Here’s how to organize photos for future generations
Sorting, saving, displaying, storing, and more!
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Do you have hundreds—maybe thousands—of photos sitting in a closet, unlabeled, gathering dust, and possibly deteriorating? Don’t leave them for your children to sort through and try to solve the mystery of who these people are.
There’s never a bad time to get organized, free up space, and preserve memories for future generations. Whether you’re tech savvy or old school, this step-by-step guide for how to organize photos will show you how to sort, save, display, and store all your favorite memories.
Step 1: Sort, organize, and purge
Deciding which photos to keep and which to toss may be the hardest part of how to organize your photos. After all, your photos document “the times of your life,” as the Kodak ad of the 1970s reminded us, and throwing away even one photo may be painful.
Also, going through boxes and boxes of photos will take you down the long and winding road of nostalgia, and you can end up spending hours reminiscing instead of sorting. Set aside plenty of time. Don’t rush. Be realistic. It will probably take more than just one weekend.
Begin by discarding any blurry, over- or underexposed, or other poor-quality photos.
Now organize the remaining images. In most cases, taking the chronological approach makes the most sense. Depending on the number of photos you have, you may want to organize by decade then break it down into years. The advantage of sorting chronologically is that it will be easier to find duplicate images, which you can then discard.
Determine which photos stay and which go. You have to be a little ruthless at this stage. Decide which photos are the most interesting and, thus, worth keeping. Think of them as a legacy to your children and future generations. Which photos best tell the story of your family, past and present? Which are the most pertinent? Will landscapes really mean anything to them? Photos of the Eiffel Tower?
Usually the photos of most interest and historical value to your family will be those of people and events. When looking at photos of a particular event, select the five or so that best capture the event itself.
Step 2: Label your photos
No doubt many of your photos have no information on them. And if you didn’t take them, it’s likely you have no idea who the people depicted are or when or where they were taken. So frustrating. Don’t impose the same fate on your loved ones. Label your photos now.
For really old photos, use a #2 pencil and, using a light touch, write along the edges on the back of the photos. If you have a lot of information but can’t fit it all in along the edge, you can put the information on an acid-free index card and store or display it with the photo.
The pencil may not show up on beige, black, or gray paper. In this case, you can use a Stabilo All pencil. They come in multiple colors, including a set of black, white, and red.
The Stabilo All pencil also works on slick plastic or resin-based paper (the kind used primarily beginning around the mid 1960s); #2 pencils don’t work on this type of surface. The Gaylord Photo Marking Pencil comes in a light blue and also works on slick surfaces. Both pencils are smudge- and fade-proof and can be erased.
You can also use a pen—just never use a ballpoint pen—and it’s best to choose one that is specifically made for photos, that is fade-resistant, fast-drying, and won’t smear or bleed through.
- Get the Gaylord Photo Marking Pencil at Gaylord Archival for $3.79
- Stabilo All Pencil at Amazon for $9.90
- Get the Sakura Pigma Micron Pen at Amazon for $9.02
- Get the Staedtler Lumocolor Pen at Amazon for $8.32
- Get the Alvin TechLiner Drawing Pen at Staples for $41.49
Step 3: Scan
It’s vital to scan—or digitize—your collection. Even if you plan to keep all your prints or slides, these can be lost over time if not stored properly. Having a digital backup could prevent heartache down the line. Digital images are also easy to share with a limitless number of people, instantly, all around the world.
Digitization also frees up tons of space in your home. And if you just can’t bear to part with those 50 photos of Thanksgiving 1983, knowing you have digital versions may give you the confidence to toss the hard copies.
Scanning photos is time consuming. If you don’t have a scanner or the task is too daunting, you could ask a friend or family member to scan the photos for you.
Or, you can hire a professional scanning service, making your method for how to organize photos much easier. Chances are there’s a service nearby. There are also several online companies that will pick up and/or return your original photos. Many will also offer retouching if you so request.
Depending on how many photos you have, this service could end up costing you as much as it would to purchase your own scanner. The beauty of having your own scanner is that you can scan images at your leisure. It also gives you the security of knowing your photos won’t be accidentally lost or damaged.
You may already own a printer/copier that has scanning capability. This may be fine for photos up to 8.5 x 11 inches, but it won’t work for larger prints or for slides or negatives. You can purchase a device that scans only prints; one that scans only slides, negatives, and film; or one that scans prints, slides, negatives, and film. (Note that most devices that scan prints also scan documents so they can serve a dual purpose.)
When purchasing a scanner, make sure the device’s software is compatible with your computer’s operating system. Some scanners can communicate with your computer via WiFi, so they don’t need to be plugged into your computer. Others connect via USB cable, so you’ll want to ensure the cable fits your computer as well.
Step 4: Make backups
You’ve completed the monumental task of scanning your photos, but don’t assume your work is done. If something should happen to your computer, all your hard work will have been in vain—that is, unless you back up your scans.
When advising on how to organize photos, the National Archives recommends the “3-2-1 rule,” which suggests keeping three sets of copies backed up on two media (for example, an external hard drive and a flash drive) and one copy stored off-site (for example, on a cloud storage service).
Portable hard drives
A portable hard drive connects to your computer with a USB cable. You can back up all your photos to this drive, disconnect it from your computer, then store it separately from your computer. A hard drive that contains 1TB (terabyte) of space should be sufficient for most people, but to be extra sure you can purchase a device with 2TB of storage.
