I'm by no means an expert on this topic, but I do have real-world experience in managing lots of files and images. And, I can tell you first hand, you can't be too organized.
Consider this: Think about your family's snapshots and photo albums when you were growing up. If your family was like most, you probably had some albums with photos half-in/half-out. Then, I'm guessing there were some envelopes from the developer (drugstore) with photos in one pouch and negatives in the other. And, lastly... a shoe box or storage case of some sort with lose photos in total disarray. Among all of this would be "official" school photos, maybe some commercial snaps from special events... and copies of pictures sent from relatives or family in far-off places. I'm sure there were even old photos from your parent's parents in there. Everything in one place, semi-organized.... but not really. Should we even discuss the odd sizes, pinked edges, Polaroids or slides?
OK... now you've got that visual in your mind, consider this: With your new fancy face recognition, image stabilized, 15 megapixel, 3X optical / 10x digital zoom point n' shoot digital camera, shooting 3 frames per second aimed at anything you can shed enough light on, you are going to shoot more pictures in one year than your family shot in a life time. AND... you're going to dump them into your hi-speed killa' megahertz, 20" flat screen, 50GB hard drive computer. Then you're going to look at them. After that, you'll put them in your "Pictures" folder. Perfect!
Yeah.. perfect disaster. Let me ask you this, five years from now when you want to look at aunt Kathy to determine how unkind gravity has been to her (I'm just sayin') since little Jimmy's birthday party when he turned nine, how are you going to find it? Seriously... even if you only take 50 photos a month, that's 600 per year. Multiplied by five years, you're thumbing through 3000 photos. Did I mention you can't see them?
All kidding aside, we run a much larger risk of losing images than our parents did with their hard copy versions. Sure, a photo would not get put back or one or two would get pilfered to attach to a bedroom mirror or given to a new girlfriend.. but for the most part, that old shoebox method didn't suffer from the potential catastrophe facing our digital collections. Folks, you have no idea how sad it makes me to think of all the people over the coming years that will suffer the loss of all their pictures... their memories.
Digital Asset Management (DAM)
First and foremost... even if you're just dumping your images in the "Picture" folder, BACK IT UP!!! Did you hear that? BACK IT UP!
Most of this is just good common sense. But you must take action. You must get a handle on this sooner than later.
Here's a simple step. Whether you work on a laptop or a desktop computer, one of the smartest and simplest things you can do is buy and use an external drive. Keep all of your programs (or tools) on the computer. Store all of your "work" (photos, documents etc) on the external drive. The advantage in doing this is two-fold. First, the external drive becomes a storage cabinet for the work you've generated and you can simply back-up the whole drive. Second, when you buy a new computer, especially laptop users, you simply install your software programs to the new computer and hook up the external drive... snap, you're right back to work.
Getting back to your photos, though, you've got to get organized. Today. Not tomorrow. Not next week.
There are several products on the market that can help you manage your photos. You don't have to spend a lot of money either. But you do have to USE the software. Your ability to develop good habits will be the key to successful Digital Asset Management.
If you're on a Mac, the simple solution is iPhoto. iPhoto was built along the lines of iTunes playlist philosophy. You store the photos in a library and then create albums (playlists) at will. The images never move from the library. This is a good thing. You can organize albums in anyway you like... even using the same image in several albums. The great thing about this format is you're not duplicating files... the album is just a reference to the original file.
Of course, you can perform adjustments to your images, print them, create books or build slide shows all from within the iPhoto user interface.
If you are a Photoshop user, you can incorporate your own folder hierarchy while utilizing Adobe's Bridge to view, organize and sort your files. You would then launch Photoshop (from within Bridge) for adjustments. Many Pros are still using this combination... though I'm fairly confident many also see the writing on the wall. There are better solutions that make a lot more sense. I think people are finally getting a better understanding of Lightroom and Aperture and realizing they aren't a replacement for Photoshop. It's just everyone has been so committed to adjusting their images in Photoshop, they hadn't considered pursuing a better means of tying their workflow into one streamlined package.
Microsoft has jumped into the fray with it's program, Microsoft Expression. Formerly known as iView Media Pro, it is one of the earlier cataloguing programs. I used iView Media for many years prior to shifting to Aperture. The early versions were strictly for cataloging and the program was a perfect companion to Photo Mechanic. But this was the style of workflow back then. Processing and adjusting was done in Photoshop. Microsoft Expression is very much along the lines of Aperture and Adobe's Lightroom. It will import, organize, rank and allow you to adjust your photos. It also continues the process allowing you different output options.
Adobe's Lightroom was release nearly a year after Apple released Aperture. Both Aperture and Lightroom share the title for king of the hill. These programs offer full control over your images. From importing to identifying, sorting, rating, adjusting, transmitting and output, these programs give you all the power and control you need to get the job done quickly, accurately and safely.
Both use a "Master" format. This means that your original camera file is treated like a negative. IT IS NEVER ALTERED. When you make adjustments to your photo in either of these programs, the program creates what is called a "VERSION." A version is nothing more than an XML file (a small text file) that records all the adjustments you make to that image. It does this for every VERSION. Any time you click on the thumbnail of that VERSION, it will call on the XML file and apply those steps in realtime to the MASTER. But again, this is non-destructive. Your MASTER will never be altered.
The payback to all of this will really come to you down the road. You'll benefit immediately once you get in the habit of using one of these programs and becoming fluent with your own workflow. These programs are typically designed with lots of flexibility allowing you to tailor them to suit your needs. But the real fun is being able to access your photos and enjoy them on demand. Slide shows, web galleries, photo books are all just a click away when you use a good DAM system. And after all, this is why we take photos... to enjoy them with friends and family.
Many software manufactures offer 30 day trials you can download online. What I would suggest, though, is find a friend who's comfortable with one or the other. Get some help working through it. Remember, these are fairly robust programs that are performing tasks that use to require two or three different programs. So, be patient.
Lastly, once you've made your choice, pick up a book that includes a tutorial CD. Often there will be one or two titles that are the official courseware for the program. DO IT. Follow along in your book and with the CD. It's a great investment of your time and will pay you back in spades.
These other journal entries might be helpful as you find your way developing good habits in managing your photos. Give them a read.