How to Organize Digital Photos

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Of course we don’t like big piles of disorganized paper or photos hanging out all over our office, but what about digital clutter? Fortunately, it’s less visible, but it’s no less frustrating not to be able to find a file or a photo that we need! Today, I’ll tackle digital photo organization. Stay tuned, because I even share a couple embarrassing confessions in today’s post.

How to Organize Digital Photos

Let me start by saying that I’m certainly not an expert in this arena and I’ve had my fair share of photo organizing mistakes, but I have learned a few things, and I do finally have a system that is working for me! In this case, I really believe the simpler and more straightforward the better. I’ve tried more advanced, complicated systems, and, trust me, they just fall apart. Here are the steps for getting your digital photos in order.

Step 1: Start from This Point Forward

If your digital photos on your computer are a total mess and you really don’t have a system to organize them, or if your current system isn’t working for you, I do NOT recommend that you start by trying to reorganize all your previous digital photos. That can be a very daunting task that is likely to take you quite a while. Also, you’re more likely to put off starting an organizing system if you think you’ll have to start by spending hours and hours reorganizing your older files. I highly suggest you just start TODAY organizing your files with your new system. Any photos you take from this point forward will fit into the new system. Don’t worry so much about prior photos. You might get to them someday, and even if you never do, it will be so much better to have everything front this point forward all organized.

Step 2: The Delete Key is Your Friend!

No matter what system you choose, the delete key will always be your friend. Don’t be afraid to use it. Sometimes we think that because our files aren’t taking up literal physical space that it’s okay to keep everything. It’s still clutter, though. If you keep every digital photo, your hard drive will fill up quickly plus it will be a lot harder to find what you need. If you see a photo that is blurry or unusable, just delete it. If you take 12 shots of the exact same thing, delete 11 of them and only keep your favorite. I don’t overthink this or spend hours deciding what to delete. I’ve just formed the habit of always deleting blurry or way too dark photos. That only takes a second. And then if I am choosing certain photos out of a group, I go ahead and delete the ones I didn’t choose.

For example, for my post last week about organizing my desk drawer, I had 3 pictures of the top view of the inside. Believe it or not, all three of these were different pictures! I applied the same adjustments to them, then cropped, and chose my favorite. I deleted the other two permanently from my computer.  I used to feel like I needed to save them all, but that quickly gets out of hand, and it just makes life harder. These three pictures look identical, don’t they? In no way do I need to sift all three when I want one.

Delete Key

Step 3: Choose a Very Simple File Structure

I know this from personal experience, but a very simple file structure for your photos will be most likely to work best long term. I wouldn’t suggest some fancy way of naming, categorizing, and tagging everything. For one thing, if your system takes you 15 minutes every time you import photos, you’re more likely to be in a hurry and not stick with it. Also, if you don’t have a straightforward way of naming folders, it can actually be harder to find what you’re looking for.

Here’s what I do. Each time I import photos, I name the folder with the today’s date first. I use the format of year-month-day, like 2014-01-31. I highly recommend that you do put the year first so you can easily look at all the folders in chronological order. (If you did something like 01-31-2014, then by the time a lot of years went by you’d end up with all the January’s from every year together, the all the February’s, etc.) I also recommend using leading zero’s in front of the months and days (like 01 instead of 1 for January). This will also ensure everything can easily be sorted in chronological order.

When I want to add more description, I will put a title of the event after the year. That would look like “2014-01-31 Planner Post Pics.” Also, I try to upload photos often, but sometimes I go a month or two without uploading. When I finally get around to it, there might be five or six different events that I’m importing. In that case, I do NOT separate the events. This takes too long, and I know I won’t keep up with it. I just put the date that I’m uploading. When I’m looking through folders I know that the folder could contain anything from the previous dated folder up to that date. In the example below, I know that “2013-11-17 Planners” could actually contain anything form November 3rd through the 17th, and it’s super easy to see that at a glance. Here’s what my current files look like:

Photo Organizing File structure

I find that using the date is the most straightforward method. I usually know the approximate date when things happened and there’s no ambiguity.

