Did you know that most cameras embed hidden information, called metadata, into every photograph taken? And when you share those images, say by uploading them to a social network, that hidden information often stays embedded? And that people can view said information for almost no effort at all?
This metadata is called EXIF data (Exchangeable Image File Format) and is harmless in most cases, but can be used by malicious users to inconvenience you at best or harm you at worst.
What Is EXIF Data? And How Can It Be Bad?
Photography is a complex endeavor. Not only is it one of the most creative and life-improving activities that you could pick up, but it’s also intensely technical: exposure, lighting, composition, posing, etc. This is why online photography courses are so popular — there’s just so much to learn that even a genius would need several decades to achieve mastery of it all.
EXIF data embeds a lot of this technical information into the image itself, making it easy for you to see how a particular photograph was taken (great for studying, learning, and recreating). For example, EXIF data can include:
- Camera manufacturer and model.
- Data and time.
- Compression type.
- Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings.
- Metering mode.
- Flash mode.
- Pixel resolution.
Sounds fine, right? On the whole, EXIF data is actually well-intentioned, innocent, and practical. The problem is that certain devices may embed certain types of data that can betray your personal privacy and security.
Consider a GPS-enabled, camera-equipped smartphone. When you take shots with your Android, those photos can contain the GPS coordinates of where you took them. This can be great for geotagging your adventures, but can also give away the location of your home to strangers if you upload those shots to social media. (But don’t take this as a reason to stop using your smartphone as a camera!)
Consider a DSLR camera that you’ve been using for years. Not only can EXIF data include the manufacturer and model of your camera, but it can also include its serial number. If you ever share or upload an iffy or incriminating photo, it can be traced back to your camera. It could also be used (theoretically) to find other photos on the internet that you’ve taken with that camera.
Or maybe you just don’t want to give away your photo-taking tricks and secrets.
The NSA collects and analyzes EXIF data, too. It’s hardly a surprise now, but a few years ago, files were released that showed training materials from the NSA’s XKeyscore program and how it aimed to use EXIF data (among many other pieces of data) as part of intelligence collection.
Is it likely that EXIF data will come back and bite you in the rear? Probably not. But is the possibility always there? Yes. Unless you have an intentional reason to keep EXIF data, you should always remove it.
Here are three easy ways to do that. (Note that some websites, including Facebook and Flickr, remove metadata on upload. Be sure to check a website’s policy before uploading!)
1. Remove in Windows File Explorer
Windows actually has a built-in method for clearing EXIF data from images and it couldn’t be more straightforward to use. Simply open File Explorer (use Windows key + E as a shortcut), navigate to your image, right-click on it, select Properties, then go to the Details tab.
Windows 10 can detect two photography-related categories of EXIF data: “Camera” and “Advanced photo”. Camera data includes technical aspects like aperture, metering mode, and focal length. Advanced photo data includes serial number, white balance, EXIF version, etc.
At the bottom, as you can see in the screenshot above, you can click on Remove Properties and Personal Information to open the EXIF removal tool. The tool lets you either create a copy of the image with all metadata removed or pick and choose which properties to erase from the selected file.
You can also select multiple images in File Explorer and use this process to remove metadata from all of them at once.
The only downside is that Windows 10 can’t (or won’t allow you to) remove every bit of EXIF data. I’m not sure why Microsoft kept this limitation in Windows 10, but either way, if you need to absolutely nuke EXIF data then you might be better off with one of the other two methods below.
2. Remove Using GIMP
GIMP is another easy and effective way to remove EXIF, especially if you already use GIMP on a regular basis. It may even be easier and more effective than the Windows method!
Simply launch GIMP, open your image, then go to File > Export As… to export the image. (Note: GIMP differentiates between “saving” and “exporting” — the former is for projects, the latter is for images.) Make sure you name the image with a JPG extension!
After clicking the Export button, you’ll be presented with a window where you can set export options. Expand the options by opening the Advanced Options panel, and uncheck Save EXIF data. Change the other options to your liking, then click Export to finish.
The only downside, as far as I’ve seen, is that batch removal is a nuisance with this method. You have to open all images and export them one by one, and even though it only takes about five seconds per, it can be quite a nuisance.
You could also do this using Photoshop instead of GIMP, but is it really worth buying Photoshop just to remove EXIF data? I don’t think so — but definitely consider it if you plan on getting serious with photography and doing a lot of post-production.
3. Remove Using a Mobile App
If you take most of your photos on your phone, then it may make more sense to use an EXIF-removing app instead so you don’t have to involve your computer in the shoot-edit-upload process.
Before you install a third-party app, first check your Camera app’s settings to see if you can disable EXIF data generation. Some camera apps may only let you disable location inclusion, while others may not allow you to disable EXIF at all.
Still need an EXIF remover? You can try Exif Eraser for Android or Metapho for iOS. Both are free to download, but Metapho requires an in-app purchase to unlock the ability to remove metadata, edit date and location, and share safely to social networks.
Download — Exif Eraser for Android (Free)
Download — Metapho for iOS (Free, Premium for metadata removal)
Other Tips to Keep in Mind
When you’re choosing an online photo hosting service, consider picking one that automatically scrubs EXIF data. Also make sure to check your social network settings, such as these photo privacy settings on Facebook. It’s just one aspect of how we’re all sharing too much data online.
We also have plenty of resources for learning photography itself. Check out these must-know photography basics along with these photography skill-building exercises. You may even want to look into making money with your photography, such as by selling your shots on the web.
Do you regularly remove your photo’s EXIF metadata? If so, do you use a tool we didn’t mention here? Leave a comment and share your favorite metadata scrubber below!
Originally written by Chris Hoffman on 10th September 2013.