How to Organize Photos and
Best Ways to Store Digital Photos
Your photos should be sorted, scanned, and preserved with your stories.
It may sound overwhelming—but it is doable.
Please note: some, but not all, of the merchants we reviewed have an affiliate program that provides a small commission. This does not increase the price you pay for the product – but helps us offset the cost of this site. You can click with confidence – and thank you for your support!
It’s overwhelming! For many of us Photogifters, photo storage includes envelopes, bags, albums, and photo storage boxes filled with hardcopy photos—AND multiple locations for our digital pictures including hard drive(s), USBs, cloud storage, and online albums on different photo sharing and social media sites.
Organizing our photos feels like an impossible task. But it is a critically important one because we are the stewards of our history. Sadly, we’ve heard one friend say that she is throwing her older photos away “because I have only one son and he won’t want any of these”. Not true!
What our children (and other relatives) want is the stories.
People truly value stories, especially ones that help them understand their family’s history. And your “archive” of old photos is what illustrates these stories. Photos also serve as a personal prompt to our memories! The wonderful thing about having photos is that a picture that might not have deep meaning to you today, may be laden with meaning later. (For a Photogifter story on how an older photo gained new, powerful meaning, read here.)
Organizing Your Photos to Find Them
In this article, we’re going to help you discover how to organize photos and the best way to store digital photos—with tips from Cathi Nelson, photo management expert and founder of The Photo Managers, formerly the Association of Professional Photo Organizers.
Cathi Nelson founded The Photo Managers as an answer to a growing need in our digital age–to organize the thousands of digital photos, printed photos, videos, home movies, and memorabilia that tell our family stories.
The Photo Managers offers expert advice on do-it-yourself photo organizing and digital photo management. They also offer training and certification to over 700 talented personal photo organizers who share a passion for helping people tell their stories. If you would like to find a personal photo organizer near you, click here.
If you would like expert advice and tools to tackle this project yourself, read on.
Cathi Nelson has some super-practical advice
In our discussion with Cathi Nelson, we received immensely useful–and liberating advice. For example, for most people the “old 80/20 rule” applies: you likely need to keep only 20% of the photos you have! Knowing this made tackling the photo organizing task seem much more manageable.
What follows are Cathi’s practical photo organizing tips.
Photo Organizing Tip #1: Use This Easy Sorting Strategy.
Begin with one envelope or box of photos. Sort them into three piles:
A – (Always keep them) – This photo is extraordinary because you feel happy when you look at it or it documents a special memory or a story you want to share.
B – (Box ‘em) – These are secondary photos that you cannot bring yourself to throw away (we all have them!) Don’t agonize over them; just put them in a box.
C – (Throw them in the Can) – This photo is a duplicate (remember the days of discounted double prints?!) or out of focus or just a bad picture. You may be surprised by how many of these you have been storing over the years!
Photo Organizing Tip #2: Scan Your Photos to Create an Easy-To-Organize Digital Archive.
Now its time to scan the photos. There are lots of ways to do this including both do-it-yourself and professional scanning options.
- Home flatbed scanner
- Retail photo kiosk
- Mobile phone with a scanning app
- Specialty photo retailer
Your choice may depend upon how you plan to use the image—and your access to a scanning device. To help you get a good quality scan, we’ve identified important tips for each method here.
Photo Organizing Tip #3: Name your Photo Files and Folders Carefully
Naming your photo files is critical. Each file name should be unique and it is easiest to do this systematically using numbers. Cathi recommends beginning your file name with a numerical date.
Why use numbers? Rachel LeCour Niesen, Steward of Stories and Founder of Save Family Photos provides this insight: “When it comes to organizing your photos, file numbers matter. By adopting a system and sticking to it, you guarantee that your photos will be easy to find, no matter how many years have passed. By using the date the photo was taken as part of the file name, you ensure that you don’t accidentally assign a photo a name that has already been given to another photo.”
For some of us, its so tempting to name the file creatively – by event, or person—especially if we are dealing with scanned photos and we cannot remember the date.
It is always better to start the file name with a date, even if it is approximate. Peter Krogh, one of the world’s experts on digital asset management, reinforces the message that descriptive names can be problematic, “The most important trait of a file name is to be unique. It’s hard to make them descriptive and yet unique.”
For older photos that are harder to date, you can create a name with broad dates and themes. For example, 1980s_Camping. Ultimately you will work with hundreds and thousands of photos—and dates will ensure that you group your photos into organized, retrievable batches.
Example of a folder structure that includes both older, scanned photos and digital files.
Gray Family Photos
— 01 January
— 02 February
Photo Organizing Tip #4: Where to Store your Digital Photos (hint: its not one place!)
There are lots of places to store your digital photo files—on your computer hard-drive, an external hard-drive, USBs, and in the Cloud on photo sites, social media, and with your document storage.
It is this wide range of options that makes having a Digital Photo Hub (DPH) so critical. Having one central hub to store all your photos from all your devices streamlines your ability to manage your photos and reduces your risk of losing them.
