How to organize your photos

It doesn’t matter if you’re a pro, amateur, or hobbyist; we’re all swimming in digital image files. We acquired them for a reason, but whenever we want to find a file, the search can be agony. Whether you’re shooting daily life with a phone camera, capturing family with a point-and-shoot, or building a body of work with a DSLR, creating a workflow that makes sense and sticking to it is crucial. The idea is to create a shooting, importing, and filing sequence that helps you organize photos so that you’re able to retrieve the perfect photo as fast as possible.

How to organize photos efficiently

1. Know why you’re taking the photos

It’s a good idea to keep in mind what you’d like to do with the photos as you take them. In the digital age, we no longer have film limiting our number of shots, but that doesn’t rule out the need to be intentional about what we take and why. Are these photos for gifts? For social media? For work? For posterity? To eventually print? To make a photo book? Bearing their purpose in mind will organize your photos before they’re even taken.

2. Shoot small batches

The fewer shots you have to manage at a time, the more likely you are to organize your photos and file them correctly and frequently. If you’re working with a digital camera, consider carrying a few smaller memory cards instead of one big one. When I travel, I only keep a day or two per card, or I change cards if I change locations. You can keep the cards in a labeled case in the order you shot them. When I shoot a wedding, I will shoot small cards for the portraits, ceremony, and reception. This lets you segment your work as you go and implement finer controls on the import.

3. Ruthlessly delete the junk

No amount of editing can fix camera blur, interruptions, and closed eyes. If there is a camera shake, someone walking into the shot, or unflattering expressions, delete these photos as soon as you see them. They can’t be redeemed. Don’t let them take up space on the card, but more importantly, don’t make yourself deal with them twice. You’re not losing anything by getting rid of these bad shots other than clutter that will haunt you later.

4. Download regularly

With all of our devices, we are taking more photos than we ever have before. The best way to organize photos is to keep them all in one, consolidated place. Copy the photos from your phone once a week. Import your memory cards when you’re done shooting for the day. The more frequently you do this, the faster it goes. The smaller the batches, the better you’re able to file them and the lower the possibility that you’ll lose them.

5. Create an explicit folder scheme

Sort and organize your photos by year, then by purpose, then by place, subject, or event. When we try to recall content, our minds work both chronologically and topically, so your folders should, too. This is key: Name the folder clearly and specifically.

For instance, you might divide 2023 into folders: Work, Friends & Family, Travel, Work, and Humane Society Luncheon. As you import your files, if you’re doing it in small batches, your file names can match the folders (like 2023-Humane-Society-1 and 2023-Humane-Society-2).

6. Work your import utility

Try an application like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Windows Photos, Apple iPhoto, or an alternative help with the import. These will help you organize your photos and name them while you download them. Many also let you do basic edits.

Fine-tune the settings for each import. Don’t miss the opportunity to put naming conventions in place as you import the files, sort them by date, and send them to the most specific folder. By fixing the default settings, you can make the most of the import. This holds true if you’re using the basic Windows import or something more professional like Lightroom in your workflow. Be mindful that you always check import settings, too, so you don’t accidentally shuffle your new files into the wrong folder.

7. Delete the duplicates

Once you have your photos organized by year, purpose, and subject, then you have to delete the duplicates. Choose the best shot of each subject. This means deleting not only the files that have overlapped each other because you may have imported them more than once but also deleting every photo but the best one in a series. Get rid of the three to four safety shots of the same subject in the same moment. It feels ruthless, but it isn’t. If you need some help with this, consider getting either free or paid software to help with the sort.

8. Rename your files

When you work with defaults, your files have names like DSC-00956 or some other scheme. These names may help your devices identify the files, but they mean almost nothing to you. When your files have explicit and specific names, you can search folders more easily for specific shots. Each file should have the year and the place or event, especially if the event is recurring, like a birthday or Christmas.

Renaming each file is tedious, but remember you can bulk rename. Recent OS for Windows and Mac come with batch renaming capabilities, but if you’re working with an older version, you can download a utility that will help you to rename several files at once.

9. Back up your files

Now that your photos are organized, you’ll want to back them up. It can be as easy to lose the photos as it was to take them. One lost or fried hard drive may bury your memories for good. Back your files up in two ways.

First, copy them to an external hard drive regularly. Second, upload your very best shots to an online host like Flickr. Both of these let you retain the rights to your content and create public or private albums of large photos. This online digital backup also makes the best of the best viewable from any device.

10. Be consistent

Any system only works if you stick to it. Commit to regular downloads. Be vigilant about keeping file naming conventions and folder structures. If you choose to use tags to identify the subjects in your photos, be sure you spell the name the same way each time, and use the same words to label an event. This keeps you from creating duplicates and having a clean database of image files for quick retrieval and memorable use.


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