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Organizing Your Photo Reference Library

Updated on November 22, 2014

Four Ways To Organize Your Photo Reference Library

I am a painter who works primarily from photographs. I do this for two reasons. First because I do animals and they don't usually like to stand still and pose for extended periods of time. And secondly, my paintings can take many weeks to complete. I work exclusively off my own photo images that I have taken. What this means is I have thousands (yes literally) of photos.

In order to actually utilize my images I must keep them organized. I do this by using clear plastic pull drawers. I will discuss this method as well as a couple of others to help you go about getting your collection in order so you can access the photos you need quickly and easily.

The important thing about organizing and cataloging your images is to start early. Begin setting up a system when you have a few hundred or even a couple of thousand. At the moment my collection is well over 30,000 and it would be a nightmare for me to try to begin incorporating a system now. Part of being a professional artist is about time management and by keeping my reference images organized I can find them and use them with minimal effort and time.

copyright protected by copyscape
copyright protected by copyscape

All copyrights are retained by the artist,

Mona Majorowicz of Wild Faces Gallery.

The artwork or content in this lens may not be used or reproduced, either

in part or in whole, without the express written consent from the artist.

Developing A System For Organizing Your Photos - A Good Organizational System Allows For Easy Searchability

Without knowing what images you are collecting and why it's hard to say how best to organize your system. What I did was break my images into groups.

My system just sort of happened organically. In the early days I had a photo drawer labeled for major groups like:

Major Groups



Big Cats

Large Mammals

Then each drawer was subdivided by catalog cards so in my Equinee drawer each card would separate out the breed like Quarter Horse, Arabian, Percheron.

As I took more photos my 1 Equine Drawer has become 7.

So now I have:

American Breeds

International Breeds

Pony/Mule/Wild (like zebra)

Quarter Horse/Ranch Horse?Mustang

Draft Horse Percheron

Draft Horse (pretty much everyone but Percheron)


Organizing Your Photo Reference Library

Keep Your Photo Organizational System SImple & Easy

How you organize your photos is less important than the act of doing it.

Some common ways for organizing and categorizing photos are:

* Photo Albums

* Electronically

* Photo boxes or drawers

* File cabinets

All of these methods work well for each of us and frankly whatever works for you. Using folders in a file cabinet, old shoe boxes, on cd whatever. Just as long as you take the time up front to have a system for finding what you need easily, later.

Organizing Your Reference Photos With Photo Albums

As with all systems the key is to structure your organization so your search will be almost effortless.

I have an artist friend who uses photo albums, but this can take up to a day flipping through the books looking for a specific image. Again a more structured order would make this run smoother for both the searching and for replacing the photos when you're done.

Organizing Your Photos Electronically

Of course in this digital age you can always store your images electronically.. The only issue with this is that high resolution photos take up a lot of space. And so to manage hundreds if not thousands of photos the nest thing would be to store them off of your hard drive. And to keep this from becoming a total nightmare it would be good to enact a filing system so once again you can find the image you're looking for quickly and easily.

If you do have a small enough number to keep them on your hard drive, be sure to be consistent with saving back up files. More than one artist friend of mine has lost some or all of the computer stored images.

Printing You Digital Images

I think whenever I finally set my film camera completely aside for my digital camera (yes I have and use both kinds of cameras almost daily) I will still print out all of my photos. It is so much easier to pull out a drawer of horse pictures than flipping through piles of CDs and staring glassy eyed at the computer screen for hours. (This may speak more to my age than my ability to organize) Plus they are ready to go in terms of painting. I don't have to print out the one's I want yet.

Organizing With Photo Drawers

My Personal Preference For Organizing Photos

Photo Drawers

I use clear plastic type shoe boxes with pull out drawer for storing my photos. They are durable and neat and hold several thousand photos per drawer depending on drawer size.

For my personal organization each drawer is labeled with a certain group of animals. (for instance Big Cats) And then within each drawer the different species are grouped together and separated by a note card. (i.e. Bengal Tigers, Indo-Chinese Tigers, Siberian Tigers, Asiatic Lions etc.) This makes for extremely easy access to the photos I want and really is minimal effort to file when adding new photos..

