Find your photos faster

How tags helped me sort my snapshots

By Andy Myers

I’m a creature of habit. No matter how hard I try, I’ll probably never kick that second cup of morning coffee or get out of my pajamas before noon on Saturdays. The same goes for how I use my computer. Even though I have the latest version of Windows, I still organize my files the same way I have for years. I guess old habits are hard to break.

Well, it’s time to wake up and smell the technology! Windows Vista offers a ton of ways to manage files, so you can find them when you need them. One especially useful feature is tagging. You can use tags to mark your files with custom words and phrases—sort of like invisible sticky notes.

Illustration of two picture files with tags
Tags are words or phrases that you assign to pictures and other files

Tagging is a great way to identify your files, especially when dealing with digital pictures. I’ve been planning to create a photo slide show for my parents’ upcoming wedding anniversary. Let's see how tags can make the job easier.

More tags, less time wasted

I bought my first digital camera in 2001, and I’ve taken thousands of pictures since then. Most of my pictures have found their way onto my computer with the same obscure file names that the camera assigned to them (for example, DSC00587.JPG), making my Pictures folder resemble a bottomless junk drawer.

Screen shot of the Pictures folder
My messy Pictures folder

Using my old way, finding the pictures I need for my parents’ slide show would be a chore. Mom and dad are in hundreds of photos, which are spread out in various folders. Even if I had time to reorganize and rename every file, how would I do so in a way that would make sense years from now?

With tags, I don’t have to reorganize or rename anything. To add a tag, I simply opened my Pictures folder, clicked a photo of my mom, and then clicked the area next to Tags in the Details pane at the bottom of the folder window. (If the Details pane isn’t visible, click Organize, click Layout, and then click Details Pane.) In this case, I'll type the tag “mom” into the Tags box, and then press ENTER.

Picture of the Details pane
With tags, there’s no need to reorganize or rename files—just tag them

For my parents’ anniversary slide show, I need to find all of the pictures of my mom and dad. I can tag photos with words like “mom” and “dad”, and maybe “family” or “cat” or “holiday”, and then separate each tag with a semicolon in the Tags box. To tag a bunch of pictures at once, I can select multiple files, and then create tags that apply to all of them.

Screen shot of Pictures folder with Details pane open
You can apply tags to many files at once

I spent the rest of the afternoon taking a trip down memory lane, looking at old pictures of my parents, and tagging them whenever a word popped into my head.

Reap what you tag

So now I’ve got a Pictures folder that looks just as messy as it did before, but, under the hood, most of the files now have a few tags. Even though it looks the same on the surface, it’s actually a lot easier to find what I’m looking for. Let’s say I want to see every picture of my son Julian: I open the Pictures folder, and then type “julian” in the Search box. That’s it! Windows automatically searches for the tag “julian” in each file in the Pictures folder, and then displays all of the pictures that have this tag.

To get more specific results, I can select more tags. For example, now I want to see all of the pictures of my son with my mom as well as all of the pictures of my son with my dad. Because I also used the tags "mom" and "dad", all I need to do is click Tags at the top of the folder window, and then select the check boxes next to "mom" and "dad". Presto!

Picture of the "Tags" heading at the top of the folder window
Select more tags to get more specific results

Now I can easily find pictures of my mom and dad for that anniversary slide show. To create a slide show in Windows Vista, check out See your pictures as a slide show.

Save searches and avoid headaches

But what about my parents’ next anniversary? I’m sure that I’ll have taken more pictures by then. And I’d love to be able to see all of the pictures together—even the ones that I'm going to take between now and their next anniversary. To make things easier for next time, I decided to build a more comprehensive search across all of my folders, and then save the search so I can use it later.

To do this, I clicked the Start button Picture of the Start button, and then clicked my user name at the top of the Start menu. (From this folder, a search will bring back results from all of my folders, not just from the Pictures folder.) Next, I typed “mom; dad” in the Search box to search for files tagged with “mom” and “dad”. At the top of the folder window, I clicked Save Search, and then clicked Save to finish the job.
Picture of Search box and toolbar
Any search in Windows Vista can be saved for later

When next year rolls around, I can double-click Searches in the Navigation pane to find my “mom; dad” search. Clicking this saved search displays all of the pictures on my computer that have been tagged with both “mom” and “dad”—even the pictures that I tagged with “mom” and “dad” after I saved the search.

Picture of the Searches folder in the Navigation pane
All of your saved searches are stored in the “Searches” folder in the Navigation pane

There are a lot of other methods for creating and saving searches. To learn more, see Tips for finding files.

Now that I’ve tagged most of my existing digital pictures, I’m discovering that tags are kind of addictive. Every time I import a new batch of pictures from my camera, I can’t help but tag them right away. And I’m always thinking of new words to use as tags to make my searches even better. Next thing you know, I’ll be doing yard work on Saturday mornings and drinking decaf.

About the author


Picture of columnist Andy Myers

Andy Myers is a writer on the Windows team at Microsoft. He comes from the video game industry where he has worked as a magazine journalist and an author of strategy books. In his spare time, he plays and records music with various bands.

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