How to Manage a Digital Photo Library

Organising your digital photos using a simple folder structure synced to the cloud.

Posted by Andrew on 20 August 2015 | 9 minutes

The Growth of the Digital Photo Album

Over the past ten years I’ve taken over 7,000 photos; an average of two per day. This is far fewer than many of my contemporaries, but I’m proud of the few photos I do take so I like them to be organised. I like to share them with friends and family, in much the same way as my parents and grandparents were able to share their photo albums with me as a child.

Alas, for the best part of ten years, I struggled to manage my digital photos. I tried various applications, such as Picasa and iPhoto, yet, as my library grew, these apps slowed and faltered. Photos were lost and I spent more time exploring backups than I did perusing my digital memories. I searched far and wide for solutions, and all I found were others complaining of the same problems. By 2011 I realised that, if an appropriate solution didn’t exist yet, it probably wasn’t coming.

My Method

For the past few years I’ve been happily managing my photos using just a folder structure with cloud backup. It’s simple, effective, robust and allows me to share my digital memories with ease. All it takes is a little effort on a regular basis to collect photos from my various devices and process them in to the folder based system.

I’ll walk you through all the steps in a moment but, at a high level, my method is to:

  1. Collect recent photos from all sources (my iPhone, my camera, friends, family, etc).
  2. Review, edit and process the photos to a state that I’m happy to store them long term.
  3. Store them in a cloud synced folder for future retrieval.

Sound like it could work for you? Let’s dig in to the details.

1. Collect

The first step is to gather all recent photos together so they can be processed effectively. I use Dropbox’s camera upload feature to automatically collect all photos from my iPhone and camera in to a single folder. I then add any other photos I want to process to that same folder.

Once I have all the photos in one folder, I’m ready to review.

2. Review, Edit and Process

Reviewing can be as brief or as detailed as you choose. It depends upon how meticulous you are about your photos. I’m a bit OCD about correct times and straight horizon lines, so I’ll detail my steps as examples. You should add or remove steps from this section to best meet your needs.

2.1 Bulk Fix Date and Time

If your camera has an internet connection (i.e. a smart phone), this probably won’t worry you. Traveling across timezones with a plain old digital camera, I forget to update the time settings as I go and, as a result, my sunrises often occur at 10 PM… tomorrow.

I’m a stickler for accuracy so I bulk update the photo times. Many photo editing apps offer a bulk time adjustment feature. I use Picasa’s ‘Adjust Date and Time’ function, available from the ‘Tools’ menu. It’s fast and it immediately updates the original meta data.

2.2 Process

With my sunrises occurring at the correct time, it’s time to set about tweaking the images. I also use Picasa for this because it lets me update the original file (it makes a backup) rather than requiring me to import photos in to an app’s custom library. I’m not a fashion photographer and find that Picasa’s editing options are plenty sufficient for my needs.

I fly though my photos doing the following:

  • Delete - Cull photos that are duplicated, blurred, poorly exposed, etc. My rule here is: if I wouldn’t be proud putting it on the TV in front of family, it goes.
  • Fix Red Eye - Try as they might to reduce red eye (and give us epileptic seizures in the process), modern cameras are not infallible and red eye still happens from time to time. I fix up demon eyes with the click of a button.
  • Straighten - I detest crooked horizon lines (take some Dramamine before clicking that link), and you should to. If a horizon starts one inch from the bottom left and ends one inch from the top right then it’s time to straighten. Pronto.
  • Crop - That American tourist with a fanny pack protruding into frame simply needs to go. I crop them out. I personally like to crop to the same ratio as the original, but you can create a vertical wide-screen effect if you wish.

2.3 Fix Geotag

This is a geek step, and non-geeks may definitely skip ahead.

When I’m happy with the quality of my remaining photos I geotag them. Photos taken on most smart phones contain the GPS coordinates of the photo. This allows for some neat tricks like mapping out travels or watermarking the city name in slideshows.

