How to Organize Digital Photos and Declutter a Digital Mess

Last Updated on December 8, 2022 | In Photography Tips by Stefano Caioni 3 Comments

Learning how to organize digital photos can be complicated.

But don’t worry, I’m here to help!

As a professional photographer, hobbyist or just simply as someone that likes to take photos with a smartphone, every day whether you are out and about trying your new gear or just hanging out with friends, you are probably taking tons of photos.

How to Organize Digital Photos

But what happens to all those photos when you go back home?

Do you upload them on a social media account? Will they stay on your smartphone? Will you transfer your digital files on your computer? Or maybe they will forever find peace inside your memory card?

It might sound absurd to you but the number of people losing their digital images is massive. People lose them repeatedly and the simple reason is that they don’t know how to organize digital photos properly.

They don’t have a proper workflow.

I’ve helped a lot of friends and fellow photographers to develop a workflow for managing digital photos, whether it’s using a photo storage device or using a cloud photo storage or both.

As you can imagine, there are different ways to do store digital pictures and I’m going to guide you through it in this post but for now, let me tell you this:

If you are a hobbyist, a professional photographer, or maybe you want to start making money with photography, finding the best way to store and organize digital photos can make a huge difference for your business. It can save you a lot of time and help you preserve important memories that you’ve collected with your camera throughout the years.

Related: Best Photo Organizer

The Constant Growth of Digital Photos

Photography is more and more important and the amount of digital photos produced all around the world every day is insane.

Let me give you some numbers.

According to a study by Omnicore, the number of photos uploaded on Instagram so far is over 50 billion since the app was launched in 2010 and every day more than 100 million photos are uploaded to the app.

Facebook sees 150,000 photo uploads per minute!

According to a study shared by Caroline Guntur, professional digital organizer, over 1.5 trillion photos are taken worldwide every year. And this number has doubled since 2013.

You guessed right, these figures are only going to increase with time and so far all the statistics show that over 5 trillion photos have been stored worldwide.

If you’re like most people and you’re images are scattered everywhere, from social media to hard drives and on your laptop, stop procrastinating and start organizing your pictures now.

How to Organize Your Pictures: Key Points

The more you wait the harder it will be to declutter your digital mess.

Organizing your photos can be stressful and annoying to do if you don’t have a systematic method in place.

In short, these are the key points you have to follow to keep your digital photos organized:

  • Use a dedicated photo storage device or online service to store your digital images,
  • Use a photo organizer to help you categorize your photos
  • Create an easy to remember, clear folder structure,
  • Transfer your files from your memory card or from your smartphone to your photo storage as soon as you get home from a day out shooting,
  • Be selective with the photos you keep,
  • Iterate and improve on your digital photo catalog

The next step after getting a lot of pictures is to transfer to your computer or external photo storage and save your files correctly.

Taking the time to develop a workflow will save you hours of sorting through hundreds (let’s say thousands) of photos later on to find the exact picture that you’re looking for.

Use the Right Photo Organizing Tools

First of all, establish the tools needed for the task. This is important because you’ll do it once and it will set the foundations of your digital photo managing system.

The device (or devices) you’re going to choose will be the core of your workflow. You will move all your existing digital photos to this central photo storage and create different folders to keep it organized.

And remember you’re not allowed to store music files or videos or any other documents. Be strict with this rule.

Photo Storage

I’m of the opinion that one single digital photo storage is not enough. In fact, having a backup option is considered good practice.

Again, make sure that the device you use is reserved to store your photos only. Even if you use the internal drive of your computer, be strict with this and designate a folder specifically for your pictures.

These are the options you have to pick your primary digital photo storage:

Physical Devices

Physical devices are the most reliable solutions for managing digital photos since you have full control over your files at all times.

Your Computer. Even though I don’t recommend this solution it’s worth mentioning. Be aware that sooner or later you’ll run out of space and the less storage is available on your computer hard drive the slower and unresponsive your machine will become.

I personally never save my digital photos on my laptop or desktop computer unless it’s a temporary file that I’m showing to someone or that I’m going to delete or save back to my other devices.

And here’s the second reason, if you save and store your digital catalog on your computer, it won’t be accessible from your other devices.

What happens if you’re working on another computer? Or if you’re traveling or with a client and need to access your files stored on another machine? You can’t. So try to choose this method only if it is the only option you have at the moment.

External Hard Drive. This is the best way to store and organize photos and the one I use.

If you’re like me and you travel a lot you will find that a portable hard drive works best for you. I recommend the Seagate Backup Plus (affiliate link). It’s quite inexpensive for a 2TB external hard drive, so small and portable it really fits in your pocket.

At the time of writing this article, the USB 3.0 version you can find on Amazon here (affiliate link) also gives you a FREE 1-year license to the photo organizing app Mylio and 2 months Adobe CC Photography. Pretty good deal!

