Digital Storage for Your Images - Organization 101

Digital Storage for Your Images – Organization 101

digital-storage-images.pngHow to store your digital images is an issue that faces every digital photographer at some stage. In this post ChristinaNichole Photography shares some tips on how to do it.

I once met a very talented photographer at a digital photography class. The topic of discussion was digital image organization. Of all the students attending this class, she was extremely distraught. When asked if she needed assistance, her response was, “I never knew how to organize my pictures before, so I kept them all in one file. Where do I start?!?

Not the best-case scenario.

Though not an overwhelmingly fascinating subject, without a doubt digital storage and file handling is one of the most important lessons a photographer can learn. In the digital age, when we have opportunity to store hundreds of thousands of images on one laptop or hard drive, things can get pretty complicated to go back and try to find “that one picture of Aunt Helen at Johnny’s 6th birthday party”. Especially if you don’t have an established workflow and file handling system.

Organizing your images will be one of the most time intensive and equally time saving tasks you can perform as a photographer. You don’t want to spend hours looking for that one picture if you can simply search your catalogue for it by a single keyword or date.

Various photo organizing programs can assist you in your organizing. You can customize this organization with most programs if you import directly into the program. This list of programs would include Picasa by Google, Aperture by Apple, and Lightroom2 by Adobe. Though these programs will help you exponentially, it’s helpful to begin with these general starting points:

  1. Upload your images using a unique file naming system. This way, each image has a unique name in your catalogue. This makes for super fast retrieval later on and no worries on 2 images having the same name! You have a few options with file naming, just choose a system that works well for you, and don’t change it. I find the following works best for me: Date, day, initials, image number: [2008-10-20_CND_0001.jpg]
  2. Upload your images into dated folders. For example, if I have two shoots on the 20th of November, I upload all of my images into that date [11-20-2008]. In my organizing program, I will then make separate collections for each shoot … all still in that single folder. [Folder >11-20-2008> Folder > Harmon Shoot]. Retrieval becomes a matter of less than 2 minutes.
  3. Once you have uploaded your images, go through and rate each image. It sounds like a pain, but once you get used to your system the rating goes by fairly fast. The rating options defer from program to program, but in Lightroom2, I rate my images on a 0 to 5 scale. Images rated 0 … 1 gets trashed. Images rated 2 get stored and major time is spent on editing them later. Images rated 3-5 are the ones I edit immediately and are happy with showing them to clients right away.
  4. If you can, it is really smart to keyword your images. In image programs like Portfolio … dedicated to massive amounts of photo storage … and Lightroom2 also, each keyword will be kept in a collection of its own. If I have just finished a portrait shoot, I will keyword something like this: Client, location, type of images, expression [smiling, laughing etc], on location, in studio…etc. If my client is a mother who wants any other pictures of her graduating son that are smiling, I don’t scroll through all my images to find those smile pictures. I simply go to my “smiling” keywords of that client and viola!

Organizing your images is a photographer’s lifesaver that cannot be stressed enough! If you are a beginner, take some time to figure out what system will work best for you. Whether putting together a family photo book, or going back to make prints for a client from last year, or even archiving your images, image organization will save you time and energy in the future.

Read more from our Post Production category

Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography and leadership with

Some Older Comments

  • Avril July 17, 2009 03:25 am

    Useful tips, but the author needs to proof read. Or possibly learn to spell and distinguish similar *sounding* words from one another. Differ, not defer. And Voila! is French for 'there you have it', while viola is a stringed instrument, very like a violin, but bigger.

    It really bugs me when people who reckon they are good enough to write tutorials can't actually do the writing bit properly. Call me pedantic if you wish - I won't argue. I was educated when the word still meant *educated* - in an English grammar school. There is no magic to learning correct English - you just need to give a damn, and you should, because what is more important than communication if you want to succeed in anything that involves other human beings?

