Digital photos may not take up much space on your family’s hard drive, but I’m willing to bet they are a significant inducer of headaches every time you click over to that pesky “My photos file” on your family computer. I’m no fortune-teller, but I would predict with some confidence that that particular file has become a bit of a photography black hole – where all photos go and no one comes out of. Am I right? A few weeks back I featured on this blog my photoshoot with organizing expert Rachel Rosenthal of Rachel and Company and she recently held a webinar on organizing your digital life. This got me thinking about digital photos in particular and how this is one area of organization that I know many of my own clients struggle with.

photo of organizing expert Rachel Rosenthal by Julie Kubal

No, I’m not here to photo-shame you, but I can offer some easy tips for bringing order to your digital photo files. Here is what I recommend:

How to Organize Digital Photos


Step 1: Create a gathering place

The first step in creating a clean slate is to clean up the mess that already exists. That means, gathering together all your photo files into one place. Now, if the very mention of that idea brings tears to your eyes you can also approach it with baby steps: organize one hard drive, then download files from the camera, then collect images off of USB drives and cell phones etc. That’s a perfectly valid approach. Just know that eventually all your family photos should reside in the same place.

Washington DC family photograph

Step 2: Create a filing hierarchy

The subject matter and nature of your digital photos will ultimately determine how you organize them. Unless you exclusively photograph specific subject matter – food, landscapes, buildings, etc. – I recommend creating a chronological filing system. Here’s how to do that:

  • Create a folder for each year.
  • Within that year, create a folder for each month as well as a series of subject folders that identify certain themes.
    • Far too often people get hung up on their own perfectionism, “I wasn’t sure exactly what month I took that picture, so I didn’t file it at all…” Forget about 100% accuracy, all you’re trying to do is leave a bread crumb trail that you can follow back to find the image you need. After all, it’s far more likely that you’ll be searching for “Jimmy’s first day of school” versus “September 19th, 2010”
    • Subject folders can include things like family gatherings, friends outings, holidays, celebrations, vacations, pets, and a file for each family member’s miscellaneous portraits.
  • If you’re like me and have so many photos that they can’t easily be divided by subject matter and you already have them organized by date, you can also try adding an identifying keyword to the folder.
  • If you have multiple family members taking and storing photos on the same hard drive you can simply add their initials to the beginning of the folder name.
  • I organize my folder date by photographer’s initials, year, month, day, keyword (initials_YYMMDD_keyword). For example, the folder with the photo below from a weekend trip in 2012 is labeled: JK_120407_Cape_Charles


Step 3: Get backed up and stay that way

Once a file is deleted or corrupted it is often gone for good. That is why the one critical principle to backing up photos is to always – ALWAYS – have your images in a two places at once. Better yet, make it three and have one of those two places offsite from your home. That protects you from wind, rain, and hardware havoc of all kinds. You should invest in an external hard drive or use a cloud storage system (though cloud storage is often extremely limited in the amount of free space you can access), or both!


Step 4: Create a download regimen 

Now that you’ve successfully brought order to the your digital photo chaos, it’s time to put yourself on a plan – a structured regimen that will ensure you never again allow your photo file organization to go awry again. The first step to establishing an organized photo regimen is to take into account all your photo-taking devices (cameras, smart phones, tablets etc.), have your designated photo gathering place, and be honest about how often you can actually sit down and do a strategic “camera dump.” Photo files become living nightmares because we allow months upon years upon decades of files to fester in a virtual pig pen. If however, we take an hour or so every couple weeks to download and organize them, we can avoid having to dig ourselves out of a disorganized hole far less often. If you’re ready to get on a digital photo regimen, here are the questions you need to answer:

  • What devices do I need to download from?
  • Where will I download to?
  • How frequently will I do a universal download?
    • Weekly?
    • Biweekly?
    • Monthly?
    • Bimonthly?
  • Is this a task I need to do myself, or is it something that I can delegate to my spouse/ children?
  • Am I equipped to create a new backup after every download session?
    • If not, go back to Step 4 and set yourself up with a backup system.

Whatever regimen you decide to stick to – whether it be biweekly or monthly camera downloads – make sure you’re being realistic.  Nothing is more disheartening than setting yourself up for a task that is impossible to complete from the outset.


Step 5: Enjoy your digital photos

This is the step that no one focuses on yet I think it is probably the most important one. It takes a lot of courage to clean up your digital photo mess and it takes a lot of dedication to stick to a download regimen, but the thing that makes it all worth it is the joy (yes – joy!) that comes from being able to actually use your photos rather than hiding from them in shame. Need a picture of your kid’s first birthday party? Click. A portrait of grandma and grandpa for a school project? Click, click.

Your filing system should be intuitive, easy to access, and consistent throughout the years so that the next time you need to hunt down a particular picture, you know exactly where to look.

By the way, if you’re ready to tackle another organizing challenge, Rachel is hosting another webinar tomorrow, April 1st at 12pm EST titled “Taking Power Over Your Paper.” I’m looking forward to getting her help with this very subject in my own office very soon!


Have you tried to organize your digital files before? What is one strategy that worked well for you? Have a questions? Tell me in the comments section below!


Julie Kubal family portraits Washington D.C.


About the Author:

Julie Kubal is a child and family portrait artist and photographer serving Washington DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia. She is passionate about creating warm and meaningful artwork through modern portraits and lifestyle photography at a location of your choice!