These days, almost everybody deals with something I like to call “The Photo Monster.” Most people have a fairly decent digital camera in their pocket wherever they go. We are taking pictures and shooting video all day, every day, and with each new phone upgrade, the size of our image files increases. As a result, our digital photo libraries are taking up more and more gigabytes (or in my case, terabytes) on our hard drives. For most people, the pile of unorganized photos is a beast on their computer, with tentacles spreading across folders and drives, without a hint of organization.
This is the Photo Monster. He is sleeping, waiting to be awoken when a child graduates from high school and needs a slideshow for their open house. What might have been a pleasant trip down memory lane becomes weeks of headaches and late nights.
Keeping one’s photo library clean, manageable, and navigable is worth the effort, but taming the monster can be difficult, and only the most dedicated can truly conquer it. While I can’t solve your photo organization problems for you, I can give you a few tips that will set you on the smoothest path to victory.
1. Learn and Embrace Photo-Organizing Software
I’ve had people ask me which photo storage program is best, and the answer, just as with cameras, is “the one that you use.” It doesn’t have to be fancy or have all kinds of special editing features. I guarantee that editing features are useless if you don’t have any photos in the program to edit. You need to learn the basics of how your program works.
There are also a number of very popular online photo storage options like Flickr, Shutterfly, and SmugMug. On the one hand, these tools make sharing photos with friends and family a breeze. Many of these programs will also allow you to order prints with the click of a button. Plus, you can access your photos from any computer, anywhere in the world. On the other hand, once your photos are on the web, it’s often difficult to download the files back on to your computer. In order to bulk download your photos from the web, you often need to go image by image or use an extension program.
Another downside to online photo storage is that you give up a certain level of control over your content that could be had with local software. There are often limits to the types of photos you can upload (Flickr, for example, doesn’t offer RAW support) or the images are automatically compressed to save space. Web photo hosting programs are a great way to share photos with friends and family, but they are not a robust or efficient way to store your entire photo library.
2. Regularly Off-Load Your Photos and Clear Your Memory Cards
Instead of waiting for your camera’s memory card to fill up before dumping your photos to your computer, off-load your images on a regular schedule, and immediately following special events where you take lots of pictures. And don’t browse them critically before downloading; just get everything off of the card and onto your computer.
Just took a trip to the zoo? Before you go to bed, plug the camera into your computer, open up your photo organization program of choice, and download all of your new photos into a newly-created folder. Now is not the time to pick and choose your images. You can go into the program later and delete photos that you don’t want to keep.
Once you’re finished uploading the images and you’ve checked to make sure that the photos have successfully transferred, clear your camera. That last step is crucial, because if you leave old pictures on a camera, it becomes a problem the next time you want to use it. When you are at the beach the next week, your camera unexpectedly tells you that the memory card is full. No problem, just clear the old photos, right? Not if you took 200 pictures at the zoo and you have to delete them one at a time, using those tiny buttons on the back of your camera. You could format the whole card, but you already took 25 amazing pictures at the beach that you don’t want to lose… if only you had cleared the card as soon as the pictures were uploaded to your computer! To save yourself, maybe you only delete 50 zoo pictures to free up enough space for the beach. That’s fine, until you get home and forget that there are still zoo pictures on the card and you upload them into the beach folder, creating duplicates that are filed incorrectly.
All of this to say that when you fail to stay on top of off-loading your camera, things can quickly get out of control and feel overwhelming. It doesn’t need to be overwhelming. But you do need to tidy up after each camera use. This is one of the best tips I can give you for keeping things organized.
3. Organize your Photos During Import
Once you’ve created a photo organization structure that works for you, stick to it on import. Here’s what mine looks like:
My photos are organized by year, business vs. personal, and by event. The event folder is titled with the date, followed by a brief description of the event. If it’s a hodgepodge of images that don’t fit nicely into a specific event, it ends up under the month folder (ex. 101200 December).
It is a terrible pain to go back through old photos and get them into your structure. It’s worth it, but for most people, it is not a fun weekend activity. To save yourself the trouble of ever having to comb through random folders on your hard drive in the future, looking for lost photos, send the photos to a strategically-named folder on import. You’ll always know where to find your images, or at least know where to start.
4. Tagging Images is Almost Always a Waste of Time
Unless you have a very, very specific reason for tagging photos, it’s a waste of time. In theory, it sounds nice to type “beach” into your search bar and find every photo of the beach that you’ve ever taken. However, in order for you to create that photo-terrific world, you will need to manually add the keyword “beach” to every beach photo you ever take. In addition to the sheer amount of time this takes, what do you do about the photos where you just see the ocean? Is that a beach photo? What if you took photos of seagulls flying above your head, while you were lying on the beach? What if you have some really nice photos of your family getting ready to go to the beach?
The only time that tagging is helpful is when you have a specific event that you’re tagging. Even then, keep your tags broad and consistent. I suggest creating a highly constrained list that you can reference easily. It’s not helpful for my husband to find pictures of me if I show up under the tag “Tabitha”, “Tabitha Blanski”, “TSB”, and “Mom”. If I want to find pictures of myself, I need to know what to call myself every time I use the tag. If you must use tags, be consistent.
5. Back-up, Back-up, and Back-up
Make a back-up of your photos. Preferably, have two back-ups that you rotate through regularly, and always have one of those back-ups stored in a different location than on the desk next to your computer. If possible, this location should be in a separate building. If your house burns down, and your back-up is also in your house, it doesn’t matter that you made a back-up. Your photos are gone. Hard drives fail, and houses do burn down. Your photos are one of the most precious connections you have to your past. Take good care of them.
The Photo Monster is a giant that requires regular care and supervision; however, he doesn’t have to be crippling in power. Don’t be afraid of the Photo Monster. Learn your photo organization software. Take care of your photos. Stay on top of your organization, and spend the extra time to do it right the first time. It only takes a few minutes each time you connect your camera to your computer, but it will save you hours of frustration later on. And the best part is, your photo library will be a place of happy memories, just as it was meant to be.