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How to Organize Photos: A Step-By-Step Guide

Do you want to know how to organize photos? Do you have a collection of images that needs to be organized?

Look no further. 

Because in this article, I’m going to take you through step-by-step methods for keeping your photos beautifully organized. 

And by the time you’re done reading, you’ll know exactly what to do to make sure your photos are organized from now on.

Let’s dive right in.

Organizing Your Photos: Here’s Where to Start

In this article, I offer two methods for organizing your photos. 

The first method is designed for hobbyists and casual photographers. It doesn’t require an image organization program, and it won’t involve any photo ranking or culling (i.e., you won’t need to sort the best photos from the mediocre and bad photos). 

The second method is designed for serious photographers and professionals. You’ll need a dedicated digital asset management program, and you’ll spend significant time evaluating your photos and sorting them based on that evaluation. 

So pick the option that makes the most sense for you!

Programs for Organizing Your Photos

Whether you’re a casual photographer or a professional, you’ll want to at least consider some type of photo organizational program. 

These tend to be relatively affordable, and they’ll help tremendously when it comes to organizing your images

With an organizational program (also known as a digital asset management program), you’ll be able to separate out images, rank them according to quality, add keywords, and more. 

And most DAM programs allow for at least basic photo editing, so you can organize and enhance your photos in the same place. 

Now, the industry standard for organizing images is Adobe Lightroom, which allows for a tremendous balance of organizational comprehensiveness and ease of use. 

Plus, you can transition rapidly between Lightroom’s organizational module and its editing module, which saves time and keeps everything generally neat and clean. 

I’d recommend Lightroom as a DAM program for pretty much everyone, including beginners; it’s easy to use, but it’s wonderfully designed. 

However, an alternative program, one that’s favored by some professionals, is Capture One

If you’re a beginner, Capture One isn’t going to be a good choice; it’s complex, includes a difficult learning curve, and offers way more power than you need. It’s also very expensive. 

But if you’re a serious professional, especially someone who does frequent photoshoots with clients, Capture One is definitely worth checking out.

Organizing Your Photos: The Simple Method

If you’re a casual photographer or someone simply hoping to get your photos in order, then this is the method for you. 

It may take a bit of time, but it’ll be worth it in the end. 

Step 1: Gather All of Your Images 

Any good photo organization method starts here:

Actually gathering all of your images in one place. 

Note that this includes all digital images, as well as all printed images. 

So track down any prints that you’re interested in organizing. 

Also grab any memory cards, backup hard drives, photos off your phone, etc. 

I’d recommend checking in old camera bags for memory cards. Check in old cameras, too; you might have a memory card or two hiding out in a card slot!

Also check old computers and any flash drives you have in your possession.

Finally, bring all of the images together into one single spot. 

Step 2: Upload All Your Images Onto a Single Hard Drive

You’re going to need a large hard drive for this one, especially if you’ve been taking photos for a while. 

If your computer hard drive doesn’t offer enough space, then I’d recommend purchasing an external hard drive; you can plug one of these into your computer via a USB port, then transfer all your photos on over. 

(How big of an external hard drive should you get? That depends on the number of photos you have! But a one or two terabyte drive won’t cost too much, and it’ll generally give you plenty of room for expansion.)

Note that if any of your images are prints, you’ll need to scan them onto your computer. 

Step 3: Create a Folder Structure Based on Your Needs

This is going to be your organization structure, so you must get it right. 

Now, I’m going to discuss image structures and hierarchies that you can create on your desktop using basic folders. 

However, if you’re using a digital asset management program (discussed above), then you can recreate the same thing, just within the software. 

Make sense?

There are two basic methods I recommend for creating folders. 

The Year-Date System

First, you can create folders based on a year-date system. 

In other words:

Create a folder for every year up to the present.

Then create a set of subfolders within each year folder, which corresponds to the months you’ve taken photos. 

This system is easy to implement, because most photos include date data. Simply drag and drop photos into the right subfolder. 

