How to Organize Your Digital Photographs :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Organize Your Digital Photographs

by David Peterson 5 comments

Film photographers were so much more organized than we are. They had shoeboxes. Remember shoeboxes? When you got your photos back from the lab, you flipped through them, you gave away a few extra copies, and then you stuck them in a shoebox, promising yourself that one day real soon you would put them into a photo album.

Today’s shoebox equivalent is the hard drive. I’m very sorry to say, that just because you store your digital photos on the computer does not mean that they are more organized. If you want to be able to retrieve your digital photographs with ease, you need to have an organizing system in place. In case you don’t know where to begin, here is a short list of suggestions.

Set the date and time

One of the first and most critical steps that you need to take in organizing your photographs is making sure the date and time stamp on your camera is accurate. This is a very simple process, and it only takes a few minutes. If you don't do this you are taking away one of the simplest tools if you have at your disposal for finding any given photograph. If your camera’s date and time are correct, then you can find almost any photograph as long as it you know roughly the date of the event occurred. If, however, your camera has recorded all of your events as occurring sometime in the 1900s, you're going to have a much more difficult time. Now be aware that just because you set your date and time on your camera back when you first got it, doesn't necessarily mean that the date and time is correct today. If you let your camera's battery run down or stay flat for an extended period of time, it's quite possible that your camera lost all of the time and date data that you gave it. So whenever you have a flat battery in your camera, it's worth checking to make sure that the date and time are still correct. Some cameras will access the date and time via satellite, but unless you know that your camera has that ability, it's best not to assume. What you don't want is for that time and date to go all wacky on you when you're not aware, because that will create a big organizational problem for you down the road.

Delete the Duds

Not every photograph is a winner. In fact I would venture to say that the majority of photographs are probably not winners. Now, the number of photographs you decide to keep from any given event is going to depend a lot on you. If you're a parent, you probably want to keep almost every shot you've ever taken off your child. But even if you're hanging on to all the less than perfect images, there are going to be some shots that just aren't going to be worth saving. For example, you may have some unrecognizably blurry images of your child. You may have some very overexposed shots and some very underexposed shots. If any of your photos fall into that category, it's worth taking a few extra minutes to delete them.

For those non-kid photos, well, let’s face it—you just don’t need to keep everything you photograph. So whenever you sit down at your computer to copy files off of a memory card, take some time to go through those files. Look for duplicates, or images that are very similar to other images shot at the same event. Look for images that are not technically perfect. Delete anything that doesn't represent your best work. Once you get your collection of digital photographs down to a more manageable size, it will be a lot easier to organize and catalog them, and to search them at a later time.

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Blurry by Flickr user 8lettersuk

Now I understand and recognize that this task is a difficult one for some people, and a simple one for others. So if you just can't bear to part with all but the most imperfect photos, that's OK. Just make sure that you are following the other guidelines in this article, and you will still be able to organize that massive collection of digital images.

Everything in its place and a place for everything

Even if you regularly whittle down the size of your collection of digital photographs, that does you absolutely no good if you don't have a system for organizing that content. If you're just dumping all of your photographs into the "photos" directory on your hard drive, you're not doing yourself any favors. How hard do you think it is it to find a specific photo when its name is "DSC_7235.jpg" or “IMG_4398.jpg?" So even if you're pressed for time it is generally a very good idea to think about where you should put those images when you copy them over to your hard drive. Come up with a directory scheme and stick to it. The directory system you choose is up to you, but definitely choose one. Don't just dump and go.

Some photographers will sort everything chronologically, by date. This is a pretty good system if you also choose sub folders labeled by month and event, but in general this only works if you sort your folders by name, since the "date added" or "date modified" sorting options aren't going to accurately reflect the date of the event, only the date that you created the folder or modified the files within it. Instead you'll need to choose file names that will be sorted in the correct order, but be aware that numerical isn't always the way to go. Some operating systems are rather stupid about the way they sort numbers, for example, placing "11" after "1" instead of placing "2" after “1” (which is what any reasonable person with a second grade education would do). To deal with this problem, I label my months with leading zeroes, like so: 01, 02, 03 ... 11 and 12. This avoids that strange sorting logic that certain operating systems insist upon.

You are, of course in no way obligated to sort chronologically. In fact, chronological sorting really only makes sense for people who have a good head for dates. If that's not you, you may choose instead to sort your files by event. If you do it this way, make sure you choose a logical naming scheme. For example, don't put generic words like "the" or "big" at the beginning of the file name, because when you sort them alphabetically you aren't going to be able to find things. Instead place the most important word first, such as "birthday party, Henry, age 5." You might be tempted to put Henry's name first but you need to think in terms of making the folder easy to find—chances are you have a lot more Henry-related events than just birthday parties, so choose the smallest possible category and put that word first.

