Organize your photos

So you've taken some pictures with your new digital camera, and now it's time to copy them to your computer. Where will you put them? If you plan ahead a little, you can organize them in such a way that you will not have to reorganize everything later. That will save you a lot of time and frustration down the road.

For starters, "My Pictures" or “Pictures” is not a bad place. You'll find that as a folder under "My Documents" if you are using any recent flavor of Microsoft Windows. If you have multiple accounts on your computer, each account will have a "My Pictures" folder to itself. But you probably don’t want to put all of your photos in one folder.

Folder Structure

Years ago, when I shot slides and stored them in metal slide file boxes, I started out by organizing the pictures by subject. This worked at first, but as I had more and more pictures I started running into problems. The subject categories were fairly simple at first, with categories such as Family, Friends, Camping, Vacation, etc. But as I shot more pictures, I found I needed more categories. And what should I do with the pictures that fit in more than one category?

So I modified my organization to be date oriented. I started out with one file box which held a couple years of pictures. Later, as I shot more and more pictures, I dedicated a file box to each year, and there were some years that required a couple boxes for one year.

I’ve carried that organization over to my digital storage. My photo folder structure is based on the date I took the picture. Originally, I had a separate folder for each month. And I would sometimes break out special events, like vacations or holidays, like this:

My Pictures
       George's Birthday Party
       Grand Canyon Vacation

I take more picture now. In fact, so many that if I organize by month, many months have too many pictures to wade through. So, now I break them down by day. I use Adobe Lightroom to import the photos from my camera, and it will do this automatically for me, like this:

My Pictures

The photo import program that came with your camera probably can put the photos into separate folders by date. If you don't take a lot of photos, organizing them by month is probably adequate.

Once you've come up with a folder structure that works for you, put your image files into this structure. When you move files from one folder to another, do it with the program you use for cataloging and viewing your photos. It may have saved information about the photos and their locations. Moving the files outside of that program with, for instance, Windows Explorer, may cause the photos to lose their association with the information. Therefore, you should always move your photos using your viewing software if that option is available.

File Naming

Digital Cameras

I have also standardized on a naming convention for my files. This way I can quickly identify my files, and when displayed sorted by name, they are also in chronological order. After years of tuning, I had a file name format that worked for me. Then I read the book The DAM Book: Digital Asset Management for Photographers by Peter Krogh. My format was very similar to that discussed in the book, and I have now adopted Peter’s format, which looks like this:


Of course, the ".jpg" may vary, depending on the file type. The file name begins with my initials, "gbs", followed by an underscore. That is followed by the date in the form yyyymmdd (so it will sort correctly), followed by another underscore and the camera sequence number. If I include pictures shot by someone else in my folders (which does occur), I identify those pictures by prefixing the file with their initials in place of my own. You can add the time to the date, if you’d like, so the full name would be something like gbs_20070924_1431_4567.jpg. (If you use 24-hour time the files will sort properly – 1431 would be 2:31 PM.)

If I shoot with more than one camera in a day, the two cameras' sequence numbers are independent. So far, I've never had an occurrence where the sequence numbers from two cameras conflicted in one day. With two cameras, the files may not sort completely in the order shot. However, my viewing software takes care of that by displaying the pictures in order by the EXIF Creation Time instead of file name order. As long as I keep the clocks in my cameras set accurately, the pictures display in the proper chronological order.

Scanned Photos

If you're scanning slides, negatives or prints you won't have a camera sequence number like you will probably have when shooting with a digital camera. I've worked out a naming scheme that works well for me.

When I shot film, I numbered each roll sequentially throughout the year. I never shot more than 99 rolls in a year, so the roll number can be represented with two digits. My naming format is pretty much the same as above for digital cameras, except that the last four digits are the roll number and frame number in the roll. So, the 13th frame of of the 24th roll, taken on March 20, 1989, would be named gbs_19890320_2413.jpg. This makes my naming consistent and resolves any file name conflicts that might occur if I shot more than a roll of film in a day.


Now that the files are located where you want them, we should consider cataloging them so we can locate the photo(s) we are looking for later. Here's more information on cataloging your photos.