Photo File Management Made Easy - Step I

With the 2007 holiday season now past, millions of people will be snapping hundreds and thousands of pictures with their shiny new digital cameras they got for Christmas. Heather and I both have Canon digital SLRs and although we're not professional photographers, we had a huge problem that will soon befall many digital camera owners:

Where the heck do we store, protect and effectively organize our photo libraries?

Our collection started off innocently enough - With loads of hard disk space (100GB), we stored each photo on our respective laptops. If I wanted a photo of Heathers, she would put it on a memory card and I would copy it to my laptop. We quickly outgrew this method of photo sharing for a few major reasons: duplicate photos, missing photos and inadequate storage space. To complicate things, I'm a Mac user and Heather uses Windows. We had an interim method for sharing photos: I would be the "keeper" of the photos on my Mac using iPhoto, but I quickly started to use up my hard drive space and since all of my photos were on my laptop, it become a single source of failure in the event it was stolen, or the hard drive failed. Another challenge was that iPhoto doesn't exist for Windows, so we had to find something for her too. Finally, after much thought and evaluation, I've found a solution that works. Store your photos in a central location One of the biggest challenges with a photo collection is keeping them secured in a central repository. The device that stores your photos should be redundant in the event of a failure and protected from electrical surges using an uninterrupted power supply (UPS). To answer the call for a centralized repository, I purchased a 1 terabyte Hewlett Packard Media Vault to store all of our photos. The Media Vault is network attached storage device that supports gigabit network access and hard disk mirroring. With 1TB of capacity, mirroring the hard disks effectively gives me 500GB of redundant storage. My configuration (2x 500GB drives, plus the Media Vault) will probably run you about $650. The Media Vault is based on the Linux operating system and an argument could be made for building a linux or windows based computer to do the same job as the MediaVault, but I liked the simplicity of the HP device. I think many average photographers would rather have a dedicated, no hassle appliance as well. In the event of the Media Vault suffers a physical hard drive failure, I know that my pictures will be safe and sound on the other hard drive (since they're running in a mirror). Every so often, I back-up the entire NAS to dual layer DVDs (labeling them by month/year) or to an external Firewire hard drive. That's the storage side of things taken care of, as long as my photo collection is under 500GB. After that, I need a larger capacity NAS at which point, I'll probably go 5TB RAID level 5, but they're a bit pricey at the moment. Use a Standard Naming Convention and Directory Structure As I write this, my photo library is about 40GB. Each photo is approximately 2-3MB and I have just over 9,000 photos. The library is expanding rapidly now that Heather and I started making "photo outings". When it comes to physical directory structure, it took me a while to find something that works. In the end, I came up with a way that's simple to maintain and enables me to find photos quickly. Below is a screenshot from my Media Vault that shows the folder structure from January through to July 2007, with July's folder structure expanded:

