Get your act together to organize pictures now using one of these four methods and save time and frustration down the road.

A local business calls and asks if you have some images they could use in an advertisement.  They’ve seen your work and are interested in a beautiful sunset shot on the river from a few weeks ago.  Or was it a sunrise on the lake a few months ago?  Would you be willing to send them a few examples so they could purchase some one time rights, they ask.  Absolutely, you say.  Now you just need to find the image.  If only you had created a better system to organize pictures this request would be a snap!

A few minutes spent planning and setting up a file organization system means time saved on the back end of editing and delivering photos as well as peace of mind that you are in control of your photo files.  Get the rundown on four different file organization systems and get inspired to get your own stuff together and organize your photos!

Using the hard drive vs. using Lightroom

I do most of my editing through Lightroom with a smattering of Photoshop if needed.  But the bulk of my file organization starts and ends with the file folder structure on my hard drive itself before I ever fire up Lightroom.  This is my personal choice for a few reasons, namely because it’s a habit and because I want to import images onto my drive and get them backed up without actually opening Lightroom.  And if you don’t use Lightroom, the following photo organization structures will still work for you.

If you do use Lightroom, remember that once you’ve pulled your images into a catalog, any changes you make to those images need to be done through Lightroom (renaming, moving, etc.,) or Lightroom won’t be able to find the files.

What folders do you need?  What files do you keep?

Take a few minutes and brainstorm all the different kinds and groups of files you have or create.  That might include RAWs, High Resolution JPEGs, JPEGs sized for social media, JPEGs size for sneak peaks, JPEGs sized for your website, images cropped for specific print sizes, JPEGs intended for albums, videos, product s, marketing material, images for vendors, etc.?  Do you need images to create sample products like canvas or metals?  Do you need images for your marketing material?  Write down all of those needs now.  Keep this list handy because I’ll have you refer back to it in a few minutes.

Method #1 – Organize pictures by date (my method)

What are the best folder names for your images?  There are several different naming conventions and methods.  I’ll walk you through four of those, including how I manage my images, which is to organize pictures by date.

I began by creating a Lightroom Catalog on my external hard drive through Lightroom.  I use a single Lightroom catalog for whatever current hard drive I’m working on.  You can name this whatever you want, as long as it has the correct Lightroom extension.  After the my initial catalog is created, I leave it alone.  That will be my catalog and where I organize ALL the images on that drive from here on out.

After that initial catalog is created, I begin with a folder for the year, then create subfolders for each month.  I add numerical identifiers to each month so that my computer keeps them in chronological order.  This is just a personal quirk…I just find it easier to find a folder if it’s listed chronologically vs. alphabetically.  So my 2019 folder structure looks something like this:

How to Organize Photos for Professionals

From there, I organize my shoots by month.  Each time I import photos, they go into their own event or client folder within that month.  Again, I give them a numerical date code in addition to an alphabetical name.  I tend to think along linear lines so marking them with dates works for me.  My January folder then looks like this, where 03 is the day of the month I shot them.

Best Names for Folders

Method #2 – Organize pictures by client or job

If you aren’t one for chronological order and think in terms of client or job instead of by date, this method might be for you.  You would start by creating a folder with your client’s name or the job’s name, skipping any further reference of date.

Method #3 – Organize pictures by the style of photography

If you tend to organize your business according to the different genres that you shoot, consider organizing by style of photography.  First categorize by the different types of work you do, like Family Portraits, Newborn, Weddings, Events, Product, etc.  Then you would have folders for each client under those types of photography.

Method #4 – Organize pictures through Lightroom

The first three methods of file organization were done outside of Lightroom.  But Lightroom can be your only means of organizing your files.  You can import your images directly into Lightroom from your memory card and build your folders that way.  After you import and/or edit your images, you can create collections and collection sets of your sessions and the different types of images you want.  You can also mark your files in several different ways, including flagging, ranking or color coding.

For more information on organizing your Lightroom Catalog, click here!

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The Final Folders – Your Last Workflow Stop

Grab that list you made earlier because it is time to put it to use.

My list of subfolders is where I save the most time with a good organization system.  Well, I do now.  I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of looking for a particular image more than once only to emerge 45 minutes later frustrated and angry at myself.  Hence, this system.

When I import my files, I create additional subfolders within each client’s folder.  I like to keep my RAWs separate from my JPEGS or other files I will need or create.

My folder for a job shooting youth basketball portraits has three subfolders inside of it: RAW, Hi Res JPEG, Products and Gift Prints.

  • RAWs contains my RAW files directly from the camera.
  • Hi Res JPEGS contains the final edited JPEGS. (I add Hi Res on there because occasionally I’ll shoot JPEGs and RAWs simultaneously and want to make sure I’m not confusing the two.)
  • Products contains the final JPEGs for products like tickets, memory mates, magnets and trading cards. It’s not a folder I use all the time, but find it helpful for schools, sports teams or dance teams if I’m offering customized products.
  • Gift prints is where I put any images I’ve sized to deliver as gift prints or products as a client thank you.  For this job, it was branded 4×6 “outtake” team photo for each player.

This is where you’ll employ some of those file type ideas you wrote down earlier.  Create folders for how you’ll use the images in the last stage of your journey to organize pictures.

