I'm curious about best practices for photo and project organization. I'm starting to have too many projects to just have them listed by date, like iPhoto does. I've recently switched to Aperture, and see that there are endless ways of organizing photos.

It doesn't seem like Apple recommends a particular method for organizing, which I would otherwise start out with. What do people do?

I've seen suggestions to do nested folders of year/month/project, but this seems like a lot of bookkeeping for me, and I don't really remember or care whether my trip to California was in July 2006 or August 2006.

I've also seen category/client/project name, but I'm not a professional, and a lot of my photos would fall into a friends, family & vacation category.

Or should I just give up on organizing project and try to use keywords on individual photos?


4 Answers 4


Photo organization is one of those things where I think it's hard to nail down 'best practices' because there are lots of different needs (I organize my professional work somewhat differently than my personal work) and every person seems to have a variation that seems 'most correct' to them (perfectly valid). With that being said my overall goal was to have a system that required as few levels of folder structure as possible to fully sort as many of my photographs as possible. The last thing I wanted was to have to drill down through 4 (or 6... or 8(!)) folders in order actually get to my photographs. So here's what I ended up doing:

Professional Work:

I do both commercial and client-based work, bust what has seemed to work best for me is to organize everything based on the following hierarchy:

[Client Name] -> [Project Date - Project 'Short Title'] -> Photographs

I format the date as YYYY.MM.DD, so that the projects all sort in date order, but as often as not it's the 'short title' that I end up looking for because I tend to name my projects in my mind, whether they're a 'Wedding Shoot' or a 'Product Shoot,' or whatever.

Personal Work:

I name in a somewhat similar method to above, but instead of the top-level being the client, I use the year:

[YYYY] -> [Photoshoot Date - Photoshoot 'Short Title'] -> Photographs

Again, the 'short title' tends to be something memorable to me ('Hawaii plants', 'Park Photowalk,' whatever). I also do take the time to give a tag everything as I've found that I have a good enough memory that I'm able to recall with 'reasonable' accuracy the personal shoots that I've done over the last couple of years, but as the memory fades I find myself thinking things like 'what was that one shoot I did with the awesome looking cloud next to that building...' and at that point keyword searching becomes my best friend.

The other piece to the puzzle for me is in my culling procedures... This is what I use to trim down the photographs that either aren't that good, or that I'm probably never going to use (or miss!) if I delete them. That's a whole different topic, but if you're curious you can find more info over at "What's a good strategy for choosing what to keep."

Anyway, that's how I tackle the problem for my own collection (which is now approaching 250,000 personal images and 100,000 professional ones).

  • \$\begingroup\$ I use a very similar system with a folder for the year then each even gets a folder named "YYYYMMDD_event-name" and I add keywords to every photo when I import them so that I can later search and sort by specific keywords. I don't trust any software to catalog my photos because I want to be able to find them 40 years from now and who knows if I am going to be able to read a 40 year old database. I am confident that I will be able to read EXIF data in JPGs. Hopefully if there are big changes in file formats there will be good conversion tools also. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 13, 2011 at 0:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ I was going to add a similar response but I think I'll just add the slight difference in personal photos - I also have a mixture of professional and personal stuff, but I treat personal stuff the same way you treat professional, only replacing "client" with a whole category - so for instance I have a top level folder for "family", under which I have a year, then an event name, then a set of projects related to the photos taken. Also even for professional work I have client->year->"projectName-Month"->Projects with photographs \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 13, 2011 at 21:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ With that amount of images, do you keep them all in a single library, or do you spread them out in multiple libraries? \$\endgroup\$
    – Pete
    Commented Apr 14, 2011 at 19:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ I keep them in separate libraries, professional work divided by client, and personal work divided by year. I used to keep everything in one big library (and for simplicity, I still wish that I could, honestly), but I found the load times and management times associated with such a large database were bogging down my workflow to an unacceptable level. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 14, 2011 at 22:33
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ …the problem is that I don't do "shoots." Most of the time, I'm walking around my neighborhood trying to get some interesting candid shot. It seems uncontroversially easy to organize discrete shoots or events using folders, projects, and albums. However, I'm not so sure how to organize the everyday shooting. Any thoughts? \$\endgroup\$
    – keyofnight
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 23:47

If you really want to have the quickest access to your photographic works, a hierarchical storage structure is not really going to solve the problem. Hierarchical storage structures are great for physical project organization and historical/archival purposes, but they do not lend themselves well to "finding" your work.

