What is the best way to organise photos?

I recently received an email by a reader asking me about the best way to organise digital photos, and whether I had any tips to share on the subject, so that is what we are going to look at today! 

One of the great things about digital photography is the ability to take literally hundreds of pictures, but without a system for organising them you can quickly find yourself over-run!  There is no hard and fast rule about how to store and organise your photos - the most important thing is to have a system in place for importing, naming, sorting and archiving your images, so I'm going to share with you the steps I take with my photos. 

The easiest solution is to use a software program that allows you to import your photos whilst automatically renaming and filing them. There are lots of programs that you can use that offer these features - a couple of examples would be Windows Live Gallery (available free), Picasa, or you can do this with Photoshop Elements if you already use this for editing. The process below is pretty much the same whatever program you use, but you might need to get familiar with your chosen program first to find all the options available to you.

Step 1:
The first thing to do is to get your photos off the camera and onto your computer. The best way to import photos is to use a memory card reader - this is much faster and less dangerous than connecting your camera directly to your PC. Open your software program and click on "Import Photos" or "Get Photos From Camera/Reader" At this point you can normally choose if you want to import all photos or choose individual ones to import.

best way to organise photos 1

Step 2:
The first option to consider is where your photos will download to - this is normally set to save in your "My Pictures" folder by default. If you wish to use a different folder then you can browse to find the location you want them to download to instead - I just stick with the My Pictures folder.

Step 3:
The next option is say how each of your folders will be named. By default it will put your photos into sub-folders named with the date you have taken them. You can just use this, then group the photos into a single folder for each month, or you also have the option to give each folder a descriptive name if you want. I use the "date + custom name" format as this will allow me to find a particular group of photos more easily in the future. (I still move them into a monthly folder)

best way to organise photos 2

Step 4:
By default, your pictures will keep the same fairly useless names that your camera has assigned them such as "DSC0678". As it is so easy to do by using software, I also suggest changing this so that the files are given a descriptive name when imported. I use "Date Taken + Custom Name" again, and each photo will be assigned a unique number starting at 001.

Step 5:
Do NOT check the option to erase the photos from your memory card whilst importing - if there is a problem during the transfer then you will lose all your photos. (This has happened to me and it is really, really irritating!)

Step 6:
Depending on what software you are using, you will have the option to either tag your photos as you upload them, or do them individually later. Tags are like little pointers that tell you what each photo is about. For example, if my folder is called "Flowers" and I have photos of lots of different flowers in there, I could tag all of the photos of yellow flowers with the words yellow and flower. Later, if I want to find all my pictures of yellow flowers, I can type this in and all my photos with these keywords in the tags will come up! I don't personally use this feature, but I can totally see why it would be handy. It's up to you.

Step 7:
The next step is to go through all the photos and separate the keepers from the ones destined for the recycle bin. Rate them as you go through: images that are unusable, ones you want to keep, and ones you want to edit. This sounds simple, doesn't it? But it can be hard to get rid of photos of your beloved children, especially when you have your "mommy goggles" on! Here's a couple of tips to help....

* Unusable photos are those that are out of focus, where they have weird expressions, eyes are closed in mid-blink etc. These should be quickly and ruthlessly rated for the delete pile. If you love a photo but it is over or under-exposed, or has a weird colour cast, or anything else that you should be able to make right in editing put these in the edit pile.

* Sometimes the differences can be small - a slightly different expression, or you might have twenty images of your child running down a hill - but you really don't want to keep all of these, even if they are all good. This is not just so that you can reduce the amount of space taken up on your hard drive, but so you can create a collection of photographs that do justice to the memories you were trying to capture. When you look back on these in twenty years time, you will quickly get bored of looking at fifty images of your child jumping in the same muddy puddle, and then fifty more similar photos of him eating an ice-cream. Be selective with what you keep.

* As for editing, I only usually only edit my best photos otherwise I would never be off the computer! I suggest you just do your favourites - the ones that "speak" to you for whatever reason.

You can rate them as you go through using the star rating in your software package. I tend to use the following: 1 star for images to be deleted, 3 or 4 stars for images to keep, and 5 stars for those that need editing. Once you have gone through and rated each photo, you can then filter your photos to show only the photos with one star, or just the five star ones, so it makes it easier to see what you need to to do with each one. (NB The reason I rate images that are to be deleted with one star instead of just getting rid of them immediately is so that I don't mistakenly delete something that I might want to have kept. This way I can filter to view all the 1 star images and just quickly check they are all definitely for the bin before committing them to be recycled!)

