It’s a new year, and I know a lot of you (like myself) made resolutions to get organized. One of the things I want to get a better hold of this year is my digital photo collection. I have a lot of digital pictures. Like, a lot a lot. Like, 50,000+ pictures. I have very few physical photographs around the house (the ones I have are old). All of the pictures I’ve taken during vacations and holidays and of the kids are all digital. I read once that owning a tool but not being able to find it is the same as not owning the tool. I feel like this could also apply to pictures as well.
The hardest part about organizing your digital photos is coming up with an system. The second hardest part is sticking with it; if you do, things will get easier. Shortly after the New Year I pulled the pictures off of Susan’s phone and computer onto my server; the result was 15 GB worth of pictures, with names ranging from “s5000184.jpg” to “Photo_012906_007.jpg”. Ugh!
I’ll tell you up front — I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t think my system necessarily works best for everyone. The key is finding a way to organize things that works for you and (again) sticking with it. While working on organizing Susan’s photos and incorporating them into my own collection, I wrote down some hints and tips on how I organize things. I also asked my friend Melissa Karlberg of Mel Karlberg Photography for any advice she might have to add. Melissa is a great photographer with great organizational skills. I’ve added her comments to this list as well.
Without further adieu and in no particular order…
Put your photos all in one place.
You will never be able to reliably search, sort, organize, or backup your photos until you have them all together in one place. For me, that’s a folder on my server named “Digital”. (It gets backed up nightly; more on that later.) I have a lot of folders underneath that one of course, but getting everything underneath that single folder makes it simple to backup your photos and search through them. If you have programs that are constantly putting things in different directories, you need to pick one and point everything else to it, whether that’s the “My Photos” folder in Windows or some other directory you’ve designated as being home to your digital photos.
Pick an organizational system and stick with it.
Let me start off by saying that there are two schools of thought when it comes to organizing digital photos: you can either organize your photo collection through file and folder names alone, or you can use software to help you organize your photos. Even if you use software, you’ll still want to do some organization of the files and folders (like getting them all in one place, as mentioned above).
Organizing using Files and Folders
I personally manage my photo collection through file and folder names for two reasons. One, because that’s the system I started with and I’m in too deep to start over without a really compelling reason to do so. The other reason is because I’m always afraid that whatever program I use to organize my photos might become incompatible or obsolete in the future. There are lots of free options out there and I’ll mentioning them, but… buyer beware.
If you’re going to use file and folder names to organize your photos, the key is to create a system that mentally makes sense to you. There’s nothing more frustrating than looking for that “one” photo you took five years ago and not being able to find it. My “Digital” folder has 592 sub-folders. Some of them are pretty specific: “4th of July Cookout (07.04.2006)”, for example. Others are less so: “Mason”, for example, has 250 random photos of my son. That’s not very helpful when you’re looking for a specific photo.
I have three types of folders: events, people, and things. Events, like the 4th of July example I listed above, are pretty specific. In the folder name, I try and include the event, the location, and the date. For people, I simply list the person’s name. These are more like “junk drawers” and it’s where things like selfies and random shots end up. The last folder type, “things,” are used when I’m shooting pictures of something specific. Many of these have sub-folders as well. I have a folder called “Cars” — underneath it I have folders for each car I’ve owned.
Some people prefer a date-based hierarchy for their folders. These people tend to make a folder for each year (“2015″), twelve folders underneath that folder representing each month (“01″, “02”, etc) and then folders underneath each of those folders. For some people, this works really well. For me personally, if I’m looking for pictures from that time the kids and I went to the zoo, I’d rather scroll down to “Z” than start clicking through random years. Again, there’s no right or wrong way to do any of this. The key is coming up with a system and sticking with it.
Whatever you do, do NOT rely on the builtiin Windows date and time stamps to track the age of your photos. Moving, editing, and restoring photos has a way of inadvertently changing those dates. Those dates also depend on having the date and time set correctly on your camera. When I sort my photos by date, the largest folder by far is the one for 01/01/2000…
Two bad habits I picked up over time are sorting photos by who took them, and sorting photos by what device took them. In my folder for our Alaska cruise, I have four sub-folders: Rob’s Camera, Rob’s Phone, Susan’s Camera, and Susan’s Phone. This made sense at the time when I was moving them over the PC. Two years later when I’m searching for a picture of an iceberg or a whale, it doesn’t much matter to me who took the picture or with what. I’m going to try and avoid doing this in the future and I might go back to some of my old folders and recombined them.
