How To Organize Your Digital Photos

Do you struggle to organize the thousands of digital photos in your collection? It sure is a problem for me! Digital photography is certainly a great thing – photos get stored in memory cards and hard drives, etc. – which are very cheap these days.

The trouble, of course, is that your photo collection grows exponentially! For me a full day of shooting in the outdoors or for a wedding can easily net me a thousand photos. It’s very tough to stay on top of so many photos.

Serious photographers have a fixed photo organization workflow – they port their pictures into a photo organizer program, remove bad photos, assign tags and do categorizations. This makes it very easy for them to go back and retrieve interesting photos in future.

Many beginner photographers, however, don’t do this. Their idea of “photo organization” is to dump all of their day’s shots into a folder on their desktop. Try to find a particularly good shot they in the park last year? Good luck finding that photo in that folder!

The thing is, organizing photos is typically deemed a “chore” by many. I know it takes time – but if you’re serious about digital photography as a hobby, you need to have easy access to your best shots, photo collections and albums. And a well-organized photo collection is the best way to allow that.

This article will teach you how to organize your photos so that you can easily retrieve the precious memories or pictures that you hold so dear. Read on and find out more!

1. Photo Organization Workflow

Before you organize your photos, you should get an understanding of your overall photo workflow. A “workflow” is really a series of work steps to get your photos sorted out. Here are the typical steps that I use in my workflow:

  • Import photos
  • Tag and Rate Photos
  • Check EXIF

Let’s go through each of these key steps in turn.

2. Import Photos

The first step in any photo organization tasks is obviously to import the photos from your camera into your computer. There are a number of ways to do this – using direct file copy, importing using an operating system wizard, as well as using a third-party software.

Using direct file copy. You can directly copy your photos from your camera to your computer. All you have to do is to insert the memory card from the camera into the computer’s equivalent memory card slot. Then, simply navigate in your operating system’s file explorer (e.g. Windows Explorer in Microsoft Windows) and click on the memory card’s contents.

Select the pictures you want to copy, then do a copy and paste into the directory of your choice in your computer’s hard disk.

This method is simple, direct and no fuss. However, you will need to specify the target folders and filenames of your photos all by yourself, compared to the other import options below.

Using An Operating System Wizard. If you use Microsoft Windows, you’ll be familiar with the pop-up screen that appears when you insert you memory card into the computer. This is called the “Scanning and Camera Wizard” and allows you to import photos to your computer with various helpful features. For example, the Windows import wizard allows you to name the whole batch of imported photos with a standardized naming convention, e.g.

  • Paris Vacation (1 to 30)
  • South of France (1 of 50)
  • The Lourve (1 of 20)

To me, this is a huge time saver. You can also specify that the source photos be deleted from the memory card once the import is done – which also helps save some time.

I find that the Mac, on the other hand, to be weaker in photo import capabilities. You usually need to use iPhoto to move pictures into your Mac. That’s quite surprising to me, given that the Mac is touted to be a “creative photo and video machine”.

Using Third-Party Software. If you have a third-party photo organizer software, it’ll be easy to import photos into your computer. Some good tools in this category include Adobe Photoshop Elements, Corel Paintshop Pro, and iPhoto (for the Mac). For more advanced users, the equivalent software would be Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, CyberLink PhotoDirector and ACDSee Pro.

What can these third-party tools do that the standard operating system can’t? Well, for one thing, these programs are very good at importing pictures and sorting them straight into albums or collections. For example, some programs can detect faces and do auto tagging, while some others can detect e.g. scenery photos and dump the photos into a different folders.

Personally, I use Corel PaintShop Pro for my day-to-day organization and collection. I’ve also tried Adobe Photoshop Elements, but I still prefer PaintShop Pro due to its intuitive user interface (plus PaintShop is something I’ve used for more than a decade).

Also, one more point to note about smartphones. A LOT of pictures are being taken on smartphones these days. To import them into your computer, you do the same – simply plug the phone via its cable to your computer. I do find Android phones a bit better than iPhones in this department – but well, that’s a topic for another day.

