Stephen Bay's Photography Blog

How to Organize Your Photos (Lightroom Catalog)

If you’ve ever

  • had a hard time finding a photo that you took before,
  • couldn’t find the original raw file for a jpeg that you have, or
  • found multiple copies of an image but couldn’t tell which was the final version

then read on.

I help a lot of people with editing their photos and invariably one area that people need assistance is organizing their photo files. Often their photos will be in mish mash of folders, spread across multiple disks, with random unintelligible file names.

Lightroom and other similar programs are designed to keep your photos organized, but you still need to take the time to set up an initial filing and naming structure, otherwise it can still become unmanageable. It’s not very complicated and I have some simple rules you can follow for keeping your photos organized.

Note: for this article, I’ll assume you are using Lightroom to catalog your files but what I’m going to discuss will likely apply to any program you are using to manage your assets.

1 - Have One Catalog

Keep everything in one catalog. Do not separate your work by making one catalog per year, or event, or hard drive. The reason for having one catalog is so that you only need to go to one spot to search and find your images.

Could you imagine how cumbersome it would be if Google decided to make a separate search engine by year of publication? That would be terrible, yet for some reason people think it’s not an issue to make multiple catalogs for their photos.

The most common excuse I hear for making multiple catalogs is that Lightroom slows down. In general, this is simply not true. Lightroom uses a database engine (SQLite) which is designed to scale to massive sizes with far larger data than any single photographer would have.

Where Lightroom and other programs do slow down is if you try to display thousands of thumbnails at once (especially if Lightroom hasn’t had a chance to make previews). This isn’t an issue related to the catalog, but rather the task of displaying thousands of images at once is hard to do quickly and any program where you try to display that much info will have lag.

2 - Store Photos in Folders by Date

Store your photos in a folder by date. After every outing, I’ll download my photos and place in them in folder with the date and location (or event name). For example:

20210704 - San Diego Bay Fireworks

Use YYYYMMDD or YYYY-MM-DD format for the date and have the date come first so that when your file system (Windows Explorer or Mac Finder) sorts the folders alphabetically it will show them in chronological order. When I view them in Lightroom it looks like this

Folder hierarchy Organize folders chronologically by year and then date.

Don’t use formats like the following as they won’t sort chronologically:

  • July 4, 2021 - San Diego Bay Fireworks
  • 2021-7-4 - San Diego Bay Fireworks (single digit for month or day)
  • San Diego Bay Fireworks, July 4th, 2021

In Lightroom you can search folders by text string and quickly find your work. In Library mode, go to the left hand pane and type in text in the folder search bar:

Folder search in Lightroom Searching for my shots of the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park.

With folder search, I can find photos from any location or event very quickly.

3 - Give Every Photo a Unique File Name

Imagine you’re trying to find somebody with an extremely common name like John Smith. How would you go about that? It turns out there are thousands of people with the name John Smith in the US. For this exact reason, don’t try to name your images by the subject matter, you’ll quickly run into problems as most people have multiple images of any given subject. Also don’t use the default name that the camera assigns which is usually something like DSC_2341.ARW (these cycle every 10000 photos so you’ll get duplicates). Instead rename the files with a unique identifier for every photo, much like a social security number.

My preference is to give every image I take a sequential number such as 104234.ARW. The next image would be 104235.ARW followed by 104236.ARW and so forth. This format is short, simple, and convenient.

Some people prefer using a date plus a sequence number. E.g. 20211113_0023.ARW is the 23 picture taken on Nov 11, 2021. The next photos would be 20211113_0024.ARW and then 20211113_0025.ARW.

Don’t put metadata in the file name like the subject, location, or job name. This just makes the filename balloon up and there is no need for it. This information is better placed in the appropriate meta data fields (e.g. caption, keywords, city/state/country fields).

For both naming schemes you can use the Library » Rename function in Lightroom to do this automatically. If you select the “Edit…” option, Lightroom will bring up an editor where you can create a template for renaming your files.

Filename template editor The file name template editor in Lightroom. This template will rename files in the format 20211112_0001.ARW.

4 - Distinctly Name Derivative Files

The final rule I suggest you follow is that you always mark or indicate derivative images by the filename. For example, if the original raw file is 107312.ARW, I might make the following files

  • 107312_master.tif – master file after editing the image in PS
  • 107312_bw.tif – black & white
  • 107312_print.tif – edited for print
  • 107312_cmyk.tif – converted to cmyk for offset printing

Images that I share online are exported as JPEG files and are clearly distinguished by the file extension. E.g. if I export a jpeg from my master file (107312_master.tif), it would have the file name 107312.jpg.

Final Thoughts

It may take a bit of work setting up the folders and creating automatic renaming scripts in Lightroom but once done, it should take almost no effort to ingest new images in this format.

If you already have a substantial library of images it can be a lot of work to re-organize existing photos. I suggest you start by adopting these rules going forward. If you have time, then go back and fix earlier images.

If you liked this article, please subscribe to my photography newsletter for tips, tutorials, and teaching announcements.