In 2021, the best photo organizing software can be a lifeline for anyone with a camera, or even just a smartphone. Because whether you're a professional photographer or a keen amateur, finding a specific picture amongst the countless shots you've taken can be a massive pain when they're scattered across your camera, phone, computer and cloud storage at random.
Time is money, as they say, and so it's well worth investing in a tool that will help you keep track of everything. The best photo organizing software programs allow you to display and sort your images based on a variety of criteria, such as date, location, category and EXIF data, and the more sophisticated ones come with clever AI to make that process even quicker and easier.
In this article, we've selected the best photo organizing software available today, and explain what each has to offer. Note that these tools all combine image editing and photo organizing features in one package, but for the purposes of this article, we've focused mainly on the latter (we have a separate guide to the best photo-editing software).
Best photo organizing software 2021
First launched in 2006, Adobe Lightroom today remains the industry standard for photo organization amongst professional photographers. It’s also popular amongst amateurs and semi-pros, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Lightroom CC is cloud-based, so you can organize and edit your images using whatever laptop, phones or tablet you have to hand, wherever you are. If you like the idea of keeping on top of your image organization while you’re out on a shoot, rather than waiting to get home when you’re too tired, then that is a big plus. (Note: there is a separate version called Lightroom Classic which is desktop only, so don’t confuse the two).
Secondly, Lightroom offers multiple ways to organize your photos. You can manage them as albums or stacks; and further organize them using keywords, metadata, flags, and ratings. Whatever you choose, you’ll find it easy to find and filter your photos thanks Adobe’s smart AI technology, Sensei, which is constantly being developed and improved. Face recognition was one recent addition to Lightroom, and because this is subscription software, you get the latest updates automatically.
When it comes to image editing, Lightroom isn’t quite as powerful as Photoshop, but it’s still pretty capable. Edits are non-destructive, which means you can go back to previous versions of your images at will, and some photographers find they can do all their editing in Lightroom without ever having to bother with Photoshop.
One thing worth noting is that you have to import your images into Lightroom before you can start editing and managing them, which is not the case with some other photo organizer software.
The main downside of Lightroom is that you can’t buy it for a one-off fee: you have to subscribe. However, this doesn’t cost much if you just subscribe to Lightroom alone, while you could also get it with Photoshop CC (as part of the Photography Plan), or with the whole Adobe suite of Creative Cloud tools (as part of an All-Apps Subscription). This also gets you between 20GB and 1TB of cloud storage, depending on your plan.
Lightroom is not the only tool Adobe provides for organizing your photos. There’s also Adobe Bridge, a creative asset manager that lets you preview, organize, edit and publish multiple creative assets quickly and easily.
The interface looks very similar to Lightroom’s. And if you subscribe to the Creative Cloud, the Creative Cloud Photography Plan, or just Lightroom, you’ll have access to both of them. So what’s the difference, and which should you use for your photo organization?
Essentially, Lightroom is more of a standalone, self-contained editing and organization suite for photos; while Adobe Bridge is more of file finder and organizational tool that works across all Adobe apps and file types. Both work on Windows and Mac, but only Lightroom works on mobile devices.
The main things a photographer will use Adobe Bridge for in practice are adding and editing keywords, labels, ratings etc to your images, organizing them into collections, and finding specific images by using its powerful filters and advanced metadata search features.
Overall, Adobe Bridge is more limited than Lightroom in terms of both image editing and photo organization: it lacks facial recognition, for instance. It’s also worth remembering that Bridge is not just about images but all kinds of assets. So it also supports document formats such as doc, docx, odt and ott, as well as HTML, PDF, INDD (InDesign), and AI (Adobe Illustrator) files.
One thing many people don't realize is that Adobe Bridge is free to use if you set up an Adobe ID: you don’t actually need a Creative Cloud subscription. As its clever integrations with Adobe software are its main selling point, that might seem pointless. But if you have zero cash, it still has a lot to offer.
Meanwhile, if you already have a Creative Cloud subscription, it’s worth seeing what Adobe Bridge can do, even if you’re already using Lightroom. The two tools do work in very different ways, and when it comes to photo organization, there may be some workflows that you find easier and smoother in Adobe Bridge.
Don’t want to take out a subscription and prefer to pay a one-off fee? Then we recommend ACDSee Photo Studio Professional 2021, which is available for a one-purchase that gets you a lifetime licence and one year of free updates. That said, you also have the option of taking out a subscription, which includes 50GB of cloud storage.
This digital asset management and photo editing software lets you organize your images by keyword, date, categories (such as People, Places, etc), location, colour labels, camera used, and ratings.
You can import directly from your camera and other devices, and unlike Lightroom, you can access all the images on your computer, even if you haven’t imported them into the software. Flagship features include facial recognition and face detection, the ability to rename images in batches, the option to import established keyword lists, and customisable keyboard shortcuts.
A total of 86 file formats are supported, from the obvious ones such as RAW, TIFF, JPG, and PSD, to more specialist types like the media container format HEIF, used by newer iPhones. The interface is fully customisable. And the makers boast significant speed improvements in the latest (2021) version. Note, however, that ACDSee Photo Studio Professional is available for Windows only, and the image editing tools are fairly basic.
If you’re just getting started in photography, you may want photo organizing software that's relatively simple to get started with. In which case, take a look at CyberLink PhotoDirector, which has a friendly and approachable interface that beginners will find it easy to get on with. You can import photos or folders directly from your camera and organize them by categories, tags and keywords. There’s also a capable face recognition tool.
When it comes to editing your images, there are a bunch of preset filters as well as basic editing tools. There are also a range of guided edits, such as Dispersion Effect and Glitch Art, that novices looking to improve their pictures will appreciate.
Overall, this software is fairly limited: for example, it only supports six file formats in total (RAW, JPG, PNG, PHI, GIF and TIF). But if you’re just starting out and don’t want to be overwhelmed by too many options, this offers good value, particularly as the price of a lifetime licence includes 25GB of cloud storage.
Corel Aftershot 3 can be found for a surprisingly cheap, one-off price if you look around, and offers some solid, if basic, photo organization capabilities.
Your images are automatically sorted by name, date, tags and so forth, plus there’s lots of scope for manually organising them according to camera data, such as ISO or shutter speed. There’s also a lot of flexibility in visually grouping your images according to themes or favourites, using a selection of flags, ratings or colours. Plus you get access to some excellent sets of prepared keywords, which makes it quick and easy to tag large numbers of images (you can tag batches of images, too).
Admittedly, there are some big limitations with this software, not least the absence of geotagging or face recognition. But if those don’t bother you, then the low price and lack of subscription may make this is a tempting package.
Zoner Photo Studio X is a mid-priced image editing suite that also boasts some good photo organizational tools. It has a tabbed interface which seems very similar to a web browser, and you use the Manager tab for all your organization, making things clear and easy.
You can import directly from your phone, camera, SD card or Facebook account, and you can work with any image on your system, whether or not you choose to import it. You can sort and find images based star ratings, keywords, dates, titles, locations, colour labels and EXIF information.
On the negative side, this is a Windows-only program, and it does require a subscription, so while it is half the monthly price of the standard Adobe Photography Plan, it's not a subscription free alternative.
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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