3. Tag and Rate Photos

The next step in organizing your photos is to tag and rate them. Now, before continuing, let’s understand why we tag photos. Tagging photos helps you attach keywords, e.g. “Paris vacation, Dad’s 35th birthday, funny moments”, etc. to photos. The idea is that you can then easily bring up all photos with a particular keyword with a search facility. Typically, tagging and searching is best done in a third-party software like Corel PaintShop Pro or Adobe Photoshop Elements. But Microsoft Windows also has great tagging and search features, which we look at below.

Tagging and Rating in Microsoft Windows. If you have your pictures sitting in your Windows folder somewhere, try clicking on one of them. You’ll see that you can add tags and “star rate” right at the bottom status bar of Windows Explorer. Which is pretty neat – I don’t think you can do that in the Mac OS.

And what’s more – in the Start menu, you can key the tag keyword into the “Search programs and files” bar and your tagged photos will come up! Cool stuff eh?

For more advanced tagging and rating, you should import your photos into e.g. Corel PaintShop Pro. There, you can do all sorts of tagging, e.g. geo-tagging (tag a location to each photo or face-tagging (plug in a name to each face in the photo, similar to what you do in Facebook).

These programs, of course, have extensive cataloguing, search and archival features in addition to tagging. Which is great, if you’re an organization fanatic and want an album for every memorable event or occasion you spend with friends and family.

3. Check EXIF

The other thing that I do in my photo organization workflow is to check the EXIF data in my photos. EXIF data is captured by your digital camera the moment you snap a photo – including exposure settings, image size, your camera model, etc.

This information is immensely useful to a photographer. With this, you can see what exposure settings you used for great looking photos. In the old days, photographers had to carry a “photo log book” around to record these settings manually!

Windows Explorer EXIF support. Windows Explorer has great support for EXIF data. If you right click on a photo in Windows Explorer, then select Properties and then the Details tab, you’ll see all sorts of useful EXIF and camera information. I love it!

Third-party software EXIF support. Again, third-party software like PaintShop Pro can also allow you to access and view / manipulate EXIF data. But personally, I find that EXIF support in most third-party software still a bit lacking and don’t do much more than what’s already available in Windows Explorer.

Case Study. You know, for years, my photos were in a mess. All I had was a set of badly named folders in Windows, containing my entire life’s worth of digital photos. If I wanted to find a particular picture (e.g. my daughter’s baby pictures, or pictures of our trip to Vietnam) – I literally had to go into each and every folder and look at the pictures. What a chore!

However, a few years back, I decided this had to stop, especially since I also got a bit more serious about photography. I started to tag my photos in Corel PaintShop Pro and got them organized. It wasn’t’ done overnight, of course. Each week, I committed to organizing a coupole couple of photo collections. Over time, my photos got better sorted and organized. Today, all I need to do is to type a tag keyword, e.g. “Vietnam” and I can quite safely assume ALL of the relevant pictures will come up. What a great feeling!

4. Other Considerations

A few other points I’d like to mention about photo organization.

Facebook Photos. Yes, Facebook has come a long way in terms of photo support. These days, you can create albums, upload to Facebook straight from your smartphone, tag faces and keywords to photos, etc. And if you’ve seen photos on Facebook, you know that they are of pretty good quality. I foresee that Facebook will soon become the de-facto standard for organizing and sharing photos with friends and family soon. You can read more about sharing photos in my article here.

Smartphone photos. Also, as you know, smartphone photo taking has increased by leaps and bounds, due to the rapid advancement of phone camera technology. However, personally, I’ve yet to see a good phone photo organization software out in the Apple App Store or Android Marketplace. If there’s a designer that comes up with a good software in this category, I’d be the first to buy it!


Ok, that’s a wrap! I know that to many photographers, photo organization is a sort of chore. Most of us don’t like to take the time to sit down and tag and organize. However, once your photo collection grows into the thousands, you’ll appreciate how a bit of organization can really make a big difference.

Personally, I suggest you try an exercise and challenge yourself to organizing your photos every month. Over time, you’ll get used to it and really feel good about having a well-organized photo collection.

Have a good time sorting out your photos!