Your hub is a master folder on your computer’s hard drive or external hard drive. In choosing the location for your hub, be sure that it has the capacity to expand. You will certainly continue to take photos and video – and high-resolution files take a lot of space.
It is also a good idea to choose a location that is stored locally so that you can access your files whenever you like.
Backing up your files is important. Your photos are priceless—and technology can change—so Cathi also recommends that you back up the files in your hub with
- Different media
- Offsite location, e.g. cloud storage
For example, if you are using a hard-drive for your hub, consider using USBs as back up. Online cloud storage is also a great solution for an offsite location to reduce the risk of losing all of your photos in a home disaster.
Choose your online cloud storage provider carefully. Be sure to ask about fees, storage capacity, privacy, photo ownership, data-stripping (removing your metadata or compressing your file), data mining (sharing your personal information for advertising purposes), and how you will be able to retrieve your photos should you decide to leave this provider. Beware! Some online storage locations charge a fee when you remove your photos!
The complexity of digital storage options makes us yearn for the simplicity of storing photo prints! It is still a good idea to keep hard copies of your most prized photos. These can always be scanned again—and they are easy to retrieve when you want to add one as a gift accessory!
Photo Organizing Tip #5: Tell and Celebrate Your Stories
Photos are not just images that document a time or place. They can be beautiful pictures, springboards to memories, and most important, catalysts for storytelling.
How do you preserve your story with your photo? Here are some suggestions on ways you can attach your story to the photo that makes it real.
Photo Prints – Write gently on the back of your photo with a Stabilo All pencil. Never use standard markers, cheap pens, or highlighters as the oils, solvents, and other chemicals in these materials can bleed, smear, or contaminate your image – and they are non-erasable.
You can also use a soft #2 pencil on the back of photos that are printed on “fiber-based” photographic paper. However, pencils will not work on the newer plastic- or resin-backed color photos. The Stabilo-All pencil works on all photo print surfaces and is available in a variety of colors. Remember to:
- Always work on a clean, hard surface
- Write near the edges of the photo (not the middle!), and
- Use a light touch to avoid the pressure of your handwriting pressing through to affect the image
If you are writing on plastic (polyethylene) backed photographs or archival sleeves you should consider using waterproof Lumocolor Permanent Markers or TechLiner Drawing Markers. These pens are made with high-quality, acid-free ink and will not bleed through or damage your photographs. Be sure to test their drying time before writing and then stacking your pictures or slipping them into sleeves. The ink will smear if its still wet.
Digital Photos – Some of your story is captured in the metadata attached to the image (date and location), but the story is not complete without your details. You can add tags identifying the event and people in the photo—but the “real” story, the narrative, is best captured in your own words. Some Cloud storage sites, such as Google Photos enables a description box for each photo. Tell your story there.
Create a video telling your story and showing the photos that illustrate your story. You can create the video easily on your phone. Remember to use the file naming convention above when naming and storing your video!
Create a photo book to tell your story with multiple pictures and your own words and artistry. This is an extraordinary gift! A “permanent” record, from the heart, that can be shared with many others. There are lots of excellent places to create photo books. Investigate Shutterfly for the wide range of templates available, Blurb for its clean, professional-look, Mpix for its good paper variety and speed of printing, Artifact Uprising for its beautiful books and cool, new chapter-based Scrapbook Album, and Picaboo for a great variety of book style options including a genuine leather wrap!
These tips are just the basics. Cathi Nelson offers more insight and practical tips on photo organizing in her excellent book and do-it-yourself courses. We highly recommend checking these out!
by Cathi Nelson, founder of The Photo Managers, formerly the Association of Professional Photo Organizers (APPO).
Also, consider enrolling in The Photo Manager’s informative and easy-to-follow online courses designed to take you step by step through the organizing process:
Printed Photo Organizing Made Easy guides you through the process of organizing (and digitizing) your printed photos, memorabilia, old media, and home movies.
Digital Photo Organizing Made Easy includes short video tutorials, handouts, and a resource guide to teach you how to find, organize, and consolidate your images & videos into one manageable library so you can easily access, share, and backup your important memories. Or, buy both courses at a discount. Each course include short video tutorials, handouts, and a resource guide–and, if you would like to access a community of fellow organizers, a private Facebook group to respond to questions.
Save 15% when you use this code: PHOTOGIFTER15
And prepare to be emotional. Organizing your photos brings forward a flood of memories: many happy, some sad, all meaningful. They are the stories of our life.
If, after reading these tips, you would like more hands-on help, click here to find a professional organizer who can work with you to create the digital photo library your family deserves.
Nelson, Cathi. Photo Organizing Made Easy, Going from Overwhelmed to Overjoyed.
Interview: Cathi Nelson, Founder and CEO, The Photo Managers, formerly the Association of Professional Photo Organizers
Interview: Sandra Christie, Founder, The Photo Restoration Center