How-To Geek

What You Said: How Do You Manage and Organize Your Photos?


It’s easy to amass a pile of digital photos but a little more complicated to keep them all organized. This week we asked you to share your photo management techniques and now we’re back to highlight your tips.

Photo by John O’Nolan.

It seems we have no shortage of shutter bugs in our readership; you were full of tips, tricks, and insights on how to effectively manage photo collections.

Folders and Filenames For The Win

By far and away the system that the majority of you put your faith in was that of a series of dated folders and file names. Both casual and professional photographers alike preferred a folder/file based system before anything fancy like tagging even entered into the picture. Pat Obrien writes:

I do professional photography, so I have it split out slightly. I have a root folder called “Master Photo Library”, then it splits out from there.

If it’s for my own personal photography, then I have it go into “\Personal\YYYY\MM – MONTH\MMDD – Project Name”


YYYY is the year
MM – Month is like 01 – January,
MMDD – Project Name is like 0101 – Boston

If it is business, then back to Master Photo Library, then;

\Clients and Events\YYYY\CLIENT NAME\MMDD – Event Name


YYYY is the year
CLIENT NAME is the client’s name, like Joe and Jane Smith
MMDD – Event Name is the month and day, like 0508 – Engagement Shoot

The vast majority of readers used some variation of the reverse naming scheme, such as all folders being labeled YYYY-MM-DD SomeTitle.

Interoperability is Key


While there were many variations on the folder/file naming schemes the motivating principle was a mistrust in closed-system management of photos.

Photo by Nikko Russano.

Bemental highlights the dangers of propriety systems:

We used to use iPhoto and similar solutions, but I’ve since been moving away from programs that use their own propriety libraries. Libraries have a tendency of going corrupt, hence data loss, etc.

Indeed, there is an inherent risk in spending hours and hours tagging and organizing your photos if all that information is stored in a simple and local library that could be wiped out (or separated from the files it is cataloging, therefore rendering it useless). Mark understands this all too well:

I was once burned by a photo organizing/editing program that stuffed all my photos into a filing system that only it understood. If I was looking for a pic I shot of my kids at the beach three years ago, it could easily be grouped into a folder with christmas pics from six years ago and a pic of my dog from yesterday. So, I ditched that program and downloaded Picasa and love it.

However, I set up my own filing system based on the date the photo was taken. Each folder gets a YYYY-MM name. I almost never use sub-folders in my photos. That way they always line up chronologically in the filing system if I’m looking for a photo and don’t feel like starting up Picasa, which is very slow (my only gripe). I let tags and other Picasa features do all the rest of the organizing I need. I do have a handful of special folders, such as one for downloaded artwork, one for documents that I have scanned and one for old family photos that I’ve scanned that I can’t always date accurately. My most important premise is to keep it simple.

Although the majority opinion leaned towards using rigid folders and file name editing to mark photos indepdent of any program there were dissenting opinions. Brodiemac writes:

I really used to be anal about my pictures. They were all put into folders YYYY-MM. Well so many of these modern programs that can sort them for you according to the metadata of the pictures themselves, I really don’t care anymore.

He raises an interesting point. If your photos are backed up properly and you’re not worried about having to do some extra leg work if the metadata somehow gets corrupted or overwritten, you can save a lot of time by just letting your photo application of choice (such as Picasa or Lightroom, both popular among readers) do the work for you.

Visit the original article for a more in depth look at the individual naming conventions and methods your fellow readers use.


Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 05/27/11

Comments (32)

  1. Hatryst

    All right, folders FTW :D
    And i thought i was on the wrong side of photo management !

  2. Setabs138

    I pose this question. I am a PC and my wife is a Mac. What’s the easiest way to manage the photos in a mixed enviroment?

    I use windows live photo gallery and she uses iPhoto. Right know every time I unload the latest pictures I have to do it on her computer and mine. I also noticed any people tags I make on a photo in windows the tag doesn’t work in iPhoto.

  3. chris

    @Setabs 138: Personally i would go with a network drive. An external drive could work as well, but if you got a network drive you wouldn’t have to even move. (assuming you have a router already.) Or if you have a crappy pc laying around put a server os on it and map that drive to both computers. (this would require much more work)

  4. chris

    if you are looking for photo management that would work on both then you would have to switch to an application that is supported by both OS. (picasa is a great one.)

