Photo Organization Made Simple

My guess is that you want your photos to be organized, but do not want to spend any time worrying about it. You want to be able to find your photos quickly. There is nothing worse than looking through a bunch of folders for a photo you know you have somewhere, but being unable to find it. At the same time, you don’t want to create a cumbersome system for photo organization. It will not be sustainable. You are likely to give up on your system and then your photos will have no organization at all. A cumbersome system is likely to take up more of your time than actually looking for a photo every now and then.

Or maybe you are just getting started with photography, and haven’t thought about how to organize your photos at all. You may not have enough photos yet that you see the need. But starting out with a good process right away is the best way to go. It will save you a lot of time and effort so you don’t have to go back and reorganize your photos later.

Photo organization title picture

The Tension: By Date or By Subject?

The two main ways people organize their photos are either by date or by subject. Both methods have strengths and weaknesses. You might create a folder structure by date, and that will allow you to see everything chronologically.  Unfortunately, we all tend to forget what we did on certain dates and it might become problematic to find something from 2 – 3 years ago.

The other way to organize is by subject.  That becomes a problem too.  It is hard to sustain, and there might be different subject matter in the same group of pictures. For example, take a look at this photo:

Photo organization problem - photo with multiple categories

This is a night shot I took where I was playing with steel wool lit on fire in a park in northwest Texas. Into which folder should I put the photo? A Texas folder? Or perhaps a state parks folder? Or perhaps a night photography folder? Or maybe one for spinning fire shots and other such trickery? As you can see, it would be confusing. The temptation is to start duplicating the photos and putting them in multiple folders, which is just a waste.

What I want to give you is a system that gives you the best of both worlds, so you can have your cake and eat it too. At the same time, it has to be really easy. Without further ado, let’s take a look at it.

The Simple System

So here is the system.  First, download your photos to your computer as your normally do. When you do so, a folder with the date will be created.  We are going to work with that folder.

Now, here comes the important part. Rename the folder you just created, keeping the date, but also adding a short description at the end. So, for example, if the folder that was created says “2017-12-09” and you took it on a trip to New York, just add the words “New York” to the end.  Now the folder reads: 2017-12-09 New York.  Or if you took pictures at your child’s birthday party, add the words “Birthday Party” to the folder after the date. And so on. Do this to all the folders you create. Here is a snip of my hard drive so you can see how this folder structure will look:

Photo Organization structure on hard drive

That’s it!  You’re done.  Having taken this step, however, will do two things for you. It will keep your photos in chronological order, which is important because your brain often works in terms of chronology. We usually have at least a rough idea when we did something. You can go to the folder for any particular year and scan it quickly to find what you need. In addition, having added the description will now let you know the subject of each folder. The subject is in the name so you never have to spend any time going through the folders.

Using this System in Lightroom

If you just organize your photos on your hard drive, you are done. But many of you will be using Lightroom, which offers other organizational features that you can add on to this system. How does that work with this system?

It is really pretty easy.  First of all, you will have the same folder structure. When you import your photos, Lightroom will use the exact same folder structure you created on your hard drive, so the system you created above will also work in Lightroom. For example, looking at the structure we created above, here is how it will look in Lightroom:

Photo Organization structure in Lightroom

Again, it is the exact same system you created above. It is probably all you will ever need to do. As mentioned above, most of the time when I am looking for a picture, this is more than enough to let me find it quickly.

If you want to use any of the other Lightroom tools to organize your photos, you can add them on.  The best such tool is Collections. This is just a separate grouping of photos on whatever basis you want. Lighroom doesn’t actually move the photos, but it will look that way on your screen. To create a Collection, you simply press the plus sign, name it whatever you want, and the drag some photos into it. This is great if you are creating a group of photos from multiple dates.

What about keywords? Put simply, forget about them. Unless you are selling stock photography, I wouldn’t even bother with them. You will spend more time keywording photos than you will spend looking for photos.

Simple Photo Organization

All you are doing here is adding a little 1-3 word description to the chronological folder structure that your computer is making. It is really simple to do, and it takes up virtually no time, so you will do it every time. At the same time, it is all you ever need to do to stay organized. I have shown many people this system, and it seems to work for just about everybody.