And then, at the end of each month, create a new subfolder, add the photos from the last 30 days, and start over. 

Easy, right?

This is the system I suggest for ultra-casual photographers. If you don’t plan on creating any sort of portfolio, keeping your images sorted by date makes them relatively easy to look back through. If you’re searching for a photo taken the previous year, for example, you can quickly hone in on a couple of possible months, skim through them, and pull the photo. 

There are also modified versions of this method, where you create subfolders within the month folders that correspond to events (e.g., “Florida vacation,” and “Sister’s wedding”). Or you can simply create folders within the month folders that correspond to specific dates.

The Topic System

This is the second simple method of organizing your photos. 

It takes more work than the previous method, but it’ll keep your photos nicely sorted, especially if you frequently post images online or to a website. 

Here’s how it works:

First, skim through all your photos, and identify any broad categories you can see. Then create a folder for each of these categories.

For instance, you might create a folder for scenic images, another folder for flower images, another folder for family images, and more. 

Then sort your images into each of these folders by topic. If you have lots of images, you might consider creating subfolders by year, or by subtopic (e.g., beach landscapes versus mountain landscapes). 

When you’re done, you’ll have a true portfolio at your fingertips! Though note that you will need to work harder to locate specific photos because you won’t have the neat year-date system discussed above.

Step 4: Backup Your Photos

This is the final step of any image organization process:

Backing your images up.

Because while images on your computer will generally stay safe…

…things can happen. 

Your computer can get viruses. Your room could get flooded. There could be a fire. 

And you’d lose all your precious images.

So you should always, always, always have at least one backup of your photos. 

(I’d really recommend having two backups at all times.)

Many photographers like to use two different backup types:

A physical backup (e.g., an external hard drive).

And a cloud-based backup. 

This helps diversify your storage methods. And while no system is foolproof, it can work quite well.

But, at the very least, make sure you have a physical backup. External hard drives aren’t expensive these days, and they’re worth every penny!

Organizing Your Photos: The Advanced Method

If you’re a more serious photographer, one who needs to cull and sort images based on quality…

…then this is the method you should use for organizing your photos. 

Here’s what you do:

Step 1: Gather All Your Photos in a Digital Asset Management (DAM) Program

And when I say, “All your photos,” I mean all your photos!

Grab images from your hard drive, from your memory cards, from your backup hard drives, from your flash drives, from your old computers, and more. 

Then put them all onto a hard drive of some sort (either your computer’s hard drive, or an external hard drive). 

And import them into a DAM program such as Lightroom or Capture One. 

Note:

The importing process may take a while. If you have thousands of photos, your computer will need to do a lot of work, so don’t necessarily expect it to be done within minutes. 

Step 2: Set Up a Folder Structure Based on Sessions, Topics, or a Combination of the Two

Now it’s time to lay out your organizational hierarchy. 

Depending on your DAM program of choice, you’ll have various organizational “buckets,” such as folders, collections, and albums. 

However, I like to think of all these as folders (just with a few extra, customizable options). 

When it comes to choosing a folder structure, I’d recommend one of two options.

Option 1: 

Organize based on topic. Create a folder for landscapes. A folder for portraits. A folder for street shots. 

Then create a second folder within each of those folders, one that’s designed to hold the “best” of each topic.

Option 2: 

Organize based on session. 

This works well for photographers who frequently do client shoots. 

Simply create a top-level folder for each session (e.g., Product Shoot 10/2). 

Then within each folder, create a subfolder for the best photos. 

(You can also create other subfolders for photos that you’re currently editing, or photos that you’ve rejected, if you so desire.)

Personally, I use Option 1, because I don’t do session-based shooting frequently enough to justify the second type of workflow. 

But I do find it useful to combine the topic- and session-based organization, so that you create session folders within the high-level topics. 

So you might have a landscape folder. Then within the landscape folder, you can include subfolders labeled by date (and within those subfolders, a second subfolder for the best images). 

Make sense?

Step 3: Sort Your Photos

Now it’s time to put your organizational structure to use. 

