Tip Roundup: Organizing Your Digital Photos
Here are some of our favorite tips for working with your digital photographs.
Start With Your Digital Photos
You may be tempted to start with your printed photos, but we have a good reason for tackling your digital photos first. We asked Certified Photo Organizer Caroline Guntur, The Swedish Organizer, why she recommends starting with your digital images and she gave us 4 GREAT reasons.
Tech Failure Rates vs. Natural Disaster
Consider this fact: Statistically, you are more likely to lose your digital photos in a tech crash than your analog (paper) memories in a house fire or other natural disaster.
It’s no secret that hard drives fail. Phones are stolen every day. Computers shut down, never to be powered up again. In other words, your device is the most likely culprit when it comes to lost memories, not a natural disaster.
Is it always accurate? Of course not. No disaster or accident should be treated casually, so you’ll have to consider the dangers that your photos face and make a good judgment call. Every project needs a plan of action, and if you’re statistically more likely to lose your digital photos, why not start by keeping those safe?
Most of Your Photos are Digital
If you lose your digital collection, you’ll probably end up losing more photos, maybe even most of them. I mean, aren’t the majority of your photos digital? I’d bet my last quarter on the fact that most of your photos are digital, even if you have lots of prints. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably taken more pictures in the last few years of smartphone-clicking than in the past few decades combined (unless your polaroid camera was working overtime!).
Intangible Memories are Easier to Lose
Digital photos are more likely to be lost because they’re not tangible. Printed photos are usually stuck in a box somewhere and are relatively safe if you store the box well. You’re not that likely to forget about it.
Digital photos, on the other hand, are usually scattered on different devices and across different platforms, and they don’t come together as quickly. You just haven’t looked at them enough to remember all of them, so they’re easier to forget. You’ve never held them in your hand, and that makes a big difference. Many studies show we relate better to things we touch, so I have to believe that tangibility matters. It’s much easier to forget about a few photos on an individual device than about a box of prints that you can physically see.
A Digital System Makes Maintenance Easier
It’s not uncommon for the photo organizing process to take a few weeks, and sometimes clients take hundreds of new photos while we’re in the organizing mode. Without a system in place to deal with all the new digital photos, the to-do list keeps growing, and the project never ends. I like to think of it as a conveyor belt. The photos are just going to keep coming, so it’s easier to quickly set up the conveyor belt to go in the right direction rather than having to deal with an amassing pile of files. Why add more to the mess? With a digital system in place, it’s easier to maintain order, and when your older printed photos are ultimately scanned, it’ll be much less work to add them to your collection.
Create Your Digital Photo Hub
Choosing your digital photo hub, the one location where you store all your original images, is the most critical decision you will make when organizing your digital pictures.
Your Digital Photo Hub = Your Digital Home
You are going to create a digital photo hub to store every photo (and video) you take including your soon-to-be-digitized prints and home movies. Your ‘hub’ will be the ‘home location’ for your entire memory collection and can be a master folder on your computer hard drive, an external hard drive or in some cases a cloud-based location. When you have a designated hub, you will find it easy to backup your memory collection and you will simplify your workflow significantly.
Things to Think About
Here are a few things to consider when choosing your ‘hub.’
1. Does your hub have the capacity to expand?
Chances are, you’ll continue to take photos and videos. If you locate your hub on an external hard drive or your computer, you need to ensure you have ample storage space for your existing images and your future ones. High-resolution images and videos require a lot of space, so choose wisely.
2. Is your hub accessible and within your complete control at all times?
You should have access to your photos whenever you need to which means your hub needs to be stored locally, and not online. The only exception to that rule is if you are living an entirely mobile life where you aren’t tethered to a home computer.
Mobile devices don’t have the capacity to store your entire collection, making a cloud-based solution your only option. If you need to choose an online service, pick a reputable, established provider and read the fine print. Ask about privacy (protecting your image info), photo ownership, data stripping (removing your metadata or compressing your images) data mining (sharing your personal info for advertising purposes) and how you retrieve your images if you decide to ‘break up’ with your provider. Some online services make you pay to download your own pictures. Buyer beware!
What’s In a Name?
Finally, give your hub a name that makes it easy to locate. Smith Family Memories is a good example. My Pictures or Pictures is a little too vague.
