The process of organizing pictures is a time-consuming, but crucial task. Keeping your images organized and backed up will save you a lot of time and headache in the future. Therefore, it is essential that you do it properly early on and keep a consistent system in place. Photographs are our precious memories frozen in time, and we simply cannot afford to lose them. In this article, I will provide detailed information on how you can organize your digital photographs on your computer and implement simple backup practices.
Whether you take pictures with your smartphone or a dedicated camera, you have most likely accumulated thousands of images over the years. Those images are probably scattered all over the place – some on your phone, others on your computer. And if you previously ran out of storage, you might have dumped some onto an external drive as well.
But what if you were able to put them all in a single location, properly organize them in an easy to remember manner, then store them in a safe and reliable location? It sounds like a hard job, but it is extremely simple and effective, as you will see below.
Please note that this is NOT a guide for serious photographers with large image catalogs. If you are a photographer looking for ways to organize your photo library, please see my article on “organizing pictures in Lightroom” instead.
Before we go through a detailed, step-by-step process of organizing your photos, below is a quick “TLDR” version.
The Best Way to Organize Photos
- Find All Printed Photos. If you have printed images, find every single one that you want to preserve and digitize. Go through all prints and family albums. Considering reaching out to other family members to locate more photographs.
- Digitize Printed Photos. Once you locate all the photos, use a good-quality scanner to scan the photos in high resolution.
- Locate Digital Photos. Go through every device, starting from your smartphone all the way to external drives to locate every digital photograph you have.
- Use a Single Storage Device. No matter how many photos you have, it is best that you put them all in a single storage device. If your current storage device has insufficient storage, buy an external hard drive with enough capacity to fir your entire photo library.
- Use a Solid Folder Structure. Once you put all the photos in a single location, come up with an easy-to-remember folder structure that you can use consistently for all your photos today and in the future. I recommend splitting your photos into folders organized by year and event name.
- Organize All Photos. After you decide on the folder structure, go through all the images that you previously scanned, as well as your digital photos, then organize them. This is going to be the most time-consuming process.
- Backup Your Photos. Now that you have all the photos properly organized by folders, it is time to back them up. Use several local storage locations to back up your photos. Also, consider using online cloud storage to store another backup.
Now that we went through the quick summary, you might want to read the full version of the article below.
1) Locate 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”:
As you can see, I have another folder for “Videos” as well :)
Next, I create folders for each year, one by one:
4) Create One Folder Per Event and Move Photos
Then under each folder, I create one 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:
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:
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):
Then right-click on the first image and click “Rename”:
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:
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:
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.