How to Organize Pictures

I wrote this basic guide on organizing pictures for those, who occasionally take pictures with digital cameras and who are looking for ways to organize images on their computers. This is NOT a guide for serious photographers with large catalogs of photographs. If you are a photographer looking for ways to organize your photo library, please see my “how to organize pictures in Lightroom” guide written specifically for serious photography work.

During the last 10 years, all kinds of digital cameras have flooded both traditional and online stores. Today, the market is over-saturated with a wide array of digital cameras for personal and professional use and tough competition among the manufacturers pushed the prices so low, that most US households now own one or more digital cameras. Digital cameras have gotten so popular, that they made their way into our phones and other electronic devices as well. With such a wide array of sources where pictures come from, how do we keep them organized?

Most people do not even bother organizing pictures. They take pictures, leave them on their cameras and mobile devices and use them when needed – to share a picture via Facebook or to send the latest pic to their friends and family. As a result, many pictures get lost and memories are gone forever. So, what should you do to keep your pictures organized and saved?

1) First, find all of your photographs

Start with your computer and try to locate every single picture. Common places to look for photographs are in your “My Documents” or “My Pictures” folders, but you might have pictures in other folders as well. Just search your computer for all files with “JPG” extension and see what it finds. Create a local folder on your desktop and move all your pictures there. If you have other computers/laptops at home, perform the same search and try to find every single picture. Next, go through your mobile devices (iPhone, iPod, Zune, etc) and see if you have any pictures stored there too. Copy them all to your main PC, into the same folder that you created earlier.

Now it is time to look for your pictures on the Internet. Log into your email account and search for all emails with image attachments. Extract whatever you can find and save them to the same location. Next, go to all social media sites that you participate in (Facebook, My Space, Twitter, etc) and look for other pictures there. You might find your pictures in your friends’ albums too. Request your friends to send the high-resolution versions of the photos to you. Try to remember if any of your friends took your photos on their cameras and if they did, give them a call or email them and request them to send the high-resolution versions of your photographs. Save all new photos to the same temporary folder that you created on your desktop.

2) Storage and Backup

Before thinking about how to organize your images, think about where you will be storing your images and how you will be backing them up.

2.1) Where to store your photos

Some people like to store pictures on external drives and other storage media, but I store all of my photographs in my computer’s second internal drive (the first one is for the operating system). Internal hard drives are very inexpensive nowadays and you can buy a very large drive of 1 Terabytes or more for less than $100. If you have a laptop, it is probably better to store your pictures on an external drive instead, because the internal drives on laptops are typically small and slow. If you have a small number of pictures (less than 1,000), you can easily store them on your computer’s main drive. On the other hand, if you have a large collection of photos, then I would recommend to put them on a separate hard drive.

2.2) Where to backup your photos

No matter where you store your pictures, the first thing you need to think about is how you will be backing up your images. NEVER fully rely on a single storage space, whether a hard drive, a CD/DVD or a memory stick. All electronic equipment fails at some point of time and leaving your precious data in one place is like putting all of your eggs in one basket. So, no matter where you decide to store your pictures, decide where you will be backing them up at the same time. Do NOT make the mistake of backing up your data into the same medium. The backup must be on a different physical device, otherwise, it is not a real backup.

For backup purposes, I use a dedicated external drive that has exactly the same folder structure as my internal drive – it is basically a “Mirror” of my internal drive.

3) Create main folder structure

Now that you know where to store your images and backups, it is time to think about your folder structure strategy, i.e. how you will be storing your pictures. There are many ways to do this and everyone can give different suggestions. Let me show you the way I do it and I will leave it up to you to decide if it works for you or not. I first start with the root folder and create a folder called “Pictures”:

Photos Root Folder

As you can see, I have another folder for “Videos” as well :)

Next, I create folders for each year, one by one:

Folders by Year

4) Create one folder per event and move photos

Then under each folder, I create one folder per event:

Folder per Event

Examples of events are: “Mom’s Birthday Party”, “Christmas Celebration”, etc. – whatever fits the description of an event. If you have one large event that has smaller sub-events, then create one main folder and smaller subfolders underneath. For example, if you have something like “California Vacation”, it could have several subfolders inside such as “Disneyland”, “Universal Studios”, etc. Go ahead and create events for one year based on what you have.

I used to store each folder name by “Date Event”, such as “01-01-2007 Aspen”, but I chose to abandon this idea because I now use dates on my pictures instead:

Pictures in Folders

Now upload your photos into appropriate folders. This is the hard part, because you will have to go through all of your photos one by one and sort them through. Just looking at the picture by itself is not easy, as you might not remember when it was taken and where. What I suggest, is looking at the information that is stored inside the picture. Almost every digital camera today stores vital information such as Camera Type, Date and Time right into the picture when it saves it. This information is called “EXIF” and you can read my article “What is EXIF” to find out more about EXIF and how you can read this data from each picture. Anyway, on most modern operating systems such as Windows Vista or Windows 7, you can easily access this information by simply right-clicking the image, clicking “Properties”, then clicking on the “Details” tab:

File Properties

Look at the “Origin->Date” field for the date when the picture was taken. Other information such as “Camera” might be useful to determine who took the picture (whether it was your camera or somebody else’s). Move all of your photos into appropriate event folders and make sure that nothing is left in your original temporary folder that you created in your desktop.

