How to Organize Printed Photos: The Ultimate Guide

This post will walk you through how to organize printed photos, step by step. I’ll show you how to get started and how to pick the method that works best for you.

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You finally made the commitment to get those bags and boxes of photo memories organized and in shape for future generations. But when you try to get started you feel lost and unsure. You have no idea how to organize printed photos. Where do you even begin? What’s the best way to organize them? What if you do it wrong?

This is the number one question I’ve been getting from my newer community members: How do you actually sort and organize the photos?

It turns out that if you go to the Google about this, you will find hundreds of articles. However, almost every single one of them covers the ENTIRE PROCESS from “Start with Why” all the way through to “Enjoy Your Photos.” The part about how to sort and organize is kind of lost in the middle, and some articles give better instruction than others.

Heck, I wrote one of these articles, and I think I did a pretty good job of explaining the sorting and organizing part. But again, it’s lost inside a huge, overwhelming article that may make you want to crawl into a hole and forget about it altogether.

My research only turned up one article dedicated just to sorting and organizing. It was for digital photos, though, with lots of pictures of named file folders on the computer. The thinking process is similar, but that isn’t what my community is looking for.

How to Organize Printed Photos

There is no one right way to organize your photos. There is only the way that is right for you. Below I will cover the four most popular ways in detail. But first there are some things to think about when you are ready to start organizing your photos.

Many of my readers are planning to keep the printed photos. They want to either to put the photos into scrapbooks or photo albums, or in a photo-safe box to pass to future generations. Other readers are planning to digitize the collection.

I have two strong opinions on this:

  1. Even if you are planning to keep the orignals to pass to your kids or put in an album, I believe you should digitize them for safekeeping. (Before or after they are in an album doesn’t matter as much as just doing it.)
  2. Even if you are digitizing them to create a digital collection to pass to future generations, you should organize them first. (This is to reduce duplicates and unwanted photos before scanning, plus it’s easier to organize physical photos than tiny thumbnails on a screen.)

Other Considerations for Sorting and Organizing Photos

There are a few other things you must consider before starting on your photos.

Time

You’re not likely to get all your photos sorted and organized in one session, even if you pull an all-nighter. Go into it knowing this. If you have great self-discipline, get those sessions scheduled onto your calendar. For the rest of us mortals I offer monthly workshops. This is where family photo keepers come together to work on photos over Zoom. There’s no need to pack anything up and haul it anywhere.

Space

You need a bit of space to sort and organize photos. This can be a card table, a spare bed, or even the floor. Think about where you will sort and organize and whether you can leave the photos there, undisturbed, between sessions.

Supplies

For the short term it’s fine to use shoeboxes, cardboard boxes and index cards for your sorting process. NO STICKY NOTES – the adhesive and its residue is harmful to photos per the Smithsonian Institute.

But for long term storage, if you plan to keep the photos, it’s worth it to invest in archival quality supplies. Just because something says it’s archival or photo safe doesn’t mean that it is (especially if it came from your local hobby shop). Please purchase from reputable suppliers.

Feelings

Expect feelings to come up while you are going through your photos. Some will be pleasant, and some not so pleasant. Overall, nostalgia is a very healthy response.

If your fear of negative feelings is part of what is keeping you from getting started, make a plan for dealing with those feelings when they pop up. You can cry, take a walk, eat chocolate, stop for the day and come back the next – whatever you decide is fine. Just make a plan and follow through. The reward is worth it in the end.

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Sort Your Photos Before Organizing

Before you can organize your photos, you must sort them. Sorting does several things:

  • It allows you to move quickly and make big picture decisions and save the detail decisions for later, with less photos and more information.
  • It gives you a general familiarity with what you have. Then, later, while organizing, you have more recent memories to rely on while making organizing decisions.
  • It allows you to get rid of photos you don’t want to keep for any reason, reducing the number you have to organize.

I’ve giving you a general sorting process. You will use this whether your photos are mixed in boxes with no order, or they are somewhat organized in albums or boxes.

If there is some kind of order to some or all of the photos, you don’t want to lose that information. Make ample use of labeled index cards or film processing envelopes between groups of photos that have some kind of order to them, or that you know belong to a certain date or person or event. Use a pencil to write on the cards, rather than a pen, as it’s safer for the photos.

