Once you’ve decided where to store the photos on the hard drive, you then need to decide how to organize them. There’s no right or wrong way of organizing photos on your hard drive, but there are some basic principles that can help you avoid problems. It’s worth spending the time to set up a logical folder structure before you start importing photos into Lightroom.
As far as Lightroom’s concerned, your choice of folder structure doesn’t make a lot of difference. Folders are just a place to store the photos, and you can use metadata and keywords to organize them. You could just dump them all into a single folder, but that would become unwieldy in time, so some kind of organization helps. You may also want to find the photos outside of Lightroom, which may influence your choice of folder structure.
We’ll come back to some sample folder structures in a moment, but first, let’s consider the basic principles behind the widely accepted best practices of digital asset management.
- Scalable—You may only have a few thousand photos when you get started, but your filing system needs to be capable of growing with you, without having to go back and change it. This is particularly important when you start spilling over into multiple hard drives, some of which may be offline most of the time.
- For example, if you organize your photos by topic, and your “Animals” folder is on a disconnected drive, you must reconnect the drive every time you photograph some animals. Multiply that by multiple drives and you have a headache!
- In contrast, if you add photos to a date/time-based folder structure of some description, then only one small area of your photo archive is updated when you import new photos.
- Easy Backup & Restore—Your folder structure needs to be easy to back up, otherwise you may miss some photos, and it needs to be easy to restore if you ever have a disaster. This is particularly important as your library grows and is split over multiple hard drives.
- We’ve already discussed the importance of storing photos in a single parent folder (per drive) rather than scattering photos around your hard drives.
- Adding new photos to lots of different folders (e.g., if organizing by topic) can also complicate your backup procedures. Some backup software can handle these additions, but it increases the margin for human error, especially if some drives are frequently offline.
- No duplication—Each photo should be stored in a single location (in addition to your backups).
- Besides taking up additional hard drive space, it also creates chaos when you start trying to add metadata or Develop edits to your photos.
- Duplication is the major disadvantage of topic-based folders, which we discussed in the last post.
- Standard characters—When naming your folders, stick to standard characters—A-Z, 0-9, hyphens (-) and underscores (_)—to prevent problems in the future.
- Although your current operating system may accept other characters, you might decide to move cross-platform one day, leaving you the time-consuming job of renaming all of the folders manually.
- Consistent—You should always know where a photo goes without having to think about it.
- If you have to debate each time, there’s a higher chance of making a mistake.
Why use a date/time-based folder structure?
The simplest option is to use one of Lightroom’s default dated folder structures. They tick all of the boxes, and you don’t have to think about it:
- It’s scalable, because you just keep adding new dates to the end.
- It’s easy to back up the original photos, even to write-once media like optical discs, because you’re adding new photos to the latest folders. (Note that if you save derivative files with the original files, such as those edited in other software, you might still be adding photos to older folders too.)
- It’s easy to restore from a good backup. In the event of a disaster, it’s even possible to rebuild the folder structure from files rescued by recovery software, because the capture dates are stored in the file metadata.
- It uses standard characters, which are accepted by all operating systems.
- The folders can be nested, so you don’t have a long unwieldy list of folders.
- Lightroom can create the folder structure for you automatically on import, so you don’t even have to organize it manually. Lightroom mobile can also drop photos into the same folder structure.
- It’s easy to go back and move older photos into the same folder structure, especially if you’re only using one folder per month. We’ll come back to this in a later “tidying up” post.
Do I have to use a strict dated folder structure?
As long as you follow the basic principles above, you can adapt the folder structure to suit your needs without causing unnecessary headaches. It just requires a little more thought initially. Here are a few examples to consider, and I’m sure you can think of a few more:
- Unless you’re shooting thousands of photos a day, you probably don’t need a full folder hierarchy with one folder per day. A folder for each month, nested inside a folder for each year is a very popular choice, and it’s the system I use personally.
- If you want to be able to find photos outside of Lightroom, you might want to use a named folder per shoot, nested inside a year folder. The “random” photos that don’t fit inside a full shoot folder can go directly into the year parent folder, and it still follows the basic principles.
- If you’re grouping photos by day, you may want to add a descriptive word to the folder name to describe the overall subject, for example, 2015-04-21 Zoo. This makes it possible to find the photos in any other file browser, however the folder list can get quite long, so it’s worth nesting them in month folders and showing the folder hierarchy so you can collapse them down.
- A event photographer may prefer to use a folder for each event within a parent year folder, sorted by name rather than date, for example, 2016/John_Kate_wedding_20160421.
- If you shoot for work as well as pleasure, you may want to have separate dated folder structures for Work vs. Personal. But as we saw in our earlier post, if you decide to split your system, make sure there are no overlaps where a photo may fit into more than one category.
Alternative filing systems aren’t ‘wrong’ but you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches if you follow the basic principles. Tell me what kind of folder structure you prefer in the comments below!
In the next two posts in the series, we’ll learn how to use the Destination panel to automatically create your chosen folder structure.