Back in the old days before the advent of digital photographs, losing the occasional family picture was a hard fact of life. Image storage relied on keeping negatives that you could use to make duplicates, but if you happened to lose both negative and print, you were pretty much S.O.L. Nowadays, the lifespan of the average snapshot has been extended — but in a way, that’s only made it much harder to keep track of things. If you’ve ever looked at your colossal digital photo collection and thought to yourself “How am I ever going to organize this mess?” then this article is for you.
First Step: Organize the Mess
Before you start about the task of organizing the digital photos already on your hard drive, the first step you should take is to import all images off your camera or smartphone. These days, with the radically increased amount of mobile device storage space and the addition of SD cards, it’s entirely possible that you could have hundreds if not thousands of snapshots on your smartphone without even realizing it.
The best thing to do prior to moving your digital photos off your smartphone or camera is to ensure they’re tagged appropriately. Naming conventions are important when it comes to organizing your photos and in many cases, pictures are automatically assigned numerical file names based on dates and times. If your smartphone gallery is literally bursting at the seams, this may make going through and renaming each photograph a major pain — but think about all the time you’ll be saving further down the line when you’re searching for something specific. It’s also a good idea to go through your device and delete any images you don’t want to waste precious storage space on, like blurry photos or accidental pocket-pics.
If you don’t want to go through each and every image and your camera or smartphone stores groups of pictures in individual folders, at least consider going through and assigning names to those folders so they’ll be easier to identify later on. Keep your naming conventions consistent and design those names for easy reference further down the line. For example, you may want to assign names by date like this: “2014_05_25_Sunday_Picnic.” This will ensure that when your photos are catalogued, you’ll be able to sort them by year, month, date, and special occasion.
Don’t go crazy with too much description, though. File names on Windows and Mac computers are limited to a maximum of 260 characters, including file extensions like JPG or RAW. Use dashes, underscores, or periods only since Windows computers and Macs don’t accept things like slashes, question marks, colons, asterisks, and other oddball characters you might be moved to use.
Geo-tagging photos as they’re taken can also be a useful tool for helping to organize your digital pictures in advance. Sorting your photos by location will help you better sort them prior to exporting them elsewhere and can be effective at keeping photos from getting mixed up in other albums.
Next Step: Importing Your Photos
Most computers have pretty effective, built-in programs that will help you import photos from your smartphone or camera without having to refer to a user’s manual or consult your local computer geek. As long as you have a Mac or a PC you’ll be able to transfer your photos to your computer using one of these simple to use programs.
Known for its ability to digitally enhance and fine tune your pictures, iPhoto is a powerful tool for Macs and iOS devices that enables you to easily organize and import all of your digital photos to your desktop. During the importing process, iPhoto automatically arranges and organizes your digital images using geo-tags, face recognition, dates, and more. Browsing through your photographs is made even easier by iPhoto’s ability to automatically group your photographs by month so you don’t have to spend an eternity trying to find that especially awesome selfie to set as your Facebook profile pic. iPhoto comes with a series of image editing functions and is ideal for sharing photos across multiple devices on a network as well as automatically uploading images to Facebook, Flickr and Picasa.
Although it’s not free, you can download iPhoto to your iOS device for just $4.99 from the Apple App Store. The good news is that once you download it, it’ll work across all of your existing iOS devices. It’s also available as a desktop suite for your Mac for $14.99. As of October 2013, Apple began offering the entire Apple Creativity apps suite (formerly known as iLife, which includes iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand) free for all purchases of new Macs and iOS devices — so depending on when you bought your device, you may not have to pay anything at all.
Microsoft Windows Photo Gallery
If you’re a Windows PC user, you have access to Microsoft’s native photo platform called Windows Photo Gallery. While it works great as an importation and organization program, Windows Photo Gallery also comes with a host of editing features that let you do things like eliminating red-eye from snapshots, straighten crooked shots, crop, retouch, color balance, and more. You can also establish presets if you don’t want to mess around with color saturation or tint.
Another interesting feature of Windows Photo Gallery is something called Photo Fuse, which performs the nifty trick of merging a series of similar photographs to give you the best possible result. For example, if you took a series of group photos and someone was blinking, Photo Fuse lets you pick and choose from among the best representations of each individual and brings it all together for the perfect, unspoiled shot.
