How to organize your digital photos

by andrewodom on November 17, 2010 · 11 comments


Now that we are in ‘The Bungalow’ and are beginning to live in essentially one room (yes, I am working at 6:42am while Crystal sleeps about 9 feet away from me) I am realizing that even what I thought was minimal simply is not.

Take for instance my digital photos.

I own 3 external hard drives. Each has a purpose but none are filled. They all have considerable empty space. Together the 3 drives have to be stored in a bit larger of a box that as of now has no home and is at my feet. Not a real safe place for my digital backups. I agree! These hard drives are used in such a capacity. One is for digital photos. One is for digital audio and movie files. The third is my backup drive for Mac Time Machine. Perhaps the largest and easiest to get disorganized though of all the drives is the photo backup.

Right now it has some 89 GB of photos. They range from snapshots taken whilst roaming the streets of Paris to photos shot for assignments with various publications. The size of each photo can be quite small at less than 1 Mb or quite large (based on post-production and resolution) at 3.7 MB. Some are strictly for blog purposes while others are for assignments and clients. And thus begins the organization conundrum.

I would like to purchase a 2 TB hard drive and consolidate all these small drives thereby eliminating the space needed for multiples. I can only do it though if I am able to store and find files in a logical way. So here is how to organize your digital photos.

Software isn’t always so soft

Organizing software for most can be quite easy if you are only taking vacation photos or the occasional family holiday. You can purchase a piece of software and use the default categorizing methods. For those who use a Mac as I do, iPhoto is certainly the charm. iPhoto is solid stuff. With it you can tag, categorize, edit, and sort your photos. You can then back them up with a very easy backup method or export command. : you can tag, categorize and do all of these awesome things to sort out your photos. The few times I have used the application I liked the results and could see how it would be perfect for the casual or hobby photographer. For whatever reason I have never taken to it and to this day have not even opened it on my MacBook Pro.

On a Windows-based computer, you can go through each photo and painstakingly rename all of your files, sort them into folders, and tag them in the File Properties. The only native application for this is Windows Live Photo Gallery which I have only seen when I play with floor model computers at the box store. I do know that it has a pretty clean interface and basic photo editing features. Unfortunately you need a Windows Live ID and you need to run Windows.

From a web-based perspective Picassa is more than likely the most functional and practical way of organizing your photos. A Google product, Picassa has a pretty messy interface and fairly amateurish editing capabilities. It does however organize your photos pretty well and rather quickly using tags, facial recognition, location, etc. It is also the free agent in the game so it may be worth a looksee.

Since I do the majority of my photo work in Photoshop (sizing for web, editing, processing, etc) I batch automate and create the file names that work for me.

It’s time for Folders

There really are only two ways or organizing photos. One is the super lazy way which would be to create one huge dump folder, call it ‘Photos’, and then, well, dump all your photos into it; no rhyme. No reason.

The second is the not-so-lazy way which included making folder, sub-folders, sub-sub-folders, and file names. In order to do so though you must have some sort of method to your madness.

I personally work in 3’s. In other words, no folder hierarchy will extend beyond a fourth level (this can be three but because I have photos from up to 5 years ago I added a 4th level). My breakdown is usually Year > Noun > Proper Noun or State of Photo > File Name. For instance, I just took photos of The Bungalow. A typical photo could be found at 2010 Photos > The Bungalow > Renovation > Kitchen1.

• Establish your major categories:

On my Mac I have basically 8 categories: anotherkindofdrew (this is client work), Barnesville Life, Drew (professional high-res press photos), Family, Holidays, and Vacation and Travel (holidays are at home and travel is on the road).

• Organize your second level of photos

Within each major folder I have a series of subfolders. These folders are the proper nouns. They include Major Category (person, location, client shoot), Event (Birthdays, Construction Project, Day Trip), and sometimes Date (sorted by year_month_date so that the hierarchy remains the same).

You may notice that some of the folders are highlighted in blue. This is to indicate that I have backed them up in some capacity; either on a disc or on the external hard drive. I realize that if I went to back them up again on the hard drive I would get an overwrite message. But I am a visual person so I like to know these things in advance.