To organize photos on an external hard drive, follow these steps:

  1. Connect the external hard drive to your computer using a USB cable.
  2. Open the external hard drive in File Explorer (Windows) or Finder (Mac).
  3. Create a new folder on the external hard drive and give it a descriptive name that reflects the contents of the folder, such as “Vacation Photos” or “Wedding Photos”.
  4. Copy or move the photos that you want to organize into the new folder. You can do this by selecting the photos in their current location, then using the Ctrl+C (Windows) or Command+C (Mac) keyboard shortcut to copy them, and then using the Ctrl+V (Windows) or Command+V (Mac) keyboard shortcut to paste them into the new folder.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for each group of photos that you want to organize. For example, you could create separate folders for each year, or for each event or trip.
  6. Once you have organized your photos into folders, you can use the built-in search function in File Explorer or Finder to quickly find specific photos. You can also use photo management software like Lightroom to further organize and manage your photos on the external hard drive.

That’s it! These are the basic steps for organizing photos on an external hard drive. By using folders and a consistent naming convention, you can keep your photos organized and make it easy to find and access them when you need them.

Backup Solution. If you have a collection of photos that you keep on your computer or hard drive, then it’s imperative to always make sure you do a backup copy.

If you don’t do this, it’s not a matter of “if” you lose your photos, but “when”.

Too many people make the mistake of not backing up their photos and lose all their memories due to unforeseen circumstances.

Backing up photos doesn’t take long, and it’s something you should do to make sure you have your pictures for the rest of your life. 

I use two Seagate Backup Plus hard drives, one as a primary workhorse storage drive and the second as a backup.

This way, I’m sure that I have two copies of each file and avoid losing my photos.

When you run out of space in one of your two hard drives don’t start pouring digital photos into the second. If you’ve done your job well, the two hard drives have the same content and should run out of space at the same time.

If you are looking for a bigger storage, you can get the excellent Seagate Desktop. It’s an 8TB Desktop External Hard Drive with USB 3.0 as a primary storage unit for home. Being a non-portable solution this won’t give you maximum accessibility.

NAS. The ultimate investment for organizing your digital photos is a NAS. NAS stands for Network-Attached Storage and as the name suggests it’s a local storage that you keep connected to your home or office network and you can access its content from anywhere in the world as long as you have an Internet connection.

It’s like having your own private cloud storage and for this reason, it’s a much more expensive solution. I recommend it only if you are a professional and you want to achieve the maximum level of efficiency, accessibility, and safety for your digital pictures.

I’m linking you here one of the best NAS on the market right now which is the Synology 5 bay DiskStation (Diskless) but please don’t go and waste your money if you don’t need it. We are talking about hardware that supports up to five hard drives of 4TB of storage each. It comes at a price.

Cloud Solutions

Cloud storage has some big advantages over physical devices. It’s cheap and the same as you do with a NAS you can access and sync your digital photos from anywhere with your computer or smartphone.

I use cloud solutions mainly as a backup and not as my primary photo storage.

Here are two of the most popular cloud solutions for organizing digital images:

Google Drive. My favorite. First of all, if you have a Gmail account you already have a free Google Drive account with 15 GB of free space. No need to create a new account with another company.

I know that 15 GB it’s now enough but the good thing is that if you want extra storage space you just need to upgrade to Google One.

Google One starts at 2 TB and it’s highly scalable up to a very expensive 30 TB monthly or yearly plan. Anyway, for that amount of photo storage, I recommend a NAS as a better investment.

You can use Google Drive in tandem with the “Backup and Sync from Google” app to automate the process of uploading and keeping your digital photos in the cloud in sync with your computer or smartphone.

Dropbox. Another popular cloud storage solution that starts with a free 2 GB storage plan and has customizable solutions for Enterprise level business. Personally I think that Google drive has better prices than Dropbox.

Redefine Your Workflow to Organize Your Digital Photos

Why organizing photos is important

Let me show you exactly what you can do to start organizing your photos like a pro.

Let’s talk about the folder structure and file naming convention.

The first thing to do is to decide whether you want to categorize your collection of photos by date or by moments (camping trips, holidays, vacations, friends, family, etc).

Photo Organization Folder Structure

I suggest having your main photo folder called Photos or Pictures and inside you’ll create a folder named after the year and month (2020 folder with each month inside) and keep your subcategory folder within each month.
For example, your main folder’s name with all your pictures inside could be “Pictures”, and within that folder, you would have each year.

Main-Folder-Name / Year / YY-MM-Photo-Name / YY-MM-Photo-Name.jpg
Pictures / 2019 / 2019-08-Italy-CinqueTerre / 2019-08-Italy-CinqueTerre.jpg
Pictures / 2019 / 2019-09-Japan-Tokyo / 2019-09-Japan-Tokyo-001.jpg
Pictures / 2019 / 2019-09-Japan-Tokyo / 2019-09-Japan-Tokyo-002.jpg
Pictures / 2019 / 2019-09-Japan-Osaka / 2019-09-Japan-Osaka.jpg

organizing digital pictures folder structure

As you can see in the image abpve, for thatspecific folder I still haven’t renamed all the files. Cameras and smartphones have their weird ways of naming files.

