Organizing Your Digital Photos

A recent study suggests that we may be harming our memory capacity by taking tons of digital photos that we save and forget.  What researchers have found is that we're relying on these snaps rather than our minds to retain what we see.  It's been suggested that reviewing our photos after the event may help reinforce the memory.  After all, isn't that the point of taking a picture - to remember the thing we're photographing? 

Whether or not this study stands up to further scrutiny, it's certainly true we are awash in a sea of countless photos.  Our parents and preceding generations likely took fewer images in a lifetime than many of us take in a year.  Unless we take deliberate measures to organize all those pictures, it gets increasingly difficult to find them down the road.

Organizing your photos may not only help you recall those special occasions, but it can also save you the frustration of a hard drive littered with hundreds of thousands of files with nondescript names like dsc_0149.jpg.  Thankfully, there are better ways to organize your pictures that will make locating and viewing them easy instead of a chore.

There are two essential things to bear in mind when organizing your photos:

  • The system you use must make sense to you.  The precise way I organize and name my photos most likely won't make sense to most people, but these general organizational principles will work for anyone.
  • The system you use must be scalable.  Creating a folder called "Tommy's Birthday" probably seems like a good idea when Tommy is 1 year old.  By the time you reach his 10th birthday, you may find that the system becomes unwieldy. However you organize your photos, you need a method that grows with you.

For starters, you should try to keep all your photos in one main folder (or one library, if you're using Windows 7 or later).  Typically this will be a folder called "My Pictures" or maybe "Photos" (the exact terminology will depend on your operating system).  Inside there you should create your individual folders that organize the content in broad terms.  If you've been dumping all of your photos directly under "My Pictures," then it's probably a mess right now.  If you're not well acquainted with folder (or directory) structures, think of your hard drive as a file cabinet drawer.  You wouldn't dump all your important papers in one drawer, would you? Most likely you'd create folders for bills, legal documents, etc. It's pretty much the same thing.

With respect to folder names, think about what kinds of photos you like to take.  If you mostly take family snapshots, you might want to create main folders with names like Holidays, Birthdays, Special Occasions, Grandchildren or the like.  If you shoot a broad spectrum of subjects (as I do), you may want to name your main folders Family, Landscapes, Macro, etc.  The key here is to make the subject of each folder sufficiently broad but specific enough to accurately describe what you plan to copy into it.  

Avoid creating main folders that are too vague (e.g., Pretty Pictures) or too specific (e.g., Sunsets at the Beach), at this level.  Doubtless you'll have some photos that don't fit into your main categories.  You might create a Miscellaneous folder to deal with these, but you'll want to use it as sparingly as possible.

The next thing to consider is how you'll name the folders inside the main folders.  Let's go back to the example of Tommy's Birthday.  Assuming you'll be taking photos of multiple birthday events as Tommy grows up, you may want to name each specific birthday party using the exact date and a descriptive name.  Here's how I might name an example folder:

2014-08-05 Tommy's 3rd Birthday

Why not name it 8-5-14 Tommy's 3rd Birthday? When you only have a few folders, that's pretty easy to find and seems logical enough. But what happens when you throw Tommy's birthday party on August 4th the following year and create a new folder called 8-4-15 Tommy's 4th Birthday?  Your folders, as viewed in order, now list Tommy's 4th birthday before his 3rd.  The problem only gets worse as you add dozens of new folders: with vacations, anniversaries and so on all out of sequence.  This relates to the second point I made about your naming system being scalable.  Trust me on this - you'll be glad you did.

The last point to consider with respect to naming is how you'll name the individual photos themselves.  Approaches vary, but I suggest naming your files to match the specific folder names.  Going back to our previous example, you may want to name your files like this:

2014-08-05 Tommy's 3rd Birthday 001.jpg
2014-08-05 Tommy's 3rd Birthday 002.jpg
2014-08-05 Tommy's 3rd Birthday 003.jpg (and so on)

The reason I use the leading 0s in numbering the files is to ensure that they are displayed in the correct order when viewed in a folder.  While it seems like a small thing, this naming convention also ensures that most image viewing software will display the images in order when cycling through a large number of photos in a folder.  If you're viewing pictures from a wedding, for example, it can be jarring to see photos of the cake cutting appearing in between the bride walking down the aisle.  Of course, if you have thousands of photos in a folder, you may want to add an extra leading 0 (e.g., 2015-04-22 Bill and Susan's Wedding 0001.jpg) to keep them in order.

If you follow these guidelines, you will normally create unique file names incorporating the date, descriptive name and a unique number.  This is useful for finding specific photos using various search tools.  It's also important if you use photo cataloging software, since these programs require that each photo in their database have a unique name.  Your operating system will let you have multiple files named tommy.jpg in different folders, but other programs will have trouble differentiating the file names in a database.

Software

So you've decided you need to rethink how you organize your photos, but you're starting with a mess.  How do you sort through everything and start getting control of it?  You'll probably find it's easiest to use a dedicated program to help you catalog the photos you have.  

A good image manager will also allow you to rename and organize images at the time you import them to your computer.  However, I would strongly suggest that prior to using any of these programs it's a wise idea to first spend some time creating the basic folder organization you plan to use.  Otherwise, you'll likely end up leaving things in disorder and making things harder than they need to be.  The extra effort up front is worth the time it takes!

Here are some programs you may want to consider using, in ascending order of complexity and cost. They are all currently available for Mac and Windows:

Picasa 3 - This is a free image editor and cataloging tool from Google.  The editing functions are basic, but probably useful to many people who don't want a more complicated tool.  Like the other programs listed here, Picasa will help you import, organize and edit your pictures.

Adobe Photoshop Elements 12 - This program is a mid-level tool that provides more advanced editing and organizing capabilities at an affordable price.  Currently $79 from Amazon.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 - A more sophisticated program aimed at professionals and serious hobbyists.  Currently $147 from Amazon (also available on a subscription basis through the Adobe Creative Cloud).  Provides considerable flexibility in the management of your photo library and excellent editing capabilities.