How to Organize your Photos

Where to start

I have been documenting my life for as long as I can remember. It’s always been a big part of me and something I’ve been passionate about. I’ve recorded the written my stories in my many journals. Before the digital age, I captured my life in film photos. I would develop my film, choose my favorite photo,s and into an album they would go. Some of my photos would end up in photo journals, and I even did the scrapbook thing for a couple of years. (no way could I keep that up). Then came digital photography. Seems like that would have made organizing photos easier. NOPE. I think the main problem was the sheer volume of photos that I was now taking. This was right around the time that my 3rd child was born. There were quite a few years, very busy years, when I could barley keep my head above water as a mother of four young children. I knew that I couldn’t stop journaling my life, but my time was very limited. The best I could do was to get the photos taken, save them on hard-drives, and keep as many stories and memories in my journal as I could. I didn’t have time to spend 4 hours designing a scrapbook page, but I knew that photos slipped into plastic pocket sleeves was also not the way I wanted to share my story… Nor did I want my cherished memories stuck on hard-drives, CDs, or on my phone.

About 1 years ago I found myself in a season of life that I could take some time to develop a better way and to finally get organized with all of my journaling and photos. I’m not going to lie to you… It was a big project!

Here were my main problems… Can you relate to these?

PROBLEM #1 Photos all over the place!

I had prints in boxes, prints in scrapbooks that were falling apart, digital photos saved on CD’s, hard drives, on my computer, and on my phone. Not great organization.

My journals were also a little crazy. I had journaling on my phone, some in notebooks, and some in journals. I had stories and thoughts jotted down on papers all over the place. Then there were the things like written cards from the kids that I wanted to remember in boxes in my office.. oh wait..or are they in the file cabinet? (see this post about what journals I keep now.)

PROBLEM #2  I am a busy mom.

I had to have a simple and quick way to document my life. I needed to be organized like I never have been before because I wanted to do this… I needed to do this, but it was becoming a huge monster taking over my life. I knew I didn’t want to sacrifice telling my life story in a beautiful way with photos, video, and story. After all I could just keep throwing papers into a box and adding more photos to my hard-drives. I needed a system I could keep up with, but one I would be proud to share with my family and friends.

PROBLEM #3  I’m so behind. Where do I start?

Do I go back to the very beginning? Do I just start today? Again… I needed a plan.

PROBLEM #4  What journals do I even need/want to keep?

I was trying to keep too many journals. I had individual ones for my kids, family ones, personal ones, a Christmas one in the works…actually a bunch “in the works”. Again, I needed a plan.

I wish I had all of the tools available to us now when I had started journaling. However, I will say that even though I was not the most organized journal or photographer, I am so glad that I had the ambition to get the stories written and photos taken the best I could. Don’t beat yourself up if this is you. Your first priority is LIVING your life, being mentally healthy, and being there for those who depend on you. Do your best. Now, with so many tools available it’s much easier to keep up on journaling.

So there I was with baskets of photos, stacks of journals, falling apart scrapbooks, and boxes of CD’s and hard-drives to go through. Does this feel familiar to you?


If your overwhelmed with this, as I was,… I will show you how I finally organized my photos.

Step 1: Find all of your photos

photo prints (from film)

First, gather all of your print photos into one place. If you are like I was I had many different boxes of photos. Some were labeled by date, some labeled by kid, and I had boxes of photos that literally said “random photos”. Then there where the ones in envelopes here and there around my house. I had scrapbooks that never were finished and photos in the front of albums that needed to get put in.  Go around your home to all your hiding places and find as many of your photos that you can. Now that you have them all together, here is what I did.  I mad a decision about which albums were salvageable and I would leave as is. I did take all of my scrapbooks apart. Read about that here if you would like. I’m NOT suggesting this for you. It’s probably not a good idea for most of you that did the scrapbook thing. However, for me it was a must. Once I had all of my print photos in once place I grouped them all by date first. I didn’t get super technical about this, simply because of the sheer volume. I had 5 bins. Dates are harder for me because I had to think too hard on each photo. Instead I labeled the boxes like this…

1. Chad and I before having kids

2. before dental school

3. durring dental school

4. after dental school

5. after move to Gilbert

as I sorted photos into the correct time period I did some heavy purging. Here is how I would decide what to throw away. I would ask myself…

  • “do I love this photo” if yes… keep it
  • “Does this photo tell a story?” if yes… “is it the best photo to tell that story?” (When I have multiple photos of the something I try to keep at the most three one is even better!)
  • “could I remember this person/event/time with less photos?”
  • “Would I be sad if I didn’t have this photo ” if no… toss.

After the photos are in the correct bins I went through one more time, each bin separately. I could look through a grouping of photos from the same time period and decide what I needed to keep to document my life. Now there is no way I’m going to know exactly which photos I will want in the future, so yes, I will have some photos that I won’t use. Just be sure to get rid of the eyes closed, too dark, blurry and definite crap ones. (remember the goal, easy organized, beautiful). I’m sure I will always have a box of unused photos, but I am going to have ONE box and all in ONE place!