  • Hiccup42 June 30, 2009 12:27 am

    I usually take pictures of my friends and for want of an expensive organising programme, I store my photos by year month and day. Each separate event from a day is in its own folder (eg "12 Lunch" and "12 Flowers") within the folder I name each photo with its number in order so I never lose the sequence of events and so that each in a fold has a different name. After the number i put the names of the people and/or any other important subject, eg "005 Baby Johnny watermelon". This means that when ever I want a picture of someone I can just search my computer and they all come up. Its not totally foolproof (I have two friends called Kirsty, for example) or anything but it works for me most of the time :)

  • Sharon June 26, 2009 03:42 pm

    My stupid question: can I process AND store on an external drive?

    I use Picasa right now. But I have so many images, they are bogging down my computer. Today I bought a Western Digital External Hard Drive (Drive E:). I copied my images onto it. Fine. But I couldn't "see" them. So I downloaded a new copy of Picasa onto Drive E. Now I can see them. I think. I haven't taken my originals off my C: drive yet. I want to switch to Photoshop Elements for post-processing. If I install Elements on C: but keep my photos stored on the External Drive . . . ARE THEY GOING TO BE ABLE TO FIND EACH OTHER?? I have myself so confused.

  • Niloy January 13, 2009 08:24 pm

    Wow, bret, thank you! I'll have to give lightroom another *proper* tryout again! I didn't know lightroom could do that!

  • Bret Perry January 13, 2009 02:45 pm

    Hopefully, most tagging programs today can store the keywords in the metadata files of photos, so that any program that reads metadata can access them.
    Lightroom and Bridge (PC/Mac) and Graphic Converter (Mac) can do this in bulk, lots of photos at once if you like.
    You can also use scripting to automate a lot of that, especially useful in Bridge since it is less robust at bulk tagging and renaming.
    Lightroom can work with offline photos (moved or unavailable) and do everything except "Develop and Print High Quality" IF you have already made thumbnails before taking photos offline. It shows the location of the files in a "field" with the other metadata. Of course, for it to show a DVD or CD, you would need to have imported it into Lightroom from the DVD. So I copy my photos to a caefuly-named folder on my hard drive, import into Lightroom and work on them, then when I'm done, burn a DVD with the same folder name.
    In the "old" days, before Lightroom, for DVDs and CDs, I use DiskTracker--super fast , but only finds by filename, not metadata's keywords. (on a Mac, there are tons of shareware disk catalogers for PC, too,)

    File and folders or tagging, for me, yes, both.

  • Linda December 12, 2008 08:08 pm

    Photo Collector ( can index files that are "offline" (e.g. on DVD or external hard drive backup). The program saves a thumbnail of such images, and the location, so that you can locate the original file.

  • Thakur Dalip Singh November 24, 2008 05:21 am

    very useful discussion. what about IPTC information and tags which can be written in Photoshop and other top programs? Is it not possible to find from tags/key words given in IPTC info? I have not searched through them but I think they can alsao help.
    Why noo body has mentioned Iview media Pro 3 which is top of the line for organising pictures?

  • IL November 23, 2008 08:41 am

    Another one, for all you cannon users out there, ZoomBrowserEX.
    Allows ratings, keywords, RAW processing, etc, and integrates with the other Canon software.
    Not the best, I'm sure, as its just bundled with everything else, but if you aren't for Lightroom, Aperture, etc, or if you spent all out on your camera and can't afford other software yet this might work for the time being.

  • Mohamed Ghuloom November 22, 2008 06:42 pm

    Indeed, very useful. I personally store my photos in folders like 2002, 2003, 2004...2008, and every year I add one more folder. Then I import the folder from my camera to 2008>Archive, and I rename it to for example: "Dad sleeping Archive". Then i export them using Picasa to 2008 folder with usually 1024X768 settings ready for normal use & uploading to internet.

    I also tag my photos using Picasa, but the thing is that Picasa is not that accurate when searching.

  • starevo November 22, 2008 12:42 pm

    Im a photographer for a motorsports magzine. and I take alot of pics for the race. normally 3000pics per race. I'd like to use LIGHTROOM2 to manage my pics ,but there is a annoying problem , becouse when I modify the pics in LIGHTROOM instead of using PHOTOSHOP. the pics just edited in the software, not for the original photo. I just can export to get the edited photo , when I export for the copy of the photos ,its bother. because its very huge of it and I m worry about the space of my harddisk. so , could you tell me a way to solution this annoying problem thx alot!

