How to Organize Your Digital Photos

photo album
Photo: Getty
Bringing order to the chaos of digital pics.

When I think of the boxes of pictures that sit stuck together in my parents' attic, never sorted, I think how lucky I am to be of the digital camera generation -- no piles and piles of pics, just mounds and mounds of megabytes. But then I realize that my pictures are virtually stuck together -- that is, stuck in the bowels of my laptop. I have them somewhere, I know, but exactly where, I couldn't really say.

That's where the “o" word comes in. Yes, organization. Even when pictures are digitized, we unfortunately can't avoid that most dreaded task. If you don't, you'll be sorry when you go looking for that great shot of DH standing atop an active volcano, and all you can find is the CD case that once held it. Here, 7 tips to make organizing digital pics a snap.

1. Don't save everything
Resist the urge to hold onto bad pics or duplicates (how many do you really need of you giving the dog a bath?). Filter first by deleting the ill-framed shots before you download them onto your computer. That way, you'll keep your hard drive free of oddball shots and reserved for only the best pics. In your zeal to save space, however, don't skimp on picture size. If you want to enlarge an image later, and don't have a decent file size, you won't get a good printout. Your safest bet is to use the highest or next-highest file size (usually 2 to 4MB) when saving images. That said, if you have lower priority pics that you're just going to be emailing to relatives, a lower resolution is fine.

2. Name wisely
Don't rely on the gobbledygook that the computer automatically gives a photo (who can remember whether “10YUTJ24" shows your dog Buster licking his bowl or your MIL sneering at you from the corner?). Make sure the names you use indicate what they are. You may find that numbering your photos is useful when trying to remember what sequence the pictures were taken. But for a quick-to-find, organized system, it's best to be as descriptive as possible -- with the subjects, location, and dates.

3. Transfer to a disk
Save your digital pics onto a high-quality DVD or CD. And, to ensure that picture data is read successfully, use the “verify data" option on your CD/DVD writing software when making a copy. To be completely anal, uh, safe, make two copies of each CD or DVD. Keep one with you and the other in a safe place, such as a safety deposit box. Proper labeling applies here as well. So that you won't forget what's on each disk, use a similar labeling process you used when storing the images on your computer. Back up pictures on CDs every six months and label according to the time period. Use a permanent marker on the inner round of the disk so that over time, the ink won't get on the data.

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4. Utilize photo websites
But don't trust just any old site. Before you upload, make sure you know the terms -- will they delete the pictures if you don't buy within a certain period of time? And be sure to use a reputable site like Shutterfly.com or Apple.com/MobileMe since you never know when the smaller ones might go under. Flickr.com is a simple way to share and organize your photos via the web. Create online albums, then add notes and tags (and even let your friends add tags) to label each photo. The tags are all searchable, making your photos easy to find. No matter what you choose, though, know that you need more than just a website as your backup.

5. Get yourself some hardware
An external hard drive is great for extra storage and will allow you to have those images for years to come. Many available hard drive models have “push button" backup and can hold 100 to 500GB of photos, video, data, and music. That's a lot of data. It sort of makes spending a couple hundred dollars to protect those pictures you call priceless more than a fair trade. For a Mac or PC, an iPod can be used as a hard drive, holding as many as 25,000 for an 80GB iPod -- keep in mind though that the number of photos depends on the size of the photo file. Plus, you can view slideshows -- perfect for showing off pics to visiting relatives. We also like the travel-friendly 640GB Western Digital Passport Portable Drive ($130, WesternDigital.com) -- that's enough memory for 128,000 photos! Or go to CNet.com, one of our favorite tech sites, for a more educated choice.

6. Make hard copies
Of course the beauty of digital cameras is that you don't have to waste the time or money printing an entire roll of film. But if you want to have print photos as part of your backup plan, or for long-term storage, make sure the inks and paper are archival quality. To do this, take your camera's memory card, or a CD or DVD, with all your images into a drugstore or camera shop to have them printed. Or upload them onto an online service. Home photo printers have come a long way, but when it comes to pictures that you want to last, your best bet will be to let a professional handle the print job.

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