How to Organize Photos

Organize your photos now and you'll have more time for making photo-worthy memories.


Snapping a photo is easier than ever with your phone. Because this device is almost always with you, you can capture so many more memories in snapshot form. Deciding what to do with all these photos can be a challenge. Follow these steps and tips to help you organize both digital photos and prints. Plus, download our free chart for quick reference to keep near your computer as you organize photos.

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Organize Digital Photos

Step 1: Download At least once a month, download photos from your camera and/or phone to your computer. Funnel the images directly into a photo management program such as iPhoto, Picasa, or Windows Live Photo Gallery. "It's important to at least get them downloaded so your photos aren't stuck on a camera that could get stolen, damaged, or lost," says Jody Al-Saigh of Picture Perfect Organizing.

Step 2: Edit, Edit, Edit. Review the photos you've downloaded on screen, deleting duplicate and poor-quality shots. Get tough on people-free scenics and repetitive party pics. "Fight the instinct that says every photo is precious," consumer technology analyst Kristy Holch says. "In reality, bad photos are just clutter that makes it harder to find the good ones." If editing that first big batch is overwhelming, tackle it in 15- to 20-minute increments until it's done.

Step 3: Make Folders. Decide on a method for organizing photos on your computer. Chronological is one approach; by theme is another. Al-Saigh suggests a hybrid of the two: Make a folder for each year, and inside it, a folder for each month. Label the months by number rather than name (for example, 02 for February) so the computer lists them in the right order. Inside the month folders, create themed subfolders (Mexico vacation, pizza party, etc.).

Step 4: Rename and File. Now rename each photo, replacing that random string of digits your camera assigned to it in favor of something that will help you find the image later. (Many photo programs will automatically rename photos using a keyword you specify and a number.) If you color-correct, fix red-eye, or otherwise edit your images, do that as you rename. For quick fixes, try your photo program's one-click editing tool, such as Picasa's "I Feel Lucky" button or iPhoto's "Enhance" feature. Save the renamed, edited photos into the folders you just created.

Step 5: Back Up. Once a batch of photos is organized into folders, back it up right then. Experts recommend using at least two of the following methods: an external drive, an online storage service, or prints. (Most don't recommend backing up on DVDs or CDs unless the discs are archival-rated, which are expensive.) If you go with an online service, look for one that focuses on storage. Those that offer printing often charge for downloading a photo and reduce its resolution.

Step 6: Delete. Now that your photos are organized and secure, it's safe to erase them from your camera or phone. You'll avoid accidentally downloading duplicates and give yourself a nice clean slate for the next month's photo opportunities.

Photo Storage

For safekeeping of digital photos, you have three options: an external drive, an online photo service, and good old prints. Here's what you need to know about each.

External Drive. It might sound techy, but it's quite easy to use. Just connect the drive to your computer and drag your folders of organized, edited photos onto it. Prices start around $100 for about 500 GB of storage, which will store about 200,000 photos taken with a point-and-shoot camera.

Online Services.There are dozens of photo sites, each offering a combo of services, including storage, printing, and online sharing.

Prints."The best backup is still a printed photo," says Cathi Nelson, founder of the Association of Personal Photo Organizers. But many experts say don't bother with a home printer -- supplies are expensive and the quality rarely good. Instead, use an online service or a store kiosk. Nelson suggests trying a few stores to see which one churns out the best prints. And don't discount the small, independent shops. "Your local photo lab wants your business so is usually a great source of help and info," Nelson says.

Organize Printed Photos
  • Invest in a large set of matching photo albums and photo boxes. This will make it easy to organize your photos over the years. (Visit exposuresonline.com for options.)
  • Go over photos when you first receive them.
  • While you sort, record an identifying description, such as the date or who's in the photo, on the back of each photo.
  • Write on photo paper with a light touch, and make certain you use an acid-free, photo-safe pencil or pen (available at art supply and crafts stores).
  • Don't keep bad exposures, blurry shots, or bloopers you won't look at again. Throw away any photos you'd rather not remember.
  • Nab your favorites to put in an album or frame right away; pick out images to give to friends.
  • Make a list of any reprints or enlargements you need and take it to the photo store next time you're out and about.
Storage for Printed Photos

You can use specially made photo boxes to create a filing system. Transfer prints from the photo-center packets to less bulky acid-free envelopes.

Clearly label each envelope with dates and any other identifying description -- Road trip to Yellowstone or Christmas 2012, for instance. Then separate the envelopes into specific categories for storage.

Label tabbed dividers to further organize into subcategories, perhaps by year or family member.

The key is to create categories that will fit all of your photos and that you'll remember when the time comes to search out that certain shot.

Albums or binders with acid-free plastic sleeves are great systems for organizing your photos. Identify shots by leaving a blank pocket in front of each new set of photos.

Slip a little labeling card in the pocket -- something to remind you and other viewers that these are moments from your second honeymoon in Hawaii or your niece's graduation party.

Line a drawer of a desk, bureau, or flat file with acid-free, archival-quality cardboard for storing envelopes of photos and negatives just as you would in a photo box. A piano bench or chest also makes a handy storage unit.

Protect Photos

To protect your precious photos, keep these points in mind:

  • Temperature, humidity, and light affect photos. Stash stored photos and photo albums away from sunlight in a cool, dry area.
  • Hang framed photos on a wall that won't get the direct sunlight, which fades photos quickly. Or use blinds and draperies to control the light.
  • Avoid storing photos in basements or attics, where temperatures and humidity fluctuate.
  • Oils on your fingers degrade photos and negatives, so handle them by the edges only. For additional protection, wear clean white cotton gloves.
  • Paper clips, rubber bands, glue, and tape shouldn't come in contact with photos, unless specifically designed as safe for photos.
  • Plastic pages, bags, and boxes that aren't acid-free might release harmful vapors that permanently damage photos. These plastic products are considered safe: polypropylene, polyethylene, mylar, tyvek, and cellulose triacetate. Before you buy, check labels on photo boxes, mats, and albums to make sure they're acid-free and photo-safe.
  • Always frame photos using acid-free matting materials.
  • Keep photos away from wood, plywood, chipboard, rubber cement, animal glue, shellac, contact cement, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), pressure-sensitive tape, and porous marking pens.
  • Adhesives might chemically interact with images and ruin the photos if you try to remove them from an album at a later date. Use only specially made acid-free glue sticks, markers, and corners on your photos. (Available from exposuresonline.com, archivalmethods.com, or archivalusa.com.)
  • Never use so-called magnetic photo albums that have damaging glues on the photo pages.
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