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!

*     *     *     *     *

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?