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Digital Photography

Filing & Organizing your Digital Photos

Once you get more than a few hundred digital photos, you will need to think about how best to organize and file them. Here's what works for me; the whole process right from the time I take the photo.

Taking the pictures

When I'm out and about taking pictures, I run the risk of forgetting the details of each particular photo - what it's a picture of, where it is, and so on. This is especially relevant for me, as I take a lot of photos of wildflowers and plants. I may not remember what a particular plant is by the time I get home. I take care of this in one of two ways. (1) My current digital camera (Canon Powershot Pro1) allows me to make audio annotations for any photo. So, sometimes I may be seen talking to my camera! (2) I make notes in a notebook I always carry with me when I'm out. I record the photo number (obtainable by checking the photo in "play" mode).

Downloading the photos to my computer

Canon digital cameras are accompanied with "Zoombrowser" software. Depending on your model of camera, this software may allow you to connect the camera directly to your computer (via USB) and download the photos that way. However, I bypass this, and plug my Compact Flash cards directly into a Compact Flash card reader, connected to my computer via USB. I prefer this because I find the interface of Zoombrowser to be overly simple, and a bit clunky. Well, that's just my opinion! Perhaps you love it. :) So, I copy the files usign WIndows Explorer from the Compact Flash card to a folder on my computer.

Filing system on my computer

I have two hard drives in my computer. One is a 240GB and the other is a 120GB. I keep a copy of all my digital photos on both drives. Hard drives are the most likely part of your computer to fail. And when they do, oftentimes nothing is recoverable from them. Because of this, it is important to have another backup of your photos as well. More about this later.

I create a folder on my computer for each day that I take pictures. I keep prior year's photos/folders in their own folder, by year. I preface the prior year's folder names with a "!" to make them appear first on the list. Each folder for the current year starts with the 2-digit year followed by the two-digit month number. This ensures they sort properly, in chronological order. I put the month name spelled out next, so I don't have to think what month is number 6 or whatever. Then the date, followed by a brief description of where the photos were taken.

Processing photos after they have been downloaded
Photo numbering system

When the images come off the Compact Flash card, they have next-to-meaningless filenames, as illustrated below. But before I do anything else with the photos, I run them through ZoomBrowser. "Why? I thought you didn't like that program?", I can hear you ask. Well, it does have one very useful feature, and that is to automatically rotate vertical photos. However, to do this properly, you must operate ZoomBrowser in "Zoom mode". Simply click on the folder where your new photos are, and ZoomBrowser will do the rest. The vertical photos will be displayed with the correct orientation. Once it has displayed all the photos in the folder, exit the program.

Original files from camera

The next step is to get rid of the "IMG_" parts of the filenames. For this and other file renaming tasks I use a very handy and powerful shareware utility called "CKRename" (available here).

Each photograph has a number automatically assigned to it by the camera when it is taken. I like to preserve this number, to be able to cross-reference to any notes I made when I took the photo. In the example below, this would be the 8356, 8357, etc.

"IMG_" removed from filenames

Just recently (Feb/05) I decided to number each photo with a unique number, so that I could build up a database of photos. This would be hard to do if the photos were identified with a number that could repeat (the camera only numbers photos up to 9999, then it starts over). Additionally, sometimes I initially misidentify the subject of a photos, change it later. Thus "Black Ash 8165" might possibly become "Red Ash 8165." A unique identifier for each photo bypasses these problems. For this I use, again, CKRename. It can assign a sequential number to each filename. The format I chose to use is a 2-digit year number followed by a 6-digit sequential number. This allows me to take up to 1 million photos per year. I don't think I'll ever get to that kind of volume!

I need to do this sequential numbering step here, so the order I took the photos in is preserved. Once I add the description to each filename (next), the order will be changed. I put the description at the front of the filename so I end up grouping similar photos together in the file list.

Unique sequential identifier added
to the end of each filename

My next step is to add a description of each photo to the filename. This is shown in the sample below. Note that I preserve the photo number assigned by the camera. If the photo is simply a scenery shot, I often don't add any description to the filename. For this task I use Windows XP "Filmstrip" view of the folder. This gives a nice preview of each photo, while still giving me access to the filename for renaming purposes.

Windows XP "Filmstrip" view

The results of adding the descriptions is shown below.

Final filenames

Note that the "SND_8359" file is still present. This is a voice annotation file. Sometimes I keep them, but usually I delete them. Although it has been assigned a sequential unique identifier number, I don't sweat it if I delete the file and there's a "hole" in the series. Who cares.

I often add a text file to the folder for notes. This is the "!info.txt" file at the top of the list. I put a "!" at the beginning of the filename to make it stay at the top of the list, so I can find it easily. This text file contains comments about where I was, notes about plant identification, and so on.

There's a couple of finishing-up steps left to do. One is to make all the files "Read-Only." And the next is to copy them to the second hard drive in my computer.


If you're into digital photography, a CD or DVD burner is a MUST. You may not have enough hard drive space to store all your photos. As well, this is an excellent and low cost method to backup your photos. I make two copies, and keep one offsite. Let's face it, you probably put a lot of time and effort into taking all your photos. If your computer gets stolen, or both hard drives crash, or a virus deletes all your files, or you delete your photos by accident, or your kid gets onto your computer and deletes your photos, or your house burns down, or whatever else that may happen, you need a backup independent of your computer, and independent of your house. BACK THEM UP.


Now that you've seen my entire system, here are the advantages of it, as I see them:

  • All photos are sorted by date and place, by virtue of the folder in which they are stored.

  • Photos are identified as to what they are (description added to filename)

  • All photos contain the original number assigned to them by the camera when it was taken, to be able to cross-reference to notes

  • Every photo has a unique identifier that doesn't change (the unique sequential number)

  • It's harder to delete the photos as they are all flagged "Read only"

  • There are several copies in case of deletion, hardware failure, or theft

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