Using the above photo as an example, here are a few rules I go by when copying my photos to the NAS:
  1. The top level of the photo folder has all the months. It goes by the format: YYYY-MM (MMM). So, January 2008, would be 2008-01 (Jan). I find it convenient to have the month in alpha as well numeric (if I didn't use the alpha, I do this ridiculous finger counting thing on my hands to figure out the months).
  2. Expanding the month folders reveals specific dates, or date ranges. No matter what, I never put folders directly in the month folder. If you must, create a "Random Shots" folder and put them in there.
  3. To get a bit more specific, for folder names, I'll use [MMDD - <EVENT NAME>]. Examples:
    • '0722 - Tigers at Comerica Park', to describe a Tigers game on July 22.
    • '0727-28 - Poo Incident of '07', describes the "fun" we had July 27 and 28 weekend in 2007 while replacing the ejector pump in the cottage septic tank.
    • 'Random Shots', If there's a specific event, sometimes I'll use that instead of the day as in the case of Canada Day at Pearce's Point.
  4. I used to rename all of my photo files, but I don't really bother anymore. You can if you like, but if I may make a suggestion - always keep the original file name your camera gives the photo for reference just in case. So 'IMG_8787.JPG', would be renamed 'MyBirthday001 (IMG_8787.JPG)'
  5. Sometimes Heather and I will have a "photoshoot." We'll go on a trip somewhere and each of us will come home with 1,000 photos. When this happens, I generally create the folder and append our initials to the event. I don't have an example in the above screenshot, but it looks like this:
    • 1110-13HW - Vegas Trip, describes Vegas pictures taken between November 10 and 13, by Heather Williams
    • 1108-13BL - Vegas Trip, describes Vegas pictures taken between November 8 and 13, by Ben Lucier
My photo collection goes back to 1999 using this naming convention and I've found it to be surprising scalable and easy to use, even without a fancy photo management application. You can't underestimate the importance of a good photo management application like iPhoto, Aperture or Adobe Lightroom, but the first step in having an organized photo library is to build a directory structure and naming convention that works. When I have some more time, I hope to write about some of the applications that you can use to connect to your NAS and manage the rest of your photo workflow. If you have any comments or suggestions on this article that you think might be helpful, please let me know! I'm an amateur photographer and I'm always looking for ways to improve what I do. Let me sign off with a photo of the now famous Haliburton Poo Incident of '07:

That's me in the septic getting ready to pull out the ejector pump (guess what THAT does). I think we were laughing so hard because of the smell and I was probably getting told to "get back down there" by Mike, a good friend of the family.



10 responses
[...] January, 2008 by Heather Ben wrote a great post about photo file management (so read it too!) but I’m zipping off this post at…what is it? Almost 2 a.m. (yeesh!) [...]
Great post. Good thing you thought of something, those files were getting away from us!
How are you able to preserve the directory structure that way on the HP Media Vault AND on your Mac? Doesn't iPhoto create its own directory structure which is totally non usable if you were to access the directory through Finder? It's just one of my pet peeves and deterrents from switching to a Mac.

With iTunes on a Mac and on a PC it's simple. You have your own directory and you just drag and drop files into iTunes. With iPhoto as far as I understood from talking to Apple reps many times, you can't have your own directory structure (e.g. Pictures > 2008 > Trip to New York) because iPhoto simply doesn't allow you to do so. The only possible way that I see it could be done is if you were to create that directory structure on the HP Media Vault yourself and drag and drop the necessary files from iPhoto manually into the appropriate folders. I can't help but be frustrated at how iPhoto is not able to dynamically mimic the contents of my Pictures folder the way Picasa is able to.

You've found the major drawback to iPhoto - It forces you to store your photo library in one location. If you REALLY want to stick with iPhoto, you can have two libraries - one on your Mac and one on a network storage device. To do this, hold down the option key while you start iPhoto, it will ask you to choose a library, or create a new one. If you'd like to create a library on a server located on your network, this is where you do it. However, if you're computer is no longer connected to the network, your photos will be unavailable.

I'd suggest using Aperture or Lightroom if you have lots of photos. When you import them, you can tell Aperture and lightroom to copy to a NAS, but keep thumbnails locally, drastically reducing the amount of space required on your laptop or PC.

Lightroom and Aperture will both also let you keep a mix of files local and on the network... which is what it sounds like you want to do Andrew. I have a friend for example, who will keep the current month's photos local, and then moving them to an external hard drive at a later date.

Hope this helps.

Thanks Ben,

I was referring to a slightly different issue with iPhoto. I'm not interested in storing photos on a NAS. Instead I'd like keep all of them locally stored on the internal hard drive and do incremental backups of everything (music, photos, docs, etc) to a NAS on a daily basis. The problem is that iPhoto messes up the directory structure on the hard drive and won't allow you to organize it the way you want to (e.g Photos > 2008 > New York Trip > IMG_001, IMG_002, etc.) Instead it creates a directory of its own erasing the one you have and makes you do everything through its interface. I exemplified Picasa because it's able to display the file structure that's on my hard drive and it dynamically update itself whenever I delete a photo or a folder from the hard drive. Essentially, Picasa mimics the file structure on my hard drive.