Simply take the images and sort them into the top-level folders based on the topic or the session. 

This can be time-consuming, especially if you have thousands of images. But it’s very important. And it’ll feel good, like you’re taking a messy room and making it nice and clean.

By the way, you definitely don’t need to go through every single photo in order to do a good sorting job. 

Instead, you can use image thumbnails to evaluate whole batches of images at once. Then you can drag groups of images into the right folder. 

That should speed up your sorting considerably.

Step 4: Do a First Pass and Pick All Decent Images

Once you have all your images sorted, it’s time to do some culling. 

Most digital asset management software includes some form of picking, which you can flag and reject images depending on their quality. 

So go through your images. And mark the best images as picks. 

Don’t be choosy, however. Be very loose with your definition of “best.” This step isn’t about finding your top-notch images; instead, it’s about separating the decent images from the useless ones. 

If you come across images that are terrible–for instance, they’re completely blurry, or they’re unsalvageably underexposed–you can mark them as rejects.

Once you’ve finished this process, take all your picked images and move them into the “best” subfolder.

Step 5: Do a Second Pass and Rate Your Images More Carefully

Next, go into all your “best” subfolders. 

And go through the images again. 

This time, use some form of rating system. For instance, you might use stars, colors, or numbers, depending on your organizational program. 

Make sure that only the absolute best, portfolio-worth images get the top rating. 

That way, it’s easy to find your best images for printing, for uploading to your website, or for use on social media. 

Step 6: Back Up Your Images Regularly

At this point, your photos should be organized. 

But you need to back them up, and you need to do it regularly. 

It’s far too easy to lose images due to computer problems or theft or flood or hard drive failure. 

So make sure you have at least one backup hard drive (though many professional photographers favor a RAID system). 

And I’d also recommend using some form of cloud storage as a second backup. 

That way, you have your images in three places at all times. 

And if one–or both–of your backups fails, you always have a third copy. 

Just in case.

How to Organize Photos: Conclusion

Now that you’ve finished this article, you should know precisely what you need to do to get your photos cleaned up and organized. 

So get started! Don’t dawdle. 

Pretty soon, your images are going to be beautifully organized. 

(It’s a wonderful feeling; I promise!)

Do I need software to organize my photos?

No, you don’t need software to organize your photos. It’s possible to create a nicely organized collection of photos with some careful sorting on your desktop (and judicious use of folders). However, software will make photo organization a lot easier, because you’ll be able to quickly move images from group to group without struggling to find them. Plus, you can often use photo organization software to add keywords to your photos, which will make them much easier to find in the future!

What’s the best photo organization software?

My favorite photo organization software is Lightroom, because it has powerful organizational capabilities, but also allows you to do significant editing. Most of the other popular software out their tends to be more editing heavy and less focused on photo organization, such as Luminar 4–though ON1 Photo RAW offers some nice organizational capabilities, so that’s worth checking out. Also, if you’re a very serious photographer, Capture One 20 offers excellent organization options and top of the line editing capabilities, so make sure you test it out!

How do you organize film photos?

If you have lots of film photos that need sorting, I’d really recommending investing in a good-quality scanner. Scan your film, get it all on your hard drive, and then start organizing. As I explain in the article, it generally makes sense to organize by outing/session or by genre, and the option that you choose depends on the type of photography you do. If you’re a casual photographer, you’ll want to organize by outing (so all images from Trip 1 go into one folder, all images from Trip 2 go into another folder, and so on). But if you’re a serious photographer and you shoot several genres, it can be helpful to organize that way, instead–with different folders for landscape photos, macro photos, still life photos, etc. Do what works for you!

How do you sort thousands of pictures?

Often, the best way to start when you have thousands of pictures to organize is to sort based on date. From there, you can sort the images into specific outings–or, if you prefer, you can sort them by genre (landscape photos, portrait photos, macro photos, etc.). However, make sure that all of your photos are in the same location before trying to do any sorting!

Author

  • Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.

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