Organizing Images

Hello all! I have the most basic of questions - I need sorting and cataloging advice - like where to start.

As I begin a pivot to the nature and contemplative work I’ve always loved and created (but never did anything with) it’s time to change that. But I’m overwhelmed with the sheer number of unorganized folders, files (and yes, negatives) that reside on my server and various external hard drives. I don’t even know where to begin to sort, edit and catalog what I have. I’ve been a portrait photographer for 30 years so sorting client images is simple. Sigh. I’m open to any suggestions and advice.

Hi Cheryl! Outdoor Photographer had a nice 4-part series on organizing your photos. It focuses on Lightroom, but other editing/cataloging tools have similar capabilities. You have to be a “Member” to have access, which costs $3.99 per month - there is a 14 day free trial.

Here is the address for the first article -

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Cheryl, you will probably get different answers from everyone who chimes in (since I have yet to meet two photographers who catalog files the same way)… which may simply muddle things even more. :wink:

Are you asking for suggestions on folder hierarchies and naming conventions, or something more along the lines of what software and hardware to use… or both?


THank you Max, actually for organizing - folder hierarchies and naming or how folders are organized (by topic or place, etc), not necessarily hardware or software unless there’s something I’m not aware of - I am assuming Lightroom would be the right software?

Thank you, I will check it out!

Tons of people use Lightroom. However, I’ve used PhotoMechanic for organization for a long time. It was a favorite with sports photographers back in the day when I first got serious about my photography. It’s inexpensive, fast, and has always done everything I needed when it comes to cataloging.

As for folder structures, to each his own, but here’s how I do it:

My folders are organized by location and year… if certain trips don’t produce a ton of images and I have more than one visit to a location in a given year, I will combine multiple trips’ worth of photos into a single master folder for that location/year.

For example, I’m working on my yellowstone20spring folder now, featuring images taken during my two week outing in June. Previously, I created a yellowstone20win folder from my two week outing in January. My first download to each of these folders would’ve been around 10,000 photos, which was ultimately whittled down to 1000-1500 following my first cull. That’s enough images that I wouldn’t want to combine them into a single “Yellowstone 2020” folder (and who’s to say I won’t be back in the park later in the year), but I have had years when I’ve combined images from 2-3 park visits into a single master folder. Same thing with my Pacific Northwest outings (which are generally shorter and produce fewer images)… they usually just go into a single “PNW YearNumber” folder.

Inside each of these master folders, I have an “originals” folder (RAW files), as well as separate “print,” “web,” and even “videos” folders if I record the latter. I know some photographers that just process at print resolution and upload those large files to the web. I prefer to keep my web files small (which is why my posts here on NPN are usually smaller than others’ posts).

As a result, I do end up with a number of master folders for the same location stretching over several years. Yellowstone, my most-visited locale, now has 40 different folders. Seemingly too many, but a) I can still usually remember when I took a certain picture, and b) I can always do a quick search in Photo Mechanic to narrow down what I’m looking for.

I keyword and rename (subject/month/year/location/number… e.g., beargrizzly0517ys1.cr2) all of my RAW files, which helps with searches, so while having 80-100 different trip folders may be clunky on the surface, finding images is a pretty smooth process. The downside? Keywording, renaming, titling and captioning (the latter of which I only do for web files) is a chore, and does take a bit of time.

Incidentally, you mentioned client images. Like you, I have my client photos—mainly sports stuff shot on assignment—organized by client (with event/year folders inside those master client folders).

Now wait for someone else to chime in and present a process that is totally different!


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If you have an adobe subscription I recommend bridge. You catalogue using the folders or directories on the computer you are using and bridge helps you quickly review raw files which you can import directly into camera raw.

I’ve always found that lightroom gets sluggish when the catalogue gets large but bridge always runs fast for me.

I do and I will look at Bridge, Thank you.

Lightroom is a great organizational tool and I would have a couple ideas for you to explore.

  • Folders by location - This is how I organize (State > general location like Death Valley > more specific location if needed. In my opinion there is no reason to have folders named by date in Lightroom because you sort by date in the metadata search.
  • One folder with many collections - I believe this is what Scott Kelby does, everything goes into one folder and then you organize using collections or smart collections. The only bad thing about this approach is that you’re then locked into lightroom forever. If you ever decide to switch to something else you will have to re-organize everything.