  • Granger November 22, 2008 07:44 am

    Great discussion. I'm using more of a topical folder structure myself because I'm not consistent enough in my keywording.
    I've been using Lightroom 1.4 but I'm moving to Bridge CS4. I hate the idea of having all my work on file adjustments and keywords dependent on the software staying stable. As I make my conversion to Bridge I'm converting almost ALL my files to DNG (including JPG and single layer TIF or PSD). This way all my metadata, keywords, and file adjustments reside within the file itself. Begone XMP sidecars and central databases!
    Bridge CS4 is so much improved over CS2 that its not even close. Its much faster and has very adequate search capabilities. For right now this feels workable AND stable!

  • Matt November 22, 2008 02:05 am

    For those of you on Linux (very few, I'm sure due to lack of Photoshop) the f-spot photo manager is very very good. It's easy to back up the database of tags and all of that stuff too. It's one thing to lose your photos and recover them, another to lose all of the tags and metadata!

    I know it works for Ubuntu and Gnome, but not sure about KDE and other flavors.

    Also, try Gimp for Linux and Windows as a great alternative to Adobe products.

  • Denis November 22, 2008 12:03 am

    Great article!! It sums it all up!

  • Rick November 21, 2008 08:03 pm

    Hi Everyone

    I am a Lightroom 2 User - who has been using Lightroom keywords, without thinking where the keywords / tags were stored - or if they would be compatible with any other applications in future so I did some reading - It looks like the best way to tag photo's with keywords to ensure that the keywords are useable by other applications and don't disappear when you transfer your images to another system is to use the IPTC Metadata fields.

    IPTC Metadata is embedded in the actual image file - so it travels with your images. Most image editors support the IPTC metadata fields.

    Have a look at this Wikipedia link for more info


  • Bob November 21, 2008 01:19 pm

    I use the year then two digit month then two digit day followed by a description of the shoot. IE: "2008 07 04 Fireworks". This way has worked for me for several years, and they all lay out uniformly in as sub folder to the 2008 folder. Each year eventually goes on a DVD as backup.

    Easy and it works for me, truly.

  • Slava33 November 21, 2008 11:56 am

    Matthew, although EXIF is not a maintained standard (, I don't think any cameras allow category tags fields in Exif data. Too bad...

  • Matthew November 21, 2008 08:11 am

    I use the dated folder approach which works well enough but I've really wanted to expand that with a tagging system. As much as I like some of the features for ACDSee I've found all the versions to be unstable to a greater or lesser degree to the point where I have to wipe the catalog periodically in order to keep it from locking up with 100% processor usage.

    Has anyone encountered a program that will write the tags to metadata of the file itself? I'm find with whatever the program is maintaining an index for speed reasons but I'd really like something where the tags would be tied to the file itself in case I want to switch or create a custom application later.

  • Nicole November 21, 2008 04:27 am

    Yes, that was my thought. I hope it'll be always possible to read txt files. And if that works for you I'm glad I could help :o)

  • Jen Persinger November 21, 2008 03:56 am

    I do something similar, but a little in reverse. I have folders separated by location, then second folders by date. So, for example, if I open up my "Zilker Botanical Gardens" folder, then my May 2008 folder, I'll find folders with specific dates on them for the photos taken that day.

    At some point, all the monthly folders will go into a '2008' folder, and I'll move on. I do regularly burn to CD, so I keep a separate folder labeled 'Burn Me' aside (with more folders in those!), and once those photos have been backed up, move them into the appropriate location/month/date area. But I'm also playing with 2 hard drives, and download pics from the camera to one for sorting & organizing, before moving them to their final home.

  • Chris Osborne November 20, 2008 04:00 pm

    I've tried dated folders, it doesn't work for me at all. What does work is subject folders. Since most of what I shoot is events and sports games, I label the folders by where I was for those shots.

    Everything else goes into folders that probably don't make sense to anyone outside of me.

