Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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At present I meticulously add metadata as EXIF tags to my photos using Microsoft Pro Photo Tools, which also lets me place them accurately on a map. The thing is I tend to leave photos in a folder based on the date I downloaded the image from the camera.

This is fine for finding shots taken in the last month, or for birthdays, but virtually impossible to remember months ago where I was in the second week of September -- what tips do you have for organising your files on disk? Are there good cataloguing programs out there that rely on the EXIF data so that I don't have to double enter? It'd be really cool if there was something that would let me poke at a map and say "what have I taken near here?"

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I wish I could upvote this a thousand times. I lost track a long time ago of an attempt to keep my photos organized.. now they just sit in a folder on my external drive with no sorting whatsoever. –  Jessie Jul 15 '10 at 19:30
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Since this is semi-subjective and there is no one best answer, should it not be converted to a Community Wiki? –  3rdparty Jul 20 '10 at 11:35
    
The best way is with the Delete button. Now if I could only follow my own advice... –  Mark Ransom Sep 22 '10 at 1:35
    
If someone, who is in this "business" for a long time, could share his detailed photo-management scheme (tools/site/tagging/process), that would be a great milestone for newbies like us, who just started ... For example, Facebook has opened its whole data-center design for anyone who wants to build energy efficient data center. –  kmonsoor Dec 4 '13 at 10:40

15 Answers 15

up vote 43 down vote accepted

The key is adding some specific tags every time you import.

I use Aperture (which is Mac-only,) but Lightroom has similar capabilities, as does iphoto.

What you need to tag depends on what you shoot, and what you think you might be looking for someday, but this works for me:

  • The people in the pictures. I use Apple's "Faces" feature to tag people in the pictures (sometimes it recognizes them itself). This is key for me, so I can then pull up pics of my Mom, with me, but not with my brother, for example.
  • The place the pictures were taken. Again, Aperture has a nice, pre-defined "places" tag that can read any associated GPS data, but you can also just manually add tags for this: (NYC, Our Lake House, Oz, whatever.)
  • An event name. New Years 2008, Tom's 30th Birthday, Walking in NYC Mar 2010, etc.
  • Any relevent themes or types you might look for someday. This one's optional, but if you sometimes want to find a picture of a flower, or animals, or you generally shoot in ways that are thematically bucketed, this can save some time.
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Lightroom doesn't have the "Faces" feature –  Jean-Philippe Caruana Jul 20 '10 at 14:54
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@jean-phillipe- true, but I think the guideline holds: if you photograph people much, I'd suggest you tag them. I use faces, but you can do the same thing in Lightroom or other programs by just using a standard tag for each person you photograph regularly. –  Jaydles Jul 21 '10 at 0:37
    
Picassa has a facial recognition feature, and it works quite well. –  Evan Pak May 14 '13 at 12:45

This is my basic tripflow.

Import photos on your disk in some folder named "TODO" or something like that. If you can put photos for each day (or week/month if you do not shoot much) in a folder. Create a "sorted" folder, that contaoins folder like this

2012-12-20 Trip to the lake
2012-12-31 New year eve
2012-01-03 walk to the park

and in each one put your photos

After that use Picasa. In Picasa catalog put the "TODO" folder and the "sorted" one. Move stuff from "TODO" to the appropriate folder in "sorted" (crating a new folder if the case). Picasa will have also some nice features to search using critaria different than the folder name. But I wouldn't put too much time in hiper-organinzing photos, especially if you just keep them because you enjouy looking at them time by time.

In this way you will not be liked to one specific software and if one day Picase will not be there anymore, you still have your photo decently organized.

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I find organizing photos by year / month - 'Event name' is good - but always remember to use a long and descriptive folder name.

I now have 10 years worth of photos (about 70,000 pictures) and a way that I have found to share my organised photo collection is via this online Photo Service called http://inmyphotofolder.com that I have set up.

From the description of the service: This service offers an application you can install and it will upload your entire collection. Once the collection is online - you can share with friends and family. Their search facility is fast enough for my purposes (in my experience it doesn't take me more than 2 seconds to find a folder or tag). I use different tags to mark my favorite pictures of my children - so by searching for the tag - I get an overview of them over the years. The uploader is available for Windows and MAC. When you add to or change your photo collection - just re-run the uploader - and it only sends the updates to the online system.

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Welcome to Stack Exchange. Are you affiliated with this service? That's okay (see the site FAQ) but you do need to clearly disclose such affiliations. –  mattdm Oct 14 '12 at 4:52

Sounds too simple but I found Windows Live Photo Gallery the best out there. First of all it's free and built into Windows. The most important features for me are that I can tag pictures (and it actually touches the IPTC metadata so it's portable over different file-systems if you have both Windows and Mac) and find them very easily using Windows search or the search functionality built into almost any image organization software. Tagging files lets you organize the files as you want on disk (I go for the directory-per-date).

