With gigabytes of pictures accumulating over time, I'm wondering what systems (software, strategies, etc.) people are using to keep track of their collections? Let's say you remember a picture and you want to find the file on disk, how do you ensure that this will be successful?

  • I've notified the mods that you'd like community wiki for the question.
    – Joanne C
    Jan 23 '11 at 14:32
  • 7
    Possible duplicate of photo.stackexchange.com/questions/8/… Jan 23 '11 at 17:09
  • You should make clear in the title that the question is about a single-user scenario. A scenario company-wide picture-repository will need a different solution
    – knb
    Dec 4 '13 at 11:13

I'm a fan of Adobe Lightroom - its way of working seems to fit my mental model so I find it fairly natural to use. That does depend on you tagging the photos with appropriate metadata of course and not everyone thinks the same as me, so you may not get on with it.

Picasa has matured nicely over the years and has a nice "face finder" that does a pretty reasonable job of auto-finding people in photos and matching them to people you've previously named.

Supporting this I have a fairly simple folder structure of

\photos \ shoot description

Because I rely on tags in the software I don't really need too much hierarchical organisation and IMO hierarchies are the wrong tool for the job anyway because a photo will naturally fit into multiple categories but a hierarchy only lets you express one.

I think the short version of the answer is "Tag everything" - doing it on import isn't that painful and means you can finds it later, but going back through gigabytes of history to add the tags is a soul destroying task.

  • 1
    I do not know Adobe Lightroom; which features do you find useful? How does it help to organize pictures in a large collection? Jan 23 '11 at 14:14
  • It maintains a database describing all the photos you add to it. When you add a photo you "tag" each image with attributes describing it. Those attributes are completely arbitrary and up to you to decide; typically for one photo I might have "City", "London", "Landscape", "Night", "London Eye"... use whatever fits the image. Lightroom then gives you a ton of options for filtering your photo collection based on tags you've specified, as well as automatically harvested metadata such as lens, ISO setting, date taken etc.
    – MarcE
    Jan 23 '11 at 14:38
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    I like the fact that light room never edits your actual photo, instead storing a list of the edits and changes you've applied. That way you can always get back to your original if needed Jan 23 '11 at 16:12
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    Picasa is also non-destructive by default.
    – rfusca
    Jan 23 '11 at 17:27
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    @rfusca The thing that set Lightroom apart for me was its handling of RAW files - Lightroom has some of the best RAW processing capability (far superior to the RAW handling in Picasa), all built in. Whereas Lightroom allows you to directly tweak the RAW settings of cataloged photos, to get the same RAW processing capability in Picasa requires you to export the photo, process the image in another tool and re-import again. If you don't use RAWs then Lightroom probably isn't worth the price tag, but if you do then Lightroom is a smashing application.
    – Justin
    Jan 24 '11 at 2:54

This management is exactly what Lightroom is designed to do. I used to be responsible for document control for a CAD department, and came up with lots of tracking and revision systems. I can say that using Lightroom is the easiest and best way to manage lots of images. I have over 40,000 images organized using Lightroom.

I have mine setup to place the images in the following structure: Year Month Day

Then I add lots of keywords. Using Lightroom I can find pictures quickly and easily. Including ones that are keepers and ones that the electrons can be recycled without missing anything.

Lightroom has a 30 day trial for both Mac and Windows, so you can try it out and see what you think. Adding in the ability to do editing and management just adds to the power of the program.

  • 1
    Lightroom's trial is down to 7 days now. Dec 10 '16 at 23:16

Before all this digital hype, I stored my slides in boxes after having numbered each of them (from 1 for the very first picture to more than 7000). In a simple text file I carefully noted the index of each slide, where and when it was taken and a little description of the subject.

Finding a picture was (and still is) just a matter of remembering some of these infos (where, when and what) and searching through the file.

In my long process of scanning my slides, I continue to use this text file for feeding infos in the cataloguing software I use (this is iView Media Pro).

For digital photos I use both iView Media Pro and iPhoto.


Well, I think Lightroom is your power answer, but I'm similar in the old fogey category in that I structure on disk. Basically, my layout is:


So, for example, one would be:

2010/10-October/21-Water Drops

I do the numeric/textual month thing for quick glance and sorting. It's been working for me, though it may start to fail if my memory starts to slide. ;)

  • I too do that, minus the dashes. Having both Lightroom and Finder sort the folders by the # is good for visibility. Jan 24 '11 at 5:58
  • Doing this does not mean you can't use Lightroom. I do both.
    – AJ Finch
    Jan 24 '11 at 15:43
  • @AJ Finch - I realize that, but I don't use Lightroom, I use Bridge. Though jrista has been selling me on the Lightroom option to complement.
    – Joanne C
    Jan 24 '11 at 15:54

Another vote for Adobe Lightroom here. It combines the Adobe Camera Raw processing engine with a powerful backend database to allow you to store your images and more importantly find them again easily. A side benefit is even the processing is stored in the database, you only need to store one copy of each image (the raw) and the processing is applied on the fly.

For Mac users Apple Aperture does much the same thing, but Apple have chosen to price this at about 1/4 of the price of Lightroom, so that is worth a look.

For a more consumer level option Google Picassa also offers cataloguing as well as image processing, it works well, especially considering it is free software.


I created software, the SeaRisen Image Browser to organize and quickly find your images. I too have gigabytes of images and find it a real time saver when looking for particular images, or series of images.


For managing larger collections, 25,000 - 250,000 images, you just can't beat DBGallery (www.DBGallery.com). It's tagging and search support is excellent, and has numerous other tools for organizing a larger collection.

More specifically, here are the main ways this software is used to make larger collection manageable:

1) Logical Views. Explore your collections by year and month, by camera, keywords, photographer, and dozens of others. Basically it slices any data it has on images and lets you explore based on the results.

2) Virtual Sets. Over time most want to have a collection of "greatest skiing photos", or "photos that coulxd go in a calender". Of course copying images around folders is no way to do this. Virtual Collections simply point back to the original photos (they can be called anything, Light Boxes, Buckets, etc.). Doing this has extra goodness because if tags are added to the original photo or the photo is modified the Virtual Set is instantly updated as well.

3) Tagging tools. Examples include Data Templates, editing any number of images at once, and smart options such as a retrieving the data from the previously saved photo via a keystroke.

4) Great seach capabilities. Search all data for a photo, fine tune a search by searching jsut specific data fields such keywords/title/author. Also get all photos which were imported, viewed, or last updated recently, e.g. show all photos added in the past week; show all updated today; etc.

5) Will find duplicate images across the entire collection.

6) Has been tested with hundreds of thousands of images.

Also very important: this is an open system, where you can move photos to other tools or stop using DBGallery altogether...your data is still there because it's written directly to the file, not just the database.

  • Hi travelster, and welcome to Stack Exchange. This is only a partial answer; how would one use this software as part of an organizational strategy? Also, are you affiliated with the company? It's okay if you area (as long as all of your answers aren't just advertisements), but you do need to disclose that.
    – mattdm
    Sep 5 '13 at 23:23

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