Organizing using Software
The other way to organize your digital photo collection is through the use of software. There are many programs designed to assist you with this, many of them free. Many of these programs actually modify your photos by adding what is called metadata to them. Using metadata, for example, you can add tags or names or locations to your photos, and that data is physically stored directly inside the file. In theory, other programs would also later be able to read that data. Other programs use an external database in which to store your data. This leaves the photos unmodified, but locks you in to that specific program to view your data. And if the author of that program goes out of business, or the program refuses to work with a future version of Windows… you’re screwed.
Free programs for organizing your photos include Google’s Picasa, Microsoft’s Windows Live Photo Gallery, and Apple’s iPhoto. A step up is Adobe Lightroom, which is not free, but very powerful.
From Melissa: “Figure out an organization system before you start editing a bunch of photos. Don’t be afraid to commit to a workflow and file system for fear you will want to change later. At least if you change later, you will be changing something organized. I import all of my photos directly into [Adobe] Lightroom. I have year and month folders already created and then I name the folder with a subject (such as “son’s first soccer game”). That works with how my brain files memories, so this system works for me.”
Limit your use of generic folders. I have two folders, one called “Incoming” and the other called “Misc” that tend to collect a lot of pictures that, for one reason or another, I don’t know where to put. These things are like the junk drawer in your kitchen that end up collecting things that don’t have a home. My rule for that incoming folder is I always empty it before I put more pictures inside it. The bad news is, often that means moving them to the “Misc” folder.
Edit and sort your photos as you copy them to your PC.
Sorting and organizing my wife’s 6,000 photos has proved to be both difficult and tiresome. Trying to figure out when and where a photo was taken 10 years prior can be difficult. It’s a lot easier to sort your pictures into folders as you’re copying them over from your phone or camera. While you’re at it, that’s also a good time to rotate the photos that need rotating. It’s also a good time to delete a few of those pictures, if you can stand to do so. If you took five pictures of a flower trying to get the perfect shot, you might consider deleting the four that didn’t turn out great.
Before moving pictures over, I try to come up with those folder names I mentioned before — “First Day of School (xx.xx.xxxx)” or something fairly logical. If the pictures lend themselves to it, I’ll rename them as well. That leads me to my next nugget.
A trick for renaming multiple files in Windows. If you want to rename a bunch of files in a series, do the following: select all the files, right-click the first file, and rename it “Whatever (1)”. Windows will automatically renumber all the files after the first one, as long as the number in parenthesis is the last thing in the file name. If you want to select all the files inside a folder, press CTRL-A. If you only want to rename some of the files, you can click on the first one and then Shift-Click on the last one. You can also hold down Control and select/deselect pictures one at a time.
To save, or not to save, your originals.
My digital camera (Pentax K-x) takes pictures at 12.4 megapixels — that’s 4,288 by 2,848 pixels. Each file is 5 megabytes. To save hard drive space, I tend to compress them. Even though the compressed file looks identical to the original on the computer, if you decide to print them out (especially a large copy), you can tell the difference. If you’re going to resize your photos for web use, you might want to make a copy first.
From Melissa: “Know how your editing program organizes and saves files. When I first started using Lightroom, I lost a huge chunk of files because I didn’t realize it was a database-driven software. Many people completely mess up their LR catalogs because they want to start playing with editing before organizing — bad idea.”
Backup, backup, backup.
I have had multiple people come to me with laptops that wouldn’t boot and hard drives that wouldn’t spin up, almost in tears over lost digital pictures. In some cases I was able to help these people and in others, I wasn’t. Don’t get in that position. Start backing up your photos today.
My suggestions, from worst to best, are: back up to DVDs, back up to a second physical hard drive, and back up to the cloud.
DVDs are cheap and hold a lot of data. I’ve personally seen them go bad, even properly stored ones, sometimes as quickly as five years. DVD-Rs are an okay backup solution but those discs will not last forever. A better solution is a second hard drive. This protects you both from file deletions and if your primary hard drive fails. In the unfortunate event that your house is destroyed, if those two hard drives are in the same physical location, chances are you’ll lose them both. A third solution is cloud backups. There are many to choose from, starting at $5/month. Even if your home were destroyed by fire, you would be able to retrieve your photos from the cloud at a later date.
Whichever method you choose, the best one is an automated scheduled task. I backup my pictures to another drive nightly in the middle of the night.
From Melissa: “Back up, back up, and then back up some more. I used to back up to DVDs and external hard drives and it seemed like every time I lost a session from a hard drive, that would be the one I didn’t back up to a DVD. Now I back up to a mirrored hard drive and then I have extra important stuff on yet another hard drive and I have an off site company called Crash Plan.”
That’s all I can think of for now. Now, go get those pictures organized (and backed up)!