Organizing and Backing Up Digital Photos

Winter Ghost Trees

With all the digital pictures we make so easily with cameras and phones, it's easy to "lose" them on your hard drive. In this post, I'm going to describe some simple steps you can take to organize your digital photos and back them up for safe-keeping.

What I describe below is a Do-It-Yourself method of organizing your pictures. If you would rather trust this process to some photo organizing software, you may want to check out Picasa, a free program from Google. After you install it (works on both Macs and Windows), it will search your hard drive for all photos and organize them inside Picasa. But your pictures will remain scattered all through your hard drive. If you want to organize your photos at the hard disk level, then follow the steps below BEFORE you use Picasa.

The first step is the most important. Decide on an organization method and follow it. Begin with your newest pictures, the ones you download today. Here's what I suggest.
  1. Keep all your pictures in one folder on your hard drive. Both Windows and Mac computers make this easy; they each have a folder already made called "Pictures" (or "My Pictures" on older Windows systems). Use it.
  2. Inside the Pictures folder, create a folder named for the current year (2011). If you just dump your pictures into the Pictures folder, you'll have to look through thousands to find the one you want. This way you break the photos up into annual folders. Next year create a new folder for 2012
  3. Inside the year folder (2011), make a new folder with the month and date you took the pictures and a brief description of the location, event or subject. For example, 02-14-Valentines-Day-Party. I recommend that you use numbers for the month instead of words and that you use two-digit numbers for January (01) through September (09). All computers sort folders and files by numbers before letters. Including two-digit numbers ensures that January (01) comes before October (10).
  4. Download (copy) the new pictures into the new folder you have just created for them.
So now you have the following set-up:

      Pictures folder > 2011 folder > 02-14-Valentines-Day-Party folder

If several people share the computer, then inside the Pictures folder you could make folders with each person's name (e.g Mike and Julie). Inside those folders, continue with the naming suggestion above. Then you might have a folder set-up that looks like this:

Folders for Each Person with Year and Even subfolders

A Note About Names
On all computers there are some characters we use in typing that are not appropriate for folder names (or file names, either). The best technique is to use only numbers, letters, hyphens (-) and underscores (_) for names of folders. (Picture names can include one period before the file extension, such as Photo1.jpg but no where else.) Notice that there is no other punctuation and no spaces in the sample folder names above. This keeps your computer happy.

Back Up
In the world of digital information, including photos, the way to protect the information from damage or loss is to make more than one copy of it. In the digital world copies are just that, exact duplicates of the original photo or folder. In the case of your digital pictures, I recommend you do one of two things to make a back-up copy:
  1. Burn (save) the new pictures to a CD-R or DVD-R disk (do not use CD-RW or DVD-RW disks). In the example, you would burn the 02-14-Valentines-Day-Party folder to a disk. You might want to include the year in the disk title, like this 02-14-2011-Valentines-Day-Party. OR
  2. Copy the pictures to an external hard drive using the same folder and naming structure you created above. 
For example, on a Windows computer the Pictures folder (and the year and event folders) lives on your C drive.  If you attach an external hard drive with a USB cable, that new hard drive might be called the D drive. Select the Pictures folder on your C drive, choose Copy from the Edit menu. Then switch to the D drive and choose Paste from the Edit menu. Now your pictures exist in two places. For future folders, you only have to copy and paste the new folder you make, not all the previous ones.

If you use a Mac, your main hard drive is usually called Mac HD; you can name your external hard drive anything you like. The rest of the process is the same.

For an extra measure of safety, do both: burn a CD or DVD and back up to an external hard drive.

What About Old Photos?
Now that you have an organizing system for your newest photos, you might want to work on all the older pictures you have on your hard drive and put them into this new organization. I'll describe how to do this in another post.