Organize Your Photos

Over the recent holidays, I took about a hundred photos around the house. I also filled a memory card while photographing wolves at a nearby wildlife refuge, and, just a few weeks ago, snapped a truckload of "light trail"-style night photos from a pedestrian overpass in Las Vegas.

In Video: How to Fix (and Find) Your Photos

Every one of those photos has found its way onto my PC, and that's in addition to the thousand or so photos I took during 2006 alone.

Finding a specific photo is a daunting task. Heck, with so many photos, I often completely forget that some shots ever happened, and I'm surprised when I find them by accident months later. Clearly, it's time to get organized.

Renaming or Tagging?

I'll be honest with you: I don't think that renaming your photos is a particularly effective way to get organized. Renaming photos is slow and tedious, and when you're done, it only makes your photos marginally easier to find. I far prefer the newfangled solution of tagging your photos with metadata.

If you haven't heard me rant about the virtues of tagging already, here's what I'm talking about: Using photo organizer software, you can assign "tags" or "keywords" to each of your photos. If you put a little thought into your tags, you can create a dozen or so categories that reflect all the common photo subjects you routinely shoot: family, pets, holidays, soccer practice, Elvis sightings, and so on.

It's about the same amount of work as renaming photos, but when you want to see all your holiday photos, just click that tag in your photo organizer and you'll see them all. Plus, you don't have to type the same tag over and over. Create a tag once, and then just drag and drop photos to that tag to assign it.

File Renaming Options

That said, I understand that not everyone wants to go to the trouble of tagging, and not everyone owns the appropriate software. If that sounds like you, at least you can rename your photos from obscure camera-speak like DSC000023 to "Barbara at the beach."

I'm sure you already know that Windows makes it easy to rename your photos in bulk. Select a large set of photos--say all 20 or 30 that you took on New Year's Day. Right-click and choose Rename, then type "New Years-2006" and press Enter. You'll find the entire series of photos takes that name, with a sequential number added to the end. That'll make it a lot easier to find relevant photos by scanning the folder's contents or using Search. But make sure you rename your pictures early and often--if you procrastinate, you'll end up with thousands of images to rename, and it'll never get done.

If you really get into organizing your photos by file name, the Windows method may start to seem kind of anemic. For beefier file naming, try a favorite program of mine. For just $10, Name Dropper lets you create a slew of name fragments and assign them to a dozen customizable buttons. To rename photos, combine the fragments into descriptive compound names.

Or try Siren, a free program that gives you access to the metadata associated with your photos. You can combine snippets of info like your camera model, ISO, exposure data, lens information, and date taken to create truly informative file names for your photos, automatically.

Tagging: The Way of the Future

Renaming your image files was fine in 1997, but these days I highly encourage you to try tagging them. There are some superb photo organizers out there with great photo tagging features. My favorites include Adobe Photoshop Elements--which comes with Photoshop Album--and Microsoft Digital Image Suite, which features Digital Image Library. Both programs let you assign tags to your photos (Digital Image Library calls them Labels) and then swoop in to see any set of photos that correspond to any term you choose.

Reader Kevin Fenn recently voiced a concern about this approach, though: "It seems that all organizers have their own way of tagging. But if a better program comes along and you want to switch, the information doesn't follow the photos and you have to do it all over in the new program. Is there an organizer that allows you to store the information in the metadata of a picture so that it will follow the file?"

That's a great question. In the old days, that was a serious problem. No one wants to lose hours and hours of work tagging photos just because they later upgrade to new software. The good news is that if you use Adobe's software, you can force Adobe Album to write all of its tags to the photo metadata. And if you use Digital Image Suite, Library does it automatically, without even being told. That's one reason why I like those programs so much.

And if you're considering stepping up to Windows Vista, rest assured that the included Photo Gallery stores its tags in the photos as well. For more information on getting organizing with Windows Vista, read my articles on the subject: "Digital Photography Goodies in Vista, Part 1" and "Digital Photography Goodies in Vista, Part 2."

Hot Pics

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique. Every month, the best of the weekly winners gets a prize valued at between $15 and $50.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This Week's Hot Pic: "Welcome to Earth," by Jim Harris, Jacksonville, Florida

Jim writes: "This newly metamorphosed frog was a tadpole in our pond just a few days before I took this photo. Now it sticks to our house at night. This was not an easy shot to take; just as I got the close-up I was looking for, the frog would jump off the wall and into the shrubbery. I could sometimes chase him back onto the wall for another try or I would sit down in the shrubs and just wait him out. In this instance, my family had long gone to bed, when there he was. I set my Nikon Coolpix 3200 on high resolution, turned on the flash, and eased in close. A great shot, but it took a lot of mosquito bites to get it."

Hot Pic of the Month: Each month we choose one of our weekly winners to be the Hot Pic of the Month. For January, we chose "Spider's Web," by Walt Durling, from Strasburg, Pennsylvania.

Congratulations to Walt and to everyone else who won a Hot Pic of the Week last month. Keep those entries coming!

See all the Hot Pic of the Week photos online.

Have a digital photo question? Send me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have the Digital Focus Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

This story, "Organize Your Photos" was originally published by PCWorld.

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