How to Eliminate Duplicate Photos on a PC or Mac

by | Digital Photography Tips | 18 comments

During the last Photo Crush challenge, eliminating duplicate copies of photos was the most frequently-discussed topic. Not only are your photos in multiple locations, but you’ve got copies spread across numerous devices and drives.

In this post my aim is to provide a clear path out of the weeds for both PC and Mac users. With intentional action, you can consolidate your photo library and stop worrying about your memories getting lost in the clutter. Here’s how to begin:

How to Eliminate Duplicate Photos on a PC or Mac

Step 1.  Prevent New Duplicate Photos

It’s time to draw a line in the sand. Everything that came before may be in disarray (and take some time to sort), but from here forward you can do better.

Don’t wait until you’re totally organized to commit to more purposeful photo management. You can start where you are right now.

So what’s the secret to preventing duplicate copies? There are several:

* Your photos should have a clearly designated home. Your #1 objective should be to get your images from each camera or device to that home.

* The entire photo library should be backed up in at least one (ideally two) locations. Automated backup can reduce the anxiety that leads to duplicates.

* When transferring images, always check which photo was the last to be imported. Then, import only the new pictures to your photo home. Clear off your memory card once the newest images have been backed up.

* If you do make a copy (for whatever reason), delete the duplicate copy as soon as you feel assured the file transfer has completed. A spot-check is often sufficient.

Step 2. Consolidate and Compare

Setting yourself up for future duplicate avoidance should feel like a big relief. With that zone under control, you can turn your focus to the photos you already have.

While there is duplicate-locating software for both Mac and PC, it’s not where I personally believe you should begin. Software is no substitute for good old-fashioned human eyeballs on the situation and can even make the progress more complicated that it needs to be.

I don’t recommend taking shortcuts when it comes to protecting your memories.

Remember the “home” I mentioned above? That’s where the master copy of every photo lives and where you’ll focus to eliminate duplicate files.

Start by creating a set of nested, chronological folders designated with years and months. If you have a particular subset of your photos that’s in the best shape, you can move just that subset into this folder structure. (If you don’t, that’s OK too.) This is your starting point.

Next, copy all batches of images to a location near that home. For example, create a “to sort” folder near your master photo library. Don’t worry about organization yet, simply copy every folder from every device into this location. You can label those incoming photos by location too, such as “photos from laptop”.

If you have a drive space issue, you can create multiple “to sort” folders or store your “to sort” folder on an external drive with sufficient space.

Note: The security of your photos is super important to me, so I am recommending making copies here. You might find it helpful to write down the original location of each folder you copy. Once this process is complete, you’ll be able to delete the originals.

So now you have a collection of folders within a “to sort” folder. They contain photos from multiple devices and you’re not sure which, if any, are already “home” in your master photo library.

Here’s the most important part: One sub-folder at a time, compare batches of photos to what’s in your home. The chronological structure will help you know where each image belongs. Using large icons or a preview pane can help, as can arranging your windows side-by-side.

Photos that already exist in the master photo library can be flagged for deletion by appending the folder name with “duplicate – to delete”. Photos that don’t exist in the master photo library can be moved into that structure.

While this process can take some time, it is the most straightforward approach. Folder by folder, you can determine which files are duplicates and which are not. And by being clear about which location is the master, you will avoid confusion.

Your goal is to move every non-duplicate image into the master photo library and be left with a “to sort” folder full of sub-folders flagged for deletion. With your master photo library newly-organized (even if only roughly), you can back it up in at least one location. This will leave you with the confidence to delete photos across your devices, eliminating duplicates once and for all.

Need a visual demonstration? Watch this video tutorial:

Did you find this post helpful?

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  1. Cynthia

    Hi Jennifer,
    Great video and information. Looking forward Photo Crush challenge #2.

    • Jennifer Wilson

      Thanks Cynthia!

  2. Jannette

    Hi Jennifer!, thanks for the advice. How do you do this : “Photos that already exist in the master photo library can be flagged for deletion by appending the folder name with “duplicate – to delete”. ? editing the name and adding “duplicate”? thanks!

    • Jennifer Wilson

      Yep, you’re just changing the name of the folder (or file). I like to put any changes at the beginning, like “000_delete_foldername” so that it floats to the top.

  3. Brooke

    I’m signed up for Photo Crush (first time) and maybe this will be covered, but my struggle is getting photos from phones to my laptop without duplicating. When I get photos off a camera card, I move all of them into an “uploaded” folder on the SIM card so I know where I left off. (Once those photos are backed up securely, I clear off the card.) But I have trouble knowing which photos I have gotten off our phones. I really need help creating a process for gathering photos from multiple phones into one photo collection on my laptop.