Now locate all of your digital photos. Don’t forget to check all possible places you may have photos on…

  • Phone
  • Camera cards
  • Hard-drives
  • Email and texts
  • CD’s
  • Flash-drives
  • (online sources like Google, Amazon, the cloud)

Step 2: organize your photos

First come up with a file system if you don’t have one or don’t like yours.

I use Adobe Lightroom and I store all of my photos on hard drives. Check out this post about how I file my photos. You MUST decide on how you will do this before moving on. This is just my way and not the only way.. but one thing you must do in order to stay organized is keep it the same each time you download. STAY ORGANIZED with your photos.

START CURRENT or Go Back? You decide…

Option 1 (start current)

If you are way behind. Like 5 years or more, don’t freakout. You could just START CURRENT. I would start with this year. What ever year it is, start with January and organize the photos from Jan-now. It will take some time, but you will get in a groove and it will get easier.

Once you’re current, STAY CURRENT. When you download your photos that you just took, edit them and file them right away. Then if you have more time, start to work on previous years. Don’t do more than that if you’ll get overwhelmed.

You can do it!

Option 2 (start at the beginning)

If you are going back to the beginning and, at one point, you shot with film, you will need to decide if you are going to still work with your prints and put them into some kind of book, or scan your printed photos to work with digital only. There was no question in my mind about this. SCAN! again… I’m not going to lie… not the quickest project, but if you go through the next step which is delete!!!! and really just keep the bests and your loves, it shouldn’t be overwhelming. I am a photographer and have 4 kids and take a ton of photos and I was able to scan my prints (even from my scrapbooks) in two days. (stuck with it ALL day)

This is what I did last year.

For Christmas this year I told my husband that all I want for Christmas was a vacation by myself to a cabin in the middle of the woods. He thought I was joking. I wasn’t! I had a plan to get all of my past photos organized and edited. I knew that this would take at least a week with no distractions. So thats what I did.

I even took all of my scrapbooks apart and scanned those photos so that I could have digital copies of those pictures. This was no small task (I’m not going to lie). Read my post here about how I feel about scrapbooking… and then don’t send me hate mail (or do… thats fine).

You can check out my post about my file system, but the short story is that I file by date. And event… let me explain.

My system for organizing the files on my computer is as follows…

I have a folder called photos. Inside photos I have a folder called 2017. Inside 2017 is a folder for each month (numbered). Then inside each month I will have events. I can usually remember at least the year and month something happened… then I just have to look through one month of events to find a photo. This works for me great.
If you don’t have Lightroom you can easily use your computers file system in the same way.

here is a screen shot of my lightroom catalog file system

You may be using iPhoto, and if you are, and it is working for you, then awesome. I hated it!! I tried to use that and gave it a good shot, but it drove me bananas. Point here is use what works for you and makes finding photos, editing, and accessing them for books easy.

Step 3: delete, delete!

Once you have all your pictures ready and filed that you want to begin work on, start deleting. (again if you scanned old prints I would weed through and just scan the ones you thing you will use in your photo-journals before you scan them). You will never ever do anything with 50 photos of your baby taking her first steps (yes it’s so cute but 2 or 3 photos would be quite enough to tell that story) I will say that I do take a lot of photos, so that I have a better shot at getting that great pic. So I am also heavy handed on the delete key after I have selected my favs. Digital photo overload makes creating photo-journals painful. Remember our goal is “simple, organized, beautiful”.

Step 4: edit (this is optional)

If editing sounds overwhelming, skip it. Unless a photo is actually too dark to see, there is no reason you must edit. It’s your journal, and its more important that you get your story told, and into journals, then it is that you have perfect pics.

done is better than perfect!

I’ve been a photographer for 20 years and photo quality is important to me. With that said, I have decided that I will not let my desire for the perfect photo impede my workflow… remember our goal is “simple, organized, beautiful!” Unless a photo will be enlarged and hung above the fireplace, I do minimal editing.

If you care about the lighting, contrast, feel etc… go ahead and edit the remaining pictures in your folder. In Lightroom I do a lot of batch editing (this is when you edit one photo and then sink all the other photos to match the editing of the photo edited) More on that in another post. I also use presets to make this process much faster.

Step 5: back up

Once you’re done gathering, deleting, and editing, it’s time to backup that year’s or month’s photos.

A few options are:
• hard drives
• google photos, Amazon which has unlimited storage, google photos,; the iCloud is another option, however I think it is the devil. It messed me up so many times! even though I have a MacBook and iPhone, I would never use it. I just turn that off.

My feelings on backing up…
I don’t trust just putting my photos online. I’m not really sure what could happen to them. This year I do plan to give Google photos a try. I haven’t done that yet, but I will let you know when I do. (Here’s a Google Photos tutorial if you’re interested!) Next to my family, my photos are the most precious thing I own. There is no way I would just keep them tucked away in the “clouds” or wherever. I want them physically where I put them. So what I do is this..

