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.


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