A Beginner’s Guide to Organizing All Those Travel Photos

Perhaps you’re an avid travel photographer, or perhaps you just enjoy capturing the moments that mean so much to you as you’re out exploring the wide world. Either way, you probably know that feeling when you get home, still excited but plenty exhausted, tons of laundry to do, work to catch up on, family and friends to greet and share stories with… the list – like the rest of life – goes on. But there in your backpack, a pile of memory cards holding precious moments you’ve accumulated by the thousands sits waiting for you. So, what next? How do you manage to find the time to get through all those photos you just captured?

In this post I’m sharing my own best practices for getting your photos organized quickly and efficiently after a recent trip.

Not only does staying well-organized help me to manage my ever-growing collection of images, it also makes me a better photographer in the field. I’m more likely to learn from my mistakes because I see them as I review my work. I’m also more selective in the field. I really dislike sorting through hundreds of mediocre images after the fact. My visualization skills improve thanks to this process. I have a clearer picture in my head of what I want (and don’t want) from my photos. Organizing your images is a worthwhile investment of your energy if you aspire to improve your photographic skills overall.

Organizationally, my goal is to have all of my photos imported, sorted, and backed up as soon as possible – either while still on the road or as soon as I return home.

Storage

The first thing you’ll need to sort out is how you plan to store your images. For me, importing and backing up often starts on the road, and I recommend traveling with two separate storage devices – each with enough space to store all of your photos. I travel with two 4 terabyte (TB) Seagate travel-sized hard drives, and I use one as my primary storage and the other as a backup. Some photographers I know use their computer and a single external drive. You could also use solid state drives or USB memory sticks. The important thing is that you have two devices that you can pack separately during your travels in case something happens to one of them. Leaving images only on memory cards while you travel is generally not recommended.

If you’re tech saavy, you might also be thinking, “What about cloud storage?” Sure, cloud storage is great, and recommended as an additional step. However, cloud storage and backup requires a fast, reliable internet connection. So when traveling, I use physical drives I can carry with me. At home, I primarily use Google Drive for cloud storage, and Dropbox occasionally for photo sharing.

Importing

With storage out of the way, let’s move on to the next step – importing a new set of photos into a photo library. I’m a huge fan of the Library module in Adobe Lightroom (I use Lightroom Classic CC). Not only is it a great tool for keeping your image folders organized, it also includes a very handy tool for importing all your photos.

I personally import and save nearly all the raw images I take. Occasionally I’ll forgo images that are clearly mistakes (like photos of the inside of my camera bag, or with the lens cap on, or photos that are really blurry) but usually I import them all.

Why not sort through them first and only selectively import the good shots?  Well, several reasons actually:

  • First, it’s faster at this stage just to import them all and then to sort them later.  
  • Second, storage space comes relatively cheap so storing all my photos isn’t particularly expensive – plus I can always delete the poor ones later and free up storage space if I need to.
  • Third, I’ve definitely deleted photos by accident which I’ve meant to keep (sometimes this error is correctable but sometimes it isn’t). 
  • And finally, I’ve looked back through plenty of old image folders and found some great photos I overlooked on the first pass and was quite pleased I’d saved them. 

In short, you can always go back and delete old photos if you need to but you can’t ever get them back once they’re long gone.

I’ll be the first one to admit that this method is not necessarily for everyone, but it’s what works best for me. So, if you really prefer to sort photos first and then selectively import, you can do that using Lightroom’s Import Tool as well or you could use an intermediary tool like Adobe Bridge (I don’t use Bridge but I’ve heard good reviews from fellow photographers).  

Helpful Importing Tips

The importing process in Lightroom Classic CC makes it simple to rename your image files, add keywords, include ownership and copyright information, and place your photos into organized folders directly on import.

To get started, plug in your camera or memory card, then from Lightroom’s Library module, click the “Import” button. This will bring you into Lightroom’s Import Tool.

From the “Library” module, click the “Import” button in the bottom left panel to open the Import Tool.

Once inside the Import Tool, you’ll see all your new photos loading, where you can use the checkboxes on the image thumbnails to import selectively if you choose, or leave them all selected and import them all. At the top, the import tool gives you the options to “Copy as DNG, Copy, Move, or Add” photos to your Lightroom library. Generally, I stick to the “Copy” option for importing new photos, which will leave the image files intact on your memory card while creating a copy on your storage device.  

I want to highlight three submenu items on the right side of the Import Tool when the “Copy” option is selected: File Renaming, Apply During Import, and Destination.  

File renaming allows you to rename your image files on import, which can be really helpful for staying organized. Click the “Template” dropdown menu to choose from the preconfigured file renaming templates or to create your own template, select the “Edit” option at the bottom of the dropdown menu. You can play with this tool until you have a system for renaming your files to your liking.

Below “File Renaming,” you’ll find another menu section titled “Apply During Import.” I want to highlight two features: Keywords and Metadata.  

Keywording is a powerful feature in Lightroom that will append keywords to your photos on import. The keywords you apply are then searchable and sortable in Lightroom, but also remain attached to the images if you export, publish, and share them online or use them in separate applications. Note that any keywords you apply here will apply to your entire batch import, so use caution when applying keywords with the Import Tool. You can always apply keywords more selectively later in the process.