How do I save my images on my computer or hard drive?

Once my folders are set up how I want them, then it’s time to pull my images onto the computer.  I do this outside of Lightroom directly onto my external hard drive.  From there, I will rename them using a similar numerica-alpha code that the folder has.  In my sports example, my files are all 1-20 SE Youth Basketball Boys (XXXX).jpg.

Again, I do this outside of Lightroom.  I find it’s faster if I don’t go through the software and it’s easier for me to organize files into folders.  Once my files are on my external hard drive and organized and I’m ready to edit, then I will import them into Lightroom to begin editing.

The Importance of Keywording

I don’t depend soley on Lightroom to organize pictures, but I do use it for many of its other amazing features.  One of the biggest benefits of Lightroom for me is keywording.  I spend just a few seconds during each importing typing out keywords because it pays huge dividends down the road.  I keyword with the year, month, client name and other descriptive words. Including the location, type of shoot, technique or anything special about the shoot.  Keywords for a family shoot might be 2019, January, Michaels, family portraits, snow, children, Lingle, Power Plant, teens, tweens.

Keywording is the stop gap between my organization system and my memory.  I might not remember what I called the folder when I shot antelope on the side of the road one day or when I shot it.  But by using keywords in Lightroom, I can almost always find a photo quickly and easily.

After the Edit

When I’m done editing my images, I export my final images into the High Res JPEG folder.  If you are posting these to an online gallery hosting site like Shootproof or Smugmug, you can choose to skip the step of exporting High Res JPEGS to your hard drive, instead using the Lightroom plugin to upload directly to your gallery hosting.  That way you aren’t cluttering up your hard drive with files you won’t need.  I find that I often need to access those high resolution JPEGs again for different reasons, however, so I go ahead and export them to my hard drive first, then upload to Shootproof.

This is also when I export images for my website and for social media.  I choose 1 or 2 of the best images and export them to a folder for potential inclusion on my website portfolio.  That way, when I need to update my site, I have a folder of potential images ready to go.  I spent several days last month overhauling my website and a lot of that time was wasted hunting down images and exporting them in the size I need for my website.  After some online research, I realized this was a step I had overlooked in my workflow and had created unnecessary work for myself.  I also export 4-6 images to a social media folder so I’m ready to blog or share a session on Facebook or Instagram with properly sized images.

Find the list you made again.  What types of final products do you need?  Grab that list now and export for each of those needs at once, saving them into their own subfolders within the client’s folder or to a general folder you’ll use later (website, portfolio).  Export what you need for social media, albums, products, gift prints, etc.

A few other thoughts on photo organization

Handling Personal Files

My personal photos are often fair game for use in my business, either as examples of my work or as accompaniments to my blog, so they are handled and organized in the same way.  I also try to download images from my phone into this file system fairly regularly.  That way, ALL of my photos are in a single location, organized and backed up locally and to the cloud.

Organizing Weddings and Events

Weddings and other events require some additional organization.  These shoots result in hundreds, if not thousands, of images.  Not only is it hard for us to sort through as photographers, but it’s positively overwhelming for your client to view and sort through that many images.  A client doesn’t want to sort through 800 images looking for the one picture of grandma and the bride at the reception.  Adding additional folders and subcategories helps you both.

These types of job are going to require an extra step or two in the process to organize in a way that makes sense for your client.  A few important considerations:

  1. Capture time. Make sure you sort the images by capture time if you used more than one memory card.  This is an important step if you are using multiple cameras or multiple photographers.
  2. Organized timeline. Your client is going to think of the wedding or event in terms of how the day unfolded.  When you present the images to your client, they should be organized according to that timeline.  A bride will understand folders organized with titles like Getting Ready, Wedding Party Formals, Ceremony and Reception.  A state fair director, on the other hand, will want folders like Thursday Chancy Williams Concert or Saturday Market Beef.

Renaming Photos

Does the file name THM750_21321.NEF mean anything to you?  Me neither, other than I know the THM750 means it’s a file that came from my Nikon D750 and that it’s a RAW file.

Renaming your images on import is a great step to take because it is one more method of identifying and organizing your photos.  I use a YEAR-MONTH-DATE convention in conjunction with a descriptive term.  So the photos I shot last night at a local high school basketball game became 20190129_SEBasketball (01).NEF when they got pulled onto my drive.

Backing Up Your Photos

This isn’t a tutorial on backing up your photos or your files.  But do it.  Back up locally and to the cloud.  Memory cards, thumb drives and hard drives can and do fail.  I prefer a system that does it automatically so I don’t have to think about it.  For a more in-depth discussion of backing up your photos, read our tutorial.

Organize Client Photos

Consistency is Key

The first step to organizing photos and speeding up your workflow is to set up a system.  The second step is to actually implement that system EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.  I don’t care how genius your system is, if you don’t use it consistently, it’s not going to give you good results.

I’ve given you three methods of how to organize pictures, but there are others.  If you find another photographer that has a system that makes more sense to you, that’s awesome!  Replicate it and use it.  I don’t care if you organize by date, prefer to create a separate Lightroom catalog for every shoot or want to color code all your computer folders.  If it works for you, go for it.  But build a photo organization system that works for you, and then use it consistently.  You will save time and energy and become a efficient and happy photographer!

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