7 Essential Tips for Photo File Organization and Storage

how to organise photos

Let’s face it: creating and editing photos is much more fun than managing the files. However, digital file management is essential to the practice of photography, and in this article, we’ll look at seven essential tips for how to organize photo files and how to store them.

how to orgnize photos

If file management is not your favorite thing, you are not alone. Some of the most accomplished photo enthusiasts and professional photographers struggle with it.

But ignoring it will not make it go away; the longer you wait to tackle the task, the bigger and more complicated it will become.

If it helps, know this: you do not need a computer technology or organizational management degree to build a practical and intuitive file management solution. All you need is quiet time, a pencil, a piece of paper, and a willingness to do independent research.

Reasons to get organized

If photography is your business, consider file mismanagement a business liability. Suppose you get a call from an existing business client. The agency wants to license one or two of your old images for an upcoming magazine article. You can’t find the files.

When you finally do, they are no longer interested.

how to organise and store photos

There is plenty of justification for developing a consistent import-export workflow and a structured photo file management storage system.

It is cheap insurance, good for business, and will save hours of endless file searching. Moreover, a comprehensive system will decrease the risk of accidental file deletion, prevent unintended file duplication, and minimize the risk of file corruption.

Photo file organization and management strategies

Before diving into the seven essential tips, understand that the best file management system for you is one designed by you.

organise your photos

You can consult a computer guru to help you make sense of hardware choices. You can watch experts on YouTube to learn how to execute the import and export process best, but you must be the architect of the file storage design.

Your logical thought process must be built into the system.

Use the tips presented here as the raw material to build your personal system.

1. Identify a dedicated storage location

Your photo files are special, so cherish, protect, and store them in a special place. Avoid file commingling. Identify a dedicated section on your hard drive just for photo files.

A better choice would be to store your files on an external hard drive or a cloud server service. This physically separates them from other computer hard drive files.

External hard drive options

There are a variety of external hard drive storage choices: solid-state drive (SSD) versus hard disk drive (HDD), small portable drives versus big desktop drives, small capacity versus large capacity, and standalone single disk drives versus multiple disk RAID (redundant array of independent disks) systems.

Which is right for you depends on your workflow, storage capacity needs, redundancy requirements, and your budget.

So, before buying an external drive, do some research. Determine your storage needs (see Calculate file storage capacity needs below). Investigate operating system compatibility, file transfer speeds, security-encryption options, and physical wire connection requirements.

how to organise and store photo files

If you intend to connect it to multiple devices, for example, a desktop computer, a portable computer, and a tablet, be sure the external hard drive you select is compatible.

Favored portable external drive makers include LaCie, Western Digital, and Seagate. Storage capacities for these standalone single-drive devices range from 500 GB to about 5+ TB.

Popular large-capacity RAID external hard drive manufacturers include Promise Technology, Inc., Western Digital G-RAID, and LaCie. These large hardware devices have capacity ranges from 8 TB to more than 50+ TB!

As you investigate options, expect a wide price range for external drives. Drive type, storage capacity, read/write speeds, redundancy, and file recovery capabilities, security and encryption tools, and a user-friendly interface access influence price. Review features and compare costs.

Read more: The Best Way to Back Up Your Photos – How to Store Images Safely

Cloud storage services

Alternatively, you might want to consider a cloud storage service like  Microsoft’s OneDrive, Apple’s iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, Carbonite, or Backblaze

There are several advantages to using a cloud service. It will save space on your desk and allow remote access to files when away from the home office. It also eliminates the possibility of losing files due to a home office hard drive failure, a fire, a flood, or theft.

Cloud service costs are based on the storage capacity you purchase and the features offered. Before buying, shop and compare. If you already have an external hard drive, cloud services are ideal for use as a redundant backup.

Hardware sketch

It is time to grab a piece of paper and sketch some hardware structure options. For example, your laptop computer attached to a single standalone external drive. Or a desktop connected to a cloud storage service.

Even a structure with a RAID external drive and a cloud storage service connected to your desktop computer.

2: Calculate file storage capacity needs

There is no magic formula for determining how much storage capacity you will need a year or two from now. However, there are a few ways to estimate your future needs.