    The point of organization isn't for some random person to be able to come off the street and find a photograph on my computer, it's for me to be able to find a photograph.

  • Odyn November 20, 2008 07:28 am

    I must say I agree. Especially since the two systems don't exclude each other! I for example import my files using ACDSee I into date+content named folders then put them to different albums, keyword and tag them. So even if I'm outside the ACDSEe program I can still find files faster.

  • Rolando November 20, 2008 07:07 am

    Great post. Now I would like to read about where to store all those photos: your hard-drive, online, on CDs. I keep my photos on my Smugmug account and a copy on my hard-drive. What's everyone here doing about this?

  • Andrew November 20, 2008 04:19 am

    Why is everyone arguing the concept of folders versus tags like its one or the other? Unless I'm mistaken the article talks of both with equal importance and one isn't better than the other.

    If one method works better for you then that's great. Doesn't make it right for everyone and you shouldn't assume that. Share ideas but please keep from trying to make your way superior. It makes reading comments less enjoyable.

  • Slava33 November 20, 2008 04:08 am

    Nicole, leaving a text file with keywords is a neat idea (and forward and backward compatible)! I think I'm gonna try that.

  • David Moore November 20, 2008 01:41 am

    Having only one way of finding your images (for example in a folder structure) can be very limiting. Keywords, ranking, projects within bigger structures, a really good search with filtering . . . they all really help.

    But for that you need to choose one system or another. I use Aperture and really love it - it lets you set up your approach in a way that works for you, and then makes bringing in and sorting new images pretty fast.

    I organize by type of subject, then into individual projects, with rankings for the picks. Most of the photos I keyword on the way in, and they're all date stamped automatically, so searching or browsing both work well.

  • Bjorn November 20, 2008 01:20 am

    I consider myself as an advanced amateur and have used Lightroom 2 for a month and really tried it out. Lots of nice features and the RAW processing and stability of the application is on top. Not to mention the tons of articles, videos, tutorials and documentation that exists (that actually was what made me try it). But LR it is a slow and heavy application compared to ACDSee.

    My situation is that I store all my pictures on a central storage unit (with back-up facility) in my house and I want several computers to be able to access and view the pictures. As far as I understand it is not possible with Lightroom unless I export a special set to be viewed by the other machines and then have created a problem maintaining this set. This because of the non-destructible system used in LR, i.e. all changes stored in LR database also for jpeg's and never applied to the file itself as in ACDSee (with the original untouched) . LR is probably a perfect application for a professional that I guess don’t use it for more private purposes.

    I found myself spending more time in front of the computer with LR than ever before.

  • John Radcliffe November 20, 2008 12:01 am

    Niloy asked about cataloguing photos that *aren't* on your computer.

    Well, as long as the photos *can be accessed* from the computer that has the database (e.g. external drive, network, DVD, etc) ACDSee will let you see the thumbnails and search on your tagging categories even when the originals aren't on-line. I doubt it's unique in being able to do that, but I've no idea what other programs can do the same, because during the 4 years I've been using ACDSee (currently Pro v2.5) I've seen nothing that suits me better. (As an added bonus, the ACDSee Forum is also a friendly and helpful place to visit!)

    Two further points: (1) using folders is OK if each photo only needs to go into one category, but I seldom find that's the case; and (2) if you store your categorisation coding, captions, etc in the image files themselves (a number of programs can do this, and ACDSee is one of them) then not only do you guard against database loss or corruption, but also make it possible for your data to be read by another program.

  • Niloy November 19, 2008 10:58 pm

    So, from what I've read, there really isn't a software that REALLY catalogs all your photos. As long as they're in one computer, it's fine, there are tons of software that'd let you sort through them. But what if you've got photos over multiple computers? Or burned onto DVDs? Is there anything that'd make me a thumbnail gallery of all the photos so that I can find the photos I want. And then later, it'd tell me in which DVD or computer the files are in?

