How to organise thousands of digital photos

How to organise thousands of digital photos

The advent of digital photography has brought with it the problem of managing all those digital photos.

In the “old” days, it was quite simple.  People took less photos since there was a financial cost associated with every shot.  We would buy photo albums, slot in the 6×4’s, keep the negatives in the back.   And sometimes we’d make different albums for different occasions or themes – birthdays, holidays, etc.

But now we have a collection of tens of thousands of files, all floating around in virtual space.

How to keep track of them?

Let’s look at two ends of the spectrum.

Manual Photo Management

First is total manual management of your photos.  With manual management, you’ll be organising the actual JPG and RAW files on disk.  You may organise the files in folders by year, date, name of shoot, client, etc. 

The benefits of manually managing the image files yourself is that it could make it easier for you to backup files, burn files to a DVD, import into other and multiple software packages and email to others since you’ll know exactly where they are stored.  

The downsides is that it may be very hard to find a particular photo unless your folder naming scheme and organisation is very good. 

You need to be careful here.  For example, if your naming scheme is just to use a description of the event like “Wife’s Birthday”, what happens next year and the year after?  Do you put them all into the same folder?   This could be unmanageable.   Or some people might start moving JPG files based on the content like putting them in a folder of “My Dog”.  But what happens if the photo was part of photos you took at a picnic?   Would you make a copy of the photo of your dog and have it in two places?  What if you wanted to start editing that photo?  How do you keep track of where the duplicates are?

I use a folder scheme of “year/year-month-day description” to organise my photos on disk.  So my raw untouched photos of a birthday party taken today would be stored in a folder “2011/2011-02-01 My Birthday”.   I don’t make duplicates.  I don’t organise the photos on disk by content.   I leave that up to photo management software.   This way, my disk structure is extremely neat and easy to backup or burn to disc.

Automatic Photo Management

Second is what I’ll refer to as using photo management software.   Here, you will probably import your photos into software like iPhoto, Lightroom or Picasa and let the software manage everything for you.  Photo management software will likely organise your files on disk for you too, but you could get by without knowing where they are at all!

Photo management software will typically allow you to create virtual albums of photos, tag them with keywords, mark your favourite ones with a star or rating scheme, locate them on a map if they are tagged with GPS information and even scan them for faces.

The benefits are huge – you don’t need to worry about where the files are and you may be able to locate a particular photo much quicker.  Since the photo management software maintains an index, it lets you find photos very quickly and using terms that may be more meaningful to you like text tags, location, rating, etc that files on a disk using the manual scheme above won’t give you. 

The downsides is that you’re locked into that photo management software to do all extra things like emailing, backing up, etc unless you know where your actual photo files are stored on disk.

How do I do it?

I actually use a combination.  At the moment, I import all photos to disk specifying a folder scheme of “year/year-month-day”.  This way I know exactly where all my raw photos are on disk and this makes it easy to backup, archive or burn to disk.   It also makes it easy to figure out what date I’ve uploaded my photos to.

If I edit photos, I create Collections and Sets in Lightroom to organise photos by shoot and do my editing in there.  When I’m done, I export them into a totally different folder where all my edited photos for printing, emailing, exporting go.   Yep, my edited photos are in a separate location to my “raw” photos from the camera.  It’s like keeping your film negatives in one spot, but your prints in a diffferent box.  You wouldn’t want to mix them up – or worse still, accidentally overwriting the initial photos themselves.  At the moment, I also create separate Lightroom Catalogs for each year just to keep the performance up.

But this doesn’t help Wifey and the kids.  So I also import ALL the photos into iPhoto.  This lets the family take advantage of easier browsing, emailing and face tagging so that they can flip through the family photos quickly.

I don’t think there’s a right and wrong scheme – you just need to decide on something up front and stick to it.

Or else you’ll end up with thousands of photos with all sorts of wierd names disorganised in one big My Photos folder and ten years later the problem will be too big to sort out.


2 thoughts on “How to organise thousands of digital photos”

  1. Nice post Jase – I have been pondering on how to best organise my photos. Do you store your raw photos on a NAS? If so, how do you manage picasa/lightroom edits on a NAS?

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