  5. Monzisez

    I agree. Folders are the best way.

  6. Alex


    I use folders and picasa, works great for me. I have a slight problem. Usually, categorising by year-month-datr, but how about if i go on a 2-week trip. What would be the best way to organise events which lasy more than one day?

  7. ken

    I agree with the above – date and name order is best.
    I bought a Panasonic recorder/player DMR XS350 (I have alwars recommended Pansonic – I have a Panasonic TV and HiFi) but when I tried my photo CDs it shuffled the order mercilessly making a slideshow useless.
    Yet far cheaper machines work great. I contacted Panasonic but the best they could say was that I’d have to go through all my sets of photos and renumber them because my Panasonic machine can only read 1 then 11 then 111 etc.
    Should’ve kept my £19.99 player.

  8. Kathleen

    Alex, Picasa lets you import into folders by date created! So let the computer do the work for you. The program will make a separate folder for each day but you can import the photos in one session. Make sure you have the camera set on the correct date and time and time zone. Make sure on Picasa’s Import screen you have the box checked to prevent importing duplicates in case you’ve already imported some photos from the card. This keeps you from importing them again and then having to sift through them later. Also, if you are shooting multiple days on a trip – especially on a cruise – take a picture of the daily sign at the door or check-in desk that says where you are. This really helps when everything starts to look a like when you get home. Safe Travels, don’t forget a spare battery, the charger, and an extra camera card or two.

  9. Kathleen

    Ken, Picasa will let you export and rename all the photos in the export without touching all the original photos. Then take the exported photos to the tv.

  10. dana ross

    Excellent article. Thanks.

  11. Baldvin Baldvinsson

    Hi there.

    I manage my photos in Explorer. I create a folder name the Year I take them then I create subfolder from them. Like folder H:\Year2011\Birds H:\Year2011\Nature H:\Year2011\Landscape H:\Year2011\Family and so. Because I process all my photos from Raw to Jpg I also have jpg subfolder in any folder.

    The best way is the way you like it most. No one can tell other how to do things like this.
    Have a nice day.

  12. Furryface

    I have all my photos in folders with the persons name and then under that the event folder for the photos. For me it makes for a simple easy to navigate file system. No software required (except for backups).

  13. Don Ebberts

    For Alex,

    I use Windows Live Photo Gallery and use folders with the YYYY-MM-DD Event format to ID my pictures. When I have a multi date event, I create a folder, YYYY-MM-DD-DD Camping trip for example and then create a sub-folder for each day. Same name, just changing the date. The nice thing about WLPG is that I can select the Parent Folder and still see all the pictures for the trip.

    I even go so far as to create seperate folders when I have pictures taken the same day, if they aren’t related, for example, 2011-05-28 Grandson at Park and 2011-05-28 BBQ at Uncle Joes.

  14. rashad

    Like some others, I was badly burned a few …. umm, …many …. years ago. Had a Kodak camera and used their management software. When I had to change PCs, I was told that I could move the photos, but would have to re-comment every one of them as it was a (badly designed) proprietary format. (800+ photos at that time!)

    Have used a folder structure for my baseline storage ever since. Definitely my advice, from bitter experience.
    And if you can set up to use one of the apps (Picasa/Adobe/Win Photo Gallery/whatever) to do the tagging and other icing stuff, fine – but don’t ever paint yourself into a corner with it.

    The two test questions are:
    a. Can I move my photos to another drive/computer with no pain?
    b. Can I uninstall/reinstall/change my photo organizer app and retain all the info (structures/tags/etc)?

  15. ExTexan

    Anyone else find it humerous that an article about digital photos is illustrated with a 30+ year old film camera?

  16. Oldtimer

    @-ExTexan : Humorous? Why? I have an identical-looking Canon I bought in Japan in 1968 (yes, 1968) and a couple of years ago my daughter had to use a camera like THAT, not a digital one, for her college photography courses as part of her Graphics Designer major.
    It turns out you CAN NOT

  17. Oldtimer

    ,,,, allow the user to LEARN the art (or Science?) of photography..

  18. Oldtimer

    Clarification;,,, you need to learn to “make” your photos with a manual camera, not a modern digital camera that does what it wants for you. I rest my case.

  19. ExTexan

    From one Oldtimer to another – most “modern digital cameras” have a “manual” setting so you can operate it much like the old OM1 shown in the illustration.

