Does Library Folder Organization Matter?


Photographs © George A. Jardine

I keep reading from all the usual industry pundits that if you’re going to conquer the elusive goal of truly effective library organization, then you will have to adopt this or that folder structure. And although I’ve written a few myself, I’m beginning to rethink my position.

Even if folder organization does matter, there is very little consensus on the issue. Every photographer seems to make up their own library structure as they go along, and the world keeps right on turning. Photographers succeed by following their instincts and finding their own voice, so why would you expect them to behave any differently when it comes to organizing their digital libraries?

The important thing (in the short run…) is that you can find your photos. And so that should be the starting point for a discussion. Think about how you generally try to find any given photo or group of photos, once you have tens of thousands of them, and that might lead you to a surprising answer. (More about the long run later.)

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This goes back to an idea that I’ve been writing about for some time now; the way that we’ve learned to organize things in the real world tends to shape our thinking about how we should be organizing our digital world. Which is only natural. But does that approach make sense, when it comes to digital photos?

Think for a minute about where that thinking has taken us. In the real world, of course we organize by subject. We have drawers for specific kitchen utensils. And drawers for envelopes and stamps. We have places for our sox, and places for our underwear. And in the physical world, that makes sense.

Japanese Kitchen Knives

When we sit down at a computer, our natural instinct is to begin organizing by subject there, too. And this goes back to the beginning.

When desktop computers came along, a graphical interface with file and folder icons that you could drag around to “organize” was a huge innovation. It gave us a way to organize our computer documents that emulated the way we do things in the real world. And it worked great, at least for a while. It helped “the rest of us” get up to speed with computers. But once you had thousands of files, the system started to break down. The virtual mess inside of our computers became larger than the real mess in our offices.

I don’t know how many people will remember this, but there came a time when both Apple and Microsoft declared that future operating systems would eventually be just one big database. That files and folders would be going away, and when you needed something you would “search” for it.

Despite the fact that this probably was a very good idea, getting rid of the file system never got off the ground. (Until iPads came along, but that’s another story.) By the turn of the century, files and folders were just too ingrained to be taken away from us. Eventually Apple was able to give us a better way to work with certain types of digital media by using a database, and iTunes is probably the best example of that. In the case of your music, iTunes takes care of where it goes, and basically, you don’t care. When you want to find a song, you find it by artist, or album, or in a playlist. Which are all just methods of searching a database.

Random Materials

The logic of that seems like it should be inescapable. Once you have thousands upon thousands of “assets” in the computer, they essentially all look the same. And so good metadata becomes useful—even required. But photographers still tend to think in terms of organizing their digital photos into “places” (folders) by subject. After all, when you walked into a film library, you would know where to find a given piece of film, because you had given it a place. You gave it a place in the library, because in the physical world, you didn’t have any choice! The film has to go somewhere, and if you didn’t organize by subject in some form, you would never be able to find anything.

When it comes to computers, the inherent limitations of that approach should be pretty clear. But somehow that doesn’t prevent most photographers from following the same instinct when building a digital library.

345 Park Ave

Back in 2004 working at Adobe Systems, I was busy interviewing photographers, and thinking about their film libraries. We were in the early stages of Lightroom development, and wanted to understand how photographers thought about photo organization. The approach of one prominent underwater photographer left a lasting impression on me. He had shot 35mm Kodachrome all over the world, covering dozens of subjects. Each slide was filed in poly slide sheets, in stored in filing cabinets, by subject. The determination of that subject was of course, subjective, with no pun intended. If it was a photo of sharks, it was filed with other shark photos. But if the photo was taken in the Caribbean, it might get filed in that folder, by location. (Location is frequently treated as a subject by photographers, further complicating the issue.) If it was shot in the Caribbean and the photo had sharks in it, he had to make a choice. The original might go into the Sharks folder, while a film duplicate of it would also go into the Caribbean folder, and another might go into the Coral folder. Each with hand-written notes on the slide mount indicating where the original was. (Metadata!)