I’ll explain how to properly rename your digital pictures in a second. Before I want you to notice how the year is repeated in the subfolder.

The reason is simple, if I accidentally move that folder somewhere else, I will know where it belonged. The date will be repeated in the file name as well.

I’m quite obsessed with this since I manage a lot of files and it help me keep everything in order.

Ho to Rename Your Digital Photos

There are several ways to rename digital photos.

You could use the default option on a Mac or Windows PC which is by right-clicking on files and rename them either one by one or you can select all of them by pressing CTRL-A (Windows) CMD-A (Mac) then right-click and do a bulk rename.

I don’t like this method because it forces me to type the name again and the more you type the higher are the chances of making mistakes. But you can do it if you don’t have access to software like Lightroom or other photo organizers.

Lightroom is really powerful not only for its editing capabilities but it let you manage big catalogs of images easily.

To keep it short, Lightroom gives you the option of creating a Filename Template that you can use to bulk rename digital photos in your catalog or you can apply it when you import them into your catalog for the first time.

Lightroom filename template editor

On top of that, this type of software helps you cull your photos so that you keep only then ones you really need and delete bad photos freeing up storage space in your hard drives.

If you use Lightroom I wrote an extensive article on how to specifically use it to manage your photo catalog. Read my post here: how to organize your photos using Adobe Lightroom.

Why is Important to Delete Digital Photos

If you’re like many photographers, your photo archive is growing massively every day.

You take multiple pictures per subject to avoid missing the right moments. No one wants a headshot to be taken and find out their eyes were closed.

Similarly, you don’t want to take a photo of a beautiful landscape and find out you had the wrong exposure settings.

So you end up very quickly with more digital photos to organize than you wanted. That’s why culling is an important part of organizing your digital photos. You need to keep only the best shots and delete the ones you don’t like.

This way, you won’t lose yourself in an ocean of unneeded digital pictures that are just taking space on your hard drive.

Powerful Digital Photo Browser: Photo Mechanic

As we’ve seen, Lightroom is also powerful for its organizing features. But it’s not the only one.

If you want to take it a step further, use Photo Mechanic. Many professional photographers for its speed and efficiency it brings to their workflow.

Photo Mechanic is a digital image browser popular for its extremely powerful features for viewing, managing and organizing digital photos.

It’s not an alternative to Lightroom, but a photo managing tool with which load photo previews faster, add ratings, tags and color labels to your collection in a more efficient way, and add metadata to your digital photos (such as copyright, date, etc.), perform batch actions and much more.

The great thing about Photo Mechanic is that you can use it to organize your digital photos with your preferred editor too. 

You can use Lightroom and Photo Mechanic together and harness the power of both at the same time. Let me know in the comments below if you’d like an in-depth guide on how to use it in your workflow. 

You can download a free trial from their website.

Also, don’t forget to check my list of best photo organizing software

Doing Things Right the First Time

Organizing pictures on laptop

Your goal is to do the right thing immediately when it comes to organizing photos.

It’s essential to stick to a consistent routine when it comes to organizing and managing digital files.

For example, to develop your routine set a specific time to edit and organize your photos, or you’ll end up coming back to a mess of digital files and taking up more of your time than needed.

Some people like to wait until they backup their photos to their second hard drive. I believe the best possible thing to do is to delete any unwanted images immediately after copying them from your camera or smartphone and before editing in Lightroom.


If you want to organize everything neatly, it’s essential to stay consistent and experiment at the same time. 

Consistency and routine will help you get in the habit of doing things right away and saving you a lot of time.

Whatever way you decide to organize your photos, make sure to stick with it. Developing a system can take time, but if you keep to the same system, it will make a huge difference in the long run.

Shoot as many pictures as possible, delete them regularly, and organize and edit them with the right tools. Do it as soon as you get home!

I hope that you’ve learned what you needed from this article and that you’ll be able to put your digital photo organizing skills to use.

Take your photo editing skills to the next level, become more organized, and get the most out of every shot.

If you liked this article, don’t forget to share it with your friends right now!

[social_warfare ]
How to organize digital photos Pinterest pin


    1. Author

      Thank you Faith, I’m glad you found it helpful!

  1. Good, clear information I was looking for.thank for the effort.
    One question..Strongly considering Lightroom as my storage software and will get a large external hard drive..
    I’ve seen and read good things about Affinity as an editor and it avoids monthly fees that Adobe charges..Are the any compatibility issues between Lightroom and Affinity that you know of?

Leave a Comment