How do you organize your photos?

White on White - Varina Patel

Happy New Year, everybody! We had a great time in New Mexico last week. What a great way to finish the year! This shot is from White Sands National Monument. The beautiful white sand was great fun to shoot – I love the minimalistic quality of the finished photos. Those of you who are familiar with most of my work know that I tend to prefer very simple scenes. So, the location couldn’t have made me happier. 🙂

I uploaded my photos to my laptop while we waited for our delayed flight out of Albuquerque – and I took care of descriptions and keywords during the flight. I like to keep things organized – but I know that this is a major stumbling block for many digital shooters. How many of you have made a New Year’s Resolution to get your photos organized? And how many are avoiding the issue altogether?

If you go looking for that pretty shot you took in 2005 or 2007 – you know the one I mean… the shot from Florida or Maine or Arizona… the one with the interesting patterns or the fantastic sky – how long will it take you to find it? Will you find it at all? Is it buried with thousands of other images in the depths of your computer? In one of hundreds of cryptically labeled files? How many folders are labeled “vacation”? How many shots should have been deleted long ago – but are still waiting in folders within folders? How many times have you looked at the mess of files and folders on your screen and thought, “I really MUST do something about this mess!” But where to begin?

It’s a lot easier to organize a digital file system than it was to organize all those prints we used to have in envelopes and boxes – waiting to be labeled and put into albums. Unfortunately, most of us have more digital files than we can count. We can shoot as much as we like… no need to worry about the cost of film. We can easily ignore the enormous number of photos in our collections… just close the window on the computer, and the mess is gone. And so it grows, and grows, and grows.

So, here’s my recommendation to get started… Don’t Touch Anything! Just take a few minutes to think. What kinds of photos are you taking? What categories will work for you? Would you rather sort your photographs by date or location? Do you have photos that should be deleted? Would keywords helps you find your images when you need them?

When I started organizing my files, I decided to begin with the current year – rather than going back to the beginning of time and trying to organize old files first. That way, any new files that enter the system will be introduced into a clutter-free environment. Those old files have been sitting there for years – they can sit a while longer. Why not start clean in 2011? Then, when you are sure you like your filing system, you can work backwards, one file at a time.

Take a look at the structure I’ve chosen for my own system. It’s really very simple. My photographs are sorted first by year, and then by state (or country). You might argue that it’s best to sort by month as well – and that may work well for you. However, Jay and I tend to return to a location more than once in a year – so that only serves to complicate the system for me. Besides, each photo is tagged with a date in-camera, so if I need to know the month, I can easily look it up. I sort by location so that all my photos from that location are together. If I need to find a shot from, say, Ke’e Beach, I’ll open my 2009 folder, click on Hawaii, and choose Kauai. All the beaches and locations we visited on the island are listed alphabetically, and I just select Ke’e Beach from the list.

Now, you’ll notice that I have just two years represented here. 2009 and 2010. I back up ALL my files to our Drobo system (double back-ups just in case) – but I archive my older files. All these images take up a whole lot of space, so I can’t keep them all on my computer. At the beginning of each year, I move one years-worth of files to the drobo, make sure they are accounted for – and delete them from my main system. They are still easily accessible, as long as my computer is connected to the drobo – and I free up all that memory for new images.

I should also point out that the files represented here are landscape photographs only. Family photos are filed separately, so that I can find them more easily. I also have a file called “Portfolio”. Every single processed image – landscapes, events, portraits, family photos – gets a space here. When I am finished processing, I simply create a small JPEG file with a frame a signature (you can see my frame on the White Sands photo up there) and save it to my portfolio file. When I’m not sure which photo I want – or when I want to show someone a selection of my work – I can browse my portfolio.

There are all kinds of options for sorting your files… do it any way you like. What matters is that you can find what you are looking for – without getting too frustrated. So take a few minutes to think about how you want to sort things and then jump in and get started. It’s not as hard as you think!

Continue reading Part Two – File Names and Keywording

About Author Varina Patel

There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks… Brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow… Silent snowfall and raging summer storms… Each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph, and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.

  • Aha. Photography has been a central theme in my life. However, not one for making money. I am an integrated circuit design engineer. I use Illustrator, InDesign, etc. so I am inclined to Bridge as well. I have been doing electronics now for 52 years since graduating from the Univ. of Illinois in ’59. I keep moving more and more toward photography and would like to “re-invent” myself to make some at least casual income from imaging and less and less from engineering. It is time to get more tangible reward than a bottle of booze for the many freebies weddings (and things) that I have supported … as well as providing my ’35 Rolls-Royce as the wedding couple transportation. (I recall leaving Florida one early morning and driving and covering a wedding in S. Cal. that same day.) I post most any old thing to web “places” simply because it is not my source of income. It is “memory” and sharing with friends. I don’t have to “filter”, at least at this point in time. Of course about 95% of the shots don’t get published or shared. But I tend to keep a lot of them because they are memories for me. I probably keep about 30%. I have a 7T DROBO backing things up. I get out in the wilds when I can but have to satisfy myself with stalking lizards, bees, hummingbirds, etc. in the yard most of the time.

  • I find it interesting that your filing system is in standard file/directory sturcture. Personally, I simply hate “catalog” systems like Lightroom and the Apple MP3 structures. It simply doesn’t fit my thinking at all. For example, with an MP3, I want to play a directory/folder and not an “album”. Lightroom is out of date 100% of the time so I seldom use it. Same for Elements (which is on a backup machine). I use Bridge to access images and use a similar approach to yours. I DO NOT order by years but rather by “photop” (photo opportunity) e.g. a project ranging from hours to days but filed by the subject rather than time although the folder name has the month and year. Other more generic things get filed by subject matter that smears over years. Works for me. I would be interested in hearing your opinion of “catalogs”. Since you don’t appear to use them, perhaps you have come to the same conclusion as I have.

    • I use Bridge because it allows me to view and work with more than just image files… everything from Dreamweaver to Illustrator to Photoshop and beyond. That’s important to me because I do more than just photography work. It’s an intuitive program that is extremely efficient and allows me ultimate control of ALL the files on my system… regardless of file type. When I installed Lightroom, it asked me to begin importing my image files… and when it started importing the files, I realized it was going to take weeks to get all my images imported. I uninstalled the program. I simply don’t have the time for a major shift like that. And if a program can’t handle other files too, I won’t use it much, so there’s no point in having it taking up space on my system.

      Lightroom is great for cataloging images – don’t get me wrong. It can search files quickly – if you have metadata and keywords with each file – so you can find things easily. On the other hand, I can do the same thing with Bridge… so I’m liking what I’ve got. I like the file and directory structure – it’s easy to work with and entirely logical. Works for me!