Where to Begin With Photo Organizing

photos to be organized

Do you have boxes of disorganized photos all over your house? Are most of your photos stuck in the recesses of your phone or computer? This situation can feel overwhelming, like a chore you now you should be dealing with but keep procrastinating. Organizing photos can be a big project, but it isn’t an insurmountable task. If you want to start tackling your photo collection, here is what I recommend.

THE FIRST STEP is to get your photos into a place where you can review them.

For slides and negatives:

Many people still have boxes of slides and/or negatives lying around. In order to sort these, you have to be able to see the images. If you have a small quantity of old media, you may wish to have it all transferred into digital format. There are a variety of choices, but moving your images onto a thumb drive is a nice option. This allows you to easily load them onto your computer for sorting, and provides a space-saving backup. I recommend you label the thumb drive so you can quickly identify which images are where should you need to go back and find them.

When hiring a vendor to transfer images into digital format, I suggest that you ask around your local area to find a reputable supplier (preferably one who does the work “in house”), or use a well-known national company.

Prices will differ depending on your volume and location, but a rough estimate should be around $0.45-$0.60 per image.

[Note: If it is cost prohibitive to transfer all of your old media, you may wish to do a “pre-sort” of the images and transfer only the ones you think you think you may wish to keep. You will need a slide projector or a device like this one designed for this purpose.]

For printed photos:

Most people over the age of 40 have at least some printed photos. Gather your albums and boxes into one area so you can review them. Be careful when handling old photos. If they are fragile or stuck in old albums, you may wish to consult a professional for the best way to handle them.

For digital images:

Digital images are easy to capture, but can be challenging to sort. One reason is that we tend to have a lot of them. Another is that they frequently reside on different devices. As with the printed photos, you will need to gather all your images into one location. Photos are easier to view on a monitor than a phone, so I suggest moving them onto a laptop, desktop or tablet.

*** Before you begin sorting, make a backup of all digital images. Either a thumb drive such as PictureKeeper or a cloud-based service can serve this purpose. Once you are finished, you can always go back and delete any you don’t want, but this will give you peace of mind if you are fearful of deleting a favorite image. ***

THE SECOND STEP in organizing photos is to sort through them. These are my general guidelines to keep in mind:

You don’t need to keep them all:

  • Trashing a photograph of friends or loved ones doesn’t mean you don’t love them or didn’t enjoy the moment that the image captures.
  • Few people have the space or time to enjoy millions of images.
  • Images that are good candidates for disposal include blurry pictures, duplicates, photos you find unflattering, impersonal photos (e.g. vacation hotels/landscapes/animals) and functional photos (e.g. the broken part you had to replace).
  • Traditional photographs are not recyclable because of the chemicals used in film development. Click here for more information.

There are multiple ways to organize photos:

  • Arranging photos in chronological order is a good option if you know when the images were taken.
  • Photos can also be grouped according to the subject matter, such as “Baby Pictures,” “The Elementary Years,” “Early Married Life,” “Friends,” “Vacations,” “Homes,” or “Grandparents.”

Organizing photos will require time and (perhaps) space:

  • Sorting through backlogs of photos is more a marathon that a sprint, so pace yourself. Set a timer or a quantity goal for each sorting session.
  • If you are dealing with physical prints, designate a spot where you can spread out (e.g. a bed, a folding table or the dining room table).

Photos require “safe” storage:

  • The old “peel back” albums and shoeboxes are not ideal for maintaining printed photos. When choosing boxes or albums, look for acid-free products designed especially for photographs.
  • Digital images are best backed up in at multiple places (e.g. a thumb drive, external hard drive and cloud storage).
  • Consider printing and displaying any images you particularly love. In a world with rapidly changing technology, a printed photo is a safe photo.

Whether you are sorting physical or digital images, the goals of the process are to:

  • Keep the photos you like;
  • Eliminate the ones you don’t; and
  • Categorize them in a way that will enable you to access and view them upon demand

Physical photos can be moved into piles, while digital ones can be moved into folders. Decide which types of categories will work for you and then start going through your photos one at a time, disposing of any you do not want and moving the rest to the appropriate pile or folder. I suggest choosing a format (or “convention”) for how you will name digital images and folders. For example, instead of “Hawaii Vacation,” you may wish to say 2017_May_Hawaii Vacation. Images going into this folder should use a similar nomenclature. In addition, digital images can typically be tagged with a title, description and keywords, making them searchable.

If sorting your digital images “by hand” feels overwhelming, be aware that there are a variety of software products available to make the process easier and more rewarding. Click here for a review of some of the top-rated choices, along with an overview of the features they offer.


