How Should You Organize Your Photos?

A Look at Current Options for Online Photo Management

Sample of iCloud Photo Library
iCloud Photo Library across various Apple devices. Apple, Inc.

You have too many photos, don't you? In fact, your computer has become mostly a place to store your photos and you just use your phone for most everything else, right? With thousands and thousands of photos, how do you find anything? And how come we haven't solved this problem already?

The problem now is that taking photos is essentially free and we just don't spend the time deleting them. This never used to be a problem because it was very expensive. You used to have to buy the film, pay for developing, and, finally, pay for printing. Years ago it wasn't unusual to get the film developed with Christmas pictures and with school graduations pictures on the same roll. Storing 60 pictures a year just wasn't a hassle.

Now, however, we shoot 60 at one barbecue. And we keep every. Single. One. So let's check out what we can do.

Here are the options we have for storing files:

  • As files
  • Photo Management Software
  • Online services

The File System as a Management System

This means just downloading the files from your camera/memory card and just storing the files. Which could mean a folder of tens of thousands of files... All with names like IMG_0589.jpg. Not very helpful. Although, how many times are can you name a file cat_playing, cat_playing2, cat_playing_657 before you don't remember which is which? You could store the files by dates so each year has a folder and then inside each year has a month and then inside each month has a day. That's pretty easy to understand, but it's a lot of manual work. For a long time that was the only option we had.

  • Easy to understand

  • Easy to backup

  • Very manual

  • Time-consuming

  • Not searchable

Photo Management Software

There are a lot of products out there that help you organize your photos the way you organize your music (think: iTunes). In fact, if you have a Mac there's a good chance you already have this software. It's called iPhoto and it's likely in the dock at the bottom of your Mac's (keep in mind, Apple just changed to a new program called Photos and it now ships on all new Macs). If you run Windows, a very popular option is called Picasa from Google as well as Windows Photo Gallery from Microsoft.

All of these programs let you organize your photos into virtual folders or albums. That means you have your main photo library (all your pictures) and you can divvy them up into more than one place. For example, you could have an album of little Joey's whole life and you could have an album of Christmas pictures that also contain some of the same photos from Joey's life. The software doesn't make a duplicate, however. It just knows how to display the photo in multiple places if you want it to. The more photos you store, however, the slower the program can run.

  • Easy to use

  • Very flexible

  • Can be slow

  • Harder to back up

Online Photo Services

All the big players (Google, Apple, Microsoft... even Amazon) have started services that will take all the photos you can upload. And, get this, some of them are totally free (or near it). Google's service is totally free and the services from Amazon and Microsoft are so affordable, they might as well be free. Apple's service (called iCloud Photo Library) costs a lot more than the competitors (up to $120/year), but it integrates so nicely with the iPhone, iPad, and Mac, it makes the service very compelling for folks in the Apple world.

While most of the online photos services rely on a local application on your device (iPhone, PC, etc) to view photos, some of them allow you to log into their system and view your photos that way. One of the great benefits of these systems is that even if your device can't hold every single photo, they make them available to you on demand (sort of like how streaming music services work).

  • All photos are always (in theory) available

  • Photos automatically backed up

  • Can use a lot of mobile data

  • Can be slow

  • Often has costs

  • Someone else has your photos

Which Should You Use?

If you just want to be told what to do:

iPhone/Mac/iPad User: Sign up for iCloud Photo Library and deal with the higher monthly payment; If money is tight, Google Photos is great
Android User: Sign Up for Google Photos
Windows User: Sign up for One Drive

The good news is if you'd like to explore each of the desktop applications the cost is zero since all of the programs (without their online storage) are totally free.