Sorting, of course, isn't the only way to find your photos. Searching is important too, so always make sure you're including all the words you're likely to search for when you find yourself looking for a certain set of images. Don't just include "birthday" and "Henry," for example, but make sure you have "party" and maybe even the venue in the directory title, in case you’re looking for the party you had at the pizza place but you can’t remember what year that was.

Take advantage of your software’s organization features—not doing so is a mistake. Windows even has these tools built-in, such as the ability to add stars to each photo. Starring each individual image makes it a simple matter to find only your best work. You can also use the star system later on to print a collection of the year’s best images, or add them to a photo book.

Some software packages let you bulk rename your files, which makes it infinitely simpler to find individual images with a global search. Other tools let you add tags to your images so you can search by event or person, and some even have facial recognition abilities so you don't have to individually tag anyone—your software does all of that for you.

Including tags is also going to be enormously helpful, especially if aunt Wilma showed up to one of Henry's parties in the most ridiculous hat ever but you can't quite remember which party it was. Tagging those images with "Wilma" and "hat" will help you quickly locate them years later, long after you’ve forgotten pretty much everything else about that party.

Backing up

Never underestimate the importance of backing up your digital files. It doesn't matter how well organized they are, if your computer suffers a catastrophic hard drive failure, or if there's a fire or a burglary, those photos are gone. I am a huge fan of backup services like Carbonate and CrashPlan, because they include software that does all the backing up for you, behind the scenes—which means you won't ever sit bold upright in bed at three in the morning with the sudden realization that you haven't been backing up your files and your computer was acting kind of funny yesterday. Some if these services will also give you a way to automatically back up to an external hard drive, which means you'll have two backup locations, one off site and one on site. Having backups off site is important because your files will be safe even if something happens to them at home, and having a local copy is just good practice in general.

Form good habits

None of these suggestions will do you any good at all if you don't form good habits. It's easy enough to say, "I'll do that later," but too many laters will add up to a massive marathon of photo organizing. Unless you have a lot of free time to spend that way, it's a really good practice to do all of your organizing at the time you actually copy those files to your hard drive. Being diligent will prevent stress, both now and in the future.

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  1. Dornie says:

    As usual, your data is very helpful. I found the only fool proof system for organizing photos is your own system of using folders, sub-folders and so on. I have mine on ex-HD and Flash Drives. Its the only system every app. will recognize and is especially easy if you label your folders and photos to suit your needs. I use Major Categories (TRAVEL), Followed by (Event or location), etc. I label photos by Date (20150601)Event/Person (Tom 17BD Dnr)
    IPhoto together with iPhoto Library Mgr hand an excellent system until recently, when Photos replaced it, leaving you in a void. I have about 10+ editing apps, and their changes sooner or later neutralize what was good, so you have to depend on yourself.

  2. PAUL LeSAGE says:

    After four years, I finally decided to get organized with my accumulated photos. Above tips are great, and you should follow the file organization suggestions, but THEN invest in the Photoshop Lightroom subscription and get a good book on basic Lightroom. Then buy two 5 TB hard drives, (one will die some day), they are only $129 at B&H. Duplicate save all your stuff on those two drives and learn how to use Lightroom Catalog. It is really simple and you will sleep much better at night, knowing you have your images under control and easily accessible. Just spend a little time adding keywords, stars, flags etc. as you choose, and feel comfortable. Get the image files off of your computer hard drive and everyone will be happier... you and your computer.

  3. Wartz1 says:

    Brilliant ! I have a stack of SD cards which I have been meaning to sort out but I have not been able to work out a process or system. Your item will be a great help, starting today!

  4. Ronald James Van Dyke says:

    I like a lot of your posts, David, but this one on "organization" was a little watered down. Could you be very specific about how to set up a system for those of us who want to get into LR because I'm not sure of the process. ie 1) Where do you file your pics in your computer when you 1st bring them in from your camera) 2) no doubt you'd weed them out at this stage 2) Then you bring the ones you wish to edit into LR 3) Where do you store edited photo's? I realize that you want to store most photo's externally to free up your computer space, External HD &/or cloud ,but LR, I believe needs to have a set file in your computer to access & work with them. Maybe you want to get back & re-edit.
    Thanks, Ron

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Ronald,

      This article wasn't specifically about Lightroom. If you'd like some help navigating Lightroom, I recommend you check my "Post Processing for Photographers" course. On Day 8, I spend 15 minutes walking you through the import and organization sections of Lightroom.


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