Step 8:
Delete all the images that you have declared unusable - there is no point in these taking up space on your hard drive. I then tend to go through my 3 star images and see if I really do still want to keep them all.

Step 9:
You should now be left with photos that you want to keep, and your five star photos that you have to edit. You can choose to edit your photos now or later (If doing later, you can just open the folder and filter by the 5 Star Rating) Remember, when editing, create a copy and edit the copy. That way if it goes horribly wrong, you have the original to fall back on.

Step 10:
This next step is the one I want you to promise to follow. Always back up your photos. This is so incredibly important because if your computer hard drive crashes at some point you've lost all your photos, the visual memories of your kids childhood, forever. External disc drives are so cheap now that would be the method I recommend, but you can back them up to a CD if you prefer. And yes, you do need to have them on a totally separate hard drive - a different folder on the same computer doesn't work.  So, either back up now (which I recommend) or set a date to do it once a month. I always make sure I have two copies of all my photos on separate hard drives at all times. Another option to seriously consider is off-site storage. Why? Because if there were to be a fire in your home, it wouldn't matter that you have two separate sets of photos, they would both be gone. Just something for you to think about.

Step 11:
Once you are happy that your photos are safely on your computer, and backed-up, you can delete the photos from your memory card. The best way to do this is actually on your camera - you will have an option to delete all the photos from the card in the camera's menu options.

Step 12: 

That's it - your photos should be beautifully organised! If you have old photos that you have already transferred, you can go back and rename/tag them in the same way so that all your photos have the same descriptive names, and sort them into a folder for each month, and then, by year.

Wow - this must be the longest post ever so if you made it to the end, well done! Hopefully  it has given you some ideas about some ways to organise your photos more effectively. Remember, the key to organising is to make sure that what you are keeping is worthy of inclusion, and you are able to find it relatively easily for when you want to find it again. 

If you found this post helpful, please leave a comment and let me know!


Jan said...

thank you! looks like you're importing directly to elements in your first step. maybe i should look into that. i love the way my photos are organized in iphoto, but i don't like moving the files around to different programs to edit...like elements. maybe i should look into lightroom 4 so that i can store/organize my photos and edit through one program seemlessly, at least i think that's what you can do with lightroom 4.

Audrey said...

You can do it in both, I have Lightroom 4 and Photoshop and use both for editing. They actually complement each other well.

matt6matt said...

I find organizing photos by year / month - 'Event name' is good - but always remember to use a long and descriptive folder name. I now have 10 years worth of photos ( about 70,000 pictures ) and the only way to now share my organised photo collection is via an online Photo Service called http://inmyphotofolder.com - They have an application you can install and it will upload your entire collection. Once the collection is online - you can share with friends and family. Their search facility is blindingly fast. It never takes me more than 2 seconds to find a folder or tag. I use different tags to mark my favorite pictures of my children - so by searching for the tag - I get an overview of them over the years. The uploader is available for Windows and MAC. When you add to or change your photo collection - just re-run the uploader - and it only sends the updates to the online system.

Audrey said...

That sounds great - thanks for sharing! Since this post was written I've signed up for a SmugMug account and use that for my offsite photo storage and for sharing with friends etc. I definitely think some form of offsite storage is the way to go! Here's a link to the post about my now using SmugMug if you're interested: http://www.livesnaplove.com/2012/09/photo-sharing-site-for-photo-back-up.html

Anonymous said...

How is your organizing going? I'm at a standstill since discovering how easy it is to do things like 'head swap' in photoshop not to mention all the other ways you can improve images. I'm too scared to delete! I also now shoot in raw plus jpeg (ie I have a raw file & jpeg file for each shot) so my hard drive is filling up quickly. Plus there's all that memory chewing video taken on my iPhone. Are you still using the same system?

Audrey said...

I have to say that the delete button should be your friend! I get rid of anything that is unusable or if I have 20 similar images I will cull to just one or two. I'm still using the same system with one major difference - I now back up all my photos to SmugMug for off-site storage. So the main copy lives on my external hard drive (keeps my PC clear) and I upload a copy to SmugMug. Friends and family can also view and download photos from SmugMug if i choose to let them, which is easier than keep having to give copies on CD's etc. Here's the post about SmugMug
http://www.livesnaplove.com/2012/09/photo-sharing-site-for-photo-back-up.html Any questions give me a shout!

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