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If you are like everyone else on the planet you have a hard drive full of digital photos – and like everyone else you look at that drive and cringe in the way that you normally reserve for a really messy house and the thought that goes through your head is “I really have to get these organized… but how? Ugh. Later…”

I’m here to tell you 2 things – A) IT’S OK. and B) Actually, you can get this fixed up.

Here’s the two main ideas of this premise – A) you just need some sensible way to know where/when/what these photos are and B) portable 1 Terabyte (1TB) hard drives only cost about $69.00.

And guess what – you may have this organization issue with your personal photos – you also likely have it with your photos at work. You may even be the official digital archivist at your institution or business and you still have this issue. I’m here to tell you that ANY logical system of naming and organizing these assets is better than what you have going with endless folders names 20121104 and images named DSC_3456.jpg filling up your life.

What do I know about this? In the course of being a professional photographer and managing my design business Studio Two I have amassed an archive of over 1,000,000 images filling over 30TB of storage. I never delete any photos, and I manage thousands of historical photo assets for clients. I can generally find any image I need in less than a couple of minutes, usually in a few seconds.

The most important thing to remember is this – STORAGE IS FREE. Now, that’s not entirely true, but the repercussions of Moore’s Law have generally applied to digital storage as well – it gets cheaper, bigger and faster. At this point, considering the sub $100 cost of a terabyte USB drive, the price of storage is essentially irrelevant. You can use this to your advantage by allowing for redundancy and duplication in your archive.

So here’s what I do – adapt this to your scenario. The first thing I do is download the shoot from my camera to a temporary folder on my hard drive. I use PhotoMechanic by Camera Bits to manage my photo assets – it is the fastest photo browser I have ever found, hands down. You can drag the folder of new photos onto the PhotoMechanic icon in your application dock (on a mac – you can figure it out if you are PC user) – and it will instantly open up a contact sheet view of all the photos. Then I select the photos in a range (lets say you are a photographer working at a museum and you photographed 3 different subjects in one day – “moving a painting”, “construction progress on the West wing”, and “Children’s art workshop”) – select the range of photos (click on the first photo in the sequence and shift-click on the last and it will select all the intervening photos). Then hit command-M and you will get a window that says “rename photos” – this is the key step. What I do varies, and you can find your own system, but the most important thing is to use words in the photo name that will help you find it in the future. If date is a factor in sorting and managing the photos, I’ll do something like this as a name thread: “011216CLARKMonet_MoveKSPRA.” – what this tells me is that the photo was shot on January 12, 2016 for the Clark Art Institute, that it was about moving the Monet, and that I (kevin sprague:KSPRA) shot the photo. IN the dialog box there is an additional element that says “sequence” and below it “set {SEQN}variable – click on this and set it to “001” – now, when you hit the “rename” button, it will name the images in the sequence “011216CLARKMonet_MoveKSPRA.001.jpg, 011216CLARKMonet_MoveKSPRA.002.jpg,” etc…PHOTOMECHANIC

Renaming your files is key – at the end of the day until Google gets smart enough to do image-contextual search for us, words remain the fastest search elements on our systems – and words you can remember are the most useful. Also, keywording generally doesn’t work very well – if you can’t see it I find that your system can’t either. Skip keywording (for now) in favor of getting as many of your files named. Here’s another tip – yes, find a system for naming but don’t worry about it – do you have a folder full of pictures of a tree? Just name them something like “lenox_tree.001.jpg” – it will still be better than “DSC_1234.jpg”.

Once you name the sequences, then move them by batch (select all in the named range) and put them into folders in a hierarchical tree according to your needs. In my case, we sort by CLIENT>YEAR>DEPARTMENT>PROJECT>DATE or some variation like that. If you work for an institution you might sort by YEAR>DEPARTMENT>PROJECT>DATE. So if we look at our previous example you might have a folder system for the museum that shows 2013>Curatorial>West Wing>021216 Monet Move. I go one step further and create a new folder at the last phase called “raw” or “unedited” into which I stick my unedited shoot files. Once I edit the best ones and clean them up, they go into a folder at the same level called “selects” – I can go back years later into the selects folder and know that I am pulling from the best shots from the shoot – but if for some reason I am looking for a different angle I can still go look in the raw folder. Like I said, I never throw anything out. Here’s a look at my file structure:

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 8.35.04 AM

The date shorthand I use saves a TON of time – 021512 i2 february 15, 2012. So much easier. In my file names I usually use an underscore between words if needed as it makes them more web and cross platform friendly – avoid weird characters like “$,&,#” and blank spaces in file names.

“Pixels are cheap – life is expensive.” – Sprague

Ok – and here’s the last thing. It is OK to make copies of your photos based on content. For instance, lets say you were shooting a portrait of the Executive Director and at one point you notice that the sky is looking fantastic – so you shoot a few photos of the sky, and then back to the portrait. What do you do with these when you get back to your desk? What I do is rename the sky photos something like “050115sky.001.jpg” and I copy them into a folder I have strictly for “sky” photos. In this case date or year is mostly irrelevant – I include it in the file name so I can remember the context of when I shot it – but I can throw 500 different sky photo into a general folder called “sky” and forget about them till I need one. If I wanted to I could copy some of them to another folder called “clouds” or “birds” depending on my interests. I have folders on my system for “trees”, “water”, “sky”, “flowers” – they become catch-alls for these kind of things. If I am shooting for an institution, I might have similar folders for “groups”, “tours”, “audience” – where I can throw the outtakes that might prove super-useful in next year’s annual report.

So – here is what you should do:

  • Buy some big hard drives. Do NOT let budget get in the way of this.
  • Download and license a copy of Photo Mechanic
  • Start renaming your files. Now.
  • Start sorting them redundantly into a hierarchy of folders
  • Repeat.
Sprague Studio Admin

Author Sprague Studio Admin

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Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • ksprague says:

    Woot! Thanks to Seth Rogovoy at for calling attention to the post. FYI – there’s been some online discussion with other photographers about alternate short-date code strategies for renaming – Gregory Cherin, Photographer, suggests leading with the year – ie., 130112 – which would be January 12, 2013. This would keep the albums in chronological order. On the other hand, my approach of doing it 011213 means that when I look in the folder I see multiple years of photos arrayed by calendar month – which is useful when you have years and years of photos of snowstorms – all of which happened in 01/02/03 moths….! Enjoy – Kevin

  • Larry says:

    I currently use Adobe PS Elements for organizing and editing my photos, but the folders, tabs, etc do not seem to be preserved in the metadata when transferred from my external drive to another hard drive. Your system will solve that problem, I presume. Thanks! However, if I still want to use Elements for editing, how would I proceed after your naming process?


  • Michael says:

    All my photos are in iPhoto
    Do I do anything different?

    • ksprague says:

      In iphoto apple does a lot of the organizing for you but I don’t like that it puts the photos into a folder you “can’t” see in the finder. Two tricks. One – in iPhoto you CAN rename your files – after each import, select a batch of photos and then in the menu Photos>batch Change>Set Title+Text and you can enter your desired renaming string and it will renumber the photos accordingly. Also, if you ever want to just “get to the photo” itself – select a single image and then go to File>Reveal in Finder – that way you can get to the original image and edit it in photoshop or whatever you want to do with it.