Where will you locate your digital photo hub?
The 3-2-1 Backup Strategy
The 3-2-1 backup rule is very simple and has withstood the test of time for protecting digital assets. This rule requires that you have three copies of your digital data (photos, videos, documents, etc.) stored on two different media or devices with one copy located off-site.
A Tried and True Backup Strategy
We live in a world of rapidly changing technologies that continually demand bigger, better and faster ways for storing and protecting your digital life. And while best practices for managing your digital assets evolve quickly, this has not been true for the 3-2-1 backup strategy which has withstood the test of time.
For years, organizations, businesses, and individuals have been using this method as a reliable strategy for backing up their digital files, and professional photographers use this method for protecting their large photo collections.
Back Up Your Digital Assets
We’re going to talk specifically about backing up your memory collection (your digital photo hub), but this strategy applies to all your digital assets.
Three copies of your digital photo hub
If you have your originals plus two more copies (for a total of 3 copies), you reduce the odds of losing your data significantly. You are creating a system with triple redundancies.
Stored on two different media or devices
When you store your originals on one device and a copy on a second device or media, that means you have immediate access to a backup if one of those devices fails. When your computer crashes or your EHD fails (and they will), your files can be restored from the other device. Storing these devices locally means you have full control and access at all times.
Store 1 copy off-site
The third copy of your hub should be stored in a different location from your other two copies. If all three copies of your hub are located in your home, your precious memories are at risk if something unforeseen should happen to your home. Natural disasters, fires, floods, and theft are unexpected tragedies that can happen to anyone. We recommend a cloud-based backup or storage solution for your 3rd location. If the cloud isn’t an option, your third copy can be stored on another device, or optical discs (archival gold DVD’s) and stored in a different location as far away from your home as possible.
Automate Your 3-2-1 Backup Strategy
The more you automate your backup strategy, the better! There are plenty of cloud backups that run automatically in the background of your computer, and your operating system has auto-backups that you can configure with your EHD.
If you already have a 3-2-1 backup strategy in place, pat yourself on the back. The 3-2-1 backup rule is the MOST important tip we can share.
Backup the Mess
We've arrived at the last step before you start collecting your images. Let’s get a backup in place. Yes, that right. Let’s back up the chaos! That way if anything happens during the organizing process, you can always go back to the beginning and start again. We recommend an automatic backup to your external drive, and you want this in place before you begin moving digital photos.
Sort Your Digital Photos
Now you that you have backed up the mess, you can proceed with collecting images from all of your devices and online locations. You may find it helpful to work in stages, one device at a time. Check each device off your list, so you don’t forget anything.
Create a ‘holding tank’ for your messy digital photos in the folder structure of your digital photo hub. Your ‘to-be-organized’ folder is your ‘dumping ground’ for all the images you bring in from devices, camera cards, the scanner, etc.
The ‘To Organize’ Folder
As you bring each set of digital photos into your ‘to organize’ folder, keep events or months together. For example, don’t just dump 1,475 images from your camera roll into your folder. Use your smartphone’s built-in app to identify groupings like months, events or collections.
Once you have a group of photos in your ‘to organize’ folder, you want to give the images a quick review and remove all photos that don’t need to be in your collection. Pictures of a receipt for business and the lunch photo you posted on Instagram are examples of the clutter you want to get rid of right away. Get rid of anything that you know for sure, isn’t a ‘keeper.’
Next, create a folder and give the folder a name that represents the group of photos that will go into it. Your folder name should begin with a numeric sequence that represents the year first, followed by the month. An example might be 2016-01 for January 2016. Inside that folder; you can create themed or event folders to break it down further if you want, depending on your volume of photos. The name of that folder should begin with a numeric sequence that represents the year followed by the month, followed by the event or theme.
Renaming Digital Photos
You can take this one step further by renaming each photo inside the folders. You can work in batches without the use of any additional software, and you’ll want to include ‘who, what, where’ in your filename. When you batch rename photos in your folder, your system assigns a numerical appendage to your image filename. Ultimately, each image ends up with a unique filename.
Here is an example of the filenames for one of the folders listed above.
