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Images: Search Strategies

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Image Search Tips & Strategies

Searching for images can require different search strategies than searching for text items. Retrieving visual content with words can be a complex process that involves matching search terms with vocabulary used to describe the image. What you are able to find will depend on the level of detail used to describe the image, which can range from very few words to in-depth subject analysis, and the extent to which your search terms match the descriptive vocabulary. You may find what you need with your first search, or you may need to try several different approaches. Here are some tips:

Choosing an image database

  • Browse the databases listed on the "Image Databases & Resources" page. Databases recommended here are arranged by subject, and the resource descriptions will tell you something about the images in the database.
  • Try searching more than one database. No one database will have every image you will need.
  • Move beyond Google Images. Most of the databases found on these pages contain images that cannot be found in a Google Images search.

Effectively using an image database

  • Familiarize yourself with the contents and features of the database you have chosen. Every database is structured differently, with different image content, different descriptive data, and different search functionality.
  • Browse the database. A good way to learn about a database is to browse it. This will give you an idea of how it organizes the data in the records, the level of detail for each image description, and the subject coverage of the database.
  • Use the "About" or "Help" pages. These pages often provide detail about how information is structured in the database, how images are indexed, and the types of images you are likely to find. This information will save you time and effort when you begin your search.

Search strategies

  • Start small. Try using just 1 or 2 keywords to start your search, combining them using an "and." If your results set is too large, then add additional keywords. If your results set is too small, you may need to try other databases.
  • What do you know about an image? Consider everything you might know about an image your'e looking for. Location? People? Title? Subject? Keywords from any of these categories could help.
  • Are there other ways the image might have been described? The visual elements you want to see in the image may be only partially described with keyword terms. You may have more success searching on place names (what place is depicted, or where is the object), time periods, artist names, photograph publishers, or even materials or dates.
  • Check reference sources. Refer to reference books in your subject area for ideas for more search terms. Browsing a book on your topic of interest may give you that extra bit of information that helps you broaden your list of possible search terms.
  • Foreign languages. If image titles may be in a language other than English, or if you are looking for non-English place names, you may need to experiment with different possible translations, or try non-English vocabulary. Oxford Bilingual Dictionaries are available online from the UW Libraries.
  • Names of artists and places. Artist names and place names often have more than one accepted spelling or format. If you do not find the results you expect with one spelling, try another.
  • Synonyms and variant spellings. Try using synonyms, singular/plural variations, and different or no punctuation. Images are often described using vocabulary that is not controlled by a thesaurus or subject headings, so using term variations in your search process may help you find more results.

Searching for images can often be more unstructured than searching for other types of materials or information. Think creatively to retrieve the most useful images, and be willing to experiment with different search strategies. Learn from your successes. If you find just the right image in a particular database, make a note of that success so that next time you need to find an image, you'll remember what worked.