How to Organize Photos

You'll get the most out of your photos with a good organization system -- and with albums and frames for displaying them.
©2010 Jupiterimages Corporation

Family portraits have come a long way since the days of posing as the photographer hid beneath a black sheet. Now you probably take countless digital pictures without worrying too much about whether or not everyone is holding his or her pose.

But digital images can pile up in your computer just as their printed ancestors piled up in boxes in your closet. Your photo collection most likely includes both digital and print photos, and depending on how many photos you have, organizing them can take an awfully long time. First, you'll want to determine the purpose of your photo collection -- maybe you're archiving pictures of your children or a great vacation. When you figure out how you want to use your photos, you'll gain insight into how they should be organized. If you plan to share your photos with others, think about what may make them most interesting to your audience. For example, you may want to add captions or display your photos in either a traditional or digital scrapbook [source: Sutton].


Organizing your photos will make them accessible and easier to enjoy and share. Instead of rooting through closets and computer folders, you can find that certain shot you're looking for in no time. Your photos will also be safe once they're organized properly -- prints need to go in photo-safe sleeves and boxes, and digital photos need to be backed up in more than one location. By scanning old prints, you can integrate them into your digital collection and have all your photos at your fingertips [source: Better Homes and Gardens].

Sure, sorting through all those photos may seem like a daunting task, but it's a great excuse to enjoy long-forgotten moments. Read on for tips on how to best start organizing your prints.


Methods for Organizing Printed Photos

How you organize your printed photos will depend on what you want to do with them. You may want to create an album to commemorate a special event, or you may be wondering how to best arrange photos of your children or pets. Think about why you took the photos and what they mean to you as you decide how to organize them [source: Smedley]. You may choose to organize photos by subject matter, or instead, you may organize them chronologically.

No matter how you present your photos, you'll want to use the right tools to make sure the presentation fits the purpose. Scrapbooking supplies, such as colored paper and pens, can be fun, but be careful what you use to write on your photos. Ingredients in some pens can damage photos over time, so make sure you're using safe materials even if you're only writing on the backs [source: Sutton].


Choosing the right photo album for your purpose is another matter to consider. If you plan to add to your album over time, be sure the photo sleeves you choose are easy to refill. Think about the size of your album, too. Smaller albums that focus on a particular individual or event make great gifts. Larger albums sit well on a coffee table or in the laps of your guests [source: Williams].

But albums and scrapbooks aren't the only ways to store photos. Read on for more tips on storing printed photos.


Storing Printed Photos

The possibilities for storing photos may seem endless -- albums, boxes and frames are all viable options. Frames are the most obvious option for displaying photos you want to view every day. Photos you like to glance through occasionally, or that you want to share with others, you may place in an album for easy accessibility. Other photos that may be of a more private nature you'll want to store in an out-of-the-way box. However you display or store your photos, be sure you do so in a way that protects them over time.

Dumping photos in shoeboxes may seem like an easy way to get them at least somewhat organized, but doing so means you're practically asking for photos to be bent or torn. Plastic bags and large envelopes are other photo storage disasters to clear to steer of. Sticky notes may be an easy way to label photos, but leaving them stuck to photos for an extended period of time can cause damage.


When printed photos come back from the developer, it may be tempting to leave them in the envelopes you receive them in. However, such envelopes aren't meant to store photos for an extended period of time. In fact, the acid in these envelopes can actually discolor photos, so be sure to move your pictures to a safe place as soon as possible. Other envelopes are made specifically for long-term photo storage, so if you're intent on using envelopes, make sure you get the right kind [source: Sutton].

Printed photos are fun, but with digital technology on the rise, they aren't as common as they once were. For information on organizing digital photos, read on.


Methods for Organizing Digital Photos

With a digital camera, it's easy to click away without the worry of wasting film. This tendency, however, can also lead to massive amounts of photos. Uploading your digital photos to your computer without organizing them is akin to tossing your printed photos into a shoebox in the closet -- when it comes time to search for that one special image, you'll have to sift through a lot of other stuff before you find it.

To avoid digital clutter, upload photos to your computer each time you finish shooting. Organize photos in folders, and name the folders based on an organizational system that makes sense to you. Just as when you organize printed photos into albums, how you name your folders should reflect your purpose for taking the photos. For example, you may want to create one folder for each year. Within these folders, you can then create subfolders based on the subject matter, time or location [source: Northrup].


If you're not using software that allows you to tag photos, name folders based on criteria you may search for. You may also want to include the names of the people in your photos in the filename, so that by searching for "Tom," all photos of Tom turn up as results. To save time, you can even rename multiple photos at once [source: Northrup].

You may also want to create a folder for photos that you still need to file or rename. That way, you can come back and finish organizing them at another time if you can't do it all in one sitting. Later, you can move on to editing your photos [source: Hendricks].

Once you have a good organizational system in place, you'll want to be sure your photos are stored safely. To learn about storing digital photos, read on.


Storing Digital Photos

Computers crash. They also catch viruses and occasionally suffer at the hand of clumsy users who spill coffee on their keyboards. Keeping these inevitabilities in mind, it's just not safe to store your digital photos only on your computer's hard drive.