2016-01-Grandpa Jim’s 80th Birthday
Once you completed this step, it’s time to move your newly organized folder out of the ‘to organize’ folder and into its rightful place in the main folder structure of your central hub. If you have to take a break, return to your ‘to organize’ photos and continue working. With this system, you can quickly identify where you have left off.
Digital Photo Folder Structure
Create Some Structure in Your Life
Now that you’ve chosen your digital photo hub, let’s create some structure. We recommend a folder structure that is scalable, and easy to understand.
For example, a dated folder structure is predictable and easy to maintain because today’s digital images have dates embedded. Themed folders with no ‘dated’ structure work better for old scanned photos that are hard to date. Use a numerical file name for your folders which allows your computer to sort your folders in date order. Here is an example of a scalable folder structure that incorporates both:
2018-05 Susan Birthday
2018-06 Beach Vacation
2018-07 Summer Baseball
2018-11 George Birthday
2018-12 New Years Eve Party
Stand-Alone File Structure
One final thought about the importance of this structure. You will notice that we haven’t introduced any photo organizing software yet. We believe this structure is a ‘friendly’ option for everyone and ensures that your workflow is software independent. If you aren’t currently using a software program to organize your photos, the added learning curve may slow you down or paralyze you. We’ll teach you how to organize your photos without a specific software, and we’ll leave the decision to introduce software up to you.
Your newly organized ‘hub’ still has some potential problems. Duplicates! You probably have tons of duplicates as the result of inconsistent downloading, importing of multiple backups and many other reasons. Now is the time to get rid of those extras that are cluttering up your photo library.
There are two kinds of duplicates; exact duplicates created when you brought the same image in from a few different locations. And then there are ‘near duplicates’ which are images so similar they could be the same but were taken seconds apart. We can thank ‘burst mode’ for these treasures.
Once you find your duplicates, you can delete them entirely or move them into a folder called ‘to be deleted’ if you’re commitment-shy.
Make Good Photo Organizing Software Choices
When you choose photo organizing software, you need to consider your comfort level with technology, your operating system, your time, and most importantly, your lifestyle.
Are You Ready For Photo Organizing Software Yet?
Before we discuss all of your options, let’s pause to consider your ‘readiness level.’ Some of you may be entirely satisfied at this stage of the organizing process. Your images are stored in your photo hub in your folder structure, and they have one automated backup in place. You can use the search bar in your operating system to find a picture by name (remember, you gave your photos some basic who, what, where details when renamed) or you can visually search your folders to find them.
Is this good enough for you? Then it’s time to move forward.
Adding photo organizing software at this point has several benefits:
Your photo viewing experience is enhanced
You can add a deeper layer of organization with keywords or tags, smart albums or collections
You can edit photos and apply filters
You can identify favorites with ratings
You can caption and in some cases journal information
The downside is, you may have a learning curve and financial investment to consider. Or you may run into some tech challenges depending on the age of your operating system or the speed and connectivity of your internet.
Desktop or Cloud-Based?
If you’re ready to proceed, you’ll need to decide whether you want a desktop or a cloud-based photo organizer. There are pros and cons to either.
A desktop photo organizer is an app or software program that you download to your computer. The upside, of course, is your ability to access and organize your photos without an internet connection. On the downside, your photos are only accessible in one location, unless you find a software program that syncs across multiple devices.
An online photo organizer resides in the cloud, and you upload your photo collection. The upside is you can access images from any device, easily share pictures and albums with others and you have a secondary backup in place by having a copy of your images off-site. On the downside, your accessibility and ease of use depend entirely on the quality and capacity of your internet connection.
Which one makes the most sense to you?
Take Advantage of Free Software Trials
When choosing an online or desktop photo organizing software, look for providers that offer free trials. Run a test with a small group of photos so you can examine and compare before you commit.
Have you ever tried to google ‘photo organizing software’? The results can be overwhelming and at the very least, confusing. In addition to that, product changes continue to occur at such a rapid pace; it makes it that much harder for you to make decisions.
Now we are going to equip you with information that will help you make the right choice for you and your memory collection, and ease some of the fears you may feel about moving forward.
Desktop Photo Organizing Software
A desktop photo organizer is an app or software that you download and install on your computer.
Some programs work directly with your folder structure (on the hub you created) and apply changes directly to the photos in your folders.
Some programs work together with your folder structure and their internal database while applying changes to your photos.
