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The best photo organizing software in 2021: get your images in order!

best photo organizing software
(Image credit: Adobe)

It’s all very well snapping away thousands of photos and tucking them away on a hard disk because “you’ll use them one day”, but roll on months or even years and it’s hard to know where your photos are. Don’t spend hours scrolling through miscellaneous folders trying to find the photo where Uncle Larry fell in the paddling pool at the birthday party, let a photo organizing software do it all for you.

These days, as well as providing an easy visual layout of photo thumbnails and allowing for key search terms or ratings to filter out results, the organizational software will actually scan your photos automatically for key features. Artificial Intelligence (AI) continues to power our image editing software evermore and the same is true for photo organization, too. Many of the key players now allow users to search for things like “cat” or “birthday” to return appropriate results without ever having keyworded or organized photos. While some add further skills by allowing for basic or even complex image editing in-house as well.

Whether you’re looking for a photo organizing software to neaten your professional workflow, or just something to keep on top of phone snaps you take of family and friends, there’s something for everyone. So no matter if you’re looking for something cheap and cheerful, or want to pay to get some enhanced features, take a look below to find your best photo organizing software in 2021.

Best photo organizing software in 2021

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

The best photo organizing software overall, though images must be imported first

Specifications
Compatible with: Windows 10 64-bit 1909 or later, macOS Catalina (10.15) or later
Payment model: Annual subscription paid monthly
Free trial: 7 days
Reasons to buy
+Smart Collections for automatic organization+Excellent searching options
Reasons to avoid
-More costly than some-Limited support for older OS

Not only is Adobe Lightroom Classic a fantastic non-destructive image editor capable of batch processing images with ease, but it has a top-notch image editing organization function that stands up to professional workflows.

When you plug in external devices or memory cards, you’ll be greeted with a suite of importing options. You can add and tweak keywords, create and place photos in Collections or Smart Collections, and apply Develop presets to files during the import process for faster image editing workflow. It even gives the option to avoid importing suspected duplicates in order to keep the software running nice and efficiently.

Unfortunately, without this import process, viewing photos on the storage device can’t be done like other organizers on this list. Still though, once the user buys into this method of working Lightroom Classic becomes fantastically powerful and excellent for both managing photos and editing them alike. Sort images into Collections to keep photos of specific subjects in one place, or create Smart Collections to have Lightroom Classic automatically add images to each Collection based on rules set by the user (such as specific keywords, ratings, or flags).

Note that Lightroom (not Classic) is the web version. It has advantages of its own, but more limited organizing tools and you have to pay extra for the non-optional online storage. See Adobe Lightroom vs Lightroom Classic.

(Image credit: Adobe)

2. Adobe Bridge

Best photo organizer software for working across Adobe apps

Specifications
Compatible with: Windows 10 64-bit version 1909 or later, macOS v10.15 or later
Payment model: Free or as part of Creative Cloud subscription
Free trial: N/A
Reasons to buy
+Lots of organizational tools+Multiple views/layouts+Direct folder browsing
Reasons to avoid
-Basic Collections-Cross-folder searches are slow

Adobe Bridge is similar to Lightroom Classic without the complex editing suite. Actually, for file viewing and organization it could be argued that Bridge is much easier to use since it has easy access to EXIF data views so it works brilliantly for content creatives, like Art Directors, who need this information without any of the extra editing features.

The navigation layout is superb with the views being split into six different categories, with more to boot. Essentials mode displays the directory, files contained in the selected folder, and a full read-out of EXIF data. If you’re building a brand or working on a specific project with multiple photos and other files then you can synchronize design styles and assets across devices using Creative Cloud Libraries. 

For those used to the Lightroom Classic layout, the filmstrip view may be the simplest way to navigate and organize photos. A useful Output tab puts power in the user’s hands by offering tools to create contact sheets in a variety of paper size formats. It includes options for displaying grids and margins, adding headers and footers, or even applying watermarks to protect intellectual property.

It’s not just about organizing photos either, Adobe Bridge is suitable for working on a wide range of file types, from 3D textures to InDesign documents and almost any other file format you can make with Adobe software, within reason.

(Image credit: Rod Lawton)

3. Apple Photos

The best Apple-based photo organizer

Specifications
Compatible with: macOS, iOS
Payment model: Free (payment for upgraded storage)
Free trial: N/A
Reasons to buy
+Free to use with compatible devices+Intelligent AI-powered search options
Reasons to avoid
-Apple devices only-Some features only available on latest models

Images taken with iPhones or iPads live in the Apple Photos app. From here you can search for, edit, and share images online. Fortunately, Apple has done a great job at making it simple to find photos and videos here. Apple Photos collates images into year, month, and day order, to make finding photos and videos faster. Intelligent curation using on-device machine learning removes clutter by choosing what it considers the best shots from a series of similar images, which clears up the interface and makes it easier to select photos. 

