Smart tips for organising and sharing photos

Compared to film photography, digital photography is amazingly convenient and cheap (start-up costs aside, it's basically free). Digital cameras have allowed photo enthusiasts, amateurs, and even the worst photographers to become highly prolific, capturing thousands of images with ease.

With more photos than it was ever possible to capture in the good (or perhaps bad) old days, how should you organise and share them? I'll be tackling the organisational side of managing and sharing your photo collection in this article, and looking at issues such as how best to name and group photo sets.

How to name your photos

File names are one of the trickiest parts of keeping a photo collection organised because they often change when the location of the photo changes.

For example, your camera might call a photo IMG_2462.png or some other totally incomprehensible name that doesn't give a human being any information about what that image is. If you import that image into photo editing software, you might add it to a collection, in which case you may or may not change the file name, but you'll certainly add an album name. Then, say you upload that same image to Facebook, then the social network will prompt you to add a title, caption, location, date, and so forth.

In some ways, Facebook is on the right track in prompting you to add more metadata. The more information a photo contains, the easier it is to find. It also makes for a better experience for the people who view your images, which is what photo sharing is all about.

I like to rename my photos right when I import them. It can be somewhat time consuming on the face of it, but it makes every single step going forward simpler and saves you time in the long run.

Add the date. Six digits representing the year, month and day (so 120105 equals January 5, 2012) appear at the start of all my files. This serves two purposes.

Firstly, when I view my files on screen, they automatically sort by the date taken when I sort by name. File names work better for organising by date than the date stamp that the computer stores on each file, because that second "date" changes when you open and edit, then save the file again. The file name will never change unless you actually change it.

Secondly, I often know immediately without even opening the image roughly what's in it, based on the date. The content of photo collections often correlates to specific holidays, birthdays, vacations, and most people intuitively know those dates. Files named with dates from May, June, and July are almost always travel photos. December photos are usually family pictures from Xmas. Not everyone thinks about their data in terms of date, but with photos, most people do (sometimes more than they realise).

If you can't remember the exact day when a photo was shot, you can sometimes find it from the camera's own data about the image. When all else fails, the year and month are good enough (i.e. 1201 for January 2012).

Add a second identifier. Year-month-day often gives you a big hint about what's in a photo, but you can and should add a second identifier, too. Your second identifier, which you should add after the date info, can be shorthand, like "NYC" for pictures from a trip to New York City. One abbreviation I use a lot is "bg" for photos that I specifically shot for my blog. Your second identifier can be anything that makes sense to you: The location, something about the event, a family name, and so on.

Use a dash or underscore for better readability. Here's an example: 120105_ski.

Optional: Add specifics. When I'm in a rush to name my photos, I'll just use:

  • 120105_ski_01
  • 120105_ski_02

If I have time, though, I'll end the file name with something specific, like the name of the person or another keyword that describes the image:

  • 120105_ski_lodge
  • 120105_ski_Mom-jump
  • 120105_ski_fireside

See how quickly it all comes together? You can now tell just by the file name what is in the photo and when it was taken. Knowing this information will save you a lot of time later when you want to upload images in bulk to share them through Flickr, Picasa, Google+, Facebook or whichever service you use.

Tips for photo collections

Using intelligent file names streamlines the process of organising photos, but there's more you can do to stay organised when the time comes to share your images.

When you organise groups of digital photos into collections (sometimes called albums or sets), think about who is going to view them and in what context. In all likelihood, you won't be sitting side-by-side with Uncle Bernie while he's looking at pictures of the kids. Help him understand what he's seeing.

Collection names. The name of a photo collection will probably be similar to, or at least reflective of, the secondary identifier in your file name. And if you've used a secondary identifier – tada! – the collections are already sorted for you.

Be sure the collection name is descriptive but also enticing. If you want your friends and family to actually look at the photos, the collection name needs to draw them in the same way a good headline attracts you to read an article. "Family Winter Vacation" is fine, but "Pocono Ski Trip" may be better. "Grandma's First Ski Jump" might be even better.

Captions. Do write captions for your images. Don't assume people know what they are seeing. Include names of people and the location at the very least. With some cameras, software, and photo sharing sites, facial recognition features and geo-location tags will add this information for you automatically.

How many images to share? Just because a digital camera lets you take 1,000 shots in one day doesn't mean you should share them all. Pick only the best images, and try to not to post too many duplicates when sharing your photos.

Everyone has his or her own tolerance for how many photos they're willing to view in one sitting. I max out somewhere between 40 and 75, depending on the type of images and how familiar I am with the people and setting. Use your judgement in deciding how many images to share in a set. If you feel you're pushing the limit with the number of photos in a collection, just break it into two.

Picking photos to share. If you used the naming conventions I outlined above, you can easily mark your best photo among a group of duplicates as such:

  • 120105_ski_Mom-jump-01-best
  • 120105_ski_Mom-jump-02
  • 120105_ski_Mom-jump-03-funny

Again, see how easy it will be to pick the right images you want to share just by using smart file names? You won't have to open and inspect each photo before sharing them. You'll simply know based on how you labelled them.

My method for naming and sorting photos emphasises the value of spending a bit of time upfront to save you a lot of work later on. It definitely considers a long-term approach to managing your photos, too. Try to stay on top of your photos every time you import a batch, as this task is obviously better tackled when not facing a huge mountain of snaps – which will doubtless seem like something of a struggle. Work with smaller batches and you won't fatigue yourself, and you'll certainly save time in the long run.