If, like mine, your digital camera doesn’t have a GPS I recommend buying a copy of HoudahGeo to help you out. This fantastic app lets you select locations on a map and apply them to your photos with the click of a button. For the basic functions there’s really no learning curve, though it has a lot of advanced features that you can read all about in the manual.

2.4 Rename to Date and Time

This step may seem odd, but it’s critical to the way I organise my photos. As I describe in the next section, I store my photos in a reasonably shallow folder structure, and the naming convention I describe here helps keep them in order and allows me to find a particular event or photo with ease.

All camera brands have a different naming convention for photo files. Some use an incremental naming format, such as P0012345.jpg, while others use the date: 15082001.jpg. The net effect is that, when you combine them in to a folder sorted by name, the pictures appear in a jumbled mess.

I’ve overcome this by ensuring all my photos end up stored with a date-and-time-based naming convention of YYYY-MM-DD HH.MM.SS.jpg. For example, a photo I took this afternoon is named 2015-08-20 13.15.10.jpg. Assuming you fixed the date and time of your photos, as described above, they will appear in their folder sorted in the order they were taken. To me, this is the most logical order as it’s the way most people tend to browse a collection of photos.

There are plenty of apps to help you rename files based upon meta data. I use the aptly named File Renamer because it had the best image based renaming options at the time I was looking, and I’ve been happy with it ever since. (If you decide to buy it, I’ve shared the renaming rule I use which you can add to File Renamer using ‘Rule Manager’. This rule seems to lose the space separator, so remember to add a space between the date and the time after you’ve imported the rule.)

3. Store

Now that my photos are reviewed, edited and processed it’s time to pop them somewhere safe where I can browse and share them with ease. I use Dropbox, but any cloud service that syncs with a folder on your computer will do fine.

My folder structure, explained further below, is as follows:

+ Dropbox
|-+ Pictures
| |-+ Travel
| | |-+ 2006 Europe Trip
| | | |-- 01 France
| | | |-- 02 Italy
| | | |-- 03 Greece
| | | |-- 04 Eastern Europe
| | |-+ 2006 USA Trip
| | | |-- 01 East
| | | |-- 02 Central
| | | |-- 03 West
| |-+ Years
| | |-- 1990s
| | |-- 2000s
| | |-- 2010
| | |-- 2011
| | |-- ...
| | |-- 2015

To explain the above, I have a folder in Dropbox called Pictures. Inside, I split my photos in to two categories, Travel and Years.

|-+ Pictures
| |-+ Travel
| | |-+ 2006 Europe Trip
| | | |-- 01 France
| | | |-- 02 Italy

The Travel folder contains photos from all my trips. I have a folder for each trip, prefixing the year to the trip name so they are displayed in chronological order. If it’s a particularly big trip (in the example above, I was traveling for six months) I further break the trip folder down by region, prefixing an incrementing number to ensure each region folder appears in order.

|-+ Pictures
| |-+ Years
| | |-- 2000s
| | |-- 2010
| | |-- ...
| | |-- 2015

The Years folder contains all photos not related to a trip. It’s a happy mix of random photos, weekends away, family occasions, etc. Eschewing further folder structure means I can easily pull up an entire year and reminisce about the past. This wasn’t so meaningful when I was in my early 20s, but I now have a significant enough library that I can enjoy pulling up 2005 and pondering what I was up to a decade ago. As each decade passes I move its yearly folders in to a decade folder (à la “2000s”) to keep things tidy.

By syncing with Dropbox I’m confident that my photos are not just sharable, but also backed up in case anything happens to my computer. Though, if your photos are as precious to you as mine are to me, I recommend you don’t rely on just one solution for your backups - cloud providers are not infallible.

If you use Dropbox then Carousel is a great way to browse and share your photos. It even takes advantage of all that time spent geotagging, displaying collections of photos by location. I was stoked when they released it, as it integrates so seamlessly with the folder structure method. It’s really quite lovely.

I hope this post gives you some inspiration for managing your digital photo library. If you have any questions or comments, don’t hesitate to post below!

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