Photo Library Organization and Maintenance

Folder Structure/Naming Conventions

If you've been taking digital photos for awhile, you've probably discovered that eventually, a method for naming/storing them is helpful. I've had a system in place for years now that has worked for me regardless of how I chose to organize my photos.

When I got my first digital camera, I was on Windows. This was before Picasa, Lightroom, etc. Initially, I dropped photos in folders named with a brief description and the date. Something like: Freezing Rain 1-15-1999. This worked great until I tried to go back and locate a photo. Sorting the folders by name was useless. Sorting by date worked sometimes, but not if I had edited any of the photos at some point. 

That was when I started naming my folders like this: 

YYYYMMMDD Description

So the previous example would now be named 

19990115 Freezing Rain

This solved all my sorting problems. Now, sorting by name works perfectly. In order for sorting to work, the name has to begin with a four-digit year, followed by two digit month and day. 

When Picasa was released, it helped organize things a bit more, but I kept my naming convention to help me find specific folders.

When I switched back to Mac and tried using iPhoto, well, iPhoto hoses naming conventions because of the way it stores photos. It actually does a pretty good job of organizing everything by the date embedded in the digital image. But what if your camera's date was wrong? I still like being in charge of how my photos are organized, which is why iPhoto and I butted heads repeatedly.

Lightroom respects my folder names. Aperture does if you use referenced files instead of managed files, but Lightroom is much better at letting me be in charge of how my photos are organized, both in AND out of Lightroom itself.

As the years ticked by, I started adding yearly folders to my file structure:

  • 2011
    • 20111225 Xmas photos
    • 20111231 New Year's Eve
    • 2012
      • 20120101 Hangover photos

Deleting Files

I know a lot of people who delete any photo they don't upload or think is perfect. Some may do this to save space, others because they don't see any reason in keeping a photo that doesn't instantly strike them as awesome. If you're deleting to save space, take a look at hard drive prices. It's relatively cheap to add a terabyte of storage to your system. That'll hold a LOT of photos. I like the Western Digital MyBook drives, but buy what works for you.

Personally, unless a photo is completely blurred out, pure white or black, or otherwise "destroyed", I save it. What doesn't look good to me now, might spark an idea a year or more from now. New technology, post processing options, or even my own skills in post-processing might be able to turn the photo I didn't initially like into something I love. Sometimes, even blurry photos can be turned into something cool.

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Backups

This is the one that most people, (including myself,) fail at. Your hard drive WILL fail. It's just a matter of when. You can reinstall your OS, all your applications can be reinstalled, your music can be re-ripped or downloaded, and your settings can be re-set. But you can't recover once-in-a-lifetime moments caught on your camera. I once lost three years of photos due to my lack of knowledge in Linux. No backups. No way to retrieve the deleted files. It's a sinking feeling when you realize those files are all gone.

There are two folders on my system that get preferential treatment when it comes to backups: Photos and Home Videos. Those are the two folders that contain files I can't replace when my hard drive fails. Those two folders get backed up to a second hard drive, and every few months, I add the latest content to data DVDs and store them elsewhere. It's not a fool-proof system, but it's better than doing nothing.

If you store all your photos in your "My Pictures" or "Pictures" folder (depending on your OS,) make use of the built-in backup software. I don't know what Windows has now, but Time Machine works great on Mac. Just buy a hard drive specifically for the computer backup. I keep all my photos on an external drive, so Time Machine doesn't work in my case. I manually sync my Photos and Home Movies folders to another external drive.

At the very least, upload your photos to a service like Flickr.

Recap

Naming conventions… YYYYMMDD folders will help you locate photos later on.

Deleting files… Don't. Unless they really, really can't be saved.

Backups… Have at least one complete backup of all your images. They are irreplaceable, and your hard drive will fail at some point.

Everyone is different, and one method doesn't work for all. What are your methods of organization and maintenance of your photo library?