Now that your old photos are sorted, try and keep them from getting out of control in the future:

  • Regularly delete photos from your camera roll
  • After major events (e.g. trips, shows, sporting events), take the time to delete the rejects and properly name/tag the images worth keeping.
  • Consider capturing some of your favorites in a place where you will get to see and enjoy them (e.g. photo books, photo products, framed images). I recently heard about one father who puts together a photo book for each of his children on their birthday with images from the previous year. What a wonderful idea!

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Photos should be a source of joy and remembrance, not a source of grief. Furthermore, always remember that experiencing life is more important than documenting it.

How are your photos organized?

19 thoughts on “Where to Begin With Photo Organizing”

    1. Dropbox is a great option for photo storage. It feels good to know your images are “safe,” right? Still worth the sorting process, both to keep storage costs down and to ease retrieval. I know your images are probably in good shape as you are very organized, Janine! Happy Labor Day:)

  1. Thanks so much for the link to the software reviews! This is something I struggle with constantly. Most articles are geared towards either professional photographers (organize by client project) or family photos (organize chronologically) but my photos are a mix of personal mementos and my “art”. Maybe one of those software programs can help me!

    1. I think most people have at least some photos that are chronologically jumbled – especially printed photos. I found it freeing to hear a speaker suggest grouping photos in other ways. I have made several photo books that are topical, and enjoy looking through them! I imagine you could make some beautiful coffee table books with your art!

      1. I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet, but I did create a “highlights” book for 2015, and a wall calendar for this year with my best pics from 2016. Thanks for your encouragement!

  2. Wow, Seana! This is often the organizing project that we want to do but leave for last. And I think part of that is that it can be overwhelming and also may seem like a lower priority. I love all of the suggestions and parameters you’ve given. So much great advice and process to consider. I particularly liked your “what not to keep” list. So very helpful!
    Linda Samuels recently posted…How to Be Successful With Your Projects and PurposeMy Profile

    1. Even when I work with clients, tackling the photos tends to fall to the bottom of the list. It can feel overwhelming for sure, but once you get started, it can also be a pleasant walk down memory lane. Putting a structure in place is so helpful because it gets you started. Once you start, you can work a small bit over time, with very rewarding results!

  3. We have a separate external hard drive for our photos. And it automatically backed up to Dropbox. When we were researching our system for storing digital files, we found that one should have at least 2 copies of digita images. Three is actually ideal. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on organizing photos.

    1. I agree…multiple backups are smart. I’m looking at the devastation in Texas and thinking how at least some photos may have been saved because of digital backup. In previous decades, the chance of a total loss would have been greater. I myself would like to do a better job of “keywording” my photos so that I can find them and share them better down the road.

  4. I have PictureKeeper! I have a sort of unique situation in that I have probably way more photos than the average household but I just think that every single one matters because they all got me to where I am now. Cassidy thinks it’s nuts, personally, but he at least somewhat gets it.
    Your advice is spot-on.

    1. Affirmation from you means so much, Tamara. Photographers understand all of this, and invest to maintain quality digital backups. I would expect nothing less than you treasuring every image – that is what makes your eye (and heart) so special!

  5. Love this Seana! I’m going through this every now and then, but more actively now because I just came from a trip. You’re right that it takes time and space. Right now I’m backing up all photos and syncing them with Google Photos. Videos take so much time though. Thanks for the tips. So timely for me. Ps, love the last part. Experiencing is more important than documenting.
    Rea recently posted…Like A Bee Inside Flower Dome at Gardens By The BayMy Profile

  6. Excellent advice Seana! It can be daunting starting a project to organise your photos especially when you have printed and digital photos, but it just needs to be done.

    I personally like to group my photos by year and then event such as birthdays or holidays when sorting my digital photos. Which I got the idea from https://www.biblino.com/organising-your-photos/

    As as for printed photos I notice with my collection I have a lot less to sort through compared to my digital collection. I like to use photo albums and just put all the photos from that year in some sort of logical organisation 🙂

    What are your thoughts on using a free service like one drive to store your photos?
    Todd recently posted…By: ToddMy Profile

    1. I think it is important to clearly set your goals. Many older clients, who have a lot of printed photos, no longer have the ability to sort them by year, so I go with the “events” theme that you mentioned. I think having a digital storage solution is a good idea, but I also think it is nice to print and display your favorite photos. We have too many photos in our lives now, and although we are capturing more, we tend to enjoy them less.

  7. Thanks for your tip about gathering old albums and boxes into one area so I can review the photos they have in store. My grandmother asked me if I could help her clean her attic and I know that she’d be delighted knowing that her old photographs can be scanned online. I’ll follow your advice and sort everything first before looking for centers that offer this service.

  8. Pingback: How to Keep Memorabilia | The Seana Method Organizing & Productivity

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