Why not just buy more external drives as you need them? Here are some practical reasons.

how to organise photos

First, buying a big-capacity external drive from the get-go is generally cheaper when you compare the cost per gigabyte or terabyte.

Second, adding drives periodically means more hardware on the desk, more connecting wires, and potentially slower file transfer speeds. Besides, the ultimate goal is to have all your files in one place!

Buying more storage space than you need is wasted money. But if you are like most photographers, empty disk space rarely goes unused for very long!

Here is a suggestion for estimating future file storage capacity needs.

  1. Calculate your current photo file storage usage. Computer operating systems have tools for seeing a drive’s capacity, how much is being used, and how much is still available. Moreover, these same tools also allow you to see capacity at the folder level.
  2. Calculate how long it took to accumulate your current file capacity. Divide the total capacity accumulated by the number of years to find your average per year accumulation.
  3. This next part is subjective; guess whether you will accumulate files faster, slower, or at the same rate over the next two to four years. Technology changes quickly, and therefore, a four-year estimate is sufficient. A completely new and different storage system may come along by then!

Be sure to think about photo file size and format. If you currently capture in JPG format but intend to begin capturing in RAW, the RAW files will require more storage space. If you capture a RAW and JPG version in the field, expect a larger file storage need.

Top tip: If you currently use a small image sensor camera but intend to switch to a full-frame or medium format camera, these files will be larger, and you should increase your storage capacity estimate!

Whatever your final estimate of terabytes needed, add ten percent as a buffer!

3: Brainstorm a paper file structure plan

If you have ever been asked to retrieve something someone else has filed, you understand logical thought processes can differ from person to person!

It is time to design a file folder structure that will be intuitive to you.

Grab a blank piece of paper and get ready to sketch your file storage design.

Let’s assume you are focused on nature and landscape photography. (if you focus on wildlife or dabble in multiple genres, the principles offered here can be applied too).

Think about subcategories or subfolders for this genre. For example, if landscape is your focus, subcategories might include nature, waterfalls, abstracts, macro, seascapes, and even the night sky.

There is no end to the number of sub-subfolders you could create to continue subdividing the files. But that does not make a lot of sense. Use keywords to achieve this task instead.

Think of keywords as embedded search tags. Every major photography software allows you to create and assign keywords. Keywords can be added to files during the import, editing, and export processes.

Moreover, you can create individual lists of keywords for specific genres like landscape. Keywords have a significant practical benefit.

photo file storage tops
Simple file structure version

For example, you need to find and print a specific portfolio image. You know it is a landscape image. Further, you know it is a seascape. It was taken in Bandon, Oregon. It was an ocean sunset shot of sea spires.

To find it, navigate to your file folder structure. Look for the landscape folder. Then, find the seascape subfolder. If you keyword-tagged the image, search this folder for one or more of the keywords you assigned: Bandon, Oregon, Sea Spire, Ocean, Sunrise, etc.

This will quickly narrow the list of files to review.

Do a little brainstorming and make a list of keywords. For example, general and specific locations, the season of the year, weather conditions, and night sky phenomena.

Having too many keywords assigned to a file is better than too few. And remember, keywords can be added, subtracted, and updated whenever you wish.

Top Tip: The reality is photo files are either original RAW or edited portfolio files. As you begin to design your file storage structure, consider creating two big silos—one for original RAW files and one for edited portfolio files. The separation speeds up searches and allows you to back them up at different times and locations.

Here are a couple of file structure examples.

how to organise photo files

4: Standardize file import and export workflows

You now have a special hard drive designated for your photo files, a folder and subfolder file organization structure, and a list of keywords. It is time to build an import and export workflow that utilizes the system.

Mechanically, there are two primary methods for importing files from the camera. Many photographers import using a hardwire connected between the camera and the computer. Others use a memory card reader connected to the computer.

One method is not necessarily better than the other.

Most photographers import files through a software interface like Adobe Lightroom. Some photographers prefer to import files directly from the camera to their hard drive and bypass the software.

lightroom file import

No matter which import method you choose, executing the import task consistently is what is most important. Take the time to create a step-by-step import workflow process as a reference.

