Organize Photos in a Snap with These Easy Tips from the Pros

Clean up your camera roll and sort through your prints with these photo organizing tips that will keep your memories safe.

Snapping a photo is easier than ever thanks to smartphones at our fingertips. Because this device is almost always close at hand, you can instantly capture memories at any time or place with a quick click. But as your camera roll fills up with thousands of pics, deciding what to do with them all can be a challenge. Here are some of our most helpful tips to help you organize photos—both printed and digital copies—so you can easily revisit those memories whenever you please. We'll show you how to sort digital photos from a phone or camera onto your computer, as well as how to safely store printed photos. With these tips, you can clean up your camera roll, protect your family photographs, and keep your precious memories safe.

modern art on office wall

How to Organize Digital Photos

Clear out your camera roll and safeguard your snapshots with these tips on how to organize digital photos on your phone or computer.

Step 1: Delete Unnecessary Photos Right Away

We're all guilty of taking 20 pictures of the same view to achieve the perfect lighting and angle (or snap at least one photo where everyone is looking at the camera and smiling). To avoid a buildup of mediocre photos that you'll have to deal with later, get in the habit of deleting duplicate or poor-quality shots right away. Get tough on people-free scenic photos and repetitive party pics. "Fight the instinct that says every photo is precious," says consumer technology analyst Kristy Holch. "In reality, bad photos are just clutter that makes it harder to find the good ones."

Step 2: Organize Photos into Albums or Folders

Once the unnecessary shots are deleted, you can organize photos in your smartphone using albums. Create albums for special events, vacations, and other themes, such as pictures of your pet, so you can look back on a category of images at once. Some smartphones will do some of this work for you. Google Photos and Apple's Photo app automatically analyze photos to make them searchable by keywords and group them into albums by location and person.

If you're organizing photos on your computer, you can choose to arrange them chronologically or by theme. Jody Al-Saigh of Picture Perfect Organizing 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 like Mexico vacation or pizza party.

Step 3: Edit Photos as Needed

If you like to tweak your photos to fix imperfections or get the best lighting and crop, it's a good idea to create separate folders for to-be-edited photos and the final versions. Select the photos that need color-correcting or red-eye fixes and add them to a "To Edit" folder. Once they've been altered to your liking, move them to the finished folder. If editing that first big batch is overwhelming, tackle it in 15- to 20-minute increments until it's done.

Step 4: Download and Back Up Your Photos

It's important to back up your photos at least once a month to ensure those precious memories don't accidentally get deleted or lost. You can back up photos directly from your phone using iCloud Photos on iPhones or an app such as Google Photos. Some digital photo storage services are free while others cost a monthly or annual fee. Prices also vary depending on how much storage space you need for your photos. Be sure to back up your images after you've edited and sorted them to conserve storage space.

When downloading photos from your phone or camera to your computer, funnel the images directly into a photo management program such as Apple Photos or Google Photos. "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," Al-Saigh says. For another layer of safekeeping, consider saving photos to an external hard drive or printing them using a service like Artifact Uprising or Target Photo.

Step 5: Delete Photos from Other Devices

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

wooden box with travel photos
Marty Baldwin

Types of 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 intimidating, but an external hard drive is quite easy to use. Just connect the drive to your computer's USB port and drag your folders of organized, edited photos onto it. External drives are available for less than $50 with 1 terabyte of storage, which can store about 250,000 photos taken with a 12-mega pixel camera.

Online Photo-Storage Services

Cloud storage sites offer a variety of services including storing, printing, and sharing photos online. Amazon Photo, Dropbox, Shutterfly, and Google Photos are just a few of your options. Some offer unlimited storage at no cost, while others have limited free storage with options to upgrade your capacity for a monthly or yearly fee.

Photo Prints

"The best backup is still a printed photo," says Cathi Nelson, founder of the Association of Personal Photo Organizers. But you might want to skip using a home printer as the supplies can be expensive and the photo quality is 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.

holding a photo of travel destination
Marty Baldwin

How to Organize Printed Photos

First, invest in a large set of matching photo albums and photo boxes. This will make it easy to organize your photos over the years. Then, go over photos as 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 or recycle any photos you'd rather not remember. Select your favorites to put in an album or frame right away; pick out images to give to friends. Lastly, make a list of any reprints or enlargements you need and take it to the photo store the next time you're out and about.

boxes and books on window sill
Cameron Sadeghpour

How to Store 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, such as "Yellowstone Vacation 2019" or "Christmas 2019." Then separate the envelopes into specific categories for storage.

Use tabbed dividers to further organize the photo into subcategories. Consider labeling the dividers by year or family member. The key is to create categories that will fit all of your photos and that you'll remember when you're searching for a specific shot.

Albums or binders with acid-free plastic sleeves are great systems for organizing your photos. Identify categories of shots by leaving a blank pocket in front of each new set of photos. Slip a labeling card into the pocket that reminds you and other viewers that these are moments from your honeymoon in Hawaii or your niece's graduation party.

Line a drawer of a desk, bureau, or flat file cabinet with acid-free tissue paper or cardboard, then fill it with envelopes of photos and negatives just as you would in a photo box. A chest also makes a handy storage unit.

Clear plastic binder box photo organizer

How to Protect Printed Photos

To protect your printed photos and film negatives from damage, keep these points in mind.

Pay Attention to Sunlight and Temperature

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.

Handle with Care

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 prints unless they're specifically designed to be photo-safe.

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. Keep photos away from wood, plywood, chipboard, rubber cement, animal glue, shellac, contact cement, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), pressure-sensitive tape, and porous marking pens.

Opt for Acid-Free

Plastic pages, bags, and boxes that aren't acid-free might release harmful vapors that permanently damage photos. Look for these plastic products, which are considered photo-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.

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