Organizing Photos

Categories: How To, Photography
Comments: 2 Comments
Published on: 2010.08.03

You’d think there are enough blogs and websites already that tell you how to organize your photos on your computer. Not to mention the dozens of programs for sale or for free that supposedly help you do this.

But apparently the world needs one more blog post about this. Almost every time I’m at someone’s house and they want to show me an image on their computer, their first words are: “Wait a minute while I find it… I can’t remember where…”

And when I see their file structure, I know why. Their computer is a mess. Every time they save a file or transfer images from their camera, they put these files in random places with nonsensical names.

Stop it now. Please stop.

You don’t have to use my organizational structure, or anyone else’s. But find one that works for you, and stick to it.

Here’s what I usually do, and I can almost always find any image I’m looking for in a matter of seconds.

Step 1: Create a New Folder

File Organization - New Folder

Open “My Pictures,” or wherever you want to put the new folder. Use the same place every time. And use a new folder for each event.

Right-click in the open folder, drag your mouse to “new,” and then click “folder.” This will put a new folder in plain sight.

(Note: I take thousands of images, so I usually have a folder for each year, subdivided into folders for each month. You may not need such a structure.)

Step 2: Name the Folder

File Organization - Name Folder

I always use the date as the first part of the folder’s name. Year first, followed by the month, then the day. So “20100803” means “August 3, 2010.” If you follow this same format every time, all your folders will be in the right order when you go back to find them.

For the second part of the folder’s name, I use the name of the event, such as “My Birthday Party,” or “Jim’s New Car.”

Step 3: Put the Images in the Folder

File Organization - Photos in Folder

Copy-and-paste your images into the new folder you just created.

I recommend doing this after each event, or at the end of each day of taking pictures. Trying to go back after a month and sort out which images on your camera are from which event can be a nightmare. Don’t make it hard on yourself.

Note: If you don’t know how to copy-and-paste or drag-and-drop, that’s a subject for a different day (or you can look it up on the internet). Those are basic computer skills and should be learned before you attempt to organize hundreds (or thousands) of images.

Step 4: Create a Text File

File Organization - Create Text File

This step isn’t necessary, but it helps for future searchability.

In the same way you created a new folder earlier, right-click, go to “new” and then select “Text Document” (your computer might have slightly different wording; use common sense).

Step 5: Name the Text File

File Organization - Text Description

Use descriptive words to name the text file, so that your computer’s search will help you find it months later. In this case, I used “My Birthday Party.” However, there’s no reason to keep this title short. Add a dozen words if you want to — make sure they’re all relevant words.

You can also open the text file and write a short description of the event, such as its location, who showed up, what you ate, etc. Once you click “save,” all those words are searchable. Your computer’s search function can now find this folder quickly when you search for “birthday party” or “my birthday.”

Step 6: Always Use “Save As”

File Organization - Save As

If your photo-editing software offers you three saving choices (save, save as, and save for web), always use “save as.”

“Save for web” strips out metadata, compresses the file, and shrinks it — all in the name of making it slightly faster to upload.

“Save” will replace completely the file that you opened in the first place.

So use “Save As,” which creates a new file. As you can see in the screenshot above, the file named “IMG_7342.jpg” is the original. The edited version of it is “IMG_7342c The Cake.jpg”

a. Keeping the original file number helps me to know which original it belongs to.
b. The “c” tells me that it’s a color picture.
c. “The Cake” is a short description of the image, and it’s searchable.

To recap this process:

Always put your images in the same place so you know where to look. Create a new folder for each event and name that folder with words or numbers that you can search for later (using the date format I described above will keep them in chronological order). Put the appropriate images in that folder. Add a text file with a short description of the event. Always use “save as” when editing images so your originals remain untouched.

(Note: These instructions apply to users of Windows computers. If you’re running a Mac or using Linux, you either already know how to do this or you’re in over your head.)

  1. says:

    I've had students who keep their photos, uh… I don't know exactly how to say this, so I just will. They keep their photos on the card in the camera.

  2. Wil says:

    It was actually just such a statement that finally led me to write this blog post.

    I met a woman who had never deleted an image. She had stacks and stacks of memory cards on her shelf at home, and always bought new ones, just like buying film.

    I tried to explain that "not buying film" is supposed to be a major advantage of digital, but she wouldn't hear it. :-)

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