A flash drive
As a second backup, consider a flash drive. These fit in the palm of your hand and connect directly to your computer—no need for a cable. Flash drives come in a variety of storage capacities. You may need to purchase multiple flash drives depending on how many photos you have. Determine how much storage you need by looking at how much space you used on your portable hard drive.
A cloud service
Your third storage method should be to a cloud service. For extra security, you may even want to use more than one service.
If you should lose your computer and/or your hard drive or flash drive, you have peace of mind knowing your photos are still accessible.
Also, with the cloud you can easily share images with friends and loved ones. Some companies, like Shutterfly, offer unlimited free photo storage, while others offer a limited amount of space with the option to buy additional space. These include Dropbox, Google Photos, Apple iCloud, Microsoft OneDrive, and Amazon Photos.
Step 5: Share and display
You’ve made digital copies of your images and backed them up. Now it’s time to decide how you want to share your photos. This is the prettiest step in how to organize your photos. Of course, you can share your digital images on multiple online platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and others. But, perhaps you prefer to display them in a photo book, album, scrapbook, or frame.
Create a photo book
A photo book is a printed book made from your digital scans. Many photo book services have designers who will create a book for you. Or, you can design it yourself.
The process of creating a photo book is fairly standard from company to company. The difference lies in the variety of design options, the materials available, and the price.
Most companies offer the choice of using their template or creating your own customized design within the boundaries of the application, including adding text and design elements such as backgrounds. With some companies you can choose the font and paper. Prices can range anywhere from under $10 for a 20-page, 5 x 7 softcover book to several hundred dollars for a 90-page, layflat book with a leather cover.
Once you’ve made your choice, you upload the photos you want to use from your computer into the template. Basically, you select the type of book you want (hard or soft cover), the number of pages, the style or theme, and the template then upload whichever photos you want to use into the template. Once you’re happy with the book, you purchase it, and it is shipped to you.
Several of the companies that offer storage also offer a photo book service. Reviewed’s managing editor of core content, Meghan Kavanaugh, loves Shutterfly. She says, “Since I couldn’t be at my mother’s 60th birthday in person, I created a Shutterfly photo book for her. It was exceedingly simple to make and impressive to see all bound together with a leather cover.”
Reviewed’s senior editor of Home, Leigh Harrington, uses Mixbook to document every vacation she takes with her family in 10 x 10-inch hardcover books. “There are so many themes to select from, and they’re easy to modify to make them your own,” she says. “Plus, the quality is top-notch.”
Madison Trapkin, kitchen and cooking editor at Reviewed, is obsessed with the wedding photo book she ordered from Artifact Uprising. “I’ll never get tired of looking at the gorgeous wedding book I created with Artifact,” she says. “This brand has amazing customer service and uses really high-quality materials. I went with the Everyday Photo Book—it’s the perfect size for our coffee table and looks great displayed on our bookshelf, too.”
Create your own album with original prints
Maybe you prefer to make an album or scrapbook using your original prints. You’ll want to make sure these are displayed in books that use acid- and PVC-free materials. Avoid magnetic albums with self-stick pages. These will destroy your photos over time.
One of the most recommended ways to exhibit prints is to put them in polypropylene or polyethylene sheets with pockets, and put these sheets in a 3-ring, acid-free binder.
- Get the Print File at Gaylord Archival for $12.15
- Get the Perma/Dur Archival Binder at University Products for $37.45
- Get the Pioneer Sewn Bonded Leather Bookbound Bidirectional Photo Album at Amazon for $23.42
- Get the Post-Bound Scrapbook Kit at Gaylord Archival for $54.70
Print photos to frame individually
There may be some photos that you want to frame to have on permanent display. If you’re displaying very old photos, it’s best to frame copies and store the originals. There are several online printing services you could use.
Many local arts and crafts stores will frame your photos for you or you can do it yourself. As with photo albums, you’ll want to use quality, acid- and PVC-free materials that don’t damage photos, especially if you are using original prints.
Acrylic is recommended over glass because it is lightweight and unbreakable, whereas glass is heavier and if broken can tear the photo. Also, because light can damage photos, you’ll want to use a UV protective cover and hang them away from direct sunlight.
A fun option to a standard frame, and a great way to put your photo scans to work, is a digital picture frame that displays photos or video clips in rotation on its screen.
- Get the Gallery 12 Wood Frame Kits at Archival Methods for $58.35
- Get the Essential Acrylic Sandwich Frame Kit at Gaylord Archival for $92.50
- Get the Skylight Digital Wi-Fi Picture Frame at Amazon for $159
- Nixplay Smart Photo Frame at Amazon for $179.99
Step 6: Store your photos
It’s important to safely store original prints that you aren’t displaying, as well as your slides and negatives. Don’t just throw them back in a shoebox.
Large, old prints should be stored flat or upright, preferably individually in a polypropylene sleeve then put in an acid-free box. For added protection you can add an acid- or lignin-free board between each photo. You can store prints upright in a box and insert acid-free index cards to easily find and identify the images.
Once you’ve packed your photos, store them in a safe, cool, dry place, preferably an indoor closet. Do not store them in the garage, attic, or basement.
- Get the Archival Photo Storage Box at The Container Store for $19.99
- Get the Pioneer’s Photo Storage Box at Amazon for $7.12
- Get the 3-Inch Drop Front Boxes at Archival Methods for $19.80
- Get the 3-inch O-Ring Preservation Box Album at Gaylord Archival for $30.05
- Get storage options for slides and negatives at University Products for $42.70
Step 7: Enjoy!
You’ve completed a monumental task. You should be proud. Now sit back and enjoy those memories while you make new ones.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.