Most professional photography tools, such as Aperture or Adobe Lightroom, allow you to add a fairly extensive amount of metadata to your photos. Metadata is information about each photo, which would include the standard stuff like date and time, camera equipment used, possibly a GPS location, etc. In addition to the standard stuff, you can also add your own metadata. This includes standardized fields like IPTC properties (artist, title, label, etc.) as well as generic properties which are usually called tags, keywords, or categories.

Adding metadata should generally be done up front, and in tools like Aperture or Lightroom, you are often able to create prefab sets of metadata or manually enter common metadata that can be applied to everything you import from your camera or memory card. Common attributes like "Mountains, Sunset, Vacation to California" can be applied in bulk like this. After import, you will probably want to work through your import set and fine tune the metadata for each photo. To lighten the workload, at the same time you can decide which photos are "keepers" and which photos are "discards", and which may be neither, and only focus on adding more specific metadata to the keepers.

By adding metadata and keywords to your photos, you now have a dynamic (rather than fixed, as would be the case with a rigid hierarchy) way to search your photographic library to find what you need quickly and with little effort. You can usually search by any EXIF (camera hardware, date/time, location) or IPTC (artist, title, copyright) metadata, tool metadata (rating, color tags, edits applied, etc.), or custom metadata (keywords/tags/categories). Many tools offer a way to create saved searches, sometimes called smart collections or smart libraries, to save search criteria and quickly find any photos with the specified metadata.

Apple Aperture should support most if not all of these metadata features, and allow you to search your library to find any set of photos you want in short order. As to exactly what metadata you add to your photos...thats up to you. Organize your work in a way that best works with the way you think. Finding what you need should be a synch after that.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Actually I think the key is a mixture of hierarchical structure with tags. That way you can drill down by subject to find stuff you know happened on a rough date (like October 2003 for a family gathering). But you can also pull up all images with uncle Fred in them. However the real devil in the weeds there is that correctly tagging each image is impossible, which is why you also need a strong structure... Another key is overlapping structures, forming a lattice in which you can find just about anything. In Aperture that takes the form of a tree with only albums. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 13, 2011 at 21:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sure, I guess my touching on that was a little light and vague, but in my first paragraph I mentioned that hierarchies are great for physical storage purposes, which would meet the need your referring to. \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Apr 13, 2011 at 21:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm talking more of virtual structures than physical ones - you can't really do a lattice with all virtual structures (well you kind of can with symbolic links but it's a mess to maintain, in Aperture you can just maintain a structure of albums). Even in Aperture it's just awfully hard to properly tag every image. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 14, 2011 at 4:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have been using lightroom for about a year, I guess, and I've found it pretty easy to tag. There are a variety of ways to do it, from selecting each single image and adding tags, selecting a bunch of images and adding tags, or even "painting" on tags with a tool. Even when I have a shoot with hundreds of shots, it doesn't take all that long to tag in bulk on import, do a few quick passes and bulk tag and stack groups of shots, then in a final pass select picks and discards, and do some more extensive manual tagging and metadata edits on the picks. \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Apr 14, 2011 at 5:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not exactly sure how it works in Aperture, but the times I've used it in the past, it seemed pretty similar. The Album's feature you mention sounds like Static Collections in Lightroom. Collections are a way of defining hierarchical structures that contain specific selections photos, which sounds like the same thing. There are also Smart Collections, which are dynamic selections of photos based on metadata. I also thought Aperture supported something similar to Smart Collections...does it not? \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Apr 14, 2011 at 5:18

One way I found to separate personal of professional works was use multiple Aperture Libraries.

I do use nested folders, by category/client/year/project fro the professional stuff.

At the Personal library I use category/year/event

Also, I found that its not a best practice, is just what it works well to you.


I wrote this script to Rename and File Aperture Projects by Date. It helps clean up unfiled projects.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.