Organizing Using File Cabinets

I know a few artists who use this sort of system though I think it would only work well if you have a limited number of each type of photo so they actually fit easily into the folders. Frankly storing your photos in shoe boxes and warehousing them in file cabinets seems like a better solution. But to each his own.

And again it's not so much how you do it but that you do it.

Hollyhock photo jumble from my reference library
Hollyhock photo jumble from my reference library
Mona Majorowicz demonstrating oil pastel technique
Mona Majorowicz demonstrating oil pastel technique

About The Author Of Organizing Your Photo Reference Collection

Mona Majorowicz of WIld Faces Gallery

My name is Mona Majorowicz I am a professional artist who has been making my living selling my work for some time now. I have been in the art and framing industry for over 20 years. I am an animal artist, (meaning I paint critters) who works primarily in Oil Pastel or Water Soluble Pencil.

I own and operate Wild Faces Gallery with my husband Mike in a small rural town in Iowa. There we sell my original artwork and prints, as well as do quality custom framing and offer Giclee printing for other artists as well as for ourselves

I maintain a blog called Fur In The Paint, as well as write a regular column for the equestrian magazine Apples 'N Oats about painting horses.

Animals are my passion and art is how I chose to express it.

How Do You Organize Your Images? - Organzing Your Reference Photo Library Guestbook

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    • profile image

      David Greenspan 

      4 years ago

      Nice from the professional. Arts I lean from her doing flowers,an animals.My art work is leaning,using

      my(*silhouette curio*)which dose alotof work like embossing etching an so much more. An i have two learn on that two do those steps. From David Gteenspan

    • sparkleyfinger profile image

      Lynsey Hart 

      5 years ago from Lanarkshire

      I'm so glad it isn't only me who does this!! Mine is mostly digital files, but all are backed up twice. They do take up a lot of space, but I definitely think its worth it to have a bank of original, great quality images to use in my work. Voted up, useful and awesome! Love great organisation :-)

    • cendana1 profile image


      6 years ago from Malaysia

      I keep them in photo albums and hide it somewhere in the house (I forgot where i put them)....Good tips as well! Thanks!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I'm not very welll organized with my photos.

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 

      9 years ago from UK

      I wish I could be more organised with my art

    • MargoPArrowsmith profile image


      9 years ago

      One of the trainers at the Apple Store pulls his hair out at my disorganization!

    • WildFacesGallery profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Iowa

      @anonymous: If you photos are special, meaning irreplaceable I would definitely invest in archival storage boxes. Be sure they will remain archival. Meaning sometimes a product (usually a cardboard type box) may be buffered to become ph neutral when it leaves the factory but later becomes acidic when the buffering wears off. So whenever looking to purchase a storage container look for "archival" as opposed to just acid free. I hope this was helpful.

      A side note the storage boxes I use (clear plastic as shown in the photos for illustration) are not archival as my photo library is a means to an end. Meaning they in and of themselves are not too important. They are primarily used for the creation of my artwork. That being said, I have been storing photos in these drawers for as long as 20 years and so far they are fine.

      In the end it comes down to just how import it is to you to protect the images you have, as to whether your basic shoe or plastic box will work or whether you want longevity and archivability. Good luck. :)

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      hello, thanks for your great advice.

      i have one question thought, are ordinary carton shoeboxes fit to keep your photo's ok? as i understand that the ph must be special for keeping them, and i wonder if the ph of shoeboxes carton are right, or that i should buy special carton boxes for my pictures. The same question could apply to the plastic storage boxes. Could you give me some idea about this?

      Thanks a lot.

    • Amy Fricano profile image

      Amy Fricano 

      10 years ago from WNY

      very nice!

    • Rachel Field profile image

      Rachel Field 

      10 years ago

      I fear I shall never be this organised! Well done, some great advice here!

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 

      10 years ago from UK

      Once again, a fascinating insight into the world of a professional artist as well as useful advice for everybody who enjoys drawing and painting.


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