How to organize photo folders

It should go without saying that before you ever begin the process of creating an effective folder management system for organizing the hundreds, but more likely, thousands of digital photos we will accumulate in our lives, we should have determined where all of these photographs are going to permanently live.

Once the decision of ‘home’ has been decided we can now begin the process of creating an awesome, tremendous, outstanding (ok, we’ll stop now), practical and easy to maintain, file management system. The good news is that for some of you overachievers out there, you may have already started a file management system that you enjoy and it may be working for you. If that is the case, great! Keep up the good work. For the rest of you out there, you are looking for some tips and pointers on how to do one of two things:

A. You don’t know where to ever begin and need help just getting started with the creating of an efficient file management system
B. You already have a system started but it lacks something, isn’t working or flat out sucks and needs some reworking

In either of these options (A or B) we are confident that we can help you, thus the creation of this blog post.

The first thing you should know is that at the end of the day, it hold zero weight to Lightroom as to what your folder structure looks like. You really can name your folders anything you want and there in lies part of the problem. What you should consider, no matter you preferred method, are some organizational basic rules.

  1. Is your list SCALABLE? As previously mentioned, you may only have a few hundred images at the start of using Lightroom (doubtful but possible). However, it will not stay this way for long. In the process of accumulating photo over time, your folder structure should be able to accommodate you. This fact will be mission critical when you begin filling up hard drives and needing to expand. You may also wish to consider how to handle photos that are stored offline and how you may need to access those photos at some point. Here is one of many examples I could give you.
    • Example: what if you prefer to organize your photos via Location, and your ‘Los Angeles’ folder lives on a drive that filled up and therefore has been disconnected and archived. If you revisit ‘Los Angeles’ again, you will need to reconnect the archived hard drive to file away the new images you’ve captured. And this is true each and every time you should visit that location. What…A…Pain!
    • Date and time-based folder structures are not without their own problems as well.
  2. Does your list have CONSISTENCY? This is true in more than one facet of photography (hell, life in general) but the more consistent we are about our processes and systems, the less confused we are about where things should be filed. When you leave doubt or interpretation, your chances of losing images or creating a less than consistent system.
  3. You should only use STANDARD CHARACTERS. This is probably the easiest rule of them all. If you keep to standard characters: A-Z, 0-9, hyphens (-) and underscores (_), you are less likely to encounter any problems in the future.
  4. Have you made it easy to BACKUP AND RESTORE. Out of everything in this post, this is probably the post important. If your file management system is not easy to backup and restore, you run the risk of missing or worst losing images forever. With a growing list of photographs, it will get more difficult since you will most likely be adding other hard drives into the mix.
    • You should create a single parent folder (per hard drive) rather than have images and folders all over the place.
    • You should not organize folders based on the topic as this too can create problems as mentioned in the SCALABLE section of this post.
Let’s talk about why you should use a date/time-based folder management system.

Plain and simple, using a date/time-based folder management system is probably the easiest, most reliable file-based structure to use as a long term solution.

  • Scalable, yes.
  • Consistent, yup.
  • Good for backups and restoring photos, absolutely.
  • Standard characters, if you do it right, then yes.
  • Folder structure can have a hierarchical based system.
  • Lightroom can create a proper folder structure for you that falls in line with our preferred method system.
The level of organization is really up to you.

You can keep this as simple as you like or you can go crazy with it depending on you. The real key is to make sure that you implement the basics at a minimum. The following are some examples to help you get this underway.

Option A

Year, Month: If you are a light shooter, you won’t need a very complex system. A hierarchy system with Year and Month should work just fine.

Option B

Year, Month, Name: We are going to stay with the Year and Month system but with a twist. We can add a name per photo session. If you have a series of random photos that are not part of a full day session, then simply place those images directly into the year folder.

Option C

Year, Month, Day, Name: This is the most ambition of the three options but can be extremely effective when consistency done correctly. This option will make browsing for files pretty easy to find but can certainly make a very long list of folders.

Option D

Year, Client Name, Date: If you are someone who takes pictures of others frequently (whether as a business or just because you’re awesome and everyone keeps asking you) than a great way to organize your files might be by the client’s name rather than a specific date.

Option E

Work vs. Personal: Year, Name, Date: This is the system I use personally but understand this doesn’t fit everyone’s scenario. You may need to or prefer to keep images taken for clients (as discussed in Option D) separate from images taken for personal reasons. If this sounds like you then this will solve that problem.

In close, these are simple basics concepts to follow if you are looking for some guidance but if you are finding other ways to get the job done, that cool too. We would love to hear your ideas. Leave your comments down below.

Option A
Option B
Option C
Option D
Option E

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