Using Windows Explorer to Organize, View and Edit Your Photos

Copyright  Michael Furtman

Windows is a powerful operating system designed, among other things, to keep your files organized. That said, few people understand how to do it properly. They routinely dump all text files into one big folder – usually “My Documents” and all their photographs in “My Pictures.” Soon, these folders contain huge amounts of unorganized files.

You can use “My Computer” to go and add subfolders within each of these, but because My Computer doesn’t allow you to see your folders in a “tree” form, with folders to the left and images or files to the right, the better way to do this is to use Windows Explorer.

In early versions of Windows, Windows Explorer was right up front where you could find it. It was the “My Computer” of its day. And it is still there, but hidden.  

To find it in XP or Windows 7, go to Start>Programs>Accessories. You’ll see Windows Explorer near the bottom of the drop down list. While you are here, highlight it and right click, and select “Send To>Desktop (create shortcut).” Now you’ll have a shortcut on your desktop so that you can easily access this important tool.  

When you open Windows Explorer by double clicking the desktop icon, you’ll see that it looks much like “My Computer” except that the main folders are displayed on the left side of the screen. When you highlight that folder, the contents of it are displayed on the right side of the screen (you can drag the line between the two windows to size the division).  

Windows 7 added "Libraries" to the Explorer interface. Typically these libraries are "Documents", "Pictures", "Music" and the like. Think of these libraries as shortcuts. Your files really aren't stored under Libraries. They are stored elsewhere. The files in the libraries you see there are actually found on the drive where your documents are stored...if you have a single drive in your computer, it is always Drive C. But if you have TWO drives, or have partitioned your single hard drive, you may not want the libraries to point to the place that Microsoft has decided those files should be. In other words, perhaps you want all of you files on Drive D. Windows, by default, it going to save them to Drive C. You can tell Windows 7 to change the default save location.

First, go to your Drive D (or whatever letter you've named it) and create the folders you want, such as Pictures. Now, in Windows Explorer, highlight and right-click the current "Pictures" under "Libraries" and select "Properties." Once you've done that you can highlight the current folder/save location (Pictures C), delete it, and then choose "Add Folder Location" and navigate to where your created your new folder. 

Now you’re ready to organize!

For instance, you can now highlight Pictures, and then select from “File” at the top left of your screen “New Folder” (or Right Click and select "New" then "Folder"). If you have a bunch of images that are all of a single subject you’d like to keep together, then name that new folder for that subject (i.e., Birthdays, or Fishing, etc.). You can also place subfolders under each of these to further better organize your images. You could, for instance, highlight “Birthdays” the select File>New Folder and name if for the individual, or Fishing>New Folder>Trout.  

Windows Explorer will display folders in the left window that have a subfolders beneath them by placing a little “plus” sign next to that main folder. Just click on that plus sign to see the folders beneath.  

The advantage to this hierarchy is that you can now easily drag and drop your images into the category folder you wish.  

First, expand the “tree” beneath My Pictures by clicking on all the plus signs so that every subfolder is displayed in the left window. Next, click on My Pictures. All the photos that are in it will be displayed in the right window. If they do not appear as thumbnails, but only as file names, go to the menu at the top of Explorer, select “View” and then “Thumbnails.”  

Now all you need to do is select the images in the right window and while they are highlighted, drag them into the correct folder. If you have a bunch of photos that are all next to each other, and all going into the same folder, hold down the “Shift” key on your keyboard, then click the first and last photo in that bunch. All will be now highlighted, and you can drag them to the correct folder.  

If they are spread all around – you have fishing photos scattered throughout My Pictures – you can select multiple images without selecting the images in between by holding down the “Ctrl” keyboard key as you select the images. Again, once they are all highlighted, just grab one of them with the cursor and drag it to the correct subfolder. All the highlighted images will go with it.  


Some photo browsing programs, such as the one that comes with Photoshop Elements, get really messed up if you perform these kinds of tasks, or delete images, from within Windows and not from within their own built in browser. If you are used to using the browser in Elements, then you might want to stick with it and organize images from within. However, these browsers are painfully slow and prone to problems. It is much better and faster to do your organizing within Windows.  




So how do you get a photo from Explorer into your photo editing program?  

You need to change the default editing program from Paint, which is what Windows defaults to, to Elements or Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro – whatever it is you use. That way, all you need to do is right click on the thumbnail in Windows Explorer, and select Edit and it will open in the program of your choice.  

There is only one way of changing the default photo editor in Windows XP. 