Windows Photo Gallery is also compatible with social media sites, allowing you to upload your images to sites like Facebook without much of a hassle. While it doesn’t have the capability to perform facial recognition, you can use a feature called “people tag” which gives you the ability to find images of friends and family members easily on your computer. Geo-tags, captions, ratings, and flags are also supported which makes the process of organization all the easier and gives you a wide range of options to get your digital photographs in order the way you prefer.
Compatible for both devotees of iOS or Android, Picasa is a highly functional platform that performs triple duty as a digital photo organizer, a decent editing program, and an easy way to share your photos with other users outside of your immediate computer network. The latter function is a great way to share albums of photos with friends and family without having to email large files or post them publicly on social media sites for everyone to potentially see. To make things easier, Picasa comes with 1 GB of free online storage. Aside from its basic but useful editing features, Picasa also offers organizational features similar to iPhoto in that it can perform facial recognition and geo-tagging during import to make images much more easily discoverable on your computer.
Last Step: Backing Up Your Photos
Your computer isn’t going to last forever, and neither is your external hard drive. A scary thought — especially when you’re counting on that costly hardware you spent your hard-earned money on to store your important files. But the reality is, crossing your fingers and hoping you won’t experience a massive data loss is a fool’s game. And putting off taking steps to ensure your photos are safely backed up is only inviting the inevitable.
Don’t tempt fate. Explore your options instead. Your two choices are to back up your photos to physical CD/DVD or to store them in the cloud — or both. Whatever you do, bear in mind that even state-of-the-art CDs and DVDs are also corruptible and may not last as long as you thought they would. Sure, there’s plenty of information out there that guesstimates their shelf life to be anywhere from 30 to 100 years. But there are other factors to consider, not the least of which include their susceptibility to becoming lost or physically damaged.
Unless you’re the type to rent out a safety deposit box to store your disc-burned family photos, storing them to the cloud is your best bet. The only drawback there is that it costs money to store a lot of data in the cloud. There are many services out there that offer free storage, but it’s not unlimited and eventually you’re going to run out of space. On the upside, paying a monthly fee for cloud storage gives you the ability to access your pics and vids wherever you are and whatever device you’re on. Here’s a rundown on a couple of the most effective cloud storage services you likely already have at your fingertips.
If you’re an iOS user, you’re probably familiar with iCloud — the de facto cloud storage service for all things iPhone, iPad and Mac. With iCloud, you can choose to automatically back up all photos you have stored across your Apple devices to a single location called Photo Stream — an option you can enable in your device settings. The cool thing about Photo Stream is that it will store up to 1,000 photos for free, up to 30 days. It’s not so cool for the same reasons. If you’re a shutterbug, that 1,000 file limit may not be enough and the 5 GB storage limit that iCloud offers can fill up quickly. But it’s an effective service to enable if you want to upload your photos to the cloud so that you’ll have enough time to move them to a more permanent location — hence the 30-day time limit.
Note: Photo Stream is, as described, only for photos and doesn’t work with video.
Available to Android and iOS users alike, Google Drive gives you 15 GB of free space where you can wirelessly upload and store all of your irreplaceable digital photos. While Android users have it easy with the ability to automatically upload and store photos straight from their devices, iOS users are required to take the additional step of manually uploading their cache of life’s precious moments to the online server.
Using Google Drive, you have the option of uploading photos in full resolution or standard size. This second option effectively resizes your photos to reduce the amount of space you’re using. Keep in mind that uploading full resolution images eats away at that free 15 GB of space, but you can store a limitless number of photos to your Google+ account in the smaller, standard format. If you’re determined to keep all of your photos in the best possible resolution, you have the option of purchasing additional cloud storage space from Google. If you run up against the limits of your 15-gig free allotment without upgrading, Google will automatically begin saving your digital pics in the lower quality, standard format.
If you’re not into spending money for storage, you could feasibly upload a massive number of digital photos to the cloud by taking the mix ‘n match approach by using the free storage offered by services like Google Drive, Dropbox, and other cloud services. This is an option that could work to your benefit if you’re especially good at juggling and remembering where you stored what — and if you took our earlier advice and labeled your images properly. Otherwise, your best bet is to shell out some cash for a cloud storage account that will let you keep all of your digital photos in one, safe location.