Turn Your Photo Collection from Chaos to Order with These Simple Tips

May 13, 2016  - by 
Turn Your Photo Collection from Chaos to Order with These Simple Tips

Your family photo collection is a treasure box of your personal history and legacy. Those photos stored in basements, attics, and faded albums are a testimony to all the love, laughter, and traditions that make a family. All too often, we are lulled into thinking that our photos will always be available to us and that someday we will get to the job of organizing our collections, but all too often that isn’t the case. Today we are at risk of losing our visual inheritance because people are becoming increasingly overwhelmed with their growing photo collections.

In order to take control, you need to be organized, organized, organized—and the good news is, it’s easier than you think! In this post, I’ll share my top four tips to help you bring order out of the chaos of a lifetime of printed photos. In a second post, I’ll share some tips to keep your new and improved collection organized.

1. Eat an Elephant One Bite at a Time

First, you need to collect your loose photos, negatives, slides, undeveloped film, and albums. I call this the hunt-and-gather stage. Designate a space in your home as your temporary workspace, and set up a table or desk. Put two or three large storage boxes beneath the table, and start placing everything you find into those boxes. Don’t start sorting or reminiscing while searching! If you do, you will quickly become overwhelmed. There will be time for that later. I love this statement by Creighton Abrams, “When eating an elephant take one bite at a time.” That is how you should view photo organizing; just take it one photo, one memory, at a time.

2. Tools of the Trade

You need to create a system and gather a few tools. Sticky notes, colored index cards, cotton gloves, large plastic storage bags, and a photo labeling pencil are inexpensive tools that can help you in the sorting process.

Before you start, take a moment to consider how you want to organize your photos. Create a timeline that shows birth dates, wedding dates, milestone events, and so on. This timeline will help when you are unsure of a year or event. People often think sorting by date is the most logical approach, but all too often you can get sidetracked. Was Johnny four or six in this photo? Was this Christmas 2004 or 2001?

If you don’t have a chronological system in place, organizing by theme is a great way to get started. Think about what you took photos of. If you are like most people, you might have categories like these: birth, toddler years, childhood, weddings, first day of school, vacations, holidays, scenery, snow or beach days, family gatherings, and so on. For example, one section can be entitled “Family Vacations” and another “The Jones Family,” with subcategories such as birthdays, weddings, vacations, and so on. Write the name of each category on a colored index card. I also suggest purchasing archival storage boxes so you can place the index cards and the photos you’re saving in a photo box for long-term storage. Consider using different boxes for different subjects and events.

3. Learn the ABCs of Photo Organizing

Photo organizers use a simple acronym called the “ABCS” to help clients sort their printed photos. Use this acronym for yourself (see step four), and you will make quick progress! Here are the ABCS:

  • “A” photos are the most important photos and should be digitized and placed in an album.
  • “B” photos are the photos that support family stories but don’t necessarily belong in the “A” pile. These are photos you can’t bring yourself to toss out, and they stay in the box.
  • “C” stands for “Yes, you CAN throw out your photos.” Toss out the doubles, blurry photos, and excessive landscape photos. How many sunset photos do you really need? Make sure you have large garbage bags for all the “C” photos you are discarding.
  • Last, but most important of all, is “S.” Does the photo tell a story? Sometimes a poorly composed photo of your grandmother with a silly smile is an “A” photo because you know it represents her unique personality.

4. Ready, Set, Go!

Now comes the fun part! I suggest you set a goal to narrow your collection to the best 30 percent. Your children and grandchildren will thank you someday if you take the time to eliminate the unnecessary photos collected over a lifetime. Sort each picture according to “The ABCS.” This is the time to make notes about photos so the stories are preserved for future generations. These details matter and are worth noting.

Using index cards, place the pictures in appropriately labeled sections, such as “1961” or “Family Vacations.” Add notes to the index card so you will recall what is in each pile. If you know the year or decade, make a note, but don’t let the chronological timing cause you to get stuck. Just get the photos sorted into piles based on categories.

This process can be very therapeutic and emotional as you find yourself reminiscing. Make sure you take notes that tell more than just who, where, and when. Think of the story and emotions you recall, and share those along with the photos. Once this process is complete, you’ll feel an overwhelming sense of gratification.

If you find your attention wandering, break the job into small chunks of time. Set a timer for 45 minutes, and don’t stop until the timer goes off. Then take a break, and start again. Repeat this over the coming days and weeks until you have emptied the storage boxes and your photos are sorted into piles.

In my next post, I will share five habits to maintain your organizing system.

Cathi Nelson founded APPO as an answer to the growing need of our digital age—assistance for organizing an influx of digital photo memories, printed photos, media, and memorabilia. APPO supports its hundreds of members by offering ongoing training, a supportive community, professional credibility, and an annual educational national conference. You can learn more about the growing profession by downloading the ebook The Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Photo Organizer or reading tips on organizing your own photos in The Insider’s Guide to Photo Organizing.


