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As a photographer, video creator, and memory keeper, I have a lot of photos and videos in my digital library. My files used to be an absolute mess—it was hard to find what I was looking for and the thought of trying to organize them made doing the dishes suddenly look like my idea of fun. And on the rare occasion when I did manage to get them into some semblance of order, it didn’t last long because I didn’t have a reliable system for keeping them that way.
But those photos and videos are incredibly important to me—they’re my personal and family history. My memories. A record of my life and the things that brought me joy and made me who I am. Keeping them organized is a vital part of honoring and preserving those memories.
So it took some time and a lot of trial and error, but I finally got my digital library organized and created a workflow that makes it so much easier to add new photos and videos without getting overwhelmed. And once the original organizing is done, following this workflow when I’m only dealing with a small number of photos usually takes me less time than this tutorial.
So today, I’m going to walk you through the steps I used to get my behemoth of a photo library organized for good. Let’s get started!
Watch the Tutorial
My Software of Choice
My favorite tool for organizing photos is Adobe Lightroom Classic. Yes, this software does require a subscription, and yes, there are free alternatives out there. But after years of trying different options, Lightroom Classic has definitely earned its spot as my go-to photo organizing software. I love that it gives me options for finding photos beyond just looking through the folder structure on my hard drive. I can create collections (which gather related photos into one spot without moving the file location on my computer), add keywords and searchable metadata (which helps me find photos by person or subject), or find all photos taken on a specific day or with a specific camera or at a specific location, etc. The possibilities for personalizing your workflow to your specific needs are nearly endless with Lightroom. And although you can’t use Lightroom to edit videos, you can use it to organize them alongside your photos, which is a huge timesaver for me.
I should also mention that Adobe has two different versions of Lightroom: one is just called Lightroom and the other is called Lightroom Classic. Super confusing, I know. But if you’d like to use the same systems and software I use, you’ll want to make sure you’re using Lightroom Classic because the other Lightroom doesn’t have the same organizational features that Lightroom Classic has. But because I’m lazy, just know that as I talk about Lightroom in this tutorial, I’m referring to Lightroom Classic.
And if you don’t need all the bells and whistles Lightroom has, you can absolutely use this workflow with whatever program you decide to use. You just might need to tweak it a bit to fit the options available to you and the options you think you’ll actually use. As you’re looking for a photo organizing software, be sure to consider the ways you like to use and access your photos and choose one that’s going to make that process easy for you.
Import Your Photos and Videos
The first step is to import your photos into Lightroom. For ease of navigating through my workflow, I created three extra folders on my hard drive called “! Sort”, “!! Edit”, and “!!! Backup.” The exclamation marks at the beginning of these folder names keep them at the top of my folders list so they’re easy to find and in the same order I follow for my workflow. I import new photos and videos into the Sort folder to start.
Sort Your Files
Next, I sort my photos and videos into subfolders inside the Edit folder. The names of your subfolders will depend entirely on the folder structure you like to use. A lot of photo organizers recommend organizing photos chronologically with folder hierarchies based on years and months. But that doesn’t work well for me because I’m more likely to remember where something happened than when. So I typically use folders named after the location and create subfolders within those location folders if multiple significant events happened there. For example, I took some photos at Ballard Locks near Seattle, so I’ll create a subfolder in the Edit folder called Ballard Locks. Then, I’ll just select those photos and drag them into the folder I’ve just created.
There’s also the option to select the photos before you create a new folder, then tick the little checkbox that says “Include Selected Photos” to move them automatically when the folder is created. I do occasionally use this feature, but sometimes I forget I have photos selected and they end up getting moved to the wrong folders, so I honestly prefer to just drag them into place after the folder is created.
Edit Your Photos
Once your photos and videos are sorted into your subfolders, it’s time to purge the ones you don’t need to keep. You can purge your photos and videos quickly by using the flag tool. Turn on attribute filtering and make sure “unflagged photos” is selected. Then as you go through your photos, flag photos you don’t want to keep with the “rejected” flag by selecting the photo and hitting the “x” key on your keyboard. It’ll hide those photos so you can more easily focus on the ones that remain.
Depending on the number of images in a folder, I may do several passes. I start by deleting photos that are out of focus, don’t contribute well to the overall story, or are too over- or underexposed to salvage. I also look for duplicates or close matches, and when two photos are compositionally identical, I like to use the compare tool to zoom in and check focus so I can keep the sharper image.
After you’re satisfied with the photos you have left, switch the attribute filtering to filter by “rejected photos,” then delete all your unwanted photos at once.
Next, I add my keywords. I usually start with people using the face finder tool. You might end up with some faces detected that either aren’t faces or aren’t people you necessarily want to tag, such as strangers in a crowd. You can just use the delete icon to delete those. After using the face detection tool, I’ll usually go back through and manually add any people that were missed, either by using the face area tool on the loupe view or just typing the names in the keyword field.
I also take a lot of photos of plants and animals, so I’ll use related keywords to tag those as well. You can create keywords for whatever you like, so it’s a good idea to create keywords for anything you might want to easily find in the future. For example, I could tag this photo with the keyword “boats,” and then I can easily find all photos of boats in my collection.
Keywords are hierarchical in Lightroom, so you can niche down as much as you’d like. In my animal keywords, I have them broken up by taxonomical families, species, and individual animals. That way, I can look for all photos of dogs, or I can just look for photos of my dog, Maisie.
