Digital photos don't stay in the camera long; they make your computer's hard drive their permanent home. A good organization method for storing your images will make it easier to retrieve them in the future.

This article gives a brief overview of how to create a digital photo organizing system, and the software needed to manage them. It assumes that your computer is running Windows XP, but most of the concepts apply to other operating systems as well.

Location of "My Pictures"

No matter what software you choose for managing your collection, the actual image files will be stored somewhere on your hard drive. I recommend that you store all of your digital photos in the "My Pictures" folder. Unless you have moved it, "My Pictures" will be in the "My Documents" folder.

Occasionally I come across software that wants to store photos in their own folder. Determine where your software stores images, and if not in "My Pictures", investigate further to see if it allows you to change it to this location.

Folder Names

Consistently named folders are an important aspect of all photo organization systems. These folders reside on the hard drive under "My Pictures" and store all of your images. Having a carefully planned folder structure will help you find photos quickly, even if you change the organizing software down the road.

Decide on the folder structure by asking yourself the following questions:

  • When I am looking for photos, how do I generally find them? Is it by year, subject, location, etc?
  • How many sub-folder levels will I need? (I suggest you don't go deeper than 3 or 4 levels.)
  • Are there exceptions to the above answers, requiring a different organization strategy?

To help you come up with a system of your own, let me walk you through mine. Please refer to the folder structure image below for the examples.

Organize digital photos with a well thought-out folder structure.

First, I create a folder for each year under "My Pictures". The years represent when the photo was taken. Then, I create a folder under the appropriate year with a descriptive event name. For example: 2005\Day at the races. All digital photo files from this event go into this folder.

If I have a lot of photos in a single year, I break it down one more level by adding months. Windows sorts folder names alphabetically. If you simply name the folders the month names, sorting will be chronologically incorrect because it will list December before January. To avoid this, I start the folder names with a two digit month number, as in "01" for January, "02" for February, and so on. I follow the number with a three character month name as in "02 Feb". Finally, I create descriptive event folders under the month. This allows me to browse my digital photos by year and month while keeping the list within a single year shorter. The image above shows samples of both methods: event folders directly under years and under months.

Free Organizing Software

Free software is generally very basic in functionality, but let's not rule them out because they meet the needs of the person taking snapshots, organizing the photos into folders, performing minor editing, and printing or having the photos developed. The number of free photo organizing software packages is too great to list in this article, but I will give two sources:

  • Software that came with your camera (I especially like Kodak EasyShare for beginners)
  • Free Picasa software from Google available at http://www.picasa.com

Adobe Photoshop Elements

When your needs surpass the capabilities of free software, I recommend you consider Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0. Starting with version 3.0, Adobe combined what used to be two software packages into one: the organizer and the editor.

Here are some of the notable features of Photoshop Elements "Organizer" tool:

  • Add your own folder structure for Organizer to manage
  • Get photos from your camera, scanner, folder, mobile phone, online
  • Find photos using a variety of criteria including date, file name, photo caption
  • Create multi-level categories
  • Put photos into one or more categories
  • Create projects such as video CD, slide shows, web albums, note cards, post cards, etc.
  • Add captions and notes to photos

In addition to the Organizer tool, you get the Photoshop Elements Editor in the same package, which I consider the best digital photo editing tool for the beginner through advanced photographer.

IMatch for the Advanced User

If you consider yourself an advanced photographer and have a large collection of digital photos to manage, I recommend IMatch from http://photools.com. IMatch is the software I use to organize thousands of my own photos.

Here are a few notable IMatch features, above and beyond the more basic packages:

  • Advanced category features including multiple levels, categories based on formulas, categories based on membership in other categories, and more
  • Off-line storage so you can move digital photos to removable media and still be able to manage them within the IMatch database
  • Batch processing to perform actions such as converting a large number of files to another format
  • Customizable HTML generation for creating web albums
  • Fast database searches using numerous criteria
  • EXIF and IPTC editor
  • Custom scripting for the truly advanced user

No matter which software you choose, your time spent developing an organization system for your digital photos will pay dividends when it is time to find them.