Before you begin a file import process, consider what types of images you will be importing. Does the memory card have files from a single genre, i.e., landscape? Or are there multiple genres on the camera card, some lifestyle, some portraits, etc?

If the card has various genre types, import genre batches.

Also, know which folder you plan to store each batch. For example, if the files are waterfall images, you will direct them to the landscape >>> waterfall subfolder. If a waterfall subfolder does not yet exist, you can create this subfolder during the import process.

how to organise photos

Finally, remember that the import process is the first opportunity to assign general keywords or tags. Be generous. You can always add, subtract, or change keywords during the editing and export processes.

Read more: All You Need to Know to Process a Raw File in Lightroom

5: Create file triage criteria

Most photographers take multiple exposures of a composition. For example, ten images with minor exposure or composition adjustments. This batch of photos will likely include a few out-of-focus, some not sharp where intended, and some significantly under or overexposed.

Keeping every file you take exponentially increases storage capacity needs. Hence, developing and implementing file triage criteria helps to identify files that should be saved and files that should be trashed!

All photo editing software programs have built-in rating systems. Some use a star rating system; others use colors; a few use different flags, and some include all of the above. Take advantage of these rating systems. Rating systems are excellent visual references.

Before or after you import photo files, it is best practice to review and rate each. The review aims to identify three categories of files: those worthy of editing, those that may deserve a second look later, and those destined for the trash.

photo organization

But what criteria do you use to make these decisions? Start with easy-to-apply objective criteria. For example:

  • Focus and sharpness. Is the photo subject in focus? Is it sharp where you intended it to be sharp?
  • Histogram. Is the histogram editable? Can highlights be recovered? Can shadow detail be recovered?
  • Best composition. Of all the similar images captured, is this image the best composition of the group?

Whether you use these criteria or develop your own, discipline yourself to apply them every time you import. Build a corresponding rating designation, too.

For example, give an image one star if it is in focus and sharp. Give it a red dot if it is not. If the histogram is well-balanced, give it a second star. If it is marginal, skip the star and give it a yellow dot. If this image is the best composition of the group, give it a third star and a green dot.

There are a hundred variations you could create.

Once you have triaged all of the images, it will be abundantly clear which files deserve to be edited, which will be saved for future review, and which will be trashed.

Most photographers become more self-critical over time and often take fewer images as they gain technical and practical experience. This maturing process generally leads to more refined triage criteria, and often, fewer files are saved.

Read more: Flagging Photos in Lightroom for a Quick Workflow

6: Export parameters that preserve high-quality files

File editing can be arduous, especially if you use multiple software programs to tweak to perfection. Maintaining and protecting these best-quality final files requires understanding file format, sizing, and resolution parameters.

how to organise photo files

Many articles and tutorials have been written about the best file export parameters. Read related articles and watch tutorials with an open mind. Below are some generic best practice recommendations.

The export workflow and parameter recommendations offered here are intended to produce the highest-quality file possible.

Metadata and keyword assignment

If you didn’t assign keywords during the import process, here is another chance. Before you initiate the export process, add keywords to the file. In Adobe Lightroom, this is easy to do in the Library tab view.

Next, review the metadata section. In Lightroom, you will find this in the Library tab view. This is your chance to add your contact information, copyright, file title, caption, and more. Think of metadata as stamping your file with personal provenance data.

Read more: Embedding Metadata Into Original Source Files in Lightroom

Export to a safe storage location

One of the first decisions when exporting an edited file is where to store it.

where to store photo files

These coveted, best-quality files deserve a special place. Store them separately from the original RAW files. This gives them special status and decreases the likelihood of accidental deletion.

Title and unique identifier

Consider giving exported final files a title. But be aware over time, image titles can be mistakenly reused. So, consider assigning each portfolio image a special unique identifier. For example, Smith Rock Sunrise 23001LND850C.

landscape photography workflow

In this case, the unique identifier can be translated to mean that the photo was taken in 2023, and the image is the first (001) of the year. The ‘L’ signifies it is a landscape genre photo. ND850 means it was taken with a Nikon D850 camera. The ‘C’ indicates it is a color photo.

