How to organise your digital photos

If your digital photo collections are a mess, the good news is that there are some excellent tools (a lot of them free or included on Windows and Mac computers) in terms of software and services which can help you organise your images with a minimum of fuss. No matter how far gone your image collection may seem – unintelligible file names, photos without dates, too many images clogging up your hard drive – you can reorganise it so that it becomes much more manageable.

The goal is to be able to find and share the photos you love without a headache. This article talks about a few features and tools in basic photo management software that will help you find and share those photos.

You don't need to know anything at all about high-end digital photography software or image editing suites to use or understand the tools mentioned in this article. All the tips in this article are meant for the average consumer or a light hobbyist photographer.

Organising your photo collection happens in three stages: Importing, editing, and saving.

Importing

The best time to take control of your photos from an organisational standpoint is when you import images from your camera or smartphone to your computer. (Of course, most people have an existing backlog of images that are already imported, and I'll talk about that in the following sections).

Tip 1: Don't use the software that comes with your camera

The first thing to address is which application you're using to transfer images. While most digital cameras come with software that you can install, it's unlikely to be your best option. Instead, just use iPhoto (which comes preinstalled on most Apple computers) or Windows Live Photo Gallery (or the Photos app if you’re working with Windows 8).

Tip 2: Pay attention to import settings, especially the date

Regardless of which application you use to import your photos, take a moment to explore the options that are available in the settings. Most programs these days use a default by-date setting to group your images, which is good! It's especially helpful when the software also creates a folder for the group that uses a date in the folder name. You can always change the settings or change the folder names, but it usually makes sense to keep dates in the name folders because it makes them easier to find, search, and sort.

Editing for organisation

Some photo editing occurs during the import process, and some can come later. During the import process, you'll want to edit ratings, tags, and special tags.

Tip 3: Use ratings, the delete button, and tags

The best time to add ratings and tags to images is immediately after you import photos or during the import process for software that allows for it – in any event during the same sitting that you import.

Ratings, such as star ratings, are helpful for when you want to find your best or favourite images. When you review your photos and there are nine that are nearly the same of one object, scene, or person, but only one or two of those nine images are any good, that's when you should apply ratings. They come into play more later.

Just as important as the ratings tool is the delete button. If you have nine pictures of essentially the same thing, but only two of them look good, consider deleting some of the others. Some people delete as they shoot, which is an equally good tactic, though it's not always possible to tell which pictures are good on a camera's LCD. Whatever the case, the delete button is a very important part of keeping your photos manageable and well organised.

Tags make your images more searchable and easier to find. Unlike file names, which must be unique for images in the same folder, tags are supposed to be used over and over across many images. Tags should be simple and intuitive, and you can apply multiple tags to one image. Here are some examples of tags you might want to use:

  • Holidays
  • Family names/surnames
  • Cities
  • Sport or event names
  • Season or month plus year (e.g. Summer 2012, November 2013)

You can add tags for the full names of people, but you can also use software facial recognition features (they're not as creepy as they sound, I promise!) to accomplish the same goal.

Tip 4: Use auto-tags – geotag, facial recognition, time and date stamps

If your camera and software support geotags and facial recognition, know when to use them.

Facial recognition, or letting the software identify pictures of people by their face, may sound creepy, but in the context of your own private photo collections, it's really a very powerful and useful tool. Say you want to create a scrapbook with pictures of your daughter for her birthday. If you use facial recognition, or face-tagging, to find all your photos of her, the program will do all the work for you. Then you can spend your time and energy finding the right pictures to go into the book.

Geotags typically come in handy for travellers. A geotag is the GPS location of where an image was shot. Let's say you took a few dozen photos in Puerto Rico on the beach, and in reviewing your images, you can't tell which images are from Culebra and which are from Vieques, two beach islands that look similar. If you look at the geotag, you'll be able to see exactly where you took the photos on a map.

Time and date stamps are invaluable as well. As I suggested before, keep them turned on in the import settings, but also leave them turned on at the camera level. Having times and dates associated with images is one of the fastest ways people can determine which event a photo pertains to.

With all these tips so far, the goal is to be able to organise your photos so that you can find them quickly and easily later, long after the event is done and you've forgotten the details of the day.

Saving

You've imported your images and taken a few other simple steps to make them more searchable. Now what?

The next step concerns how you save your images. This article does not cover the complicated decisions you may face in choosing an online hosting site or backup solution – but we can talk about albums or sets.

Tip 5: Use albums or sets

Albums, sometimes also called sets, are groups of images that you want to keep together. Typically, albums are separate from the import groups, which are grouped by date. When you drag images into an album, they still exist in the original import set. The album is almost like a different kind of tag; it's just another way to group pictures together.

Any time you look through your photos, build your albums. It takes little more than a drag-and-drop motion to work on them. Albums aren't set in stone – you can change what's in them at any time, making them a great organisational chore to do little by little rather than all at once. When you import your photos, you should take the time to follow some of the other tips mentioned above, and only work on albums if you have additional time. At the time of import, it's more important to work on tags, ratings, and special tags.

Tip 6: When all else fails, use smart file, folder, and album names

If all these tips just sound complicated and difficult, the most basic thing you can do to take control of a messy photo collection is to use intelligent naming conventions for file, folder, and album names. It's time consuming and requires more manual work than using the other tips, but it works.

Smile!

You don't need to know everything about digital cameras, photo editing software, or photo management applications to have an organised image collection. Equipped with a few simple features – like tags, auto-tags, time and date stamps, and albums – you can tidy up your images so that they are more searchable and usable throughout their life.

On a final note, here are some recommendations of good photo editing software that you should check out if you want to do more than basic tinkering with your images. Consider ACDSee, Photoshop Elements, iPhoto, and Aperture – follow the links to our reviews for more info on them.

Alternatively, if you'd prefer a free solution, check out some of these free (and low-cost) options.