  20. Kosh

    I’ve got thousands sorted in folders, year-month and then if label it for particular topics. Backed up on microsoft sky drive (cloud) and and extermal hard disk, and another archive hard disk….. Got a link to skydrive on iPhone to access the archives :) some on picassa but slowly copying all to skydrive.

  21. Janis Mahlberg

    Another advantage of the file n folder set up is – every Xmas I send out a Xmas newsletter. By srolling through the folders for that year it virtually gives me a diary of events n thus stacks of info for the Newsletter. Has anyone noticed that Picasa is now only a photo viewer now? What has happened to all the fabulous editing features?

  22. Janis Mahlberg

    I would love a Picasa tutorial. Any one recommend one.

  23. NoMonkeyNo100

    Great discussion. I also depend on a folder organization, though I occasionally tag Using ACDsee my main quick view/management/quick edit program. Photoshop is my fine editing program.
    – I agree concerning file corruption.
    – I would add concerns about the size of the databases and how some photo managers like to spread their tracks into every folder. I like tidiness, and having things where I can find them fast.

    Folder organized by category/sub-category Family/USA or Cambodia or … subcategorizing on the fly.

    I’ve used many dating schemes but the one that works best for me is the yymmdd 24:00 system.
    – Having set my Windows default to this style I find many programs will automatically use it.
    – Occasionally have a problem with the 2400 time stamping so I suggest that optionally.

    Once something is dated in this way creation-date, mod-date sorting of files and folders is a breeze.
    – I bypass the single pane file explorers. I use ZabKat x2 quickly finding anything anyhow.
    — This means I bypass any weakness in the built organizers by finding it through x2 and opening it.

    I use other techniques too since x2 can read and and display metadata. Of course, so can Windows but as I said x2 is my file/folder manager of choice. It is faster and much more configurable.

  24. Gv 3f

    For the mac pc combo try dropbox. Use iphoto to import then drag n drop to dropbox. It will automatically sync to the web and pc via network or internet. can be reached on your mobile devices too.

  25. maykrand

    I have tagged 13,000+ pictures in Adobe Elements 2. The photos are stored on an external drive by year, etc. Adobe Elements 2 has the photo comment saved to the photo. All other tags are not the property of the photo, just Adobe’s catalog. This catalog is not upwardly compatible. My question: Is there a way to save these tags to the photos when I move to a newer photo library? What application should my new photo lilbrary be? Ideally I’d like something that saves the tags to the photos, so that it can portable. Does the latest Adobe Elements use any photo library other than their own?

    Please help. If I have to retag the photos, I will. However, I’d rather not.

  26. Arnau

    Folder rules! ;)

  27. LBHazen

    I use file folders as well but start them with the appropriate year ie: 2010 and not 2011. Then do as many using date and description. GREAT article I agree.
    While I have you all I was looking for a photo sharing option in which everyone that attended a family wedding could add their pictures to the albums…. after trying Photobucket and a WIX I found that my first choice of Picasa was THE BEST. Any other suggestions are welcome… :-) (write me directly as I don’t think I’ll get it via the Geek site).

  28. LBHazen

    Oh yeah I also use PhotoShop Elements 7.0 which does a great job creating the thumbnails of all photos even the ones I place on my external hard drive. The only problem is someone else uses my computer to see the photos enlarged are out of luck.. oh well stay off my computer….. :-)

  29. Digital.Geoff

    We’re talking about what the professionals call DAM (digital asset management). One of the best books on the subject is by Peter Krogh.

    If you want to catalogue your pics properly then Adobe Lightroom should be considered. But it’s expensive. Having 10s thousands of pics I’m about to invest in IDimager which is more affordable. It has its own catalogue but can also simultaneously put the information into the EXIF data of the photo itself so you are not for ever tied into the product’s catalogue system. I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve read about the product.

  30. prodprof

    Personally – have been using Canto Cumulus since it’s conception – (long time ago now peeps) !

    Maybe a tad expensive for the home user – but in an imaging warehouse like mine – absolutely indispensible ,-)

    Do a quick search for the homepage – and see why I’ve been using it for 15 years !

    But yes, the folder and human intelligence/logic are often far less susceptible to ‘clever’ programme specific marketing features !

  31. Axel Greb

    Where is your answer?

  32. Write the Name =digital photography

    You’ve got great insights about digital photography, keep up the good work!

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