Everybody told me that iPhoto on Mac was fantastic but with more than 20Gb of images it becomes a problem since it creates its own library (double the files). Also if you don't "import" it won't touch the original files, so the day you switch computers or something goes wrong and you lose the library file you are desperate :(

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I use the following directory structure (in Aperture)

Year/
   Month/
      Event A
      Event B

Beyond that I use keywords and EXIF data to create smart albums based on ratings, people, places etc. I find that this scales very well.

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Yes, this is the structure I use too (although in my case with Lightroom). Nice and simple, and still reasonably easy to find things using Explorer/Finder. –  Conor Boyd Sep 21 '10 at 21:35
    
+1 I like this method. –  cbmeeks Mar 28 '11 at 19:12

First of all, you will save a lot of effort by adopting a software that includes worflow management and Digital Asset Management. Aperture, Lightroom, or even Adobe Bridge to name a few.

This is a bit arbitrary but works for me as a hybrid between a keyword-based and a directory-based workflow management. I use a very specific directory structure explained below.

While I do like and use metadata, keywords and smart collections, there is a drawback to them: what happens if I want to look at and search my files on a computer that doesn't have Lightroom installed for example? How can I share my photos on my network with devices like an XBox or an old piece of electronic that only supports a directory-based structure, as opposed to a database? What if I need to quickly send my photos with my phone, or create a ZIP files for friends or clients?

In my directory structure and database I keep track of both the RAW files and sRGB JPEG exported copies. The JPEG files are stored in a subfolder level by broad category first (say Celebration, Concerts, Sports, Urban Exploration). At the second level I use a strict "What - Where - When" naming convention automatically generated by Lightroom (most DAM apps support this feature). The RAW files are stored by year, then by date with a short description.

It looks like this from both the catalog/database/library view and a basic File Explorer (this is only a subset of course):

Pictures/
    JPEG/
        Celebrations/
            St. Patrick's Day - Albany, NY - 09, Mar/
                St. Patrick's Day - Albany, NY - 09, Mar - 01.jpg
                St. Patrick's Day - Albany, NY - 09, Mar - 02.jpg
                ...
            4th of July - Albany, NY - 09, Jul/
        Urban Exploration/
            Hudson Cement Factory - Kingston, NY - 10, May/
    RAW/
        2009/
            2009-03-22 (St. Patrick's Day)/
                _MG_9046.dng
                _MG_9047.dng
                ...
            2009-07-04 (4th of July)/
        2010/
            2010-05-12 (Hudson Cement Factory)/

When I import my RAW files, I let Lightroom put them automatically in a RAW/year/year-month-day folder, based on the date the photos were taken on. I then add a suffix to that directory with a quick description (say St. Patrick's Day or Hudson Cement Factory, etc). I select all my RAW files, and update their metadata by setting the Scene attribute to "what" the subject is (here St. Patrick's Day or Hudson Cement Factory, which I still have conveniently in my Copy/Paste buffer). I also set the Location attributes, i.e. the City, State and Country. The earlier you set this kind of metadata, the better.

When I'm done processing, keywording and geotagging my RAW files, I export sRGB JPEG copies (and upload them to Flickr from Lightroom later on). My export preset automatically creates files that follow the "Scene - City, State - YY, Mon - Counter" naming convention, fields that I have filled by now (the date is found in the photo itself of course). I finally use Lightroom to quickly move the files to a subdir under a broad category subfolder (Celebrations, Urban Exploration, etc).

At this point what I have is a catalog/database that I can explore by metadata (date, location, scene, keywords), as well as a reasonably clear directory structure that I can use without Lightroom. This directory structure tells me what, where and when just by looking at the file names. My XBox will organize and present my photos the same way. A simple file search will quickly retrieve my photos based on these criteria.

This whole JPEG directory doesn't have to be managed by LR, but I found it pretty convenient since I still have a lot of JPG files that don't have a RAW counterpart. Why manage some, and not the others? Granted, keyword searching will return both the RAW file and JPEG file (since the JPEG file has the same keywords), but this can be easily worked out by adding a rule that will filter our either JPG or RAW/DNG files (in smart collections especially). I also use smart collections of course, to keep track of the files, versions and virtual copies I used for clients, galleries, contests and print shops.

Anyway, this worked fine so far, but I have only 6000 photos in there.

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I've been using Picasa version 3.6. In addition to tags and geo-tagging, it also recognizes (some) faces and can attach "name tags" to photos. I use separate folders for the date the photo was taken grouped by months and years, e.g. Photos\2010\07\0720.

Picasa orders the pictures by folder and date, or album and I can also search by tag, person, or caption text.

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The face tagging is somewhat like the people tags on FaceBook. The software identifies what it thinks are faces in a picture, and you can teach it to recognize individual faces (e.g. Joe, Susan) in different pictures. With a fairly large collection of pictures (I have 51GB), it takes several minutes to add a new set of pictures. –  Crispy Jul 21 '10 at 23:20

Adding my voice to Picasa, however it is VERY important to use the tagging feature of the latest version along side with (or instead of albums)

Picasa stores the tag(s) you add to a photo right into the EXIF metadata which means your tags (albums) will live on even if you pull the photos away from Picasa or stop using it altogether.