As soon I am done shooting an event, or my card is full, I import my photos from my camera to Lightroom on my computer. In LR it asks you where you want to store your photos. I never put my photos on my actual computer (I shoot in RAW and my original files are very large. This would slow my computer drastically) My advice is to buy at least 2 hard drives with the most memory you can afford. (disclaimer: they are very pricy, no way around this that I have found) I actually have 3. After I have selected the photos I want to keep I will make sure to copy those to my other hard-drive. I keep my 3rd hard-drive at my moms house. Once a year I copy my photos onto that also. You know.. incase my house goes up in flames or something. You are now thinking I’m nuts. Well, being the victim of a hard-drive crash, I am justified. About 10 years ago, when I used only one hard-drive, suddenly it stopped working. To make a very long sad story short I will just say that I was only able to retrieve about 25 pics from about 3 years of photos. I cried like I’ve never cried before about that one. I still get sick when I think about it. I can hardly even write this because I get so heated about it. Life goes on … but, I will never ever make that mistake again. If you have photos just sitting on your computer and they are not backed up to something… RUN!!!! Go now. Go to the apple store or wherever you get your crap and get at least 2 hard drives in case one crashes. I will also say that I have known so many people that have lost all of their phone pictures the same way. SO SAD.

Smart phone cameras are getting so good now that even though I still love and prefer my Canon camera, I too take a tone of phone pics. Here is how I handle my phone pics…

When I have a free moment (sitting in a carpool line, waiting at the bank… whatever) I will scroll through my camera roll and delete extra photos. You know, when you take 12 photos to get the best shot of that sunset. Well, do you really want 12 photos of the sunset. I usually keep my 3 favs in that case. Sometimes it’s hard to tell on my phone which one is the sharpest or most in focus, so I keep about 3 to work with. This is important that you keep your camera roll cleaned up. It can become a monster. Once a month I download all of my phone pics to my hard-drive. I put them in a folder called “year-month-phonepics” like “2017-1-phonepics”. Those go right into my folder for the year and month. Then I delete them off my phone. I will share with you more about this process later.

I am happy to say that my photos are now organized back to my wedding. Now the fun part is putting together my photo-journals. I am able to go through my journals and match stories with the photos and get them into beautiful books.

I can’t express the burden and weight lifted from me to have this done.

A few tips to stay organized

TIP 1:

Get in the habit of immediately saving anything shared with you to your album on your phone. If someone texts me a picture or I maybe I’ve screen shotted something from Instagram or Facebook, I save it on the spot. That way, when I’m downloading photos for the month onto my computer, I don’t have to go back through Instagram, Facebook, and texts. I’ve already saved the pictures I want into my regular photos album.

I do the same thing with email. If someone emails me a picture I want to use in an album, I immediately download it and put it in a folder titled “to file”. Then, it’s already there when I go to organize the pictures for the month.

TIP 2:

If you take a lot of pictures on your phone, like I said before, go through them a few times throughout the month when you have down time, and delete the crappy ones. This will save you a lot of trouble and time later. I would turn all auto-syncing between my phone and computer/ cloud turned OFF. I don’t want all of the bad photos to make it to my computer before I get to deleting them on my phone. So overwhelming later to deal with.

TIP 3:

Edit and file right away.
get a system down and stick to it. schedule a time to do it every single month.  Get your favorite drink, and download that month or events pics, delete the crapy ones… delete a few more, and then edit. I go into this process deeper in this post if you want to check that out.

TIP 4:

I am not a Lightroom expert. I have been using LR forever and I know enough for my purposes. I will say that everything I know  about it I learned from Julieanna Kost. Her tutorials are amazing. When I wanted to really understand the Lr program, I literally sat in a room by myself for hours a day for about 1 week with notebook, pen and my computer and studied her like it was a college class. She is easy to understand and covers it all! Check her out here if you need help with lightroom or would like to see if it is right for you.

If you can get organized and stay organized, putting together your photo-journals will be easy and so enjoyable! They will be a treasure to you and your family!!

Decide if this is important to you. Decide how much time you can realistically devote to this. Then start. As with anything, it will get easier. Remember… This is no small task if you are way behind and want to catch up. Perhaps you want to tell your loved ones, “Hey, I am going to be a little extra busy for the next couple weeks, but this won’t be forever. I am needing to spend some time getting organized, so that from now on, I can keep our memories for us without it being overwhelming.” Or like I did… maybe you need to get away for a week. Or… maybe you are in the thick of little ones and neither of those options are available. In that case, do your best to at least keep a journal to keep the stories and memories, and then get those photos and video taken and preserved safely on hard drives for a future time when you can take this on. This is the most important part. Capture your stories!

You will be so glad you took some time or organize, came up with a plan, and stayed on top of journaling and documenting your life. You can do this!!!



Leave a Comment