There’s no right or wrong way of organizing photos on your hard drive, but it’s worth spending the time to set up a logical folder structure before you start. There are a few important factors to bear in mind when deciding on your folder structure.
Folders work best primarily as storage buckets rather than organizing tools. A file can only be in one folder at a time, so if you divide your photos up by topic, how do you decide where a photo should go? If you have a photo with both Mary and Susan, should it go in the ‘Mary’ folder or in the ‘Susan’ folder? Perhaps you duplicate in both folders, but then, what happens when you have a larger group of people? Do you duplicate the photo in all of their folders too, rapidly filling your hard drive and making it difficult to track? And then when you come to make adjustments to that photo, do you have to find it in all of those locations to update those copies too?
Trying to organize photos in folders can rapidly become complicated, but that’s where Lightroom’s cataloging facilities come into their own. If you catalog each photo once, stored in a single location, you can then use keywords, collections and other metadata to group and find photos easily. That photo of Mary and Susan may be stored in a ‘2012’ folder, but would show up when you searched for Mary, Susan, or even that it was taken at the beach.
Using Lightroom to catalog your photos, however, doesn’t mean you can just spread the photos across your hard drive. There still needs to be a level of organization, but for a different purpose.
First and foremost, your folder structure must be scalable. You may only have a few thousand photos at the moment, but your filing system needs to be capable of growing with you, without having to go back and change it again. As with file names, stick to standard characters—A-Z, 0-9, hyphens (-) and underscores (_) to prevent problems in the future. Although your 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.
Your folder structure also needs to be easy to back up, otherwise you may miss some photos, and it must be equally as easy to restore if you ever have a disaster. We’ll come back to backup systems in the Working with Catalogs chapter, but as a general rule, that will involve limiting your photos to one, or a few, parent folders. You may choose to use a folder within your My Pictures (Windows) / Pictures (Mac) folder, a folder at the root of your boot drive, or better still, another hard drive entirely. Wherever you choose to put that folder, the main aim is to congregate all of the photos in that one place.
Being able to back up your photos the first time is great, but then how will you add new photos to your backups? If you’re adding photos to lots of different folders, it can be hard to track which photos have already been backed up, so sticking to a dated structure is usually the simplest option. Adding a ‘New Photos’ folder, where all new imports are placed until they’re backed up to offline media, before being moved into the full filing system, can also help to keep track of your backups if you choose to back up manually, although an automated solution (i.e. file synchronization software) is usually a better option.
You’ll also need to bear in mind the limitations of your backup system. In addition to your working backups, are you backing your photos up to other hard drives or optical media? If you’re limited to optical media, storing the photos in DVD sized folders or ‘buckets’ of around of 4.3GB, can help you see at a glance which photos have already been backed up, and where.
Over the course of time, your collection of photos will grow, and you’ll likely add new hard drives, so a quick tip—if you’re putting photos at the root of a hard drive, always put them inside a folder rather than directly at the root, for example, e:\Photos\ (Windows) or PhotosHD/Photos/ (Mac). You can set that Photos folder to show within Lightroom’s Folders panel to make it easy to relink those photos if they ever get ‘lost’. The same applies to backup optical media such as DVD’s, but for those, it’s worth giving the parent folder a name that will identify that DVD, such as ‘Backup2012-34’
Keeping it simple, many photographers use a dated folder structure, with the number of subfolders dependent on the number of photos you shoot each day, week, month or year. If you shoot few photos each year, a simple folder for each year may be plenty, leaving further organization to Lightroom. If, on the other hand, you shoot most days, a hierarchy of days, within months, within years may be better suited to your needs. If you’re dividing by day, you may also want to add a descriptive word to the end of the day’s folder name to describe the overall subject, for example, ‘2012-03-06 Zoo’. That makes it easy to find the photos in any other file browser too.
Lightroom’s import dialog sets up some popular date formats for dated folders, which are a good starting point if you’re beginning to organize your photos. If you would like your Folders panel to read in chronological order, use 06 for the month rather than the word June, as it sorts in alpha-numeric order and isn’t quite smart enough to know that June should come before August.
There are exceptions, for example, a wedding photographer may prefer to use a folder for each wedding within a parent year folder, for example, 2012/John_Kate_wedding_20120306, that sorts by name rather than by date. You may prefer to group all of your Personal photos separately from your Work photos, under a ‘Personal’ parent folder, for example, Personal/2012/03_England, which can also work as long as there’s no crossover.
Alternative filing systems aren’t a problem as long as you follow the basic principles, but if you’re not using a basic dated structure, make sure you think it through properly, and perhaps discuss it with other experienced digital photographers, in case they can see a pitfall that you’ve missed.
Also, consider how you’re going to manage derivatives—retouched masters, and copies exported for other purposes. Are you going to manage those alongside your originals, and if so, how are they going to be backed up and archived?
We could write a whole book on Digital Asset Management, and the pros and cons of various systems, but fortunately Peter Krogh, world-renowned DAM expert, has already done so. If it’s a subject that you would like to learn more about, I can’t recommend The DAM Book (http://www.lrq.me/dambook) highly enough.
- Don’t duplicate photos in different folders—folders are best used for storage, not organization by topic.
- It needs be scalable for larger numbers of photos in the future.
- It’s best to use standard folder and filenames that will work cross-platform.
- It must be easy to back up new photos.
- It must be easy to restore from backups.
- Show parent folders to make it easy to relink files if Lightroom loses track.
Joseph Hayhurst says
Are you talking about Adobe lightroom or your own lightroomqueen? If I want to use what you suggest do I have to purchase lightroomqueen?
Victoria Bampton says
I’m not sure I understand your question Joseph.