I might be mistaken but I interpreted the screenshot from your Media Vault directory as your iPhoto library structure on your Mac hard drive. That's what I'm interested in--preserving the file structure of my choice on the hard drive while having the same structure of albums in iPhoto. I just don't understand the philosophy "Forget about what's on your hard drive and do what you need to do through iPhoto, iTunes, etc" I want to have control over the file structure on my hard drive and iPhoto/iTunes should recognize the changes on the hard drive automatically. What if I want to access a certain photo from a PC at home through my home wireless network? Where would I find it? I don't have iPhoto on my PC, hence the only way to do it is to navigate to the photo on the Mac hard drive. As far as I know, it's impossible in the present time given the way iPhoto organizes information and creates its own weird file structure that defies common sense.

The only reasonable alternative that I see is running Picasa in VMWare Fusion mode to manage my photos, but that would require me to purchase a copy of Windows Vista (I actually don't have any problems with it despite the uproar of negative comments all over the web). I think I would end up using Windows Media Player 11 too in Fusion mode since iTunes just doesn't cut it for me for listening to mp3s before adding them to my iTunes library and watching divx, xvid and avi files which are not supported by QuickTime player. Besides, I would be able to run whatever program I want that's not available for Macs.


I see what you're saying. I don't know of any programs that dynamically adjust to changes to the filesystem. That's why I started storing my files on the network in a standard way-- so my Mac and my PCs could access the content.

Although you can't change HOW iPhoto stores the photos, you can see them if you right click on the iPhoto library, then click "show package contents". Another window will pop up, then you can click on "originals" (that's where your photos are stored, without modifications) and you will see a directory structure organized by date (ie. 2006, 2007, 2008). When you open the year folders, you'll see album folders with names, or just more dates. Click on those folders, and you will see the images.

To back up your photos, you simply backup the iPhoto Library package and you're done. Let me know if you find what you're looking for.

PS: I run TinyXP inside a Parallels session on my MacBook Pro. It's awesome. Vista's ok, but you gain nothing running it inside a VM session.

hi ben-
this is a really helpful post and something i've been (unsuccessfully) grappling with for ages now. i have a mac in my painting studio, my husband has a macbook pro, and we have an imac in our den with an account for each of us. meanwhile there are photos on each cpu, duplicates on both as well as non-dupes. and we both want access to the whole enchilada. the thing is a mess, but we just bought a network storage device and plan try to get everything onto it. my question is this: once i have everything on this storage device, along with those smart naming conventions, what next? we were using iphoto, but just received my copy of aperture 2.0 today which i plan to use instead. seems like 1) overkill and 2) missing the point to then import everything into aperture on our respective computers. redundancy galore.

any suggestions on how to work this part of it out?
also, any tips for importing everything onto the network drive so that i don't get potentially 3 copies of some photos?

i am trying to compile a simple photo file system for my husband.
he works for the contruction of roads and has many photos on his laptop.
pls help me urgently


Hi, thank you very much for the well laid out "mind map" type structure. I do have one question though. What do you do if a certain event overlaps two diferent months. For eg. you download photos that's dated 2010-04-27 up to 2010-05-09 and all of those photo's are part of a certain holliday?

I have been struggling with a workflow system for a while, but I will probably end up using PS Lightroom & Capture NX , but still I need to choose how LR imports my photo's.

Thank you in advance for your help, you have been of great help already!

I see what you're saying. I don't know of any programs that dynamically adjust to changes to the filesystem. That's why I started storing my files on the network in a standard way-- so my Mac and my PCs could access the content.
Although you can't change HOW iPhoto stores the photos, you can see them if you right click on the iPhoto library, then click "show package contents". Another window will pop up, then you can click on "originals" (that's where your photos are stored, without modifications) and you will see a directory
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