5) Rename your photographs

Unfortunately, many cameras produce images with weird filenames like “DSC1005.JPG” that do not make any sense. I highly recommend to rename all of your images to make it easier for you to locate them by searching for the file names in the future. Again, you can do this in many different ways, but I will show you the easiest method.

Go to one of the folders that contains your pictures. It is a good idea to start with a small folder, so pick one with only a few pictures. First, sort all your images by date by clicking the “Date” column (you should be in a “Detail” view for this to work). Then select all pictures by clicking on the first one and then pressing CTRL+A (select all):

Rename 1

Then right-click on the first image and click “Rename”:

Rename 2

Then type the date, dash, event name and press “Enter” (for example: “20070101-Local Park”). I prefer to use the year first, then month, then day; because if your files are somehow mixed up in one folder, it will be easier to differentiate them by year, then month then day. If you start with a month, it will all get mixed up, because the months are repeated every year:

Rename 3

You should now see that all your files got properly renamed. The system will automatically add a number in brackets at the end of the file, which represents the file sequence number:

Rename 4

Do not worry if something got messed up. You can go back to what it was by simply by going to “Edit”->”Undo Rename” or hitting “CTRL+Z”. You can also rename the files multiple times, if needed. Repeat this process as many times as you have folders and make sure that everything is properly renamed.

6) Backup your photos

Now that you have everything organized and renamed, it is now time to back up your data. Since you are just storing bare files, there is no need for some special backup program. All you need to do is to copy your files from the current location to a different one. Just go back to your main folder, select your “Photos” folder, right click on it, select “Copy”, then go to your destination drive’s main folder, right click on an empty area and select “Paste”. This should start the process of copying pictures from one hard drive to another.

6.1) Backup frequency

How often should you be backing up? I suggest backing up every time you add more photographs or when you work on your pictures. I personally try to do it every time I upload new photos from my camera and I highly recommend that you do the same. Unfortunately, most people do not recognize the value of backups until their equipment fails. I once lost two weeks of my photography just because I forgot to backup my photos! Lesson learned, now I try to backup as often as I can and I store my images in four different locations – I do not want to ever lose my data again.

Hope this helps.


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Avatar of Nasim Mansurov About Nasim Mansurov

is a professional photographer based out of Denver, Colorado. He is the author and founder of Photography Life, along with a number of other online resources. Read more about Nasim here.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) shams

    it’s not easy:(.

    I have already spent about 5-7 hours to sort them out. Deleted thousands of photos. Created dozens of folders. Still plenty to do.
    Some file names are crazy, like: Uzb2006 (1400)….1401…
    :)

    • Shams, don’t rush yet, I’m almost finishing up my next article on how to organize photos in Lightroom. I highly recommend doing it in Lightroom instead, especially if you have a large number of photos.

  2. 3
    ) Peter

    I prefer using folder names as yyyymmdd_location_event i.e. 20071125_London_River_Walk naming individual photos is far to time consuming.

    • Peter, you do not need to individually name each photo. You simply select all pictures (CTRL+A) then you press “F2″ and rename all pictures to your liking.

      Hope this helps!

  3. 5
    ) Hilton

    Your article on organizing photos in lightroom is the best I have found. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    I have a question regarding renaming existing photos. I am using a mac and it won’t allow me to Ctrl+A and then change the name. I tried F2, I can’t find a rename function, and I have tried double clicking on it. Any suggestions?

    • Hilton, you are most welcome! Try going to the Library module, then select images with your keyboard/mouse, then go to Library -> Rename Photos to rename all images.

      Hope this helps.

  4. 7
    ) J.P.

    Nasim!

    Thank you VERY much for this article!
    Extremely helpful!

    All the best,

    -j.p.

  5. 8
    ) cy

    I only need a simple photo organizer and the Lightroom 3 software is too much for me. I like the process you described above. What software is that? I do have a lot of photos now being poorly organized through Picasa. Can you recommend an easy solution without using the heavy duty Lighteoom software? Thanks.

  6. 9
    ) Debbie

    Just found this article on organizing photos and it was extremely helpful and easy to follow. Now my photos are properly characterized and renamed. Thank you so very much for the helpful tips!

  7. 10
    ) Yannis

    Nasim,

    Great work putting everything together in one neat article. Most of the steps you present here I have already done myself, however, there was one I never even heard of or thought about trying. That select-all and rename thingy… so much win! This is the first photography blog in MONTHS that’s actually interesting enough to follow!

    All the best,

    Yannis

  8. 042341AUG2013

    Sorry for the length of this posting, automated software recommendations to solve the problem of using multiple digital cameras but keeping files in FILE NAME and CHRONOLOGICAL order are listed at the end….

