Thoughts on Engineering, Photography, and Design.

Hey, I'm Ryan Heath. I design & develop things for a living and play with cameras for fun. This is where I share my thoughts on all of that — and probably more — along the way.

File Organization for Photographers

When you do a thing that produces a ton of files, requiring some level of organization and backup, you need a plan. For me, it’s photography. I’ve been through many variations of file storage, but I think I’ve cracked it. When I got serious about photography, trying to find out what fellow photographers did wasn’t as easy as you might think, so I’m writing this post for the Google index, in case you’re also wondering.


Before getting into the details, here are the conventions that I use. To start, I keep everyting in a Photography folder and utilize two top-level folders inside of that:

  • Captures — This is where all photos land off the SD card (deselects) before culling.
  • Photos — This is where all keeper photos (selects) are moved to for eventual post-processing.

I’m also assuming that you shoot in RAW and plan to post-process your photos in some fashion. The base file structure for both Captures and Photos looks like this:

 2  [YEAR]
 3    [MONTH].[DAY]
 4      [CAMERA]
 7  [YEAR]
 8    [MONTH].[DAY]
 9      [CAMERA]
  • The [YEAR] is in four-digit format, and the [MONTH].[DAY] should always be in two-digit format (so 01.08 for January 8th, instead of 1.8).
  • The [CAMERA] is optional, but if you shoot with multiple cameras, or suspect you might at some point, I recommend getting in this habit. Putting the [CAMERA] folder inside of the [MONTH].[DAY] folder ensures that you can continue to browse photos by date (independent of the camera that made them).

Here’s an real example taken from my MacBook:

Photo Organization

Personal or Professional?

There are differing levels of “serious” here. If it’s a hobby, you need organization and some type of passive backup (optional). If it’s a career, and you have clients, you need organization and some type of aggressive backup (required).

I’ll break down some ideas for both.

Personal Workflow

STEP 1: Create the necessary [MONTH].[DAY] folders in the Captures and Photos directories.

STEP 2: Under each of the [MONTH].[DAY] folders, create a sub-folder for the camera that made the photos.

STEP 3: Insert your SD card and copy all of the files to the Captures folder, ensuring that they’re organized by date and camera per the first two steps above.

STEP 4: Culling! This means going through all of your captured photos and choosing the selects that you want to post-process. For this, I use Photo Mechanic. It’s the fastest media browser for large RAW files I’ve ever used. I’m sure there are others, but that’s a good one.

From here, I go through the photos and flag the ones I want to keep with a 1 Star rating. I mapped a keyboard shortcut to the number 1 key, which helps speed things up. Also, the z key zooms in/out which helps you verify focus.

STEP 5: Once you’re finished culling, you need to move the selects to the Photos directory, following the same date and camera sub-folder organization applied to the Captures folder.

I do this inside of Photo Mechanic. Once I have all of my selects flagged with a 1 Star rating, I filter the list to hide 0 star photos which leaves me with all of the photos I want to post-process. From here, I select all and drag them to their proper home in the Photos directory.

STEP 6: Importing! I use Capture One Pro as my post-processing app of choice. I spent years in Lightroom Classic, and while it’s a great app, it doesn’t process X-Trans (Fujifilm) RAW files as good as Capture One.

This part may vary, depending on which application you use, but the idea here is to import all of the selects from the Photos folder. Remember, you never import from the Captures folder. Oh, and for Capture One users: I prefer the “Add to Catalog” option so that it keeps the file system and my organization intact.

STEP 7: Exporting! I no longer export my edits unless I’m doing something with them (printing, making a book, sharing on social media, etc).

That said, if you like or need to export, I recommend creating an Exports folder inside of your [MONTH].[DAY] folder. For exports, I don’t think the extra [CAMERA] organization is necessary. You could even take things a step further importing the exports into Apple Photos so you’d have backed up copies in iCloud.

Speaking of backups…

Yes! Backups.

As mentioned above, photography is just a hobby for me so I have a relaxed solution to backups. Given that, I’ll highlight two things:

  • I do all of this file organization on my MacBook’s native SSD drive. When the drive starts filling up, I will offload several entire [YEAR] folders onto external SSD drives, freeing up my MacBook’s drive storage.
  • I’ve been a customer of Backblaze for many years, and I rely on it. I use a CalDigit hub that connects all of my external SSDs through a single thunderbolt cable, and I include those as part of my backups in the Backblaze config.

This isn’t a fool-proof system by any means, but it satisfies my personal tolerance for risk of data loss.

Professional Workflow

I’m not a professional photographer, but I can anticipate how I might do things a little differently if I were. For that advice, I’ll inject what-would-be additional steps into the “Personal Workflow”.

PREREQUISITES: A couple of things I’d recommend first and foremost:

  • I would shoot with a camera that had dual card slots, and I would dedicate one slot as file backup.
  • I would store files on external SSD drives instead of your computer’s drive. I would have equivalent drives: one to work off of and one purely as a backup.

STEP 0: Connect both external SSD drives. “Drive A” will be the working drive, “Drive B” will be the backup.

STEP 1 (modified): Create the necessary [MONTH].[DAY] folders in the Captures and Photos directories, but add suffix descriptions to the folder to identify the type of shoot and the client.

Instead of 01.24 you might have 01.24_Wedding-Smith or 01.24_Fashion-Jones, for example.

STEP 3a: Once everything is copied off of the SD card and into the Captures folder on Drive A, do an additional copy of that entire folder onto Drive B. Now you instantly have 2 copies of the files.

BONUS: If you use Capture One for post-processing, I would consider using its session-based catalogs instead of keeping all photos in a single catalog. This has many advantages for client-based photography, but I’ll leave that research up to you.


It’s been over five years since I’ve used some other means of file organization — this approach has served me well. I’m certain there are ways I could improve, but for me and my needs, it strikes a good balance of cost, risk, and convenience.

Hopefully this was helpful, and good luck :-)