Now, if you right click a thumbnail, in the drop down menu that appears, look for “Open With” (not Open, and not Edit), your photo editing program of choice may appear in the next menu. If it does, and you select it, your photo will open in that program. But that doesn’t mean you’ve changed the default photo editor. You’re just opening that image in the photo editing program instead of Windows default viewer (not editor), Windows Picture and Fax Viewer. I’d suggest you leave the Windows viewer as default viewer because it is so handy. It is the best way I know of for quickly scrolling through a bunch of photos and deleting the crappy ones. If you don't mind right clicking and going through the "Open With" routine every time you want to edit an image, then you can stop right here. But the best thing is to change the default editor permanently.

So what if  you select “Choose Program” from that same menu, then select your program in the box that appears next, putting a check mark in the box that says “Always Use This Program,” will you will change the default editor? Nope. You'll be setting that program as your default viewer. Not a good idea to open a big program like Photoshop just to view the image, since it wastes time and system RAM!  

No, what you want to do is change the default editor. And the only way to do this is to go to the top of Windows Explorer, and select Tools>Folder Types. Click on that. Then click on File Types. Scroll down the list of file types you see there and select JPG (while there are other image types, chances are you’re shooting in JPG mode, but you can also repeat all the following steps for GIF, TIF, and other types of graphics files). Now highlight JPG, and select “Advanced” in the lower right part of this dialogue box.  

(By the way, this is also where you set the default viewer. It should be the Windows Picture and Fax viewer, but sometimes a program you install will usurp that task. We'll cover that in a moment.)  

If, under “Actions”  the word Edit already appears, select “Edit” on the right. If it "Edit" isn't already listed on the left under "Actions" select “New” – the steps from this point on are the same. A new window opens.  

At the top it will say “Action” which you can name anything you want. It can be simply “Edit” or “Edit in Photoshop” or whatever you like. But what you do put here will appear in the right-click menu when you click on an image, so name it something!

Next, you need to enter the program to be used as editor in the window below. It may already say something, like “Paint” but unless it is the program YOU want, click on Browse. In the next window, click on My Computer on the left. Then double click on Local Disk C on the right. From there, select Program Files. You should get a list of file folders. Look for the one that has the same or similar name to your favorite photo editing program. For Adobe programs, such as Elements or Photoshop, first click on Adobe, then Photoshop. You should see “photoshop.exe.” And that’s the file you select. The file you’re looking for will always have an .exe extension. Highlight that file, then click your way out by hitting all the OK or Apply buttons.  

Now, when you right click a JPG image, you’ll see “Edit” or “Edit in Photoshop” or whatever you entered in that box a couple steps back. Click on that, and your image opens in that program. But if you merely double click the thumbnail, it’ll open in the Windows default Fax and Picture Viewer, which is an excellent, fast way to look at your images.  

(Back to the default viewer. If when you click on Open, the next box shows some other program, you'll need to re-link the Open task to the Windows viewer. But it is impossible to find in the "Browse" menu. What you need to do is cut and paste the following entry EXACTLY into the spot that says "Application to use...." The entry is: 

rundll32.exe C:\WINDOWS\system32\shimgvw.dll,ImageView_Fullscreen %1

Then close out the dialogue boxes by clicking Apply or OK.)

By the way, in the Windows Picture and Fax Viewer, there’s an icon on the bottom menu, second from the right and next to the little question mark, which opens the editing program you just created as your default photo editor. This is a handy shortcut.  

While this sounds like a lot of work to get set up, the fact is you only have to do it once, and from that point on, organizing and viewing images, and the getting them to your photo editing program will be much simpler in the future. No longer are you forced to view images through the slow and often inadequate viewers built into your photo editor.  

Setting Your Default Editor in Windows 7

Guess what! You can't do it. Despite the fact that I believe Win 7 to be the best operating system Microsoft has ever made, they dumbed it down so much that you can no longer perform the steps outlined above to change the default photo editor. Well, OK you can sort of. Let me explain.

If you associate a file type, in this instance a JPG image, with Photoshop (your choice of photo editor), every time you double click on a JPG to view it, you'll have to view it in Photoshop. You don't really want to open a large, powerful photo editing program just to view an image. With XP, you could select one program to view an image, and another to perform edits. No longer. Perhaps Microsoft will give us the ability to do that in the future, but right now you're stuck. If you select "Edit" from the right context menu when right clicking on an image, it will open in in Paint. If you select "Open" it will open it in the default Windows viewer, which is fine. No, if you want to edit the image in a program of your choice, you must select "Open With" and then choose from the programs listed there. Just don't make that program the default program for that file type or you'll end up, just like in changing the file association, having Photoshop (or whatever program you chose) open the file NOT JUST WHEN YOU WANT TO EDIT IT, BUT ALSO WHEN YOU JUST WANT TO VIEW IT.