    I have been shooting photos since about 1976. In addition to shooting with DSLR’s starting with digital Point and Shoot cameras in about 2001, I still shoot, develop, and print B&W film up to 4×5 inches, making prints up to 16×20 inches in my traditional wet darkroom.

    I cannot believe that just this week I found a solution for this digital photo file naming problem (found it on Google Play by accident of all places) considering all the photo web-sites I visit daily like DPReview, APUG (Analogue Photo User Group), Ken Rockwell, Thom Hogan; the photo magazines I subscribe to, and the technology web-sites like Cnet.com I routinely visit, and have never seen this discussed.

    Perhaps photographers are aware of the solution because they use different software. I do not use Adobe’s Light Room or similar Software as when I tried it several years ago, after having started a similar sub-directory by DATE/SUBJECT many years ago and already had thousands of images, I did not like what I called the “virtual cataloging” concept. I prefer the physical organizing of my files, and I had too many images to start over. I have been using ThumbsPlus by Cerious Software for over 10 years to manage my digital photo collection.

    I too started using the sub-directory structure you outlined back in the DOS days for data files, and kept using it for digital photos. However, when shooting with multiple DLSRs at an event (one with a wide-zoom, the other with a tele-zoom)and sometimes a Smartphone, I would make a DATE SUBJECT sub-directory, then below that one. create a sub-directory for each of the three cameras. If I put the photos into one sub-directory they would be out of NAME sequence as each camera is “counting” its own photos, thus not being in numerical order when placed together. If sorted by FILE DATE they would be in order for awhile…but after editing them, the new FILE DATES would get them out of order also.

    I am good with computers (learned to program with DB-II before using a Word Processor) and cameras, and I cannot believe that I just found solutions this week to keep photos in FILE NAME ORDER though Batch Editing Software and APPs for my Android Smartphone (actually discovered the solution first on GOOGLE Play when searching for Batch File Naming) which automatically renames the files (BEFORE EDITING PHOTOS!!! very important) to the EXIF DATE TAKEN (using a format you select) and adds a Suffix you create such as “NikonD700 cKnapp”, giving me files named “YYYY-MO-DAY HR.MIN.SEC NikonD700 cKnapp.jpg”. After editing a photo I use a technique I have used for years, in that when saving the edited photo I added a “C-nn” to indicate Change, and a brief description of the software used to edit the photo and the effect/edit applied. Now I will add a “c” after the SEC and the software/effect/edit used (in case I want to duplicate the effect later) after the suffix like this:

    Original after automatic Batch Renaming to EXIF DATE TAKEN
    2013–08-04 19.43.42 Nikon D700 cKnapp.jpg
    After Editing
    2013-08-04 19.43.42c Nikon D700 cKnapp.jpg SageLight HDR Clahe Surreal.jpg

    Regardless of which File Browser, Image Manager, Photo Viewer used on PC or Android, my photos will be in File Name AND Chronological order simultaneously (by date taken, not edited) just by sorting by FILE NAME!!!!

    I am not going back to rename all my old digital photos as I would lose the part of the file name that contains the information regarding which editor/effect/corrections were used, as well as other things like the name of locations/people/category etc., that I included in those older file names. I am using this method, starting this week for all new digital photos.

    For Android try PHORGANIZER to automatically Batch Rename photos to their EXIF DATE TAKEN (allows you to add a unique Suffix), there is a free version and a Paid Version, worth the money! Neither AppBrain Ad Detector nor WakeLock Detector reported any nefarious activity from the APP PHORGANIZER.

    For the PC there are some pricey ones out there but I found NAMEXIF for free, to automatically Batch Rename photos to their EXIF DATE TAKEN (allows you to add a unique Suffix), and Kaspersky Anti-Virus did not detect anything nefarious. NAMEXIF does accept donations, I made one of course.

    For those times the EXIF DATA is lost or destroyed as happens when using some photo editing APPs for Android (which I notice happens less with PC software), there is an ANDROID APP named EXIF TAG EDITOR which lets you copy the EXIF DATA from the Original File and paste it into the edited photo so you have the DATE TAKEN recorded in the file. For the PC I found that ThumbsPlus by Cerious Software (which I have used for about 10 years, current version is v9) allows you to edit the EXIF DATA manually, there is probably other software out there that does this as well.

    I hope this information is of use to someone.

    Craig Knapp
    Age 51
    craig.knapp1@yahoo.com

  9. 13
    ) Gosia

    Hey,
    Thanks for the tip but I don’t have an option to rename files when I have selected them all and clicked right button :( Could you help please, I use Mac.

    Thanks,
    Gosia

  10. 15
    ) David

    Regarding organization, when an event includes both video and photos files, what is the best organizational structure? I considered putting both in the same event folder, but perhaps if I were to use Lightroom to catalog both type of assets, it will not matter about the physical storage location. I would appreciate any suggestions and thoughts on this topic.

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