    • Jennifer Wilson

      That’s hard for me too Brooke, so I always look in my photo library for the most recent photo and make sure I only upload after that. I do use Lightroom over my folder structure, which makes it easy to view just photos from certain devices… but I can usually tell just by knowing a.) who took the photo and b.) does it look like it came from a phone or camera.

      Another idea is to use Dropbox to automatically copy your phone photos to your computer. Here’s a short tutorial on setting that up:

      (I actually have my Dropbox account set up on DH’s phone, so it pulls all of his photos too!)

  4. Pat Moore

    I am very happy that I already use a system similar to what you are describing. WOW Makes me feel good that I have photo storage under control. I do have one problem & would appreciate any suggestions. I have small notebook that I have used for years. I back up photos on a CD/DVD, but have not been able to back up June-Dec 2015. I use a separate device(because no unit is built in to the computer) to listen to & make CD/DVD’s AND it is no longer being recognized by the notebook.I can hear it start to run, the CD spins.
    SO my last 6 months of photos are not backed up on CD/DVD. Except those photos that I printed with Snapfish or Shutterfly are on their server…which is some what reassuring. Any suggestions, is it the computer or the device? And what can I do?

    • Jennifer Wilson

      It’s probably your device Pat. Optical drives can get out of whack over time, creating a misalignment of the laser. It could be a simple repair or you may need a replacement.

      If you are in the market for a replacement, I would recommend an external hard drive. This doesn’t help with listening to CDs or watching DVDs of course, but is considered more reliable for long-term storage of data.

  5. Eliza

    Some good organizational tips here, Jennifer! But why not simply use a duplicate photo finder? An app called Duplicate Photo Cleaner saved me lots of time and disk space. It’s also helped me sort through new photos from a photo session because it lists similar images in groups, so that I can select the best shots and delete the rest.

    • Jennifer Wilson

      Every duplicate-finding software works differently. Some just look at file names, sizes, and metadata. Others actually can “look” at images to identify similarities. So it’s not foolproof and still requires your decision-making, so I wouldn’t want to suggest that software can magically eliminate duplicates.

      Additionally, using software doesn’t help correct the root cause of the problem, which is having photos decentralized. That said, I do think that for a large number of images it could be a helpful next step beyond what I have shared.

      I’m so glad that Duplicate Photo Cleaner worked well for you!

      • Eliza

        Hi Jennifer,

        you are so right about eliminating the cause and being more organized. For my type of work where I dab my hands in photography and also post images of my paintings in different crops and sizes for different websites, I’ve found DPC (which is an image similarity finder) very helpful. Because it basically tells me “OK, here’s an image and there are X similar ones” and then it’s up to me what to do with them. Actually, I wouldn’t suggest anyone to use something that deletes files automatically because that can lead to trouble.

  6. kay

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us. I had already made a master and I am still moving my photos into it. But would have forgotten to make a copy. Thank you so much for sharing it is much appreciated.

  7. Julie Spady

    The home that I have most of my photos from the last 5 years is in my picture on Windows. I have them organized by event. In 2015 I started organizing my new pictures into 2015 and then by month. Im doing the same from here forward. Can I still find duplicates with my old pictures organized how they are?

    • Jennifer Wilson

      Yes, just take that into account when you are comparing files and folders. For images with a date of pre-2015, you’ll want to look in the event folder.

  8. Seettofe

    Aw, this was a very nice post. In thought I want to put in writing like this additionally – taking time and actual effort to make a very good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and on no account seem to get something done.

  9. Terry Bell

    Hi Jennifer,
    I used to have a very organized Pictures folder. This is going back to before Windows 10 was released. The Pictures program in 10 has a habit of creating duplicate pictures and folders that I haven’t ordered. Any ideas on how to stop the software from rearranging my pictures and duplicating them in several different folders?
    I used to save my pictures on CD_ROMs but now there appear to be too many to fit on a disc. Do you have a way around this issue?
    I also have two external hard drives. The first is 1 terabyte in size and the second is 3 Terabytes. As you may have figured, there are dupes on them as well. Which means I may have 3 or 4 copies of each picture I want to save. I would think that would rule out any software coming to my aide.
    Thanks for being there.

  10. Adri

    Thank you for this much needed info. Our lives is full off photos it seems. I have a question. My master folder is on my windows laptop but I have an iPhone now. Always had Samsung. It was so simple to organise and download photos. I can’t seem to get the iPhone photos downloaded now.
    Is there something I have to do that I don’t know about.



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