Jim McKinniss says
Thanks Victoria. I like what you are doing and that you are helping people with LR. However, let me propose an alternative directory structure which is, in my opinion, better. Before I do, however, let me make a few comments about The DAM book which you mentioned.
It has been a while since I read The DAM book. However many of the ideas put forth in The DAM Book do not work well in the real world. Here are some examples.
The idea of storing your backups on DVDs has never been a good idea and the reason it isn’t has nothing to do with folder naming conventions. Think of how many 4.3 GB DVDs you would need to backup a 500 GB hard drive. Since the number of characters allowed for the label for a DVD is very small you end up with very cryptic names with 3 character sequence numbers. Imagine trying to find a particular file or files in the stack of cryptically named DVD backups you have after 10 years. The DVD should only be used as a temporary storage device. Hard drives are cheap and hold massive amounts of data. Buy one.
The DAM Book complicates the organization of your original (RAW) files and your derivative (Edited) files by storing them both in the same folder on the same drive. A better way is to store them on separate drives. Then they are physically separated which is better because it is an extra level of safety in case of a disk drive failure. It also simplifies backup procedures.
The idea of creating a series of folders that you move your work through for different stages of the editing process is overly complex and scatters your workflow through different folders. This is not a good idea.
In the book Keogh says that DNG files can be considered as original files because they contain the same information as RAW files. This is just not true. You can read about DNG files to learn why.
Having said all of the above now consider how to organize folders on your hard drive which is the main point here.
People do not process long lists of numbers very well. That is one of the reasons indexes for books are alphabetized. Imagine reading a 500 page history book and looking in the index to find references to particular battles in the Napoleonic wars only to discover that the index is organized by page number.
When you use an eight character date as the first level of the file naming convention you are essentially creating an index by page number. A better way is to alphabetize your folders by folder name and using date as the second part of your alphabetization. This will make your life so much easier when working with your photos in the same way that using an alphabetized book index will make your life easier when doing research.
I would give you a screen shot of a directory structure like this that I use but your comment field would accept images.
Victoria Bampton says
Thanks Jim. It’s a few years since I wrote this article, so it’s probably due a proper update. I’ll add that to my to do list.
I agree, many of the DAM book’s ideas need updating, although the basic principles of using metadata to organize photos still stands today.
Here are the pros and cons of the DNG format: https://www.lightroomqueen.com/articles-page/convert-dng/
If you’re using folders and filenames to search for your files, then yes, numbers can be problematic for some. That said, keywords and other metadata tools in Lightroom do a far better job as an organizational tool for photos, so folders and filenames are simply a way of storing photos on the hard drive.
Feel free to email me the screenshot you mention, and I’ll see if I can find a way to add it to your comment.
Paul Sadler says
I realize your post is old, not sure you’ll see this, but I’ll take a shot. I’m reading through lots of tips and tricks, and I have a good structure EXCEPT when it comes to culling. I have:
CATEGORY / YEAR / MM – Month Name / DD – Events
However, when I go through say 100 photos for the event, and “cull” out 30 or so, or maybe even 80, I put the culled photos one level down in a / Extras folder. Which has worked in the past, but now that I’m using proper management software, I don’t know if that sub-folder is the best way to go.
Any thoughts? I see three options, none of which are ideal:
A. keep “good” photos in the Events folder, with Extras one level down;
B. create a good sub-folder under events so there is a GOOD and an EXTRAS folder;
C. create a separate folder somewhere that is the extras, but then they’re not with the originals so duplicating the whole file structure elsewhere.
Any thoughts would be welcome…
Victoria Bampton says
Let me ask a question Paul. Why do they need to be in a different folder? Imagine you’re using flags or star ratings to rank the photos… then you can filter them at any time to show just the good ones, or all of them.
Hmm, interesting question. I have tended not to use the flags or stars, partly as I use multiple tools when editing/updating files. Some of them don’t use that feature. As well, I feel having them in the same folder is a bit dangerous. If I go to do a “group” action to the files, if I don’t have the filter set properly, it will adjust the wrong files. If they’re in separate folders, it is everything in that folder. For me it is kind of a “permanent” flag that is always set and can’t be removed unless you move the file. I’m also trying to think of many (any?) occasions when I wouldn’t want that flag set in my processing.
Victoria Bampton says
Flags are limited to Adobe, but stars should work across various apps. But if it’s working for you, go for it!
I am a novice photographer and a newbie to LR. I just got my LR subscription before I found your website. I want to set up my external “Working” hard drive with my folders. I am on board with doing it by year then subfolders for months. The problem I’m wrestling with is I shoot in Raw+Jpeg. My reason is my wife likes to have the Jpeg for her system and I want the Raw’s to develop. I was thinking of creating each month with a subfolder for each file extension. Does this sound too complex or unruly over time? My other option is to save the jpeg to a different external hard drive so my wife has access to them. I do like the idea of being able to view the Raw against the Jpec for comparison but its not a huge thing for me. I plan to save my RAW files to dropbox as my offsite storage and utilize my Amazon Prime as additional off-site storage since the Prime offers unlimited storage for pictures. Is there anything else that may be better than what I’m envisioning?
Paul McFarlane says
Holding raw and jpg in separate folders would seem a lot of work for little return, a lot of extra effort (so unruly to use your term!). Also, it’s then harder to compare raw and jpg side-by-side, the same folder would make sense.
You can then use the filters to only show one or the other if you choose, also to export just jpg for your wife if that’s on a different system.
Dropbox is an option for off-site, just remember it isn’t strictly a backup as anything that happens locally is reflected on the Dropbox server (of course, you can go back a number of days for versions) – off-site we recommend but in addition to a resilient local backup (so you can quickly go back if you delete something for example).
We both use Backblaze as our off-site backup, but of course that is additional cost given you have Dropbox capabilities (we do too but still choose Backblaze).