Metadata can be used to add ownership and copyright information to your photos during import. This helps prevent any unauthorized use and distribution of your digital copyrighted material, broadly promotes the fair and proper use of digital imagery, and is widely considered a best practice. Open the “Metadata” dropdown and click “New…”. Then look for the IPTC Copyright and IPTC Creator sections (don’t worry about the many other options here). Fill in as much relevant data as you prefer (Option + g is the Mac keystroke for the © symbol) and save the settings. After that, select your newly created profile in the “Metadata” dropdown and voilà: your copyright and contact information will be appended to your imported photos from now on.

Helpful tools for importing , including file renaming, keywording, metadata templates, and destination folder selection can be found in the right hand panel of the Import Tool.

Destination is the submenu for selecting or creating the destination folder to store your newly-imported image files. It’s best to organize your folders so that you have a reliable and repeatable way to import and keep track of what’s where. 

Important note: Each time you import, make sure the appropriate import destination folder is selected. If you forget this step, you may need to move whatever you import after the fact and that can be a real pain.

It’s also worth noting that I don’t worry about creating photo albums at this point. Creating shareable photo albums with your favorite images is something that happens later in the post-production process, independently of the folders you use to store the original raw image files. So don’t worry about that part just yet. Focus instead on creating an organizational hierarchy that allows you to quickly find raw image files later on.

Backing up

The main rule of my backup routine is that I always have at least two copies of every original image. This means I need to import and back up my photos as soon as possible. I never delete photos from a memory card until those photos are imported and backed up.

For anyone who has learned this lesson the hard way (ahem, me!), it only takes one set of amazing photos tragically lost for you to understand why this is a top level guideline! 

Personally, I back up manually (I don’t use an automated software program). It’s simple enough to do if you keep up with it. Also, I haven’t found a software platform yet that automates backup in a way that’s sufficient for me. And finally, there’s no chance a software glitch might unknowingly distrupt my backup process. Once I’m done with my importing for the day, I simply copy and paste the new folders I imported exactly as-is onto my second hard drive. It’s as simple as that, and it only takes a few extra minutes.

Sorting

Sorting is the most beneficial part of this entire process, but we had to get through the other stuff first. If you develop a method for sorting your images, you’ll be able to quickly and reliably thumb through thousands of photos with relative ease. Plus, once you’ve sorted a shoot, your best images from that shoot will only be a few clicks away. It’s really a great investment of your time and energy, and you get better with practice.

Lightroom offers at least three ways I know of for sorting your images – flags, colors, and stars. A key hallmark of all of these features is that they work with keystrokes – and if you hit the keystroke while holding the Shift key, Lightroom will apply the appropriate designation and move to the next photo. This makes sorting through an entire shoot quick and painless. Flags work with three keys – “P” for pick (or “Shift + P” for pick and move to next photo), “X” for Rejected (or “Shift + X”), and “U” for unflag (or “Shift + U”).  Similarly, you can apply color labels for photos using keys 6-9 (or Shift + 6-9), and you can apply star ratings of 1-5 using keys 1-5 (or Shift + 1-5). 

I personally prefer the star rating system. On my initial sort, I use stars 1-3. 1 star means that the photo isn’t a keeper and I don’t intend to do anything with it. 2 stars means that the photo isn’t particularly strong from a technical perspective, but might still be a keeper. Perhaps the photo is a good memory, a neat location, a shot of me, or one that includes friends who might want a copy later. 3 stars means the photo is technically strong and worth post-production effort. Stars 4-5 are reserved for images that come out of post-production looking the very best. 

The star-rating and color labeling features in Lightroom help you to categorize and sort your photos easily. Each photo can be quickly starred or color-labeled with keystrokes as you review your images.

Some pro tips for sorting your images:

  • Avoid cherry picking! My own biggest temptation and distraction from sorting properly is the urge to cherry pick – to go straight for those photos that I remember from the shoot. The ones I already know are good. I want to jump straight into those and start processing right away. Avoid the temptation! This is precisely how the other 80-90% of the images from the shoot get ignored forever. You will undoubtedly get to those photos and they will be amazing but the only way to develop a strong organizational process is to actually use it. Trust me, your top level shots aren’t going anywhere, and you’ll end up with dozens of additional beautiful photos to complement them.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist – at least not yet. You can always revisit your ratings down the road if you want to take a fresh look, or take a crack at processing images that didn’t initially make the cut. That’s one of the huge benefits to rating rather than selectively importing or deleting. If you get bogged down worrying about every little detail and trying to get the ratings perfect, you’ll burn out. Pay attention to detail, but operate efficiently at the same time. You’ll get better at this with some practice.
  • Be honest with yourself. Don’t try to stretch on a photo that isn’t sharp or is too far over or underexposed – mark it honestly. In turn, don’t downplay an image that you really love but worry isn’t “good” enough. If you love it, work with it proudly!
  • From time to time, go back and revisit older folders and see what you think now. It’s fun to look back, and over time your post-processing skills and compositional eye will change in a way that might give you a new perspective.

Hopefully, you’ve found some useful tips here for staying organized in post-production. Feel free to leave us a comment and add any tips of your own!