Once you're finished organizing your photos, it's time to back them up. There are numerous ways to do this, including copying your photos to CDs or to an external hard drive, or by uploading them to an online photo-sharing site [source: Hendricks]. No matter which you choose, such options offer increased portability in addition to security. It's easy to plop a CD into a friend's computer to share photos or to e-mail someone a link to your online photo archive.


Some CDs can hold as many as 700 megabytes, and saving photos on a CD is as easy as saving them to your hard drive. After your photos are organized on your computer, they'll automatically carry the same file names and organizational systems when you burn them to a CD [source: Kodak].

Many digital photo organizing software programs can help you back up your photos to avoid loss should your computer become compromised. To learn about different types of photo organizing software, read the next page.


Photo Organizing Software

You can edit, organize, store and share your photos without photo-organizing software, but the software makes all of these steps much easier.

Instead of merely naming your photos based on the subject you want to search for, you can use software to tag photos. This means that you can search through your archives for images that you tag of a particular person or event. You can use as many tags as you want on one image, so if you have a photo of Kim in St. Louis, you can tag the photo to be searchable under both "Kim" and "St. Louis" [source: Hendricks].


For digital photography that's more advanced than the simple point and shoot, you can even tag photos for specific camera settings. If you want to search for all images you shot using a particular aperture, all you need to do is tag the photos accordingly [source: Desmond].

Some photo-organizing software is free and can be found online, while more complex software can cost more than $300 [source: Pash]. The best software for you depends -- just like organizational techniques -- on how you want to use your photos. If sharing photos with others is very important to you, free software that's shareable online, such as Picasa or Flickr, may be your best bet. However, if you want to professionally edit your photos, you may want to pay for a program like Adobe Lightroom.

Any of these programs can help you create a simple backup of your digital files, whether they were taken with a digital camera or scanned into your computer. But you may be concerned about preserving older, original print photographs. For information on preserving photos, read on.


How to Preserve Photos

You've got your old print photos out of the shoeboxes, organized, scanned into your computer and integrated in your digital albums. Now you're probably wondering what to do with all those prints.

Photos, unfortunately, are subject to wear and tear and will not last forever. There are steps, however, that you can take to prolong the life of your prints. Make sure that pages in photo albums and scrapbooks lay flat and are not overloaded to the extent they bend or buckle when the album is closed. Most photo album pages are manufactured to be photo-safe, but look for verification just to be sure. And don't use album pages or paper storage boxes that contain acid, which can discolor photos over time [source: Davis].


Furthermore, pay attention to where your photos are physically stored. For maximum durability, they should remain in an area that's cool and dry. This may mean you'll have to dig them out of your crawlspace and make room for them in the hall closet. Photos also need to stay out of the sun. Go ahead and display your favorite framed photos near the window -- just be sure you have copies in case the sunlight fades them [source: Davis].

And finally, if you're intent on taking film photos as opposed to digital, consider using black and white as an alternative to color. Because of differences in the types of film, black-and-white photos can last twice as long as color photos [source: Davis].

For more tips on preserving, organizing and storing photos, visit the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Better Homes and Gardens. "How to Organize Photos." 2010 (Accessed 1/10/2010)
  • Coleman, Michelle. "Digital Designs: Advanced Technique." Memory Makers Magazine. January 2008 (Accessed 1/10/2010)
  • Davis, Vicki. "Tips for Storing Photos." Genealogy Forum. 2004 (Accessed 1/10/2010)
  • Desmond, Michael. "Organize Those Digital Photos!" PC World. September 23, 2003 (Accessed 1/10/2010)
  • Hendricks, Gary. "How to Organize Your Digital Photos." Photos of the Year. (Accessed 1/10/2010)
  • Hesseldahl, Arik. "How to Preserve Photos for 500 Years." Forbes. April 14, 2005 (Accessed 1/10/2010)
  • Hewlett-Packard. "Tips for Organizing Your Digital Photos." 2009 (Accessed 1/10/2010)
  • Kodak. "Storing Digital Pictures on CDs." (Accessed 1/10/2010)
  • Northrup, Tony. "Organize Your Digital Photos." Using Windows XP. 2010 (Accessed 1/10/2010)
  • Pash, Adam. "Five Best Digital Photo Organizers." Life Hacker. March 28, 2008 (Accessed 1/10/2010)
  • Smedley, Wendy and Aby Garvey. "5 Simple Steps to Becoming an Organized and Inspired Scrapbooker." Simple Scrapbooks Magazine. January 2009 (Accessed 1/9/2010)
  • Steveson, Sherry. "Make the Most of Blurry Photos." Memory Makers Magazine. 2009 (Accessed 1/9/2010)
  • Sutton, Christine and Tracey DuBois. "How to Organize and Protect Your Entire Photo Collection in as Little as 10 Days…Without Losing Your Mind." Organized Photos. 2007 (Accessed 1/9/2010)
  • Williams, Leah Blanco. "Choosing An Album." Memory Makers Magazine. 2009 (Accessed 1/9/2010)