The Best Way to Organize Your Massive Photo Library

By Matthew Braga

For today's avid shooters, organizing a library of photos can be tough. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Years from now, we'll sit around the campfire, or some sort of digital facsimile, and tell stories. Scary stories. Stories where the protagonist actually stores stuff on hard drives, or takes pictures on a 24-exposure roll of film. Things that will seem practically archaic in our bright, jetpack-filled future.

That's kind of how things work today with digital photography. We've grown so accustomed to taking pictures with reckless abandon, so used to visually documenting every moment of our lives, that we've forgotten what it's like to be limited by a roll of film. As a result we have a lot of photos — no, really, we have a lot of photos. Those albums are scattered across our hard drives, mismatched, poorly named and utterly disorganized. Just a hunch, but it's probably time you whip those memories into shape.


Organization 101

 Look at that fancy organization. 
Every photo you put on your hard drive should be sorted by year, then month, and perhaps even day. Doing so solves the biggest problem you'll ever have when cataloging all those digital keepsakes, which is figuring out where the hell things are.

Creating a date-based hierarchy may sound like a no-brainer, but it's something many users overlook. If you've just come back from a fancy overseas trip, putting those photos into a folder called 'Europe' probably isn't the best idea. Maybe you've gone to Europe before, or maybe you're planning on going again — either way, you could have three more 'Europe' folders hidden across your drives before you know it. That just won't do.

"Import into separate folders for each date taken" 
Picasa is one tool you can use to put everything in its right place — and particularly ideal because of its cross-platform nature. Once installed, you'll want to let Picasa scour your drive for every picture you've ever taken, but with a couple of options in mind. It's crucial you import all those files into separate folders for each date taken, which will automatically place all your photos into that date-based hierarchy we just suggested. As a result, all those mismatched photos spread across multiple drives and locations are consolidated into one place, easily searchable, shareable and accessible for later use.

DIM is going to sort us some photos. 
Digital Image Mover is a small, java-based application that accomplishes a similar goal, without all the extra features of a full-fledged image library. Give it an input folder, tell it where it to spit out the results, and DIM can organize those old, neglected albums into something more manageable. Unlike Picasa, you'll have to scour your drive yourself for unruly images, but it's a simple alternative if you already know where everything is.

Once you have all your photos straightened out, however, there's still a bit more housecleaning you can do. Often times, cameras have a knack for giving your shots such non-descriptive filen ames as "Photo 112" or "Image_001". That's great for your camera, but a lot less practical for years of photos crammed into a folder. If you used DIM, your photos are automatically renamed when sorting them into their appropriate folders. Picasa, meanwhile, has a similar option called batch rename that should achieve a similar goal, inserting the date and time your photo was taken into the file name, making them easy to sort and identify at a glance.

Taking tags to a new level

It's not a coincidence that both me and Will named our dogs Chloe. 

We already use tags on everything from emails to blog posts, so it's only natural we extend that functionality to our photos as well. Most image organization software today has this capability built in, and we're going to take a brief look at two free options — Picasa and Windows Live Photo Gallery.

Tags on the right. Same sort of thing. 

However, tagging can get a lot more in-depth than that. Cameras store something called Exif data in each of your photos, which keeps track of things like the lens used, aperture settings and shutter speed. Combined, that metadata can give you a great idea of how a photo was taken, which makes it great for organizational purposes as well. While many applications allow you to use custom tags for the purpose of sorting, using a photo's built-in Exif information can be just as effective.

For simple organization, a free, java-based application called AmoK Exif Sorter does the job quite nicely. The app takes an input folder, and sorts your photos into new locations based upon EXIF data you specify. You can create folders that contain only wide-angle images, ones shot at a certain focal length, or nearly any other property of your choosing. It's not as elegant as other solutions, as it still requires moving your previously sorted images into entirely new folders, but it can be an easy way to temporarily sort through images, or get all those pesky camera phone photos out of your DSLR library.

Sorting photos based on aperture. 
Adobe Lightroom or Apple's Aperture, which both accomplish this goal in a more simple and streamlined fashion. You can specify entire collections or albums that only contain pictures with one particular quality, which is great if you're trying to create an album full of shots with a shallow depth-of-field, or other similar properties. Of course, neither of these options are free, but if you're serious about some of the organizational tips we've covered so far, they might be worth a look. 

Juggling Libraries

Chances are, you're more likely to access an image taken last month than last year on a regular basis. And of course, as anyone who's used something like iPhoto knows, libraries that large — spanning entire years even — can seriously slow a computer down. The trick is splitting that library up into a more manageable size.

 You can open multiple catalogs on the fly with Adobe's Lightroom — handy for those with gigantic photo collections.
you can set up an entirely separate, self-contained library for each year of photos you've taken, which makes sorting not only faster, but simpler to navigate as well.

Unfortunately, software like Picasa doesn't make this sort of thing easy, and the only way to maintain separate Picasa libraries is to do so manually. Google stores all it's application data in folder called Picasa (under Application Support/Google in OS X and Local Settings in Windows), so by storing alternate copies of these folders in a safe place, you could theoretically maintain multiple libraries by simply swapping those files around.

Meanwhile, Windows Live Photo Gallery doesn't require any sort of library or database, since all important information is stored in the files themselves. This makes transferring information simple, but greatly limits how you can work with a library of photos, especially when compared to more advanced software.

Whatever you choose, splitting up your gigantic library is good for more than just organization — it can be useful for backup purposes too. A self-contained photo library means its easy to move your old 2006 vacation photos to another drive entirely without losing your tags, ratings or other metadata information, and you can even access that information on another computer entirely. If you're feeling adventurous, you could even store your photos in one central place on your network, and use something like Dropbox to mirror that database to all your frequently used machines. It's the ultimate in redundancy, and ensures you'll never be away from your photos for long should disaster strike.

Have any other tips or methods for organizing, sorting or storing your photos? Let us know!
Lead image via Flickr user PJ Taylor Photo.