How Should You Organize Your Photos? Try One of These 5 Methods

Dann Albright 05-08-2016

Between taking thousands of pictures on your phone, practicing your DSLR skills 7 Skill-Building Photography Exercises That Really Work Anyone can take a photograph, but taking a great photograph? Difficult. These photography exercises actually work. Read More , downloading your favorite images from the Internet, and having friends send you their favorite snaps, you very well may have an absolutely huge photo collection. And it doesn’t take long for that to turn into a big mess. How can you keep everything organized so you can actually find the photos you’re looking for?


Organizing your photos isn’t going to be an easy project to tackle, but it’s definitely worth the time and effort it will take. You’ll de-clutter your computer, be able to find the photos you want, and will probably end up freeing a huge amount of space on your hard drive. The hardest part is convincing yourself to get started. Commit to doing it right now, and let’s get started!

A Note on the Process

Getting your photos under control requires a lot of steps; finding and deleting duplicates Delete Duplicate Files Quickly With These Tools One of the fastest ways to clog up your hard drive is to store duplicate files. Most of the time, you probably aren’t even aware that you have duplicate files. They come from a variety... Read More , renaming photos and folders, getting rid of bad shots (unless you want to keep every photo you’ve taken, which is also fine), uploading photos to your preferred sharing website or app Online Photo Albums: Where to Host Them for Free Which online photo storage service is the best? Between free price tags, unlimited storage space, and photo security, which service is best for you? Read More , and lots of other little things.

Creating the right folder structure to keep everything organized is a small, but important, step. You may want to start creating folders before you actually begin going through your photos and then tweak them as you go, or just create them as you go along. Either way works well; just go with what works best for you.

Similarly, you can decide to organize your photos before you start pruning them, or do it the other way around. Whichever you prefer. No matter what you decide, though, stick to your system throughout the entire process, or some photos and folders are going to get skipped. That might mean some photos live in the wrong folder, some don’t get edited, or some are lost forever.

With those tips out of the way, let’s get to a few different ways you can organize your photos!



This is probably the most common method of organization (at least next to “none”), and it’ll work best for most people. While you can include any number of different sub-categorizations, the primary piece of information you’ll use is the date. Most people start with a folder for each year and include a folder for each month within those. Beyond that, you can include folders for certain days, specific events, places, or anything else that makes sense to you.


This is the system that I use for my personal photo collection, and I use the year–month–event method. This lets me look at the photos from a specific time in the rare case that I remember when something happened, or run a search for the place or event that I want to find pictures from. Combining these two methods means I can find pictures without much trouble, no matter when I took them.


You can also organize your photos in the opposite manner of above; with place as the primary sorting factor, and date as the sub-category. I find this to be most useful for places you’ve only visited once or twice, but you might find that it works well for any number of places you’ve visited.



Again, search skills The 13 Best Free Search Tools for Windows 10 Windows Search is only good for basic and casual use. If you search Windows often, you may be better off with an awesome third-party search tool. Read More will be really useful for finding photos in this organizational system, as you’re likely to rack up a lot of different locations over time, especially if you tend to take a lot of pictures on your phone. But because they can be alphabetized on your computer, and you can scroll through the list rather quickly, it shouldn’t take you too long to find what you’re looking for.


Organizing your photos with tags, instead of a folder structure, might appeal to you if the idea of sorting photos into folders sounds like way too much tedious work. By organizing your photos with tags, you can rely on a photo organization app instead of a folder system (I would recommend Picasa, but now that it’s going away Picasa Is Going Away: 5 Reasons You Should Be Disappointed Picasa will be discontinued on 15th March, and there are good reasons to be disappointed that its long run is ending. Here are five reasons why you should be upset. Read More , you may want to choose a suitable alternative The 10 Best Picasa Alternatives to Use Instead Google replaced Picasa with Google Photos, but there are several solid Picasa alternatives worth considering. Read More ), or you can use built-in tagging 8 Smart Folders You Need on Your Mac (And How to Set Them Up) A Mac Smart Folder lets you group together similar files from all over your machine. Here's how to use them and some great examples to get started with. Read More in your OS.



You can do this however you want; tag photos with the year they were taken, the place they depict, the type of photo (like “landscape,” “portrait,” or “group), the main colors of the scene, the people in the picture, or anything else you can imagine. Most photo organization apps have the ability to tag people or places as well as add more general tags, so you can use as many as you think will be helpful. Using a lot of different tags for each photo will help you find them quickly.


What most people are really concerned about when it comes to photo organization is being able to find their good pictures when they want them. Whether that’s to print in a nice photo book [link to my forthcoming article on photo books], to show off to friends, or just to reminisce about fun times, most people don’t want to spend time looking through a bunch of crappy shots to find the good ones.


That’s why using a star-based organization system can be a good system for some users (you can see above how I’ve used a “3star” tag in Picasa to give my photos a star rating). Be honest with yourself A Brief Guide To Critiquing Your Own Photos Understanding what works and what doesn’t work in your own photos is the perfect way to improve your photography skills. This guide shows you how and why you should be critiquing your own shots. Read More ; how many of your photos really deserve five stars, or even four? Probably not the thousands that you currently have on your drive. By identifying the best, you’ll be able to find them as quickly as possible. This might be best used in combination with another system, but if all you want is the ability to find your best photos fast, you could use it on its own, too.


