How to Properly Organize Your Photos

by Jon on February 8, 2011

Digital cameras and low storage costs mean many of us now have digital photo libraries in the gigabytes, with no end in sight. How do you keep all of that media wrangled and under control? All you need is a system.

There’s tons of stuff written around the web on the subject of photo organization, and a good deal of it is overanalyzed and superfluous at best. I like to keep things simple and to the point, so I’ll summarize the issue in as few words as possible and give you some easy recommendations. No reason you should have to wade through a PhD thesis on the topic just to find last year’s vacation snaps!

The Issue

Now that you have a digital camera, you’re shooting more and more and throwing away less and less. Your pics are taking up hard drive space, and more importantly, it’s getting a lot harder to find that pic you took of Sally’s birthday, or the one of Uncle Merle at the beach, or Jethro with his shirt off. Photos are meant to be enjoyed, and you can’t enjoy them if you can’t find them and share them. Fortunately, a simple organization system is enough for most people to keep things under control. There are two schools of thought: organizing things into folders, or tagging things with metadata.

Organizing with Folders

Rather than throw every photo you ever took into one giant folder and leaving it to fend for itself, create folders based on dates, locations and events. It’s not the most efficient method, but it’s enough for most home users – as long as you use a consistent folder naming convention. A great many folk, and statistically this probably includes you, will name a folder arbitrarily based on whatever pops into their head first, then throw their latest pictures into it. This is an excellent way to lose things in a black vortex of organizational hell from which the most common escape is catastrophic hard drive failure (and if you’re this type, you’ve probably got that to look forward to as well). No, the trick to this method is to name your folders a certain way, and stick to it. Here’s an example:


First the year, month and day, followed by the location, followed by the event. Dating things like this means everything stays sorted in the proper order, and adding the location and event should be enough to remind you of what’s in there. You might choose to do things a different way, but again the key here is consistency – pick a naming convention and stick with it.

Pros: familiarity – if you can use a computer, you probably already know how to use folders and subfolders; speed – it only takes a second to make a new folder and put things in it. Cons: inconsistent naming means things can get lost; may have to search multiple folders to find something.

Now here is a picture of my cat, Pixel. This will become relevant in a minute.


Organizing with Metadata

If you’re a pro, a power user or someone who likes feeling superior and words that begin with ‘meta’, this method will elevate your photo-fu to the next level. Most photo management software, including Aperture and Lightroom, allows you to add metadata to your photos in the form of tags, or keywords. Doing so is a good idea, because:

  • Your photos can belong to more than one group. For example, this photo of Pixel could be tagged ‘pixel’, so a quick search for that tag would bring up lots of photos of him, some of them a good deal less creepy. However, I could also add the keyword ‘animal’, so searching for that would return not only Pixel, but those photos of the baby giraffe I took last December. Because photos can belong to more than one ‘group’, there’s lots more flexibility in how they can be sorted and viewed.
  • You’ll get to things faster. I can probably lay eyes on the Pixel photo I’m thinking of just by typing a few letters in a search box. That’s much more efficient than looking through four or five folders because I can’t recall when I took it. I can barely remember what I ate for breakfast, I certainly have no idea when I took any of the 300-odd Pixel photos from 2010.
  • Like keywords, your structure of folders and subfolders is really just another form of metadata: specifically that of a file’s location. Keywords are a more efficient way of achieving the same end – getting to, enjoying and sharing photos of your cat faster.

Time to get organized: Recommendations

  • If you’re a home user, you don’t take a ton of photos, or you don’t like things getting technical, use folders. Just be sure to name them consistently each time. It’s your best bet to being able to find things in future.
  • If you’re a power user or a pro, use keywords. It’s a bit more work adding keywords to everything you shoot, but most of the time you can bulk-add them to multiple photos at once. It’s worth it in the long run.
  • They’re not mutually exclusive. In fact, using a hybrid of both keywords and folders is probably the most workable solution over all. For example, as well as keywords you might choose to group your photos together in folders for each year, which will keep your library from getting unweildy.

Whatever way you go, I recommend getting organized sooner rather than later. The more time passes, the more photos you take, and I suspect that will only escalate.

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