Next, I double check to make sure the date attached to the photo is correct. If you’re dealing with new photos or videos from a camera with a properly configured timestamp, this usually won’t be an issue, but photos downloaded from emails or Facebook or imported from a scanner may have a date that doesn’t reflect when the photo was actually taken.
You can update the date for photos using the metadata panel on the right side. Selecting multiple files in the grid view will apply the new date to all of the selected files as long as it’s set to “selected photos” and not “target photo.” But be careful—if any of the files in your selection have dates that are different, their dates will be adjusted by the corresponding time increment. So for example, let’s say your photos are dated September 7th, but they should be dated September 9th. If you have one photo in the group of selected photos that’s already dated the 9th, when you increased the date by two days, it’ll changed that photo’s date to the 11th.
My next step is to rename all of the files. I like to follow a standard naming structure that includes the date in YYYY.MM.DD format (or just the year or year and month, depending on the information I have), the location or event, and any people, animals, or important details I want to save. An easy way to do this is to use the metadata panel again.
Quick note here: Lightroom lets you customize your metadata panel to show the fields you personally need to use. If your metadata panel doesn’t look like mine, you can adjust it using this “customize” button and then checking the boxes next to all of the fields you want to use.
I’ll put the location or event in the Title field and the people, animals, or desired details in the Caption field. Then I create a custom naming structure in the renaming tool by clicking “Edit” at the bottom of the options list and adding all of the elements I want to include. As with other metadata changes, you can apply the same naming structure to multiple selected photos at once as long as you’re in the grid view. It’ll automatically pull the information you’ve entered into your metadata fields and apply them to the appropriate photo.
You can even save your custom naming structure as a preset to easily apply it to future photos by coming up to Presets at the top and selecting, “Save current settings as new preset.” You can see that I have a bunch of them saved for naming structures that I use often. Next time you want to use that naming structure, you can just select it from the list.
Another thing to note here is that sometimes, if you use a naming structure that includes a metadata field that you haven’t filled out, you’ll end up with file names that include underscores where the missing data should be. You can either change it manually, or create a new naming preset to match the data you want to include.
This step is optional, but I like to set the location data on my photos. There are two ways to do this. You can also manually enter location data in the metadata panel again, including city, state, country or region, and sublocation, which allows you to easily use the metadata filters to find photos by location if you do choose to organize by date.
Or, you can use the map panel to set the GPS coordinates. I use Amazon Photos as my cloud storage and it allows me to search for photos by location, but only if the GPS coordinates are included. So I’ll head over to Map view, search for the location, select all related photos, and then drag them onto the highlighted spot on the map.
Once I’ve got my photos purged, date corrected, and renamed, I’ll head over to the Develop view to do any edits I want to do. I’m not going to cover editing in this tutorial, so if you’re new to editing with Lightroom, I know this step may seem a little intimidating. But there are lots of free tutorials online to help you figure everything out. And once you’ve developed your personal photographic style, you can create a preset to easily apply that style to all your photos with a single click, including right when you import them into Lightroom.
If you’ve made any edits, those edits will only be visible in Lightroom or other editors that read XML files, which are created when you make changes to a photo. So if you open this photo in your regular photo preview program, like Windows’ native photo app, it’ll still look like the original photo.
To save the edited photos, right click on the photo or group of photos and select “Export” from the list, then “Export” again. You can set where you want to save the edited photo, whether or not you want to automatically add it to your Lightroom catalog (which I do recommend), and things like file size and watermarking.
Most of it is fairly straightforward, but the two things I always check are the File Settings and Image Sizing sections. You’ll want to make sure the quality slider in File Settings is pushed all the way over to 100% and the resolution in Image Sizing is set to at least 300 pixels per inch if you want to print these photos at any point. And unless you need photos at a specific dimension, make sure the “resize to fit” checkbox is unchecked.
Create Collections (Optional)
This step is also optional, but I like to use collections to create groups of photos for various projects without having to moving them around on the hard drive and risk misplacing them. Collections are especially helpful when planning photo books. I’ll create a collection set for each photo book I’m planning, with smaller collections for book sections within each collection set. You can even create smart collections to automatically group photos by a variety of conditions, such as date ranges, keywords, searchable metadata, etc.
If you’d like to see a tutorial on how I use Lightroom collections while planning my photo books, let me know in the comments!
Backup Your Photos and Videos
Once I’ve finished editing all the photos in a folder, I move the whole folder down to the Backup folder. When I’m ready to back up those photos and videos to my cloud service, they’re all in one easy-to-find spot on my hard drive to make that process easier.
After each folder is safely backed up, I move it to its final destination in my regular folder structure. So for my location-based organization system, I’ll just drag all of these folders for locations in Washington down to my Washington folder. Some of them might be moved to subfolders within the Washington folder, like that Ballard Locks folder, which I’ll move into my Seattle folder. If I already have a folder for a certain location, I’ll move just the photos and videos into the existing folder.
The most important part of keeping your photos and videos organized is to do it consistently and regularly. If you only do it once a year, you’re going to have a lot of files to sort through and it’s going to take more time and maybe be overwhelming. But if you do it more often, you’ll have fewer files to work with and you can get it done quickly. For me, Sundays have become my family history day, so at least once a month, I gather all the photos from my phone and my camera and photos shared with me by friends and family, and I do a quick run through this workflow to get them sorted and backed up. It usually only takes me a few minutes.
And that’s it! If you have any questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll make more tutorials to help you out.