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One obvious downside to this strategy is that each roll of film was subject to being split up across dozens of filing cabinets, but such were the necessities of cataloging real objects in the real world. (One of the ideas that we get to in a moment, is that preserving the context of shoot order and chronology in digital libraries becomes very easy, and gives you a huge advantage over film libraries that are organized by subject.)

Anyway, back to digital photo libraries. Earlier I said that the folder organization you use doesn’t matter, as long as you can find what you’re looking for. And that truly is the heart of the matter. Because I’ll bet that if you can put your eyes on any given photo that you need in a moment’s notice, it won’t be by digging around in file folders. You will find it by using a search of one form or another. Even if you do sort your photos into folders by subject or location, once you have thousands upon thousands of them, the idea of where those bits are stored becomes meaningless. (Aside from the computer UI trick of file and folder icons, “where” is a meaningless concept in the computer anyway. But I digress.)


So if that’s the case, why do most photographers still sort their digital photos into folders by subject? Nearly every one of my friends, and every photographer I meet, still has top-level folders in their library, separating photos by subject or location very much the same way you would in a film library. Stock photos in this folder. Commercial assignments in this folder. Photos taken in NYC go into this folder. And photos of their family, or their partner, into another folder.

But what happens when you take a photo of your wife or husband while traveling to NYC? Which folder does that go into? And even though nearly every photographer working in digital has figured out how to use keywords to solve this rather than duplicating actual pixels, most digital libraries are still segregated by subject.

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I believe this is true simply because most photographers haven’t thought through why they do it this way. A set of requirements for your library structure can easily be created by looking at your personal workflow, and asking yourself how you typically set out to find your pictures.


For me, it’s all about keywords, or collections. If I’m looking for one of my “best” photos, that’s almost always going to mean one that I’ve used in a presentation, or published in a blog posting, or in a web gallery of some sort. And so I can always find my best photos within seconds, by looking in a short list of collections. (I stopped using star-ratings to try and create qualitative rankings a long time ago, once I realized how subjective they were. A 5-star photo in the context of any one day’s shoot, would almost never be a 5-star photo in the context of my larger library.)

Then, if a visual search in my collections doesn’t get me to the exact photo that I’m looking for, it usually leads me to a photo that I know to be from the same group of photos, or the same “shoot”. In this case I right-click on the related photo, choose Go to Folder in Library, and this takes me to the shoot folder. Once I’m there I see all the photos from the shoot, outtakes and all, in the exact order in which they were shot. With this context I can always get to the one photo I’m looking for, in just seconds.

If I am looking for a photo that isn’t in a collection, I’ll search by keyword. When I do a keyword search, it’s going to be a subject like “bridge”, or “wine”, or it’s going to be a location (“Mendocino”, or “Bangkok”), or maybe a person’s name. If a text search returns more than about 100 photos from my library, then chronology becomes important. At this moment the search again becomes visual, and seeing search results in chronological order gives me the context I need to be able to very quickly scan the grid, and zero in on the photo that I’m looking for. Usually within seconds, and even if it’s an outtake.

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And so in the end, what purpose does segregating actual photo files by subject really serve? (Other than to help you feel that you have everthing in “place”?) Once you’ve built a real library with tens of thousands of photos, do you ever really go into a folder looking for a photo by name? Or do you ever really need to copy or back up bits and pieces of your library by subject, as opposed to shoot folder?

I’m sure some photographers might answer yes to those questions. But for my library requirements, all I need is that my file and folder names give me enough metadata to sort chronologically, both in Lightroom, and in the file system (for archival and legacy purposes). For context in visual search mode, shoots are kept together one folder per shoot. And this is the smallest unit of folder organization in my library. Derivative files (panoramas, composites, etc.) are also managed by Lightroom, right in the same parent shoot folder as the source photo.

Does the fact that you have different file types or project types (such as panoramas or layered composite files) intermingling with the raw files in the shoot folder bother you? I say get over it. When do you ever need to look in there anyway, once you have a more logical way to find the bits that you’re looking for?

Do the pants in the back of your closet that no longer fit you, or the knives in your kitchen that you no longer use cause you to lose sleep at night?


Posted in Essays, Thoughts & Photos.