The Capture Date Myth

by | 2022-06-20

To serve clients well, professional photo organizers need to be confident that photo dates in the organized collections delivered to those clients are correct.

You need to know when you can trust photo dates you see in the software you use, and what metadata fields to check if the dates don’t seem right.

In software commonly used by professional photo organizers, ‘Capture Date’, is the name of a field whose purpose is to display the date a photo was taken. The problem is, the date displayed as the Capture Date cannot be trusted to be accurate!

What is Capture Date?

Capture Date is not an Exif metadata field. It is not metadata field at all. It is an expression! The term ‘Capture Date’ is used as the label for a date field in many applications used by professional photo organizers, including Adobe Lightroom Classic and Photo Mechanic.

Learning the proper terminology is essential to understanding photo dates. Sadly, I frequently see inaccurate terminology used. I’ve even seen Capture Date listed as an Exif field in a course for professional photo organizers.

If you’re wondering, “What metadata date is displayed in the Capture Date field?” The answer is: It depends!

It depends on what date metadata a photo has. When a photo has no Exif date metadata, or incomplete Exif metadata, applications that have a Capture Date field will analyze whatever dates a photo does have. Each application has its own system for determining which date will be displayed as the Capture Date. Because applications rank dates differently, the same photo may have different Capture Dates displayed in different applications.

In the screenshot below from Adobe Lightroom Classic, a Capture Date/Time is displayed for a photo with no Exif date metadata:

Many people assume that if a photo has a date in the Exif DateTimeOriginal field, that date will be recognized as the Capture Date. That is not always the case. A photo must have the same date in at least 2 Exif Metadata fields for that date to be recognized as the date the photo was taken and displayed in the Capture Date field of Adobe Lightroom Classic and Photo Mechanic.

I consider dates displayed in Apple Photos to be Capture Dates too, even thought the date field has no label. In Apple Photos, all files are assigned a date. If a photo does not have a date in at least one Exif date field, the date the photo is assigned may be the date the photo was scanned, or the date the photo was downloaded from a social media account, or the date the photo was received in WhatsApp, or the date the photo was saved from a text message.

Is it a Big Problem?

The great majority of digital photos we get from our clients do have accurate Capture Dates because they have Exif metadata that was added to the file when the shutter was pressed on the camera.

It’s the small percentage of photos without Exif metadata or with incomplete Exif metadata that cause professional photo organizers a lot of problems and confusion—the evidence can be seen in the discussions in photo-related forums and Facebooks groups.

Checking a Photo’s Capture Date

The only way to know for sure if a photo’s Capture Date accurately represents the date the photo was taken is to look at several different Exif date fields for all photos—or at least those you suspect are not accurate.

Exif date metadata can be examined using applications such as Exiftool (Mac & Windows), ExifToolGUI (Windows) and online tools that require you to upload photos. Other applications may require plugins to reveal the metadata.

Look for Future Posts On These Topics:
  • The combination of Exif date fields needed to ensure photo Capture Dates will be recognized in any photo-related application or online photo gallery service.
  • Applications for examining photo date metadata.
  • Applications for adding or editing photo date metadata.
  • Best practices for adding dates to scanned photos.
  • Best practices for correcting photo dates.