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Organizing Your Family Photos Collection

Helpful Tips


Commonly Seen in Our FamilySearch Library

A library patron comes in and spends several hours scanning a couple hundred family photos. The scanned files are moved from the local hard disk to one of their USB flash drives. That device is taken home and often nothing is done with it.

The USB flash drive contains an often non-descriptively named folder that the Kodak scanners applied, with several similarly named subfolders. The photo files themselves look something like these: image00001.jpg, image00002.jpg, image00003.jpg, etc.

After several visits to the library and probably a few thousand scanned documents and photos, they now have a variety of non-descriptively named folders on their flash drive, with filenames that are basically all similar to the above filenames. It's even possible that their photo files are stored on multiple USB flash drives, worse yet.

"I've Got My Photos All Scanned"

MANY HOURS have been consumed in getting all these photos and documents scanned, but the organization just doesn't happen because of time and lack of understanding as to how to organize them. Digital images are scattered across multiple devices without any sort of centralized folder system. In addition, the USB flash drives may become misplaced or corrupted over time.

Later, the younger family members have now inherited all the family history "stuff" including the digital images. They have absolutely no idea who the images belong to because they were never labelled nor organized.

Just as with our physical photo albums with nameless faces, we now have digital albums with nameless files, dates, etc. All that time spent in scanning with great effort, and in reality, it was an exercise in futility.

Organizational Strategies Are Very Important!

It's amazing how many people I have worked with over the years that struggle greatly with file organization. Files were found all over their hard drives, even in Windows System folders, in the "root directory", or the Program Files folder. "Oh…that's where those photos went!" When scattered all over the hard drive, these files essentially become "lost". Scattered files and folders become very hard to back up when they can not be easily located.

How will you organize your photo collection? The most important piece of advice? Keep your files under one centralized folder. Typically "operating systems" like Windows or Macintosh will have a "My Pictures" folder. You can use this data folder as a good starting point in centralizing your image collections. Under this main folder, you could create a "My Family Photos" folder.

AVOID putting your centralized folder in the "root directory" on the system disk. In other words, you should not see something like this: c:/My Family Photos. Trust me on this as the reasoning behind it is too complicated to fully explain here. It does involve however the ability to restore your Windows operating system and not overwrite your data files that are in the root directory. By keeping your files centralized, your photos can be easily backed up.

Suggestions For Creating Good Filenames

  • Creating good filenames goes a long way towards helping you later search for that file using your operating systems file explorer. Describe what is in the file using a series of short words. If it was a camping trip to Yellowstone in 1984 and Henry, Kate, and Milie are in the photo singing by the campfire, the filename could look something like this:
    1984, Henry, Kate, Millie, Yellowstone, campfire singing
    The filename doesn't have to be grammatically correct. The elements of the photo are in the filename and allow for searchability. There are better ways to ensure that a good photo description is searchable and that is by placing descriptive information into the metadata fields, which we will cover elsewhere on the main page..
  • I would suggest putting a date in front of your file names. By doing so, your files will always be sortable and can display in a timeline list. By having the date in front of your filename, it helps to create search criteria when looking for all files in a particular year. This is my preference only and you may decide you don't like seeing years in front of the filename.
    1984 - Henry, Kate, Millie in Yellowstone Singing Around Campfire

