Since I became a (digital) photographer, I’ve shot hundreds of thousands of photos. It’s taken me years to perfect the art or archiving, and now that I’m finally somewhat pleased with the state of my files and folders, I’ve decided to pass on the wisdom and write down a few guidelines on how to organize photos and files when you have a lot of them.
Now, this is just my way of doing things and there are probably two dozen other great ways of organizing digital files on your computer, so feel free to use the bits that work for you. I’d also love to hear if you have a great system and if it differs a lot from mine!
Step one: choosing the main topics
I loooove having an organized folder system. Aside from photos, I also paint, do graphic designs, write a lot and work on random things here and there that add to the amount of files that I have saved on my computer. In this guide I’ll concentrate on organizing the photos as they’re the biggest part of my life in every way, but also because the same method can be applied to all the other files as well.
If you have thousands of photos lying around, no matter if it’s the photos you snapped on your phone or the ones you shot with your camera, there’s bound to be a few different subjects you’ve taken photos of. So it’s good to divide them into some main topics.
Have a look at your photo archives or think about the kind of photos you usually take: is it mostly family, travel, every day stuff… or do you take portraits, product photos, hobby photos, pictures of your kids or pets? Whatever it is, pick a few titles that describe them best and use them as the titles for your main folders.
I’ll use some examples from my own archives here.
Main folder: PHOTOS
Subfolders: TRAVEL, EVENTS, PERSONAL, PORTRAITS, BANDS, STILLS AND TV, WEDDINGS, MISC
(In reality, I have 26 subfolders but let’s start it easy…)
The reality of a filming location blogger: thousands of sceneframing photos from dozens of shows and movies.
Step two: subfolders
After you’ve successfully sorted all your photos into your newly created main topic folders, you can start creating subfolders. In my travel folders, the natural way is to create a folder for each country I’ve visited. The portrait photos are usually the ones I take for a client or when I work on my own projects, so the easiest way is to name each folder after each model’s name (“2016-07-12 Adam Levine” because dude, I’d like that to be a real thing in my life). In Events, I use the event’s official name so it’ll be easier to recall, search for online and to use correctly later if I post photos online or use them in our blog (“2013-10-22 Thor the Dark World premiere“).
Notice the date system I have going on there? That’s my little secret which will help you keep your photos even more organized!
The genius of using yyyy-mm-dd in your folder title!
It’s extremely handy to use dates in the folder names along with the actual topic. Not only will your subfolders be easily sorted into chronological order, it will also help you keep track of each photoshoot, trip and event better as you can just quickly glance at the date and think “right, that was the summer wedding two years ago”.
So, what you’ll want to do is name all your folders by using this easy pattern: YYYY-MM-DD Folder Name. For example, “2015-11-30 Jenna and Matt” in my Weddings folder will immediately tell me whose wedding I shot and when. I don’t capitalize my folder names; I’m not entirely sure why. But if you think it’ll look nicer that way, go for it!
Going deeper… when dates don’t cover it
Here, I’ll use my favorite band & good friends as an example: Poets of the Fall. Since I take a lot of photos for these guys, they’re actually one of my main folders for quicker access. But they could also be filed under “BANDS” where I keep all my band photography.
Anyway – since the Poets boys are some of my most frequent subjects, I have literally hundreds of thousands of shots of them doing their thing from very varying situations. Since I’ve photographed their live shows for over a decade now, I have yearly subfolders for all of those. Under each year titled folder, I have again the brilliant YYYY-MM-DD Name Of Venue or City system, which makes it very easy to find a specific gig!
I also have folders for Videoshoots (containing folders with dates again), Promotional photos, DVD material and other folders for specific occasions.
And again, this is all just examples of how easy having a clear structure makes things: I recommend just starting with something simple, because you can always re-organize as you go along, creating new folders when needed.
Trust me: the earlier you start getting organized with your photos and folders, the easier you’ll make things for your future self!
Raws and edits: keep them separate
There are a hundred little things I do to make things easier for myself, but there’s really no point sharing it all. But I think once you get going with a good base structure for your files and photos, you’ll find your own perfect way of keeping it tidy.
As a professional photographer I, of course, also have raw photos and the edited versions to think about. But that I try to keep simple: I simply have a separate folder for the raw files and the edited ones under each occasion specific folder. That way I can always easily check if I have what I need (say, for a blog post) already edited or if I need to work on it from the raw files.
Be smart, delete stuff every now and then
This is something I’ve failed to do and now regret: deleting the useless photos as soon as I’m done with a shoot. For example, during one Poets gig I may take anywhere between 400 to a thousand photos, and I always shoot raw. So, that’s easily way over 10 gigs of data to store and back up from each night I go out to see them perform.
What I should’ve done from the beginning, what I recommend you to do (and what I’ll have to do one day to my hundreds of collections): quickly browse through the set you’ve just shot and delete the obviously unusable photos straight away. That’ll save you a lot of space and backup time.
And finally, on the importance of back-ups…
The thought that haunts me day and night is, of course, losing all of my life’s work. I used to have external hard-drives full of random folders lying around, some of the backed up, some not, and it made me miserable: I kept thinking about those lovely travel photos from 2013 when we went on our first sceneframing roadtrip ever. And that super cool Poets of the Fall tour in Germany that me & Satu followed along a few years ago. Losing these photos and memories would be absolutely devastating.
But, since I have indeed been taking photos actively and almost daily since about 2005, I also have a ridiculous amount of data to protect.
There are a few ways of making sure you don’t lose all your photos if disaster like fire or flood or computer crash strikes. This article by Lifewire lists a few of them. Since I need to store about 6 terabytes (and counting!) of photos, it’s pretty obvious I won’t get away with it for free. Out of a few good options, I’ve chosen a cloud backup service called Carbonite.
My lovely ex (yes, I am indeed bff with my ex!) actually got me a 8 terabyte external harddrive for my birthday, which made things a lot easier. Instead of having random copies lying around on separate drives, I now have a neatly foldered central harddrive that I plug into my laptop via usb every time I’m home, and Carbonite automatically backs up everything that’s new on that drive.
(Geeky Game of Thrones fact: I named my central drive as The Citadel.)
Like I said, I do have to pay for this service; the single computer option costs around 60 dollars per year, which is not too shabby for basically unlimited storage space and easy restore access when needed. People with less data can easily get away free or cheap, though, by using services like Google Drive or Dropbox or something similar.
The smaller drives I now use to carry stuff out with me whenever I go to the office or a cafe to work or need to unload my 64 gigabyte camera memory card somewhere while traveling.
But however you choose to back up your files, the most important thing to remember is: BACK UP YOUR FILES. Anything can happen and it’s not that long ago that I saw a heartbreaking post by a photographer friend who didn’t ever “get around to doing it” and then had all their laptops and harddrives stolen on a roadtrip. Everything, gone, within minutes. (Can you imagine that feeling? Good. Now do your backups like a good little citizen.)
Feel like getting organized? Any tips of your own you’d like to share?
The comment box is open! I’d like to hear how you keep your files organized and if you think your way is way, way better. I’m also a sucker for lovely comments that tell me that my tips have been helpful, so do let me know if you ended up using any of my ideas! (You can also tell me if my way of organizing photos is, like, super stupid and inefficient, but I hope you won’t be too mean about it.)
I hope this has been helpful. Happy organizing!