How to Organize Your Digital Photos

Step by step instructions to keep your photo collection under control

I spent years taking digital photographs before I developed a system for keeping track of them. This approach did not work out well: first, it was impossible for me to ever find a photo that I was looking for. Second, it took me months to organize them all when I finally got around to it.

Don't let this happen to you. If you follow some of these basic organizational steps it will save you a lot of time and effort in the long run. Plus, you'll always be able to find that important photo when you want to share or print it.

The Basic Steps

Before we get started, I want to outline the basic steps. This looks like a lot right now, but each step does not take a lot of time. And believe me, it will take TWICE as long if you wait and try to do it later.

  1. Create a folder on computer for photos
  2. Transfer photos from card to computer
  3. Rename the photos something helpful
  4. Backup your photos [Optional]
  5. Edit the photos and eliminate duds
  6. Tag the photos with appropriate categories

Create a Photo Folder

This step takes a lot of initial effort, but after that it is easy. You want to establish a special folder on your hard drive for all of your photographs. This keeps them all contained in one location.

SPECIAL NOTE: why create your own folders when you can import them into an image viewing program and let it create the folders for you? The program will use its own logic to set up the folders. If this does not jive with your logic, it makes it very hard to find out where the photo is stored on your hard drive. Also, if you ever want to switch to a different image editing program, the folder names and structures might not be compatible.

Use whatever folder names make sense for you. I create folders by date and not by category. I use a tagging system (step number 6) to assign categories later. To start with, by date is the easiest way to organize the photos.

For example, I have one group of folders for each year: 2002, 2003, 2004. Within each one of these is a folder for each month: 01-january, 02-february, 03-march, etc. Sometimes if I am really taking a lot of photographs I will also have folders for each day: 12-25-2004, 12-26-2004.

Transfer Photos From Card to Computer

Once I've set up my folders by date, I put my memory card into my card reader. I sort the photos by date on the memory card, then I transfer them to the appropriate folders on my computer hard drive. Pretty simple, really.

Rename The Photos

It's important to rename your photos so that the filenames are meaningful to you.

I stick with my date approach to things, and name all of the files with a date followed by a sequential number. The sequential number keeps the photos in the order that I took them, so that if I ever want to make a slideshow presentation, the photos will be in the correct order.

Some examples of this naming approach for photos taken on January 25 2005 would be: 01-25-2005-01.jpg, 01-25-2005-02.jpg, 01-25-2005-03.jpg, and so on.

You can either rename the files one at a time (this will take awhile) or you can use a program to do it for you. I use Photoshop Elements, which has a feature that allows you to rename entire groups of photographs at once with any name you choose.

Backup Your Photos

This step is optional, and only for those who are really concerned about losing all of their important photos. Computer hard drives do fail from time to time, and typically all of the data on them is lost. If you don't want your photo collection to disappear, consider backing up the photos once you've renamed them.

You have three backup options: you can copy the photos to a second hard drive, you can burn a CD or you can burn a DVD. You may have to make some additional purchases if you do not have a second drive, CD burner or DVD burner. Most new computers have CD burners built in, so if you've purchased a new computer in the past couple of years, burning CDs will be your best bet.

Edit Your Photographs

This step also might be optional for you, but I do it all the time. Here's an easy way to find out: in a month from now, will you want to find every out of focus and poorly exposed photo you've taken? If the answer is yes, then skip this step altogether. Just keep your photos the way they were taken.

However, if you think that any photo you take can be improved with a little cropping and color adjustment, then editing is for you. The most important part of editing your photos is deleting the duds. I immediately eliminate any photo that is poorly exposed or out of focus. I will also get rid of photos that just don't speak to me.

I try to experiment a lot with the photos that I take and sometimes the experiments don't work. In these cases I just get rid of the photos, because in a month I will have no desire to go back and review them.

Deleting non-essential photos frees up room on your hard drive so that it does not fill up with hundreds of photos that you don't really like.

If you edit your photos extensively (and spend a lot of time at it) then you might want to wait until you're done editing to make a backup. This way, you can backup both the originals and the edited photos and have the best of both worlds.

Note For The Nervous

If deleting and editing your precious photos just gives you the willies, there are ways to keep calm. You can either backup your original photos to CD or DVD before you begin to edit, or you can make a duplicate folder on your hard drive for editing. Both of these approaches will ensure that even if you make a mistake while editing, your original photo will always be available.

Tag Your Photographs

Whew! We've made it to the end. The final step to properly organizing your photo collection is to tag your photographs with meaningful categories. I typically assign multiple categories to each photo, but try not to get carried away.

For example, a photo of a luau on Maui during my Hawaiian honeymoon might include the following tags: "Hawaii", "Maui", "honeymoon", "vacation" and "luau". I tag with multiple categories because it's hard for me to know how I might try to find a photo in the future. I may go looking for all of my honeymoon photos, or I may remember that I took a great photo of a luau. Either way, I will be able to easily find this photo again in the future.

I classify all of my photographs on my computer with Canto Cumulus software and online with Flickr. These are what I use, but there are plenty of other programs that will let you classify. Some examples are Adobe Elements and Extensis Portfolio.

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