    Dates are easily sorted in the following formats:
    19840326 for 26 March 1984
    198403 for March 1984 or
    1984(03) for March 1984 - the month tends to stand out more with parentthesis
  • Let's say there is a photo with an unknown year, but the photo was probably taken in the 1950s or between 1950 and 1959. I want this photo to be appropriately sorted in the file list so I place a little "s" after the year, such as:
    1950s - Parley Rasmussen's Eagle Photo
    The file will then sort with the group of photos that have "1950" in front of them.
  • If you know the month and year of the photo, name your files something like this:
    1967(06) - Karen Smith's First Birthday OR
    196706 - Karen Smith's First BIrthday OR
    1935(11) - Charles Meyers in Stroller
  • If you are looking at large numbers of photos such as in a digital light table or as icons in a folder, you might try to add some additional sort words to the description after the date. By doing this, your photos will sort by year first and the event second. Examples could be::
    1967(06) - Birthday Party - Karen Smith AND
    1967(06) - Birthday Party - Karen & Friends
    1965 - Camping - Charles Meyers in Stroller AND
    1965 - Camping - Family Around the Campfire
    The example above works well if the number of files are, say in the 6 or less number. If there are larger groups of photos, you might want to try just keeping them in a folder as discussed next.
  • It's kind of nice to have larger groups of photos remain together. For example, my dad went overseas with the Navy in 1953. I kept all of his Nay photos in a FOLDER which I labelled as:
    1953 - Navy Reserves in Japan
    The folder then will sort with the photos labelled 1953. Is this necessary? It's personal preference to reduce the length of the file list when there are 100+ photos of that person. I could have just as easily just left the photos out of the folder and they would mix with other photos with that same year. However, if I have say 12 other non-Navy folders in the list, thost photo will probalby mix with the Navy ones, depending on how they are labeled. The files will sort first by numeric, then alphabetic.
  • The question comes up whether you should put spaces between characters in your label. It is perhaps a visual preference. I like to put spaces before and after the character "-" as you have probably noted in the filenames above. If you don't use them, the filename just becomes a single long string of connected characters that may not display as well in the File Explorer.

    There is nothing magical about using spaces between characters. Some of us still remember the old days of MS Dos where we were limited to only EIGHT characters. We can now have up to 256 characters in a filename, but that does any and all the number of characters of the subfolders as well.
  • I would recommend keeping those filenames fairly short, probably around 30 characters is good. If they become too long, the filenames are "clipped" or become less easily visible in the File Explorer.
  • Another important aspect of naming files. A large percentage of computer users are likely Windows users, and NTFS is the most commmon file system used. If you are an Apple Mac user, the most common file system is MacOS. They are pretty much compatible in reading filenames, but with slight differences.

    For Apple MacOS users, you are only limited to not using the character ":" (a colon). You also can not start a filename with a "." (period).

    For Windows users, you can not use these characters: / ? < > \ : * | " and also any character you can type with the Ctrl key.

Organize by Years & Events

Create a Centralized Folder


For my example, I created a folder called "Meyers Family Photos". This folder could be under the "My Pictures" folder. In my case, I have an entire folder dedicated to our family videos, newsletters, photos, etc. The photos folder is a subfolder under that main folder. The important point is to keep ALL your family photos in ONE CENTRAL PLACE.

Folders Created by Locations Lived


Because we moved around quite a bit through our married years due to education and Navy pursuits, we chose to organize our photos based on where we lived.

Notice the number before the location title. This allows the computer to automatically sort the locations from our first to last places of residence.

You may not have lived anywhere but in Idaho Falls, and so you may choose to only have a folder filled with separate "years" subfolders.

Folders Created by Specific Years


Having subfolders of "years" makes sense in many ways. If you have hundreds to thousands of photos, it is nice to have them separated into years. It certainly makes it easier to find a photo by going straight to the year that you are looking for. I would suggest that this type of subfolder is created.

Folders Created For Specific Events


Let's say you have several hundred photos that are associated with a certain year. Try to consolidate them into their separate "events". Events are items such as birthdays, trips, family visits, and so on. Notice that I placed a number in front of each event. That number represents the MONTH of the year. The computer will keep your folders sorted in a "timeline" for you.

Also notice that you may have 2 or more events in a single month. This is not a problem. Just put in the number of the month followed by the event title.

What if you multiple events in February and wanted them to be correctly shown in a sorted timeline. You could add some more sorting assistance by adding letters after your numbers. As an example: 2a), 2b), 2c), and so on.

Photos Labeled and Kept in Events Folders


The photos for each event are kept in their respective folders. You will want to label the photos with the names of the people in them. Don't make the filename too long, but do label them with specific information about the photo. Anything specific about the photo and in the filename makes it easier to search for that event or photo.

What do you do when multiple people are in the photos?

If there are more than 3 people or so in the photo, you probably don't want to put all those people's names in the filename. Consider adding additional document space to the bottom of the photograph so that you can type those names, the place or other comments below the photo.

Before scanning, you could write the names over the photo at the bottom, but then your photo will be forever "scarred" with the text should you wish to use the photo in a book. For an example of adding "space" below a photograph, click on the button below to see how this is done.

