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My recommended folder structure is simple. Keep all your Raw files on an external hard drive in a master folder called “Photos [Originals]” (or something similar), in subfolders organized by year, month and subject matter.
The folder structure looks like this.
Above: The “Photos [Originals]” master folder. It contains a folder for each year.
Above: Inside each of these folders there are 12 more folders, one for each month.
Above: Inside each monthly folder there’s another folder for each shoot.
The reason I recommend this folder structure is because it makes it easy for you to back your photo files files up to another external hard drive. If you keep photos organized by date it means you can see at a glance which folders need to be copied over.
Learn more: A Secure Photo Backup Strategy For Photographers
Some photographers use RAID systems, or Drobo hard drives, but for me this way of doing things is less expensive and easier to implement.
Treat this folder structure as a suggestion. You don’t have to follow it, especially if you are happy with the way you are doing things now. The important thing is to have a reliable system in place for backing up your photo files.
Organizing JPEG photo files in Lightroom Classic
When I originally created this system I worked on the basis that my readers would use the Raw format all the time. The reality is somewhat different. Some photographers shoot a mixture of JPEG and Raw. Others have JPEG files from smart phones or compact cameras. Many start off shooting JPEG when they first buy a digital camera and then make the transition to using Raw as they learn more about photography.
So what approach should you take if your photo files are a mixture of JPEG and Raw format?
There is no reason why you can’t keep JPEG and Raw files in the same master folder, as long as the JPEGs are originals and not generated from Raw files. The key is to avoid clutter and keep the master folder as streamlined as possible so that making backups is easy. Only essential files should be in there.
Organizing messy files
Some of you may like the idea of organizing photos this way, but your files are in bit of a disorganized mess. You have some decisions to make. The solution depends on how disorganized your photos are, how many you have and how much time you have to address it.
The priority is to get all your Raw and original JPEG files into a master folder as this simplifies the task of making backups. All other photo files, such as JPEGs generated from Raw files, should be kept in different folders.
If your files aren’t organized like this already, then you have some moving around to do. The simplest approach is to create a master folder, move all your Raw and original JPEG files to it, then forget about what you did in the past and use a more organized system from this point forwards.
If you want to go further and organize all those photo files by year and month you can, it’s up to you to judge how much work that will take and whether it’s worth the effort.
Remember that once you have imported photos into Lightroom Lightroom Classic that folder structure isn’t really important as you should be organizing your photos in Collections. This is covered in detail in my ebook Mastering Lightroom Classic: The Library Module.
Moving photos inside Lightroom Classic
The easiest way to move files around on your hard drive is to use Finder (if you have a Mac) or Windows Explorer (PC users). This is fine if you are organizing photos that you haven’t imported into Lightroom Lightroom Classic yet.
But if you have already imported them you shouldn’t do this as Lightroom Lightroom Classic will lose track of where they are located. It won’t corrupt the Catalog, and you won’t lose any edits you have already carried out, but it does mean that you have to go into Lightroom Lightroom Classic and tell it where to find the files.
Above: If Lightroom Classic doesn’t know where to find a photo file then it displays an exclamation mark icon next to the thumbnail. Note – it could simply mean that the hard drive containing the photo isn’t connected to your computer.
Above: Right-click on the thumbnail and select Show in Finder (PC: Show in Windows Explorer)
Above: A message appears to tell you that the file is not in the folder where Lightroom Classic thinks it is. Click Locate to find the file. Navigate through your folders until you find the one containing the photo.
It’s a time consuming process, so you don’t want to do it unless you really have to.
The alternative is to move files around within the Folders panel in Lightroom Classic’s Library module.
Click and drag to move folders or individual photos from one folder to another.
Right-click on any folder in the Folders panel to bring up the contextual menu (above). The options let you carry out tasks such as renaming folders, creating new folders and moving selected photos from one folder to another.
When you do this, Lightroom Classic keeps track and knows where to find photos in their new location.
How to find out how many missing photos you have in Lightroom Classic
Want to find out how many missing photos there are in your Catalog? Go to Library > Find All Missing Photos (above). Lightroom scans all your photos and places any missing ones in a folder called Missing Photographs in the Catalog panel.
If you have an alternative way of organizing your photo files, and it works for you, I’d be curious to hear about. Feel free to leave a remark in the comments.
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