Updated: July 19, 2018 | Contains affiliate links

Image Tags vs. Folders – the great debate


If you have been taking digital pictures for a while you’ve probably been forced to deal with organizing your pictures. You have also probably been asking yourself if the method you’re using is a good method. Currently there are two different approaches to picture organization: using tags and using folders. There are a number of software programs that support either or both methods. Which method should you choose? This article will analyze the tag and folder based methods for picture organization.

TAG Method description

This method involves assigning one or more tags (or keywords) to each digital picture on the hard drive. For example: let’s say that I take some pictures of my grandma’s birthday this year in 2007. Let’s also say that I’m taking 100 pictures. I download them to my computer into some folder (the name of the folder is irrelevant at this point) and bring up my organization software (you always need one if you’re using tags). The software imports the folder and I see all my pictures that I have just taken. Then I assign some tags to all of them or a part of them…this is called bulk tagging (this feature is a must for any tagging software). So, I assign the following tags: birthday, grandma and 2007.

Next, let’s say that I’m taking some pictures of my daughter Cristina at her own birthday in 2007. So, I go through the same process and I assign the following tags: birthday, Cristina and 2007. Now, the key is that the tags represent categories, your own categories. So, if you want pictures to fall within the same category then you have to use the same tag. In this case a tag called birthday is different than a tag called birthdays. Software usually allows you to manage your tags and will help you choose the right tags.

The main purpose for creating and assigning tags is that you would be able to easily find your pictures. So, let’s say you’re looking for birthdays in 2007. Then you would open up your organization software and do a search on birthday and 2007. This will filter out all the other pictures and will show you only the birthdays in 2007…assuming you have tagged them correctly. If I want to see all of my daughter’s pictures I would search for: Cristina. This would only show pictures that contain the tag Cristina.

The key advantage here is that one picture can belong to many keywords or tags. I can assign as many tags as I want to a picture. So every time I’m searching for one of the tags assigned to a particular picture, that picture would show up in my search.

Applying tags to images

There are two ways (with some variations) in which software programs apply tags (or keywords) to a picture. The most widely used method is to embed these keywords in the image file itself by adding a little bit of text containing the keywords. This way the tags stay with image and they “travel” with the image. There are two main standards used for embedding tags into images: IPTC and XMP, the latter being the newest and most popular standard created by Adobe. There are free software packages that can write tags to your images if you choose to do so (i.e. XnViewer).

Other software packages apply “labels” to pictures and rather than writing to the image files themselves, they create a database with the keywords for each picture. This database is usually a file that is saved and updated on your computer every time you apply one or more labels to your pictures. This “tagging” method will make you dependent on the particular software you’re using and your labels will not “travel” with your pictures.

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Folder method description.

What do I mean by folders? I mean simple folders that you create on your computer hard drive. These folders contain groupings of files that you think share something in common. For example: a folder called My Pictures contains all your pictures taken during family trips, with your kids and at various events. In order to further organize your pictures you may choose to create sub-folders within the My Pictures folder. You may create sub-folders like trips and kids and split your pictures accordingly. The whole purpose of creating folders and sub-folders is to divide the quantity of files present on your hard drive. This is a classic application of the divide and conquer principle. One can manage complexity by dividing the quantity of objects into smaller and contained portions. Now, this is pretty simple stuff, and if you know how to use the Internet you should be very familiar with creating folders and sub-folders.

However, even though this is very basic, there is a common problem that most people face. Most people don’t spend much time thinking about the names of their folders. Pretty much what comes to mind first, that’s the name of the folder. While this may work for a short while, in the long run it doesn’t solve the clutter problem. Actually, it may make it worse because we can create multiple folders with similar names and then forget we created them and create a new one.

Therefore, organizing your pictures using folders requires a little thinking and most of all it requires consistency. The thinking behind this method has to do with finding a naming convention for your folders and then sticking to it. This convention has to have a few particulars about it. Below I’m listing some of the characteristics of my folder naming convention:

Folder naming convention example

  • Example: 2011-01-Malibu-Adamson-House-visit
  • Naming convention: YYYY-MM-DD-[Place]-[event description]
  • Folder name includes a date for its content (2011-01 = January 2011). The day is optional but if you know it, add it. The more you know the better!
  • Folder name contain the place of the event.(Malibu)
  • Folder name contains a brief description of the event (3 short words max). (Visit to the Adamson House museum)
  • Choose one separator and stick with it. If you use hyphen fine…stick with it, if you like an underscore then use that. Just don’t mix them. In addition I prefer not to leave blank spaces in the folder names. I know that modern operating systems allow you to do that, but I just don’t do it…no blank spaces.

What this folder naming convention accomplishes is very simple: you’re actually embedding “tags” into the folder names rather than into the pictures themselves.

Side by side method comparison

Tag method analysis:


  • You can assign multiple tags to a single picture. This means that one picture can belong to multiple categories without having to copy the same image to multiple folders. This is the most important pro of the tag method.
  • You don’t have to spend anytime naming the physical folders on your hard drive. You can simply download your pictures into the default folders your camera creates and then just apply tags to the new pictures. (I recommend that you also put some time in creating a consistent folder structure and then apply tags to the images.).


  • You really have to be careful about what software you’re using for applying tags. Some software doesn’t use widely accepted standards (IPTC and XMP) but use their own proprietary way of recording image tags. If you decide to use such software then you are really tied to your software.
  • You can’t really share lots of picture folders with your friends…unless they’re using the same software (or compatible). If they’re not, then they have to figure out what is in the folders you’re sending them (if you haven’t named your folders appropriately).
  • You have to be careful about developing tags (read this article to find out why you need to be careful). You have to make sure you don’t develop duplicate tags like:birthday and birthdays. They will mess up your search capability.
  • It is very time consuming because tags have to be applied to all pictures. It is true that you would never do it one by one, but rather in groups; however, it is very much time consuming.

When should you use the “tag” method?

The only very important reason for using the tag method is if you must be able to assign the same image to multiple categories (tags). If you must be able to search your pictures based on more than one criterion (i.e. events), then you have to use the “tag” method. Remember that even when you choose to use tags a carefully constructed folder structure should be used as the foundation on which you construct your tags.

Folder method analysis:


  • An organized folder structure is independent of any software used. In fact you don’t need any software…you can simply use only the operating system to create and change the folder structure.
  • Folders are automatically sorted by your operating system according to the date of the event. (NOTE: this is based on the folder naming convention I’m recommending on this site.)
  • Folder structure is completely mobile. You can transfer entire folders to other computers or drives and the order and meaning of folders is maintained independent of operating system and software used.
  • Carefully constructed folder names will help you find your pictures very quickly.
  • You can use the “tag” method on top of the folder structure created using the folder structure. This way you can use both methods to their maximum potential.


  • Each picture is assigned only to one folder. (Unless you want to copy the image in multiple folders. This doesn’t make much sense though). This is the only major drawback to this method…and it is indeed major.
  • It takes some time and effort to develop a consistent naming convention for your folders. However, I believe that it takes a lot less time than creating and assigning tags to pictures. (NOTE: You can use the naming convention suggested on this site…and you don’t have to create your own.)

When should you use the folder method?

You should always create a consistent folder structure for your pictures based on your criterion. Most home users do not need the extra power of the “tag” method. However, if needed, one can easily (depending how much free time you have) build efficient tags on top of a folder structure.

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