Picasa has a feature that will create a 'virtual' album based on a specified tag - my plan is to migrate over all my existing Picasa albums to tags right in the photos - this is especially important if you store your photos on an external HDD and access them via different computers/programs.

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Picasa will show you your photos on a map, and you can definitely zoom into the map to see all the photos around a given place. It'll also let you geotag by positioning photos on the map -- I find it easier to use for geotagging than Microsoft Pro Photo Tools.

Unfortunately, it only maps the photos in the currently selected folder, and doesn't recurse into subfolders. But you can define a new album (containing photos from many folders), and map all of the photos in that album at once - so you could conceivably have an "Everything" album. Personally, I organise into folders based on year and location, so usually I'm only looking at a single folder at a time.

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For me its a mix of tools:

I have my camera set to create a new folder based on date automatically.

My photos are then imported from the camera into a folder with the date taken and the camera name is added (automated in the import software).

I then add a location or reminder to the folder name eg 2010-03-27-EOS40D-Special Event. This means they stay sorted in chronological order year-month-day. Within this I put RAW, Edited and Uploaded folders for workflow.

Once imported I add tags, people, places etc using Photoshop Elements, although plenty of other tools would work just as well if not better. This is the most time consuming part but doesn't need to be done immediately as the folder naming is often enough to help.

This means i can quickly find what I am looking for either in a standard explorer window or via Elements.

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It doesn't make a lot of sense to organize photos by something that is already in the EXIF data, like the date the photos were taken. I organize my photos in folders by event/location. The most important thing is to make sure you tag as much as possible when you import. The chances of going back later to tag are basically nil, so you need to make sure to do it when the info is freshest in your mind.

another opinion: Thom Hogan's workflow

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I too sort them into event folders. Sometimes I'll shoot a gig for example then head to a friend's place and snap some photos there. In that case I'll end up with 2011/10 October/21 Some Band and 2011/10 October/21 Joe's Party. –  Nick Bedford Jan 22 '11 at 8:23

I have a horrific naming scheme that renames based on EXIF taken date and the MD5 hash of the photo. This lets me keep things in chronological order while also differentiating between different photos taken in the same second and edited photos. It's sounds really ugly, but I haven't found a better way of keeping track of unique and duplicate photos across multiple computers.

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Er, "wow" that probably sounds worse than it is... –  Rowland Shaw Jul 15 '10 at 21:06
    
I'm curious about MD5 hashes - I know very little about them but think I could benefit from them. @Suspi - Can you provide any further detail or links on starting to use them with photos? –  3rdparty Jul 20 '10 at 11:36
    
MD5 hashes are typically used to check for the integrity of a file. When given a file, it will generate a string that is (more or less) unique to that file. The chances of two similar files generating the same exact code is nigh impossible. Due to this property, I decided to use MD5 hashes to separate out files that contains the same EXIF data but are actually different. There are a number of ways you can do this. If you have Linux, the md5sum program generates a hash. For Windows, I use BatchRename that has a MD5 generator. foryoursoft.com/batchrename/index.htm –  Suspi Jul 20 '10 at 23:34
    
I assume your MD5 hash is over the entire photo file, including the EXIF information? If so, changing any part of the EXIF information would change the MD5 hash. I've considered doing the same thing in a PERL script, but taking the hash of a stripped version of the file to avoid this problem. –  Crispy Jul 21 '10 at 23:15
    
Not a problem for me since I want to preserve as many unique files as possible when doing a mass merging. I'll just go through the photos again and compare the difference in EXIF. –  Suspi Jul 22 '10 at 19:16

Try out the ACDSee photo manager, it's the best thing I have found for very large collections of images. Adobe Lightroom or Bridge are good also, but ACDSee is much better.

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why? Please provide some reasons for your opinion. Though I like ACDSee, I would need persuasive convincing to ultimately choose it over Lightroom. –  JCotton May 24 '11 at 4:19

If you don't want to pay for Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture, you could go with Apple's iPhoto or Google's Picasa.

I'm most familiar with iPhoto; it does a fair amount of hand-holding when it comes to organizing photos. Smart Albums are really nice; you write the filter logic, and iPhoto shows you the matching photos on an ongoing basis. Works wonders for the sort of stuff you'll probably be doing.

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Should've mentioned I was on Windows, but a good answer for the Apple users that stumble here... –  Rowland Shaw Jul 15 '10 at 19:44
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@Rownland Shaw Picasa works on Windows and has similar concepts to iPhoto Smart Albums. –  danio Jul 23 '10 at 8:39
    
As does Lightroom –  Craig Walker Jul 23 '10 at 15:38

Maybe Photoshop Lightroom is a good answer for this. Especially because of the tagging functionality...

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Lightroom is an invaluable tool for just about any photographer –  prestomation Jul 15 '10 at 19:49
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Yes. Too bad it doesn't have the "faces" feature, like iPhoto, Aperture or even Picassa :-( (I'm a Lightroom user) –  Jean-Philippe Caruana Jul 20 '10 at 14:53

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