You may also like:

3 Tips for Identifying Old Photos

3 Tips for Identifying Old Family Photos

Five Keys to Leaving a Visual Legacy

Five Keys to Leaving a Visual Legacy for Future Generations

5 Ways to Improve the Quality of Your Photos

5 Ways to Improve Quality of Your Photos



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  1. I have taken all my family pictures and put them on a dvd,you said to cull out all some of the pictures,i DO not agree,i have saved ALL of them,someday one of my family might ask do i remember when,or if i have that picture.It will not hurt to put all your pic’s on disk,you can still export/copy them to anywhere or who wants them,and they will never fade,and make sure to make a copy of the disk just in case someone messes up the disk.Michael

  2. I’m overwhelmed looking at years of photos to be sorted and organized. My family’s as well as the photos of relatives who have passed away. The pile continues to grow with 11,000 + on my iPhone( although I think that is another issue altogether) but I can see some value in starting with Tip # 1. So my first task is to find a designated space….

  3. When I sort out my photos and distribute in separate containers, I’m concerned about the plastic containers shown in this picture. Are there acid free letter size containers that you could recommend? Not too pricey. Thank you, Linda Kadis 12/1/16

  4. I have been doing what you suggested. I had so many photo albums I knew no one could store them, so I purchased photo boxes for each member of the family. I wrote names on the outside, so when they want them, they will know I chose these pictures for them to keep. I did this for my husband’s sister so her family could have the pictures we took together with them. I am making a photo album for each graduating grandchild, beginning with their birth to senior year. They are large and packed full of pictures and notes from their grandmother about special occasions. I have one to start in January for our next graduate in June 2017. Her box is already full of pictures I can use too! I made special albums of my husband and me, and one just for him from birth til current year. I hope they appreciate the work I am putting in. I loved my mom’s album we presented her on 90th birthday. Each child and grandchild wrote a letter to her. They are precious, especially since her death 8 years ago.

    1. Also I want to mention the albums I use are like binders and I use the large square paper to attach multiple pictures per page. Each page tells a story of a year off their life up to graduation. I like these albums so much better than the other type. Binders can be added to or removed much much easier!!
      Brenda Bush

  5. This is a task I have set myself for 2017, so the email is very timely. I had started categorising my digital photos (printing the best ones for albums and gifts), but this has fallen by the wayside to a great degree, and since about 2009, photos are filed by year and month. Of course, being numbered from the camera helps. However, I have a great store of photos dating back to my great-grandparents and their family which definitely need to be ordered. As well as family history I am a keen nature and historical site photographer, so that creates an extra dimension…

  6. A further suggestion; while writing your notes, on the back of the photo, use the photo pencil and write the date, subject and person(s) in the photo

  7. Love this article! I’m overwhelmed with all the “inherited” family photos, as well as 50 years of our own. I’ve been scanning and labeling photos for over two years. I have digital file headings for each of the 4 major family lines: my maternal, paternal and my husbands maternal and paternal. Then I have a major digital file for our current family with subheadings for each of our six children. I thought things were going well until I had major surgery. Now my “scanned” piles have mixed with my “un-scanned” piles with various house clean-ups. I need boxes or drawers for UN-scanned and separate boxes or drawers for scanned originals to give to my siblings and cousins. I think plastic rolling drawer carts will work best for me… I hope! I already have photo boxes for myself, our children and 12 grands. I also need to get into all those quick digital downloads I’ve done and organize those files …ugh. If I’ll just dedicate this week to getting reorganized I think I’ll feel better! I’ll invest in Archival boxes after I see what is needed later this year. (FYI my digital files all start with the year or best approximate year, followed by date, if it is on the photo, and the name of the primary people in the photo. )

  8. My ancestor wrote names on the backs of photos, then put them in a photo album. Fortunately I had learned to use dental floss to loosen them without tearing them. Work slowly and gently. They came off perfect. I scanned them and copied them to thumb drives for family members.

    Also we had many slides. I sorted them all out by decade and put them in sheet designed for protecting slides. My son scanned them all to a thumb drive. I duplicated them for each family member. When it comes to taking pictures think about this. If you take 50 pictures a year for just 10 years, you have 500 pictures. Then multiply that by being married and taking pictures for 50 years of that married life and you are in trouble if they aren’t organized.

    I am working hard to get out of trouble.

  9. Hi Cathi, this is a great way for organizing physical photos. As we move more and more into the digital age – and consider passing our photo legacies off to our kids – the next step is to digitize. I’ve found that the best tool digitizing my photo collection is Mylio. It consolidates photos from all different sources, organizes them efficiently into one library, then syncs that library to all of your devices (macOS, Windows, iOS, Android). Originals can be stored anywhere you want, and your mobile devices get optimized versions to save space. That means you can manage your photos from anywhere while keeping the originals safely preserved at home. I used to have pictures scattered all over the place – my phone, externals, SDs, folders on my computer, Facebook, shoeboxes, random thumb drives – and now I have them all catalogued in Mylio. Speaking of Mylio, I love organizing photos so much that I decided to work for them. The current software is free to use for up to 25,000 photos and 3 devices, so I’d definitely recommend trying it out.