Unique identifiers can be especially helpful if you advertise and sell photographs. If the identifier accompanies the image, there can be no mistake about which image is being ordered or requested.

File export parameter recommendations

The export process requires making some specific file export attribute choices. For example, file format type, image size measured in pixel width and height, and a pixel per inch resolution.

The TIFF file format will often provide the highest quality file that can be recalled and re-edited. Always export or save the file at its native full size – pixels by width and height. This is usually the pixel size of the camera’s image sensor.

how to store photo files

It is recommended that files be exported and saved at 300 pixels per inch resolution. These choices ensure the file you export will be stored at its best quality.

Other export parameter choices include selecting a color space, bit depth, and whether to compress the file or not. Generally, Adobe RGB 1998, 16-bit depth, and no compression are the best choices.

The above recommendations increase the file size compared to a lower-quality JPG file. However, exporting and saving edited files in the best-quality configuration has many benefits.

For example, if you intend to print a file, the best-quality files will produce the best results and allow larger print sizes.

Also, upsizing a file exported that was saved as a low-quality image is problematic. Reversing the process results in imperfections and limits printing options.

organizing photo files

If you intend to share the image on social media or via email, a small, less-quality version is preferred or even required. It is easy to export a second, smaller, lower-quality file. But first, export a high-quality version!

It might be helpful to give the lower-quality file a different designation. For example, add the word ‘web’ or ‘social’ to its title to help differentiate it.

Export workflow summary

First, add keywords and modify the metadata. Remember, assigning keywords to your file can make life much easier later.

how to organise photo files

Adding additional metadata to the file during the export process, like your name, contact information, copyright, etc., helps to establish provenance and ownership. All photo editing software allows access to and modification of file metadata.

Click the export button and expect a dialogue window with many choices. Slowly and deliberately make your choices about file format, color space, bit depth, image size, and pixel-per-inch resolution.

There may be other options, but these are the crucial decisions.

7: Annual review: system design and need for backup

You will change how you take photographs over time. As you do, your file organization and storage needs will change, too.

Therefore, it is a good idea to set aside some time once a year to review your import and export workflows, file organization structure, and storage hardware capacity needs.

  • Is it time to change the file import workflow?
  • Are you consistently using file review and triage criteria?
  • Is it time to change the criteria?

A practical method of testing your file organization structure is to recall a photo you took months ago. See if you can find it. Explore your folder structure and do a keyword search.

file storage photography
  • Take a moment to check each storage hard drive.
  • How much space has been used, and how much is remaining? Is it time to acquire more?
  • Do you have your files backed up on a separate drive? If not, ask yourself, what would happen if my hard drive fails?
  • Do you have software capable of recovering the files? Is it time to consider purchasing cloud storage space for file backup?

In conclusion

Your photo files are one-of-a-kind precious items. A comprehensive photo file organization and management strategy helps to protect and preserve files. It also improves working efficiency.

Isolating files separate from non-photo files decreases the risk of file corruption and unintended deletion.

Purchasing storage hardware or cloud service should be based on current and future capacity needs, ease of integration with your existing computer system, features offered, and cost.

A well-designed file folder structure improves working efficiency, making file retrieval easier and reducing the risk of file mishaps.

An established file import workflow promotes file review and triage and keeps files organized. Understanding and developing a file export system that supports saving the highest-quality files will pay future dividends.

Don’t wait another day. Create a photo file organization and management strategy. But remember, the system you build is only as good as its current usefulness. Review it annually and make changes to protect and preserve your most valuable asset, your files.

Visit Steve's website

Steve J. Giardini is a Bend, Oregon-based creative photographer, writer, speaker, teacher, workshop leader, mentor, and coach. His mostly natural world images are consciously composed and subjectively finished to match his expressive state of mind. Steve strives to be relevant in photography’s nature and landscape field and to create meaningful, color and black and white archival photographs.

Download our free ebook
Grab Our FREE eBook!

Get our best tutorials sent straight to you, and enjoy a copy of "10 Ways to INSTANTLY Improve Your Nature Photos".

Get Free Ebook