More than 10,000 FilesI keep thousands of photos every year.  Occasionally, I even keep a thousand photos in a month.  This doesn’t include the images that I permanently delete because they’re not up to snuff–that would push the count up into the tens of thousands per year.  When this subject comes up in conversation, I’m often asked, “How do you manage that many images?  How can you possibly keep that organized?”  It took a little while and a bit of doing to come up with a system but, over the years, my file organization system has grown, expanded, been modified, and has proven to be quite robust.

This is Part One of two articles on file organization.  In this article I’ll discuss the basics of directory structure and labeling.  In Part Two, I’ll cover Adobe Lightroom specifically and how the on-disk filing system and Lightroom work together.  With very few differences (mostly in the computer’s search boxes and window displays), this filing system should work equally well in both Windows and Apple / Mac.  Without further delay, let’s dive in!

Accessibility via Folder Structure & Naming

The secret to any good filing system is accessibility.  How accessible are your files and how quickly can you find what you’re looking for?  To maximize any single file’s “findability,” we want to catalog them by both date as well as event.  This way, when we’re searching for a file, we can either recall “Oh, that photo was last summer–probably around the 4th of July,” which would allow us to search our collection around that particular date.  Or, we can recall “That was definitely taken at Bob and Janet’s wedding,” which would lead us to perform a search by name or event title.

Mac Finder File TreeWhen you’re dealing with thousands of files the best way to keep them grouped without having one folder on your computer contain a bajillion individual items is by utilizing a deep directory structure.  This means many folders on the computer one inside of another inside of another etc.  You should start with one directory to hold all of your photos.  In my case as you can see in the image to the right, I named this top-level folder “The Warehouse.”   (Click for a larger view.)  Everything is contained within this one single top-level folder.

Inside this top-level folder will be your “year” folders–2005, 2006, 2007, etc.  Inside of your year folders will be folders for months.  We name these month folders both with a number as well as the month name like this: 01 – January, 02 – February, 03 – March, and so forth.  This allows the computer to easily sort the months into an order with which we are all familiar as opposed to only an alphabetical sort which would result in a quite odd month order.

Next, inside of the month folders, we find individual dates.  As I’ve noticed that I typically only shoot one event on one day, this is where we also put the event name.  (This isn’t always the case and I have a method to deal with that as well which we’ll cover in just a moment.)  Inside of the month folder we put the date the photo was taken as well as the event name in this form:

  • 05 – Lubbock Skyline at Night
  • 16 – Ed Adame’s Birthday Party
  • 29 – Family Outing to the Zoo
  • etc.

Obviously, inside of each of these folders are the individual photographs each with a unique number for easy reference.  Notice that by using this YEAR –> MONTH –> DATE – EVENT format we can quickly drill down to the photos we knew we took of the fireworks display on July 4th, 2010…or we can use the computer’s built-in search features to find a particular event such as the photos of the Tigers vs. Orioles tickets as is shown in the image below.

Steps to Searching for Files

By organizing photos in this manner, it allows me to drill down to the exact set of files I need and see only those images with which I am interested in working at this time.  Additionally, I can collapse my entire photo collection into a single folder (remember “The Warehouse”) so that I can easily drag that one folder to an external hard drive for backups.

Multiple Shoots.  One Day.

Multiple Shoots.  One Date.What happens when we shoot multiple different events on the same day?” you may ask.  Well, I’m very glad you asked this question!  It’s quite simple…just add a letter after the date name so that your first shoot of the day is 19a, your second shoot is 19b, and so forth.  This allows you to keep your dates intact, show which order your shoots took place, and still allows you to name each shoot individually for searchability purposes.  Also, you’d be hard pressed to run out of letters for your shoots.  I’m not saying it’s impossible, but if you’re shooting more than 26 events in a day, gimme a call.  I’ll gladly help with your overflow.  😉  Check out the image to the left for an example.

That’s About It

Those are the basic steps to this particular filing system and, while it may take a few minutes to figure out, I don’t believe it’s overly complicated or difficult to execute.  Check back soon for Please take some time to read Image & File Organization — Part Two where I integrate this technique into Adobe Lightroom.  (Warning.  It’s long!)

Have any questions, additional suggestions, recommendations, or your own personal tips?  Let’s hear it in the comments below!

Categories: Featured, General, Tutorial

2 Responses so far.

  1. This is excellent! Thank you for taking the time to write all this out and explain your methods. Mine aren’t too dissimilar, but I liked your way of cataloging multiple shoots on the same day. The way I have it set up and tied through LR, I’m not able to easily break up multiple shoot days without a lot of tinkering, so I’ll be interested to see how you have LR tied into your file structure.

    On to part two!

  2. […] Part One of this two-part article series, we learned about basic on-disk directory structure and […]

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