  • bIG bEN November 19, 2008 10:20 pm

    What do others do when you use LightRoom but store your photo's on an external HD. LightRoom can never find the originals when they are moved unless you direct it to them. I am assuming that most people don't have all their photo's on their PC's hard drive (esp if you have a laptop) and as I move around a lot i don't always have my external HD plugged into the PC. This makes LightRoom pretty bad at searching for tags. I still tag my photo's all the same, but without my file labeling system, i would be lost!

  • Nicole November 19, 2008 06:17 pm

    I don't use a program to organize my photos. I used photoshop album a few years ago but with the version upgrade the tool didn't read my old files. So all the work was for nothing... I make folders with the date and in the folder I put a text file with keywords for the pictures that can be found in this folder. If I'm looking for a picture I use the search of the windows explorer.

  • Dave November 19, 2008 01:11 pm

    I can really see the benefits of tagging photos and have done for photos that I've put on my flickr site, but am sadly not that diligent (yet) at doing so for my other photos. There is one main reason for this - I don't really know where to start!

    I use photoshop which allows you to group your tags together. I started with a few tags, then wanted to group them and then realised that unless I had a set of grouped tags to start with then I'd spend ages re-doing my tagging.

    I would really like to find a list of a few hundred (or thousand) tags that others are already using so that I don't have to invent them myself.

  • Peter Phun November 19, 2008 01:09 pm

    If you use a Mac, iPhoto 08 will do if you're a hobbyist.

    If you're a professional then Aperture or Lightroom is better more robust and faster.

    Whichever system you choose, keywording is critical. Here's a tutorial for iPhoto 08 users.

    There are embedded videos as well in these tutorials.

  • Jae November 19, 2008 12:42 pm

    I was gonna mention ACDSee but I see someone already did. It's a wonderful file organizer with keywords,tags, categories and a calender to easily find your photos! :)

  • Slava33 November 19, 2008 11:16 am

    I also agree that keywording is a powerful tool, but unless it's universal, you are tying yourself down to a single tool.

    Instead, I use a tree structure, organizing photos by year, then month, then more subdirectories if needed. It's not the most efficient way, but has worked for me for the ~4 years of taking digipics.

  • Kenton November 19, 2008 07:36 am

    While I agree with keywording, doesn't that tie you to a specific application for managing your photos? I may be wrong as I'm just starting to look at using tags, but that is my understanding. I'd rather not be stuck using a specific application.

  • Daniel November 19, 2008 07:10 am

    Folder-based systems are the way to go. I actually shared my method of doing it in a site I created called Organizing Your Photos. It can be found here:

  • Debbie Schinker November 19, 2008 06:56 am

    Folder-based systems are NOT the way to go. Would you write a letter on a stone tablet these days?!

    The best photo organization software out there for the money is Creative Memories' Memory Manager. Cross-tagging, rating,full keyword/name/description search, unlimited description space, and FAST retrieval are just SOME of its features. And it's only $40 with free lifetime upgrades. Read more here:

  • Mark Kenny November 19, 2008 05:01 am

    I move all photos to a folder based structure that's no more than 8GB on my external drive, I now have 18 of these. Once a folder hits 8GB I burn a DVD. Each DVD numbered. So I keep all images online and a backup/archive on DVD.

    In each folder a brief description; Mark and Lucie Wedding FEB08, each file named on import LM Wedding_xxxx.

    All images in a monthly backed up Lightroom file; 100GB of 45,000 photos going back to my first 1 Megapixel Canon PowerShot! OK the first filenames were done, and keywords didn't really exist for me back then, but within Lightroom my folder structure is searchable, and when I do find the old files, I keyword them then.

    Keywords are vital! As is having the correct date and time on your camera to search! Ratings have proven to me to be great when used properly, do a first round rate of 0-3. Delete the 0's; out of focus, lens cover on etc. 1's could be useful for retouch parts, 2 and 3 are keepers. Keyword and correct the 3's, only got to the 2's if the three wasn't right.

    Save the 4's and 5's for the retouched versions you want for your portfolio.

    Lightroom rocks!

