Thanks to the success of smartphones, we’re taking more pictures than ever before. We’re also storing and sharing our photos in lots of new places — Flickr, Dropbox, our phones, Facebook, Apple or Google, etc — but the overall experience hasn’t changed much since digital photography began. This is because all of the methods for storing and sharing photos have the same flaw: the failure to fully abandon the concept of the photo album and embrace tagging.

Photo albums are severely limiting in the digital realm. There is a 1-to-many relationship between physical photographs and the album they are placed in: an album can have many photographs, but a photograph can only exist in one album. This means that you can only access that photograph one way: by opening its containing album. The only way to come across some photos is to simply browse albums until you find them. Unfortunately, albums were carried over from the physical to the digital world, and their limitations persist.

There is a better way — kill the photo album, fully embrace tags

The photo album — in the digital realm — has outlived its usefulness. Tags should be the primary way that we organize and share photos. There are two basic categories of tags: automated and manual. Automated tags can include:

  • Location: city, state/province, country
  • Time: hour, day of week, month, year
  • Photo attributes: people or nature, portrait or landscape, dark or light, photographer
  • People: Facial recognition

Manual tagging is completely up to the owner of the photo.Take the following photograph of my family, taken on an iPhone and shared on my Facebook wall:

The Abernathy family

For the photo above, I might choose tags that describe the subject, circumstances, and location:

Abernathy family, Daniel & Emily, vacation, Joe T. Garcia’s, mexican food

It might also have these automatic tags:

Fort Worth, Texas; United States; September 28, 2013; Daniel Abernathy [and other tagged faces]; has faces; landscape

By combining these manual and automated tags, finding photos would no longer be a chore of digging through albums or Facebook walls. You would simply filter all of your photos by tags. I could quickly find this photo — and related photos — by searching for tags that I might have added to it:

Abernathy family in Texas

Daniel Fort Worth vacation

family at Joe T Garcia’s

I’ll talk about this more below, but these searches can become much more complex, and the right tool will process them intelligently.

Not a new idea

Using tags to organize photos is not an original idea. Both Google+ and Facebook allow you to tag people in photos, and that process is becoming automated. For a long time now, Google Picasa has allowed you to organize your photos with tags, and it also includes facial recognition and location tagging. The two most promising recent developments on this topic are Facebook’s Graph Search and iOS 7's Collections feature.

Facebook’s Graph Search lets you search photos intelligently. You can search your photos and others photos with multiple criteria — location, time, uploader, subjects, and comments. This allows for complex searches that are still human readable. Most importantly, you can share these searches with your friends.

An example of the Facebook Graph Search being used with photos

The Graph Search, though powerful, is still limited. There’s no way to tag your photos manually — labeling some as “vacation” or “graduation” or “in-laws”. Additionally, Facebook doesn’t seem to be emphasizing the use of Graph Search with photos. It’s not obvious that you can use it to create complex photo searches until you play with it.

The other promising development is the Collections feature added to iOS 7. It reorganizes iPhone users’ photo stream into collections based on time and date. This gives users a base level of organization from which to browse their photos, and it is a great improvement over the previous lack of organization in iOS photos.

None of the current implementations are great. They each seem to get pieces right. Facebook is doing well with intelligent search; iOS 7 is doing well with organizing photos based on automated tags; Flickr does well with manual tagging. A truly great system for organizing and sharing photos is still missing.

How it should work

In order for tags to be really useful for organizing and sharing photos, a minimal tagging system will not be enough. Here’s what it would need to work well:

1. No More Albums

Above all else, we need to take the plunge and abandon albums. This is most feasible for companies such as Facebook, Google, Flickr, and Apple, who have enough tagging infrastructure in place to abandon albums altogether. Album names should be converted to manual tags, so that users are not confused. Users should be encouraged to add tags to uploaded photos.

The counterpart to abandoning albums is making tagging central to the experience of photo organization and sharing. This is where the current efforts have fallen short, and where the points below are crucial.

2. Automate tagging wherever possible

As much as possible, organization by tagging should be done behind the scenes. There are many people who simply aren’t interested in tagging their photos — but we have to offer them something to replace albums.

So far, the best example of this is Apple, with the iOS 7 Collections. I’ve seen Collections working on my wife’s iPhone, and it’s a great system. The real success of Collections is that it is central to the user’s photo organization experience. If a user’s photos had time and location data, but the photo organization didn’t automatically reflect that, that data would be far less useful.

Another way to semi-automate tagging is to schedule tags. We should allow users to pre-tag photos based on time and location. I could, for example, tag all photos I will take tonight as ‘concert’, or all of next week’s photos as ‘Spring Break’.

3. Smart searching

It’s not enough to simply be able to enter tags into a search bar. A great implementation of tagging will allow smart, natural language searches, such as:

Photos of John and Ashley on vacation before 2010

Photos of the Smith family with Grandma

Facebook Graph Search, mentioned above, is currently the best implementation of smart photo searching. If smart searching is to be the primary method for organizing photos, however, it will need to integrate with manually added tags. As of now, Graph Search does not.

4. Search and share anywhere

There’s no use in this tagging system if it’s not easy to share, whether on a social network, in a living room, or to a friend at a restaurant. It should be dead simple to share collections of photos created on the fly with a quick search phrase. There should be no dragging, dropping, uploading, or downloading.


Photos are important. They allow us to preserve great memories, share experiences with friends and family, and learn more about each other. Unfortunately, so many of them are confined to the very limited structure we’ve imposed on them. Photo albums don’t work online, and it’s time to kill them off. Automated and manual tags should replace albums as the primary method for organizing and sharing photos.