole way of thinking about descriptions changes.
posted by amyms at 8:44 AM on November 21, 2007

Interesting might not be exactly what you want either. Specialized adjectives are good, but rarer synonyms in lieu of more common words are not. Obscure tags are less valuable because they're less like to be used (searched, aggregated, associated, etc.) by others. Tagging something with "bethel" instead of "church" might be colourful, but not terribly useful for people looking for pictures of churches.

In short, dig deeper into the ontology. Start with general tags and move to more specifics, rather than trying to find interesting synonyms for words you're already using. If you can't think of appropriately specific terms, look for books, magazines articles, websites, etc. relating to whatever it is your photographing. And don't be afraid to "steal" tags used by other people if the subjects are legitimately similar; this actually add value to the tags used.
posted by Nelsormensch at 8:54 AM on November 21, 2007

Great book on exactly this topic: "Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style" by Arthur Plotnik.
posted by jbickers at 9:01 AM on November 21, 2007

An erstwhile photo librarian's 2 cents: specific location (e.g. the name of the street and neighborhood), date of construction, architectural style, architect name/firm, and the date of the photo itself was taken are all of potential interest to others who might be searching for photos. Some tags I'd consider adding:
  • Stesen Keretapi Kuala Lumpur (Malay name)
  • 1910
  • Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin (street it faces)
  • Victory Avenue (former name of the street)
  • Federated Malay States Railway
  • Malayan Railway or Keretapi Tanah Melayu
  • Arthur Benison Hubback (architect)
  • "Neo-Moorish (style)
  • Moorish Revival
General categories may be of interest to searchers as well:
  • "railway station", "railway stations", "train station", "train stations"
Tags in the first set are taken from Wikipedia, so should probably be double-checked.

posted by ryanshepard at 9:09 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

1. Practice.
2. Read more.

One thing that might help you is a lot of rounds of Image labeler. You get to practice your tagging and you get to see what tags other people use.
posted by seanyboy at 9:17 AM on November 21, 2007

For buildings, specifically, you can always use the Getty Art & Architecture Thesaurus.
posted by rachelpapers at 9:17 AM on November 21, 2007

Seconding Getty as a great suggestion if you're interested in specific architectural features.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:20 AM on November 21, 2007

One final suggestion: tags in the native language of the place the building is located can be helpful to searchers. Flickr supports Malay script, so these could be added along w/the transliterations and English equivalents.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:35 AM on November 21, 2007

Ditto on "read more", and focus perhaps on works from more than 50 years ago. There are some perfectly good adjectives and whatnot in those books that aren't in super-common use anymore, but can get the point across with some flair.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 10:16 AM on November 21, 2007

Flickr now has geotagging listed as an option next to every photo. I'd recommend using that if you're not already.

I don't think people typically search tags by unusual words, so it seems safe to not to worry much about vocabulary and more about describing every aspect of the photo in very mundane ways. e.g. "blue" if it has a lot of blue in it or something simple like that.
posted by groovinkim at 6:42 PM on November 21, 2007

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