Some programs are proprietary and work with their internal database or catalog.
Your workflow will be easier if you choose a program that works with your folder structure. If you select a proprietary program, you would have the added step of importing your photos from your hub into the program. There is no right or wrong; it’s really about personal preference.
Here are some essential features you should expect from a desktop photo organizer:
Is the program user-friendly and does the company provide training tutorials and good customer service?
Does the program use non-destructive editing (does it retain your original image)?
Does the program adhere to IPTC standards for applying metadata to your images? Yes, there are industry standards that you can learn more about here.
Does the program have key features such as keywording, a rating system, simple or advanced editing, captioning or storytelling options, smart albums, etc.?
Does the program offer a pleasant viewing experience or slideshow options?
Will your program organize video formats?
Is it easy for you to export and share images from the program?
Is your metadata intact once you export your image(s)?
Online Photo Organizing Software
An online photo organizer resides in the cloud, and you upload some or all of your photos from your hub.
In this scenario, you are sending a copy of your photos to your online provider and keeping your original images in your hub, which is stored locally on your computer or EHD. The distinct advantage of this option is you naturally, create a 2nd backup of your photo collection that is stored offsite (in a different location than your home computer or EHD).
In addition to some of the features we outline above, here are some features you should look for in an online photo organizer. Remember, when choosing an online provider to store and organize your precious photos, you are entrusting their safety to a company. Please do your research!
Do you maintain ownership over your image? Read the fine print!
Do you have complete control over your image privacy settings and are they easy to understand?
Does your provider protect your privacy regarding your personal info? FREE services mine your data for advertising purposes and share your information with third party services.
Does your provider keep your image metadata intact and in its original size? Some services compress your image and strip your metadata upon upload.
Does your provider have any space limitations? Some services have a cap on how much space you have.
Does your provider make it easy for you to retrieve or download your photos if you choose to discontinue the service? Some services charge you a fee or have download restrictions.
Does the service offer keywording, ratings and a folder or album organizing feature and how is this information captured in the metadata? Some providers have very limited organizing options and don’t embed metadata in the image file upon download.
Does your online provider have backup redundancies in place and high-level security?
Does your provider offer a succession plan for your photos? If you pass away, will your family be able to access your account?
Your digital images contain information called metadata that helps identify valuable information about your photo. This information is digitally attached to your image and stays with your photo. Your digital camera or smartphone is already embedding information such as dates and location data.
Adding additional metadata to your images is the equivalent of writing information on the back of your printed photos (with a photo-safe pencil, of course). The more information the image contains, the richer the story.
When would you need to add or change the metadata? Remember when you got your first digital camera, and you didn’t know how to set the date? All those images were created with the wrong date and will need correcting. If you have scanned photos, you’ll need to add exact dates and additional information.
More importantly, you may want to add keywords or tags to make it easy to search for photos, or you might find it helpful to add ratings to identify your favorite images.
Some of these tasks can be performed with native tools on your operating system, but they lack the efficiency of photo organizing software.
Learn more about metadata at our sister site The Photo Organizers.
Your Maintenance Plan
Don’t skip this step! Now that you have your photos organized, or even if you are still in the process, create a plan to maintain your collection regularly.
Schedule a Regular Maintenance Plan
You will continue to take photos; life will get busy, and chances are you’ll forget about the vital task of managing your collection if you don’t take steps to prevent that now.
Create a Routine
Routines help form healthy habits. Choose a time each week or after each event, to gather photos from your memory cards and smartphones, into your ‘to be organized’ folder in your photo hub. Don’t wait until your camera roll or memory card is full!
Choose a regular time each month to sort your ‘to be organized’ folder and then move those images into the folder structure in your hub. Flag or rate your favorite photos from that month to have printed or placed into an album. Check to make sure your backup systems are working or perform a manual backup. Add this important task to your calendar, so you don’t forget!
Spring ahead, Fall forward
When it’s time to change your clocks, it’s time to run a diagnostic on your backup systems and external hard drives. Most EHDs come with a utility that allows you to run a performance scan.
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We also invite you to visit our blog ThePhotoOrganizers.com for more tips and in-depth knowledge from some of the top photo organizing industry professionals. To find a photo organizer near you, visit the Association of Personal Photo Organizers at APPO.org