Apple Photos scans photos intelligently to showcase images where main subjects are in better focus for enhanced previews. There are also some good basic editing tools which now expand to videos as well. And of course, it’s compatible with raw files too (for those using iPhones and iPads with A9 chips or later). You can even search for places, people, and events thanks to the intelligent search suggestions.

(Image credit: Rod Lawton)

4. Google Photos

The best cross-platform photo organizer

Specifications
Compatible with: Windows 7 and up, macOS El Capitan (10.11) and up, and internet browser support
Payment model: Free (payment for upgraded storage)
Free trial: N/A
Reasons to buy
+Machine learning organizing tools+Free across devices+Compatible with any device with internet browser
Reasons to avoid
-Payment required for upgraded storage

Google has equipped the Photos app with some Artificially Intelligent (AI) gears and automatic photo and video backup to autonomise the photo (and video) organization process. Images can be viewed on any device, whether using the app or the weblink to your photos. They’re also automatically organized and available for searching based on myriad filters including GPS location and who’s in a photo. The AI allows searches for a range of subjects such as dogs, cats, cars, planes etc, or even events such as birthdays and weddings.

Thanks to simple folder management it’s easy to share photos and albums with friends and family. You can also order prints and photobooks right from the app and get them delivered straight to your door. Basic editing functions help to enhance colors or levels too, aimed at casual users or those with limited image editing knowledge. It’s also possible to use Google Photos as a plug-in for various image editing software programs to publish images straight to Google Photos.

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

5. Adobe Elements Organizer

Best beginner photo organizing software

Specifications
Compatible with: Windows 10 v1903 and up, macOS 10.14 - 10.15 or macOS 11
Payment model: One-time purchase
Free trial: 30 days
Reasons to buy
+Big, simplified thumbnail view+AI-powered searching+Can organize without importing
Reasons to avoid
-Not available on its own

Designed to provide a more visual interactive display of the images on your device, Elements Organizer automatically organizes photos and videos by date and a variety of other ways, too. To start, the software scans all photos for faces and location tags for automatic categorization and then further filters using intelligent topics such as sunrises, parties, animals, and more.

Manual organization involves picking your favourites, creating albums and folders, and the option to filter with multiple search terms, e.g. “puppy” and “outside” to return more accurate results. Basic editing is possible too and the software is optimised for touchscreen devices as well as desktop-based computers.

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

6. ACDSee Photo Studio Professional 2022

The best photo organizer software without importing

Specifications
Compatible with: Windows 7+
Payment model: One-off purchase or subscription
Free trial: 30 days
Reasons to buy
+Good filters to search for photos+Access files without importing
Reasons to avoid
-Only one year of updates

A powerful image editing program, ACDSee Photo Studio Professional 2022 is also an excellent digital asset management and photo editing software. Users can organize their photos using keywords, by date, using categories, via location, colour labels, and even EXIF data built right into the files themselves.

Photos can be imported to ACDSee Photo Studio Pro but files already stored on your storage device can also be accessed via the software (unlike Lightroom Classic which requires import before organizing). Flagship features also include facial recognition and detection, batch renaming, keyword list imports, and customizable keyboard shortcuts to make it quicker to find what you’re looking for.

(Image credit: Cyberlink)

The best value photo organizing software for photos and videos

Specifications
Compatible with: Windows 7+, Mac 10.11+
Payment model: One-off purchase or subscription
Free trial: 30 days
Reasons to buy
+Extremely good value for money+Easy and quick to use for beginners
Reasons to avoid
-Only nine image formats supported-Limited video export formats

CyberLink PhotoDirector 365 is a fantastic piece of photo organization and image editing software for beginners, competitively priced and one of the cheapest paid-for options on this list. The user interface is simple making it easy to navigate for new users. Import photos or folders directly from external devices and organize them with categories, tags, and keywords. 

Unfortunately, CyberLink PhotoDirector 365 can only import nine different image file formats, but does include up-to-date raw file support and, rather strangely, can import many more video file formats, though export options are limited. However, for the low cost and simple layout it’s a great option for those who want to get started organizing their photos and videos.

(Image credit: Corel)

8. Corel PaintShop Pro Ultimate 2022

Can both manage and edit your photos, with batch processing via 'scripts'

Specifications
Compatible with: Windows 10 (64-bit only)
Payment model: One-time purchase
Free trial: 30 days
Reasons to buy
+Scripts help with organization automation+Simple user interface in Manage tab
Reasons to avoid
-Windows 10 only

The key to PaintShop Pro 2022’s organizational success is in its ability to utilize scripts. By recording a series of photo edits into a script, you can apply the same edits to other photos without having to redo all the hard work, saving time and effort. The same can be done by batch processing, for example, if you need to add a watermark or resize shots for better file management. 

You can quickly access photos using the Manage tab at the top of the window and search for files using the file directory pane on the left-hand side, scoot through thumbnail views in the center or search through metadata and EXIF information on the right-hand side, including options to filter based on ratings, labels, and keywords.