Use / Topic

This is another folder-based system, and it’s highly adaptable to what you want to do with your photos. Some of them you probably want to show to people—those could go in a “Sharing” folder that has sub-folders for your trips, events, or projects. The “Printing” folder would contain images to send off to the printer The 10 Most Affordable Sites for Printing Digital Photos Online Printed photos are way better than staring at a digital screen. But why print at a one-hour photo shop when you can get them printed online and delivered? Read More . “Memories” could include pictures that will remind you of your favorite experiences, but that you might not want to share with everyone.


This method is especially good if you take on specific photography or other artistic projects 7 Photography Projects That Could Change The Way You Look At Selfies If you do it right, the selfie is elevated to the high art of self-portraiture. These seven creative photography projects could inspire you to think out of the box. Read More ; my wife, for example, is a pet portrait artist, and so has a specific folder for pictures of pets that she’s currently painting. I tend to take a lot of photos of board games to share and upload to BoardGameGeek, so I have a “Games” folder.

One Final Tip

In addition to establishing a folder hierarchy or another type of photo organization system, one of the best things you can do to keep everything organized is to develop a file-naming system. For example, I could name the photos from my latest mountain bike ride in Breckenridge “2016_07_breckenridge_mtb_x” and replace the “x” in each filename with a number. Using a system makes it easier to keep everything organized, even if you haven’t had a chance to get everything into a folder or tag it.


Knowing how to batch rename your files on Windows How to Batch Rename & Mass Delete Files in Windows Are you pulling your hair out over how to batch rename or delete hundreds or thousands of files? Chances are, someone else is already bald and figured it out. We show you all the tricks. Read More  or use the built-in batch renaming tool on OS X (or the Automator method How To Use Automator To Batch Rename Images on Mac Read More ) will be a huge help in this.

How Do You Organize Your Photos?

One of these five methods will work for most people, but there are certainly other organizational methods out there. Maybe you organize your photos by aperture or shutter speed Basics: Aperture and Shutter Speeds for Beginning Photographers Read More . Or you just keep them in a single, massive folder and search through them when you want to find one. Whichever method you use, stick with it, and it will make your photographic life a lot easier!

How do you organize your photos? Do you use one of the methods above, or a combination? Or something completely different? Share your organizational strategy in the comments below so others can find a system that works for them!

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  1. merlin hoiseth
    November 15, 2019 at 4:45 pm

    I'm trying to learn how to combine digitized postcards into one file/folder; e.g. front & back. Can't seem to find a program that will work

  2. Mal
    March 13, 2019 at 1:25 pm

    I use an MSAccess database that I wrote for managing holiday trips. For the photos taken on the holiday you can create multiple keywords for each, then search by up to 3 keywords to return matching records. So, for example, 'show me photos taken in Zion NP on Riverside Walk, with Wildlife' - this returns the photos from all visits to Zion NP in the built in photo viewer control, together with user-entered description and (some) exif data; you can also output those photos (auto-renamed) to a folder. The database doesn't store the photos, just a hyperlink to them, so they can be anywhere, although I keep them in separate folders for each holiday.

  3. Bob
    August 11, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    I use the following folder hierarchy: MasterArchive->Year->State (or Country)->Location.

    That is all. I also use a fairly well limited set of Keywords in LR CC. This includes the year (4 digits), State or Country abbreviation, and then descriptive words such as sunset, sunrise, waves,quiet water, reflections, architecture, etc.

    So far I can find any image easily in my Archive of slightly over 25,000 images.

    • Dann Albright
      August 16, 2016 at 2:01 pm

      That's a lot of images! And if you can find any specific photo with that system, I'd say it's a good one. I like the combination of folders and keywords; seems like that would be really effective on a big library.

  4. RAB
    August 10, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    One point that is very critical should be made: If you are currently using Lightroom all reorganization should be done through that program. Your photos are not filed in Lightroom but they are in various places on your computer and only a catalog of those places is kept in Lightroom. If you move the files outside of Lightroom the Lightroom catalog will not be able to find them.

    • Dann Albright
      August 16, 2016 at 2:00 pm

      That's a good point. Different pieces of software have their quirks, and making sure that you know how your files are being affected (or not) is really important.

  5. BajaPete
    August 9, 2016 at 7:03 pm

    Just finished a tour of several national parks and tried to upload about 3000 iphone 6s Plus photos from a couple of phones and the apple icloud system continually failed to upload even with a wired connection to my computer and router. Next I attempted to use OneDrive and it also failed miserably after adding about 1500 photos. Finally I was able to load all the photos into my old standby Adobe Photoshop Elements 12.

    • Dann Albright
      August 16, 2016 at 1:58 pm

      I've never tried to upload that many photos to a cloud service, but I can see why it would tax the system. Glad you found a way to get it done, though!

  6. george
    August 5, 2016 at 7:58 pm

    I rename each photo with date then time including seconds and original file name. all photos go in to folders divided by each year because having 10000 photos in one folder slows things down.
    I also use windows star system to tag photos that i relay like so i can find them easier.
    a file name will look like this; 20131026_T-043503_IMG_5779.jpg
    2013/10/26 is date. T-043503 is the time when the picture was taken and the original file name is last part. the trick is ti use Adobe bridge to rename the files. A free tool for anyone to use.
    it can bulk rename photo files and it will pull all the needed info from the photo meta data.

    • Dann Albright
      August 16, 2016 at 1:57 pm

      That seems like a pretty good way to go about it! Do you use any specific folder hierarchy for the files?