Additional Ways to Organize Using Metadata

There are additional organizational steps that you can take to make your files more easily searchable through the use of "Metadata". This is the ability to put additional descriptive information inside the actual image file. You don't see this information, except if you look at the "Properties" of the image. If you right click on the image, then click on "Properties", then the "Details" tab, you can find numerous data fields that can be used for additional information. Some of the fields are things like "City", "State", "Country", "Keywords", "Description (or Comments)", and so on.

Digital Asset Managers Can Greatly Enhance File Organization

What is Metadata?

Metadata is "invisible" data that is embedded within the digital file and will always stay with the file. This invisible data includes items such as titles, descriptions, keywords, location data such as city, state, & country, along with many other items. This information will always stay with the image files. There is inherent organization outside of a folder structure system that can be accessed to find, sort, move, your files. Shared files to family members does not remove this metadata.

Technically, you wouldn't even need an organized folder system AS LONG AS you assigned good metadata to your files.

How Can Metadata Help Me Find Files?
  • If my name, "Stephen Meyers", had been added as a Keyword or Tag to each of the photos I was present in, I could search with that keyword in my collection of 43,000+ family photos and only those photos of me would be displayed.
  • If there are multiple people in a photo, I could add each of their names to the photo file as separate keywords. Let's say I wanted to find all the photos with Persons A, D, and L. Using an "ANY" keyword search type, against thousands of photos only the photos with either of those 3 individuals would show up in the search list. I could make the search an "ALL" search type and only photos where all 3 of those individuals are present would be displayed.
  • Use the description field to add information about the photo such as what happened on a camping trip, or information about the person in the photo, etc.
  • The location metadata fields, like City, State, Country will also pinpoint where the photograph was taken. You could create a search for all the photos of "Idaho Falls" for example and only those photos would be displayed.
  • When photos are scanned, the "Date Created" field defaults to the day they were scanned or created. Suppose you want to make that creation date the actual date of the camp trip, or birthday party date, etc. You can modify that date to reflect WHEN the photo was actually taken.
  • There are many other field types that can also be used. There are different "groups" of data fields. The most common ones you will probably use are the "IPTC Core" fields though.

Adding metadata information to photos is quick and easy when using digital asset managers like Adobe Bridge, ACDSee, PhotoMill, darkTable, and many others. This information can be digitally written to numerous files in one easy batch. Most photographers with MANY thousands of photographs will typically use a good digital asset manager. In my family photo collection spanning almost 50 years, we have over 43,000 photos that we have taken.

Assigning metadata to documents requires you to manually write the information into the metadata fields from the specific app you are using, like Microsoft Word, for example. Despite the extra work, this greatly enhances searchability of files when you may have tens of thousands of file across multiple hard drives.

Pro: These apps can really help quickly organize a lot of photos, just as if you were looking at a slide sorting table. Metadata can also be easily applied in big batches.

Con: There can be a bit of a learning curve to using them. Some asset managers import your files into their own proprietary database to help you attach metadata, create filter queries, etc to find photos. When that type of software is no longer supported, then all of the organizational changes you have made are no longer available to you. Most commonly however, asset managers simply use your hard drives file structure to help you organize, filter, edit, etc. In other words, for the latter type of software, should it go away, you don't really lose much.

I have used ACDSee (a paid software app) for several years to help with organizing photos. However, Adobe now allows you to use their Creative Cloud digital asset manager called Adobe Bridge for free. I recently tried Bridge and it is actually pretty good and in some ways better than my ACDSee software. The two things that are annoying are 1) you have to install their Creative Cloud software with Bridge, and 2) it didn't work well in my Windows 10 virtual machine running on my Apple computer. However, the MacOS version does run well. I will try to get some basic tutorials out in the near future to show you how these work.

Adobe Bridge

In Summary

Create a Good Organizational Strategy BEFORE You Start Collecting Files

You do not need to adopt any specific organizational strategy. We tend to organize in a way that we as individuals "think" and organize in our mind. You can always try out a few ideas and ask family members or others what they think. Ultimately, in the future it is your posterity that will need to know how to access and find your photos and resources. Creating an organizational system BEFORE you start collecting very many image will help to alleviate trying to later find out where you previously stuffed them in your computer. This can become a painful task of trying to find your files, revise labelling, creating duplicates, or accidentally "losing" files.


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Our own personal heritage and that of our ancestors will be lost to subsequent generations unless we take steps to actively preserve it.

Site Maintained by:

Stephen A Meyers of Idaho Falls, Idaho