Managing and Archiving Your Photos

Managing and Archiving Your Photos: Part One: Organization 
by guest author Robert Ash

About the author: “Known data warehousing expert Robert Ash heads a global product management team at a leading  software company. He has 15 years’ experience working with the world’s largest data warehousing environments. His customers have won the past two awards for running the world’s largest mainstream commercial databases, plus other industry awards for data warehouse architecture and administration.”

Also an accomplished photographer,  his work has also earned high critical acclaim from top industry experts. His work hangs in company lobbies and in private collections. His online portfolio can be viewed at 


 This is first in a series of articles that will review options in managing and archiving your photos. Closely related to the overall topic of Digital Asset Management, “Managing and Archiving Your Photos” will show you options available, how to choose what is best for you, how to build a management structure with reasonable effort, and ensure that your system can be used pretty much regardless of which software you choose.


We have all felt, from time to time, that managing our digital photos can be difficult, time-consuming and confusing. Organizing photos on disk is the first and most important step in digital asset management. I designed the method shown here to:

  • Make photos easy to find, even years later
  • Require minimum effort to maintain
  • Provide flexibility to easily use any program you choose, or to use multiple programs (Bridge, Lightroom, etc.)
  • Keep time spent embedding and updating keywording to a minimum
  • Reduce computer time needed to search for an item or items


Organize images on disk the way you’ll most likely, or most frequently, want to retrieve them. Make your program reflect your on-disk structure then add the minimum additional structure needed


At a fundamental level, there are two ways to organize images – time-based and subject-based.

Most writers prefer time-based organization, typically by year – create a folder for each year then sub-folders beneath it. That works if your workflow is time-based and you typically don’t need to retrieve images after you’re finished with them.

Organizing by year frequently requires duplicating your subject structure for each time period (e.g. 2008 Gorillas, 2009 Gorillas, etc.), which can be a big time waster.

 Here is my approach for working by subject:

  • On your main volume or drive, create one folder Photos to hold all images. That allows full backup with drag and drop of one folder. (more on backup and storage in articles to be published in the near future).
  • Under Photos create a small set of major category folders. Suggestions include Locations, Nature, People, Events, Other Subjects, Personal Projects, 0-Personal&Family. (I use 0-Personal&Family instead of just Personal&Family so that category will sort to the top of the list. )

 Here is how my largest sized category, Locations, is organized:

You might have a main folder United States, a sub-folder of California, then perhaps Los Angeles as a subfolder of California if you do much photography there and want more fine-grained division for that specific folder.

Folder Tree

 You can also add subfolders at any time and any level you want. Just add one new folder and move relevant subfolders into it. Note that year is the bottom category, not the top one, because for me it’s the least important for look-ups and it’s placed where it makes sense for me.

 My other folders are organized like this:

  • add any categories or subcategories you want or need
  • Animals>Bears>Canada>BritishColumbia
  • Canada>Wildlife>Bears>Grizzly>Angry Grizzlies


 This method drastically reduces the number of keywords needed for image look-ups because the major keywords are already the folder names. All Alaska or Lion or Sunset or Still Life or Weddings images are in a folder that is labeled with the appropriate name.

 Programs like Lightroom allow you to go to your Alaska folder or Juneau folder and see all your Alaska (Fairbanks, Juneau, Sitka),or Juneau (2003, 2006, etc.) or Lion (Tanzania,  San Diego Zoo, etc.) images at once.

 Even better, you can use any program you wish to access the images easily without having to duplicate your major keywords in all the programs, as they’re included in the folder names. (I like this idea a lot – David)

 So if your main program’s catalog gets corrupted or accidentally deleted you can still find images easily.

 Finally, you only need to create each major category once (e.g. Alaska) instead of looking for Alaska in 2007, Alaska in 2009, etc. plus having to remember you didn’t go there in 2008.

 This method will not solve issues like finding all the images including Trees in Munich in Parks in 2007. No on-disk organization method can do that. That level of detail requires keywording, and the most specific the lookups the more keywords required. That requirement either marries you to one program or requires duplicating keywords.

 However, this method can still be of great help if you need to use a different program and can’t duplicate all the keywords. In that case it’s like requiring looking only through the M’s or S’s or Aa-Ae in a telephone book instead of searching the whole book for that year.

If you need to categorize by year as well then programs like Adobe Lightroom allows automation of that through “Smart Collections”, which we can explore more in the next article, Capture and Import.

Robert Ash

11 thoughts on “Managing and Archiving Your Photos

  1. Pingback: Managing and Archiving Your Photos « Adobe Tutorials

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  6. I think many photogs like to make more work for themselves. I’ve been shooting snce 1973. I still have my negatives (now scanned) and I now shoot about 80,000 images a year. No problem. Lightroom handles my workload effortlessly on my Macs. I backup to two externals once per week – one I keep with me in my shoulder bag at all times, the second external goes in my spouse’s car. I’ve NEVER, ever lost an image.
    Simple. Effective. Efficient.

  7. Jorge,
    I agree. That’s the main idea behind my approach, because no matter how we do digital we have to store our images on disk somehow. Storing them so as to retrieve them easily is quite a challenge for many photographers. I’m looking to make it as easy and flexible as possible. Your point on backup/recovery is well taken, I plan to cover that topic in my 3rd installment.

  8. I’ve just set about the task of consolidating and archiving my last 9yrs of photos, I’m glad to see I’m already on the right track. I’ve been breaking my folders down almost exactly the way you suggest. I do plan on using keywords as well but I agree that if worse comes to worse the folder structure will still allow you to find what you’re looking for fairly easily.
    I’m about to read the next two parts and am anxious to see what your suggestions are for lightroom.

    Cheers and thanks for tackling this issue in clear and concise manner.

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