• Add a Proper Noun or a State of Photo

In the case of a shoot I am going to publish to something other than Facebook or that I have to process for whatever reason I will use the 3rd folder level to break into a tree-like structure of RAW and Edited. This way I can keep track of my RAW photos and Edited photos for the same shoot in the same place. However, if I am just taking snapshots I will skip right to the Filename.

The above is by no means a perfect system. I, too, get frustrated sometimes by not being able to find a photo or by not having the RAW of a photo I have processed. I also am quite bad about actually doing the backup sometimes leaving gigs of photos on my laptop without a single backup.

But enough about me. What do you do? How do you back up your photos? Do you backup? If so, why? If not, why not? And as always, feel free to share this post on Facebook or post a link to Twitter. We love new faces!

  • Molly Margosian

    It is hard to find the time to sort through the giant PHOTOS file, where I honestly dump all of mine. Additionally, I have several copies of the same photos stored in different folders, because I saved them at different times. I’ve got a mess! I used Picasa, Kodak Gallery, saved them to my desktop, I have pictures and videos all over. I feel like a photo hoarder that needs some order!
    What is the solution? Take the time/make the time to sort through them. I guess I have some work to do…Thanks for reminding me of my photo mess! I’ll let you know when it’s all sorted :)

    • anotherkindofdrew

      The first thing you need to do is collect ALL your photos into one place. If you have taken them with a digital camera then they all have a timestamp assigned to them. This is a good thing. Trust me. Once you’ve done that I would suggest deleting out your photos from Picasa. Start fresh. Besides all your pics are sitting on your desktop in “Photos.”

      Then follow these import instructions for beginning your new, fresh Picasa.

      http://picasa.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=16211

      From there you can export to either an external hard drive or DVDs for safe backup and keeping.

      http://picasa.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=18393

  • http://www.scissorsanddrumsticks.com Scissors & Drumsticks

    Windows user here. Want a Mac badly solely for the ease of use and storage options. We try to move all photos from the cards to their files the same day they were taken, so that the “dump” is a bit more in order. Then, comes the file and folder naming and such. But, I feel that as long as anyone moves their pics within a day or two of shooting, the transfer should go easy.

    I like your idea of external drives for storage, but these too have the capability of crashing, as I’ve seen it happen. Tears I tell ya. Noo matter how far advanced we get, the only way to “keep” your photos is to go old school (which we’re not doing) and print them. If we lost it all today, we still have our photographic memories to rely on, in which the emotion comes with these kind of pictures.

    • anotherkindofdrew

      I have had an external crash. I am not exempt. For truly important files/photos, I also do a DVD backup and place the DVD in our safety deposit box. And to be honest? If I lost everything, it would be okay. It was about the moment, you know, not necessarily the posterity.

      • http://www.scissorsanddrumsticks.com Scissorsanddrumsticks

        Yes, we too back up to DVD/CD-R discs. It only taks a couple seconds to do. And if, you’re already in back up mode it’s painless and definitely worth it. Great post Drew.

  • Nancy Hoffine

    I really like that you highlight the backed up material. When I do a back up, which I too am bad at keeping up with, I just put everything I’ve backed up in a folder labeled “photos 1 backed up” and start photos 2. I think I like your way better. Because I have kids, most of my stuff is categorized by month and year. Like you, though, I have holidays, travel, and other “major” events in their own file. I try to stick with one level simply because I would most likely forget what I put where and why since my thoughts on organization can differ from day to day. The only time I may do sub-folders is if I have pics from Michele or my dad or whoever to add to an event.
    Thanks for you’re thoughts. Makes me want to get even more organized..and back my stuff up.

    • anotherkindofdrew

      Yeah, I would think that at a later date you will easily want to find pics of the youngins for personalized scrapbooks or personalized school frames or something.

      Thanks for reading Nancy and keeping up with our r(E)volution!

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  • Mary

    I have both an external drive and an online storage service (MozyHome). I really don’t have alot to store, but they are pics I don’t want to lose. I am starting to digitize my printed photos, but the job seems enormous. Not only do I have family photos spanning 70 years plus, I have a precious collection of old family photos of generations past. They are all in boxes and I have tried many times to get it done, but I only get a few done, then I’m interrupted and don’t get back to it right away. I forget where I am in the process. I know I need to set a specific time for this project and put it on the calendar, just like our other obligations. I will keep trying!

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