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

9. FastStone Image Viewer

The best free photo organization software

Specifications
Compatible with: Windows XP and up
Payment model: Free for home use
Free trial: N/A
Reasons to buy
+Ultra fast processing+Lots of viewing and search options+Brilliant for viewing and organizing
Reasons to avoid
-Windows only-Basic editing tools only

Compatible with a wide array of image files, and even reads raw files. It’s a no-nonsense photo organizing and viewing program that’s also capable of processing basic edits as well. Excellent viewing options for organizing files. When other image organizing apps crash or are slow to load, this is the software we boot up. That’s because it’s blisteringly fast and has excellent fullscreen or minimized viewing, with fly-out menus on all four sides to do things like view the film strip and folder structure, display EXIF data, reach navigation options, and offer up a suite of editing tools.

In the Browser view you can easily see file directories on the left-hand pane and make swift changes to photo and folder storage locations. A helpful preview box below gives a thumbnail view of the image selected and any folder that’s clicked on will show its contents on the right-hand side for quick review. Of course, you can just do this with Windows’ own File Explorer but FastStone Image Viewer is much more helpful for displaying photos, with multiple view options, extra easy-to-reach metadata display, and simple editing functions built-in. One ever-helpful option is the Compare Selected Images view which displays up to four photos next to each other to help image editors choose their favourite whilst organizing. Sadly it’s only available on Windows systems, but it can be installed to Mac devices via Bootcamp or run on a Virtual Machine if needed.

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

10. XNView MP

Powerful free browsing and organizing tool... with quirks

Specifications
Compatible with: Windows, Mac, Linux (32 and 64 bit
Payment model: Free (donations suggested, commercial licenses available)
Free trial: N/A
Reasons to buy
+Lots of file formats supported+Good navigational interface+Available on all major OS
Reasons to avoid
-Basic search tools

XNView functions like a browser by displaying opened images in separate tabs across the top of the app window, which might feel a little clumsy for some users. It has some basic editing functions like crop, color, and tone adjustment, too. 

File directories are displayed in the left-hand pane, allowing users to switch between folders and storage devices with the same ease you would expect from File Explorer or Finder. In that same pane it also includes Favorites and Categories Filter tabs to help maintain and search for the appropriate photos.

XnView MP supports over 500 photo file formats and includes multipage and animated stills formats as well such as GIF, TIFF, APNG, and ICO. When saving though, it can export to approximately 70 different file formats. 

Keyboard shortcuts can be utilized to quickly rate images for categorization later. The MP version contains all the XNView Classic features plus a few more and is optimized for Windows, Mac, and Linux systems on both 32-bit and 64-bit operating systems – making it accessible to almost everyone with a computer.

Many features can be operated with the scroll wheel/trackpad scroll gesture too, which makes it faster to switch between options and images but for those not used to this you can accidentally rate or change some photo options which feels like an oversight.

Tips for organizing your images

Whatever software you choose, it's what you do with it that's the important thing. Here are three tips to help you get the most out of your photo organizer software.

1. Get your naming convention right

Ideally, you'd all give each of our photos a distinct and unique name. But in practice, there just isn't enough time in the day, so it's best to come up with a clear and consistent naming convention to help you keep track of them. It's basically a question of finding a system that works for you. 

For example, you might give all of the photos from a particular shoot the same name and date and then a number, such as Stonehenge-2017-07-29-1, Stonehenge-2017-07-29-2 etc. However, if you don't have a good memory for when different shoots took place at the same location, you might want to add some context, such like Stonehenge-festival-sunrise-2017-07-29-1, or Stonehenge-clothing-ad-2018-01-12-1. 

That might seem like a lot of typing, but most photo organizer software makes it easy to batch-name a group of images in this way.

2. Use folders and sub-folders

Even if every one of your photos has a uniquely identifiable name, that's only the beginning of organising them. It's also important to store your images in folders, and folders within those folders, so you can keep track of everything as time goes on. 

How exactly you divide your images up will depend on your own needs. For example, some people will be more interested in grouping shots by date, and others by style (eg, portrait versus landscape, or high ISO versus low ISO). There is no 'right' answer here, it's purely about what is going to work for you.

3. Get creative with tags

However thoughtfully you group your photos in folders, there'll be times when you're searching for specific categories of image that don't fit in that folder structure. So it's a worthwhile time investment to add as many tags as you can. This will be enormously helpful in finding images in future. 

This process is quite similar adding hashtags on social media platforms like Instagram, or in a stock photo library. The main difference is that you're adding tags that you, rather than others, would be likely to search for.

Include everything from descriptive words ('nature', 'outdoors', 'snow' etc) to those relating to the image's mood ('happy', 'gloomy', 'peaceful') to technical aspects ('bokeh', '50mm', 'macro'). Again, this sounds like a lot of work, but photo organizer software can help to automate this process.

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Jason Parnell-Brookes

Jason Parnell-Brookes is an Internationally award-winning photographer,  writer, and former Technique Editor of N-Photo magazine. He won Gold in the Nikon Photo Contest 2018/19 and was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014. Jason is a qualified teacher, Masters graduate and works with many high profile international clients.