Alternatively, put the entire album in the Keeper pile for now. You may want to pull out photos that you know will go into the other piles and put them there.

If you run across slides or negatives, set them aside for now. Those are for another article.

Keepers, Maybes, Giveaways and Nopes

You are going to quickly sort your printed photos into four categories or piles. Again, make use of index cards as you go to make sure information that needs to stay with certain photos does so. You want to move quickly so that you can remember what you saw while you were sorting when you get to the next step.

Keepers

You know when a photo is a keeper. It brings you joy. It evokes nostalgia. You know you want it. This is the easiest pile to create, and many of these photos will either make you smile or cry.

But some photos you may have questions about. What if the photo is blurry? If it’s a photo of your kid at the duck pond, and you have 7 other photos of him at the duck pond, it’s probably not a Keeper. If it’s the only picture of your great grandmother, or your first car, or anyone or anything else that’s important to you, put it in the Keeper pile. You’ll be going through this pile again, once you have more information.

Maybes

If you have any question about whether or not a photo is a keeper, put it in the Maybe pile. Delay this decision a little bit until you have more information.

Giveaways

This pile is for photos you don’t need to keep, but that other family or friends may want. Duplicates, triplicates, and the other 17 pictures of your kid at the duck pond with his cousins that your sister might want.

Nopes

Something important to realize – you are not going to keep or give away the Nopes. In fact, you will eventually throw them away. Did I just tell you to throw photographs away? Why yes, yes I did.

In 20 years of teaching people to organize photos, I have horrified plenty of people with this statement. Let’s look at what goes in the Nope pile.

Bad pictures. Low light, fingers across faces, blurry photos, etc.. As long as they are not the only photo of something or someone important, there is no reason to keep them.

Damaged pictures, too, unless you really want to keep them because of who or what is in them. You should not store damaged pictures, especially water-damaged pictures which may contain mold, with other photos in the long term. Consider having them digitally restored by me or another service. But for now those can go with the Keepers. But the rest go in the Nopes.

People who are no longer in your life that you don’t care about (or have extremely negative feelings about). Before putting them in the Nope pile, though, consider the Giveaway pile if that person may be important to someone else.

Landscape photos that you don’t remember where they were taken, or you took 20 of the same scene. Future generations are not likely to value these. Keep one or two, but put the rest in the Nopes.

Duplicates and near duplicates that no one else would want. Some people even have triplicates.

Secondary Sorting

Now you are going to go through each pile again. You want to confirm your decisions now that you have looked through the whole collection in a (relatively) short period of time.

Start with the Nopes. Make sure you really want to dispose of each photo, and adjust if needed.

And I’ll let you off the hook a little, too. Other options for the Nopes could be selling them on Etsy or eBay, if you’re into that. Some people do buy up found photos (do consider security, though).

Also, there are plenty of articles on Google about things you can create out of old photos. Take a look if you just cannot dispose of them.

But for now, put the Nopes in a zipper bag or grocery sack labeled as such.

Then go through the Giveaways. You can even divide them up into separate piles for the separate recipients and put those in separate, labeled bags or boxes as well.

Don’t you feel lighter now? Those are all photos you do not have to organize!

Then go through the maybes and make your decisions. Your goal is to eliminate the Maybes pile and distribute those photos to the Keepers, Giveaways or Nopes. You must decide.

If you really can’t decide, put them in the Keepers. As you start the organizing process, you can finalize your decisions.

And now we choose an organizing method.

4 Methods to Organize Printed Photos

There are 4 methods to organize your photos. Again, no one of them is the best method. Determine the best method for you by how your brain works and what information you have about your photos. The 4 methods are:

  1. By Chronology
  2. By Theme
  3. In Sequential Order
  4. Combining Methods

Organizing Photos by Date

Most people I work with like the idea of chronological order. I think many, too, think that it’s the only way or the best way. It’s not. But it’s a very popular method.

One of the benefits of chronological organization is that if a photo contains multiple people or themes, it doesn’t matter. You organize everything by date (and time, where necessary).