  • Odyn November 19, 2008 04:53 am

    Let's not forget ACDSee Photo Manager (and ACDSee Pro)! Both also support keywords, tagging, albums, work very fast (database with thumbnails)and have good search. I find ACDSee much easier and better to use than Picasa (haven't tried the rest). It also has much more photo editing tools and effects than Picasa.

  • Millard November 19, 2008 04:51 am

    This is a great site. I am glad I stopped by. I expect to read more and more and incorporate some of these ideas into some of the photography sites I am just starting up.

  • Alan November 19, 2008 03:38 am

    Well, I think it depends on the nature of the work you do. A commercial photographer who will want to retrieve specific photo shoots (weddings, senior portraits done on such-and-such dates, etc.) will be benefited by a date-oriented system.

    But either way a robust keyword collection is indispensable and worth the time spent cataloging.

  • Adrian November 19, 2008 03:26 am

    Fotonauts is another great way to organize your photos. I work there so I am not the most objective judge but our service's goal is memory: your family's, your friend's and that of your work over the years.

    If you haven't found the best and easiest way to sort out your photos it might be worth sending me an email at telling me what operating system you run on. I will send you an invitation to use Fotonauts. It is free but in a closed beta stage.

  • Cichy November 19, 2008 03:21 am

    I use PhoA, it has great tagging capability, large file operations toolkit and lots of useful features. It's small, quick, quite user friendly.

  • gtvone November 19, 2008 02:41 am

    Lightroom does it all for me... I add keywords (can't stress the importance of them, great for looking for that photo from whenever from wherever - as Dan says above) Lightroom, I won't go back... (Make sure you back up!)

  • Dan Wolfgang November 19, 2008 02:35 am

    I can't express just how much I disagree with the philosophy that folder/file names are important, and keywording is a secondary effort. Once you've got tens of thousands of photos spanning years, how do you find that photo from that time you went to that place? You don't. Years down the road, you'll never remember exactly when you did something.

    Lightroom, Aperture, Picasa, Elements, etc., offer an amazing database system where you can sort your photos by keywords, dates, camera, and any other metadata. Can you find that photo from that time you went to that place? Of course, you find a keyword or two to help narrow results, then maybe look at the camera or date to help hone in one the exact photo. When you have that kind of searching and sorting control, the folder structure because a minor concern.

    I recommend putting effort in where the return will be the greatest: keywording with a cataloging application.

  • Thomas November 19, 2008 02:26 am

    I use Flickr and have a Pro account. It works for me for fast, free, unlimited storage, and sharing.

  • Alexandre November 19, 2008 02:14 am

    Typo : viola should be voilà (or voila without accents).
    You can delete this comment.

  • Fredrik S November 19, 2008 02:13 am

    I sort my folders after "Keyword_Date_Month_Year". Pictures I don't like are deleten immediately.

  • Juri P November 19, 2008 01:50 am

    About dating the folders: I find it's better to date the folders "backwards", e.g. 2008-11-18 - this way the dated folders get sorted by date automatically (as they are sorted by alphabet anyway).

  • Jenny November 19, 2008 01:16 am

    There is a wonderful FREE tool called Faststone which I use for organising all my photos. You can rename photos as you transfer them onto your computer, making new folders as and when required. Once on the computer you can batch rename, do some basic editing and cropping and attach photos to email, etc. You can't rate them but you can attach a keyword or subject. It is available at

  • Robb Sutton November 19, 2008 12:47 am

    Great post and advise. I have found Lightroom2 to be priceless. One of the best assets of digital photography is also it's downfall...we can take more pictures than we need at zero cost. The days of having to get everything developed are gone and I find myself taking a lot more pictures than I actually need.

    The flip side to this is that I end up getting a lot better shots because you can go more "random".

    Organization is key...and not my strong suit. Those are some great tips...some I already live by and others I need to incorporate.


  • Giga November 19, 2008 12:45 am

    It's better to use format: 2008-11-20
    Because then you can sort them in linux and windows file managers and order by name (what is date)

  • Lee November 19, 2008 12:23 am

    this is a very important post! organization is crucial. i just have trouble starting now that i already have a fairly large folder of pictures. i guess i simply have to just do.