How to Wrangle Your Digital Pictures on the Cheap

Free and low-cost tools for organizing large batches of images

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With a digital camera—or even a smartphone—it’s all too easy to take dozens or even hundreds of pictures on a vacation or at a family event. Once you’ve taken them, though, managing these photos can be overwhelming.

Proprietary picture management tools like Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Bridge, Adobe Elements, ACD Systems’ ACDSee, and Apple’s Aperture are available, but their complexity can be daunting. And even reasonable purchase and upgrade prices or low monthly fees add up over time. If you just want to organize image files and perhaps do some light editing, these tools are overkill. Fortunately, there are free or very-low-cost utilities that can do everything you want—and many come with your computer’s operating system.

Based on my own experiences over the past year, here are my suggestions. Specific recommendations are primarily for users of Windows 7 and higher, but much of the advice will apply to other platforms.

Organization should begin when you first move files from your camera onto your computer. You should be sorting them into directories—ideally by event, but even just broadly defined dates, for example “FEB 2015 Photos,” will help. In most cases, to sort photos appropriately you’ll want to be able to see each picture. Modern operating systems’ file managers can typically provide preview images in the place of traditional file icons. If the thumbnail or icon image in the left-hand side of your file manager isn’t sufficient, the image displayed in the file manager’s preview pane should do. At this stage you should be able to sort photos and cull obviously bad shots (those that are completely out of focus, and so on).

Next, it’s time to do some basic editing. During this pass, you may also further refine the “keep/don’t keep” sort, as you look at each image more closely. I use Google’s free Picasa tool, which is available for Windows and OS X. With Picasa I can, for example, crop and rotate photos and eliminate red-eye.

The real keys to organizing your photos so you can find things later are a good naming system and paying attention to captions, tags, and other metadata that’s stored along with the image data in the file. To add captions and tags, it’s possible to access and edit each file’s metadata directly from Window’s File Explorer—by selecting and right-clicking one or more files, selecting Properties, and within Properties selecting Details. But Picasa also allows you to edit this information. And there are third-party dedicated metadata editors available. While I haven’t yet tried any, Patrick H. Corrigan, in his comprehensive and informative book Data Protection for Photographers, recommends ExifTool and ExifTool GUI.

I’m a firm believer in self-documenting file names. The file names created by cameras are sequential numbers—good for chronological sorting but not for much else. A good file name will make it easy for you (and others) to search and identify images simply by looking at the file names. My practice is to prepend “about-the-batch” info at the beginning of a file name and append “about-this-image” info after the file name. Windows, sadly, doesn’t have an adequate bulk-rename feature. However, there’s at least one good free (donationware) utility, Bulk Rename Utility, and it even integrates into the File Manager menu. The user interface looks complicated and overwhelming, but to date I’ve needed to use only Bulk Rename’s “Add Prefix” option.

If you plan on sharing your images, you may choose to add a watermark, such as your logo or a copyright notice, directly to the image. Watermarking won’t prevent people from stealing copies; the purpose is to let people know who took the picture. Picasa’s Export to Folder command includes a text field for specifying a watermark. The online service Watermark will let you do fancier watermarks, using fonts, symbols, color, and position.

Acquiring and getting the hang of these tools may take you an hour or two. But the payoff will be the ability to wrangle hundreds of photos in a remarkably modest amount of time.

This article originally appeared in print as “Wrangling Digital Pictures.”

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