Problems can occur, though, when you don’t have dates for all your photos, and this is very common with inherited photos. You can overcome this by taking a looser approach to dates, such as decades or half decades. You can also use a combination approach, discussed later.

For now, if you are going to organize your photos chronologically, take your Keeper pile and start dividing it into piles by decade. If you don’t know, guess.

Once you’ve done that, take each decade pile and divide into piles of years or groups of years. And once you’ve done that, put the photos from each pile into the best order you can. Remember, progress not perfection, is the goal here.

Clues to help with Chronological Organizing

Here are a few tips to help you narrow down the time period for photos.

  • Film Processing Envelopes – If you didn’t write the year on the envelope (story of my life), look for coupons or offers printed on the envelope with expiration dates.
  • Styles – Clothing, hairstyles, even glasses can give a clue about the general time frame of the photos. So can style of home decor and cars.
  • People – Children at different ages can provide clues, as can the presence of former spouses or now-deceased loved ones.
  • Settings – Where the photo was taken can provide clues – the home, church, Grandma’s house, or other location.
  • Seasons – You may be able to narrow down what time of year a photo was taken by the state of the foliage.

As you get groups of photos organized chronologically, put them in boxes with labeled dividers.

Organizing Photos by Theme

Using thematic organization solves the lack-of-dates problem. You simply set up categories (themes) by person, location, event – there’s no limit. It’s a very flexible system, and yet it’s also very subjective – it works for your brain, but maybe not for someone else’s brain.

Another problem with organizing by theme is specific to printed photos, but not digital photos. If you are planning to pass on an organized digital collection, there’s an easy fix for this.

If you organize by person, but a photo has more than one person in it, then what? You have to duplicate the printed photo to have it in both places. But with digital photos this is avoided with the use of tags, also known as keywords. That way no matter which person you search for, that photo will show up.

However, if you have photos that you just cannot assign dates to, thematic organization can still work. Just avoid using “person” as one of the themes. Locations, activities (think sports, picnics, vacations, etc.), and events (such as birthdays, Christmas, graduations, etc.) can all work. There is also a combination method I will discuss later.

If you choose to use thematic organizing, take your Keeper pile and start dividing the photos according to themes. It might be helpful to put a labelled index card above each pile. Your themes will come organically from the photos. Alternatively, you may want to plan ahead before organizing.

The Sequential Organizing Method for Photos

This method is exactly what it sounds like – sorting something in sequence, or in order. And what that order is depends on what you need it for.

If you have photos in albums that you want to keep together as a unique grouping and in order, then do that. This is sequential ordering. The photos in that group are in sequence, and not mixed with others by the other method you are using.

Sequential order can also be used when you know you want to make albums or scrapbooks once your photos are organized. In essence, you are planning your album out in advance by putting the photos you will use in it into sequential order.

If you want to use this method for all or even part of your organizational system, take your Keeper pile and sort it into separate piles for your sequences.

Make sure you label your sequences well to make it easier to refer to later.

Organizing Your Photos Using a Combination of Methods

Combination Organizing is using any of the above methods in combination with each other. This allows for much flexibility, yet still retains an organized collection.

A common combination is Chronological + Thematic sorting. For example, I use this in my digital collection in Forever, although it can just as easily be used with printed photos.

In my 1981 group of photos, I have a subgrouping of my wedding scrapbook photos. I made the scrapbook many years ago and recently had it digitized. I wanted to keep it together as a unit because it tells the story of our wedding.

You can do the same thing with labelled dividers, easily. Within each year’s photos, have subgroupings of photos for themes such as birthdays, vacations, Christmas, etc.

Another way to use a Combination Method is Theme + Chronology, which essentially means Eras. One of my clients organizes her photos by which house they lived in, as they have moved a lot. Within the larger grouping of theme (house), the photos are arranged by date.

Themes other than locations can be used as well. Themes such as Church, School, or Sports can be separated out from a main organizational system. Then organize them by date or sport or whatever makes sense to you within those themes.

What’s Next?

I hope I’ve helped you see that there is no one right way for how to organize printed photos. There is only the way that makes the most sense for you and your collection. Download my Organizing Photos Cheat Sheet to keep beside you as you work through your photos.

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