There are infinite ways of organizing and ultimately it will come down to your needs, everyone will be totally different. Maybe locations don’t make sense for you, maybe the type of subject or style of photograph will work better. Just keep it simple because I guarantee you will change it all around someday! :smile:

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Thank you so much David! I have used my images for so many different things over the years and now it’s time to stop spending ridiculous amounts of time searching folders. Thank you for the “keep it simple” comment - I always overthink things. You and the others have great suggestions for me to find what will work for me. I appreciate your input.

Everybody organizes differently. Probably the most common is by date or by location. I prefer by location. Also, I second the motion to give Bridge a try. It is just a photo browser that mirrors what is on your hard drive, so reorganizing is easier. You don’t have to learn how to do it in Lightroom. Double clicking on a photo opens it in Photoshop.

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Thank you Tony, I so appreciate all the good information to run with!

I know I’m a complete newbie at this but I’ve been using folders in Dropbox. I have been organizing Bella’s pics by topic mostly - sky, water, flora, sunsets, but then I have some that are her unique style pics and I don’t know where to put those! LOL

Some of these suggestions are great and I’ll look into them.

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Since you said in another thread (if I read it right) that you are already using LR, it is powerful and so useful. It works directly with (lets you change) the folder structure on your HD, so it is completely flexible and fluid. That combined with its keywording is so powerful. Organizing is so individual, but LR lets you keep upgrading your organization as you move forward. You can have separate catalogs for Nature and other things, like maybe Family, Business, etc. It is easy to switch between them.

Thank you, Diane. You are right about the tagging and cataloging, I just need to take the time to do it for all the years of personal work.

And as an update, at the end of my billing cycle, I’m cancelling Adobe and reverting back to an older standalone version of LR and PS that still runs on Windows 10, and begin using Luminar to replace PS, which also has a sorting and catalog option. Since the recent debacle with Adobe deleting photographers’ images that weren’t in their CC - sadly unrecoverable (I wasn’t affected thankfully) but I realized that’s similar to what happened to me when PS updated last month - they deleted all my actions & quickkeys, also unrecoverable. Thankfully I always had copies of my older actions for when I updated my PS versions, but not recent ones. Who knew a simple update would decimate my workflow! Good thing I still had CS5 loaded to take care of what I needed to do at that moment until I could get my CC workflow set back up. An hour of Tech rooting around in my computer was not helpful.

Anyway, it’s confirmed my distrust in cloud services and reignited my desire to take back control and cut free from yet another subscription-based company having their hand in my pocket every month, even at $10.

I wasn’t aware of Adobe deleting images. I’ll have to check into it. I wouldn’t trust cloud-based storage. I’ve done the latest PS CC update and my actions are still there. But good to know about these canary-in-the-coal-mine things…

One major thing to know when using LR’s cataloging (and probably any others) is to set up a top level folder (just call it “Images” or the like) so you have overhead to move the folders below it around as tweaks to organization become desirable.

Hmm, good to know, I didn’t think about the top level folder. Thank you.
Here is the link to the article.

Hi Cheryl, you’ve probably already decided on an approach by now but assuming you’re still in need of guidance and ideas I suggest you visit He has free content as well as paid content and produces lots of stuff available on YouTube.
Also, for your non-digital images there is a company I use named

I’m switching to Bridge as well. My lightroom catalog got corrupted when my file transfer to an external drive aborted midway through the migration. A search on the internet tells me that catalog corruption is not unheard of and there is no recovery. I believe that Bridge has a catalog as well but it’s used for keywords.

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That is why I always backup my LR Classic catalog after every use not just every so many uses but EACH USE! Yes, you’ll get lots of catalog backups but they’re relatively small. By default Lightroom backups your catalog to to the computer drive but you can and should set them to save on the cloud or another hard drive or thumb drive. When you get too many you can delete the older ones every so often.

Remember, your catalog is not your images. Backing up the catalog does not backup your images. You should backup your images periodically too.