Step 4: Use Your Photos

This is one of those do as I say and not as I do moments. Make sure you actually do something with your photos. You didn’t take them just so that they can hang out on your hard drive. Print them, hang them, put them in an album, etc. I would love to share with you my brilliant method of consistently using my photos, but I’ll let you in on a little secret. I majorly stink at this! I’m a complete photo failure! First, I hardly take any personal photos. I have tons of photos, but at least 90% of my photos are for my business (product or blog photos), and of course I use those right away. Second, I have the best of intentions of printing photos and putting together a Project Life album, but I never actually do! (Another true confession: I’ve even bought supplies for 3 albums, but have barely touched them!) However, if ever I do manage to get it together in this area I  will use Project Life. You can read all about Project Life and how it works on Becky Higgins website.

Photo Organizing Software

There is software that can help you do this. I personally use Lightroom these days, but I’m guessing most of you don’t have that program. (If you do have Lightroom and want me to do a tutorial on my Lightroom workflow, let me know.)

If you have a Mac, iPhoto does this very well. I really love iPhoto, and if I didn’t have Lightroom, I would definitely use nothing but that. It automatically pulls in all your photos, organizes the by date, and splits them into events. You can order prints directly from iPhoto and do minor edits.

If you don’t have a Mac, I would highly recommend Picasa for your computer. It’s free, and it does a lot of the organizing work for you! You can edit photos in the program, and it connects to a lot of popular print services online. I used it before I got my Mac.

How do you organize your photos? Do you struggle with actually getting them into albums like I do? What are your favorite programs to use?


  1. sherrie says

    Thank you sooooo much for this post!!! You are always such a great help!!!! I now feel like I have a game plan instead of the dreaded “where do I begin” feeling! Thank you again!

  2. shelly m says

    I’m always interested to see how others organize their digital pics. I’m also great at taking pics, organizing them, but not using them! My system is pretty generic, but very helpful. I have folders for each year, and then within each folder I have 1 folder for each month + 1 folder I create called “best of …” That last folder holds all the pics that I really liked throughout the year. I used to separate out more events, but like you, I generally know when the picture was taken, so I know which monthly folder to look in. The monthly folders are all sorted by date. If we take a special vacation, I will create a separate folder for that event and keep it within the correct monthly folder. This system has been working for me since 2006!

    • says

      Sounds like a really good system. I love the “best of” idea. I think just doing that will get you a step closer to getting the pictures printed or creating an album.

  3. says

    I use Picasa and have for several years. I’m a big fan. I’ve also kept scrapbooks for years, but as my boys age and I have fewer photos, that has dropped off too.

  4. says

    Thanks for a great post. I love Picasa myself, and find it’s a good way to collect the photos that my husband and I both take.
    I always have to remind myself to take family photos at our get togethers. It’s easy to get caught up in the moments without a camera in hand.

  5. Catherine says

    We organize our photos digitally by year, and within each year by quarter. We do separate folders for special vacations or big events (ie family reunion), within the annual folder. We back up everything on Carbonite. The only downside of being the family photographer is that I’m rarely in a picture!

    • says

      Sounds like a great system. I love how you break down by quarter and event. Since writing this post, I’ve actually started backing up using Crashplan. It feels so great to know my photos are backed up. I know, I’m rarely in pictures either. I try to set up the tripod.

  6. Ramie says

    I have the same file structure that you do for photos! I love it and I love using iPhoto to get them separated quickly by event! I am trying to branch out and use Lightroom more, but it totally confuses me everytime I open it. Would you mind sharing your workflow? I’d love to see it.

    Thank you!

    • says

      I also love the way iPhoto organizes photos by event, but I absolutely hate how you can’t actually to the iPhoto photos outside of iPhoto. It’s a deal breaker for me. I wish they would change that, and it would be perfect. I took a class on how to use Lightroom from KelbyOne that I definitely recommend. It helped me a lot in figuring out how to use it.

  7. Caitlin says

    I love iphoto but once you put your photos in there, you can’t go into your folders and pull out a specific photo. Iphoto packages it all up into your library. Any suggestions on how to get around that? It makes it hard to take those folders and put them on an external hard drive for back up!

    • says

      I hate that too and haven’t found a way around that. That’s why I don’t use iPhoto, and only use Lightroom. I have even my phone photos set up to automatically import into Lightroom. It’s really a shame, because I love iPhoto other than that big problem.

  8. Lisa says

    You can Access iPhoto picture files and originals via

    You can open/ pictures/ and locate the “iPhoto library” file

    Right-click and select “Show Package Contents”

    Navigate to “Masters” or “Originals” to find your original iPhoto pictures

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