March/April 2008 HelpLine
Pick your approach
Despite the powerful search features of operating systems, it's best to organize your photos using photo software. While operating systems offer ways to browse all files, photo software is made specifically for searching and sorting images and fine-tuned to minimize the time spent on this aspect of digital photography.
Q) In Windows XP, I have many subfolders defined for basic photo organization; however, I like to rearrange thumbnails in the folders as one would in a photo album. But I find that Windows often rearranges the thumbnails after I've spent a lot of time organizing them. I've tried turning off auto arrange, but it seems to happen anyway. I've tried arranging on type, etc., instead of name, but that doesn't seem to help. Turning off auto arrange also interferes with organizing the photos in the first place. Is there some way of stopping Windows XP from reorganizing subfolders after they have been organized? Thanks for your help.
Via the Internet
A) Generally, I don't recommend using the operating system to organize your image files. You can use subfolders to organize your images by year or by subject (e.g., Prague 2007), but I'd stop there. XP is an operating system and its sole job is focused on managing the computer's hardware and software. Since the file system part of XP is designed to operate on all varieties of files—sound, text, images, video, applications, drivers, databases, etc.—having it visually sort files is rather like trying to repair a car when your only tool is a screwdriver.
But if you must (and I like challenges), there's a convoluted way to organize your files visually using only the XP operating system. After I explain how to do it, you may decide it's not what you're looking for. If it is, then you're a very patient person.
Another reason for accepting this challenge is the opportunity to talk a bit about metadata. Metadata is usually described as data about data. While this is a clever description, I'm never sure whether it truly helps explain the concept. So let me try to explain it differently by describing an image file created by a digital camera.
When you take a picture—let's say it's a picture of a flower—and download the image file to your computer, you download one file made up of two parts. The first part is primarily what you're concerned about, namely, all the digital "bits" (1s and 0s) that make up the image of the flower. The second part is all of the extra 1s and 0s that aren't about the flower. This information might be the date and time the photograph was taken, the brand and model of camera that took the picture, whether or not the flash fired—and the list goes on and on. Since these extra bits aren't about the flower, in most cases, if you change any of these values, the image of the flower stays the same. (There are some instances where the metadata can change the image-white-balance information in a RAW file can be used to adjust white balance after the fact.)
Now on to the sorting method. First, each file has a series of metadata fields that's accessible by the operating system-filename and date are just two of these fields. There's also a field called Comments. To gain access to this field, open My Computer or Windows Explorer, locate and right-click on one of your images and then select Properties. In the Properties dialog, select the Summary tab and locate a field labeled Comments. Click in this field and add a value that you can sort on. For example, if this is the first image you want to see, you might enter "0001." Once you've entered a value, click Apply.
Next, go to My Computer's or Windows Explorer's View menu and select Choose Details. This feature lets you select the fields that display in the Details view. Put a check in the Comments field. Notice that now when you select Arrange Icons By (also in the View menu), all the checked fields (including, now, Comments) appear as sorting options. So once you add values to all your files' Comments fields, you can Arrange Icons By Comments to keep them in order.
I admit that while this accomplishes what you want, it has many problems. One is that if you don't plan ahead and you want to rearrange images, you'll be stuck recommenting all your files. Planning ahead might mean incrementing the comment number by 10, instead of by only 1. That way, you could insert file 0005 between 0001 and 0010.
A better solution is to use software specifically designed for organizing images. In your question, you say, "I like to rearrange thumbnails in the folders as one would in a photo album." Just as in the physical world, a file folder is a poor substitute for a photo album. In the world of computers, an operating system is a poor substitute for image-organizing software.