19 Common Photo Organizing Mistakes and How to Fix Them

These photo organizing mistakes have been made by myself and others. Learn how to avoid them and fix them because your photos are priceless and should be treated as the treasure they are.


You took the pictures because you wanted to see the moments again. But here you are, years later, with boxes and devices full of photos, and most likely not organized photos. And you probably don’t look at many beyond the most recent very often.

Or maybe you’re up to date with getting your photos into albums or scrapbooks. But are you sure you’re getting everything right in terms of storage and longevity of all your photos and precious memories?

Photos are some of our most prized possessions. We cherish them above many other personal possessions. In fact, in places where there have been disasters such as floods, fires, tornadoes or more, the one thing most distressing to many is the loss of their family photos. They often mourn that loss more than the loss of their homes and other physical possessions.

Photo Organizing Mistakes can Lead to Photo Loss

But natural disasters are not the only way our photos can be lost. Photos are lost DAILY through poor storage practices and mistakes. No one does this on purpose, of course. It’s generally because they don’t know what they SHOULD be doing.

I’m here to remedy that situation. Read on to find out about 19 common photo organizing mistakes people make and how to avoid making them, or how to fix them once made.

#1 – Not Taking Action on Your Photo Memories

Despite photos being treasured possessions, in a recent survey I conducted of my readers, very often the emotions they experience when they think about their photo memories are negative: overwhelmed, anxious, guilty, like crying, hyper responsible….

I also had a number of readers report that thinking about their photos made them feel happy. As it turns out, in general, those readers were taking action on their photos. The ones who reported the negative emotions had not yet started for a number of reasons.

Getting started on any new project is always the hardest part. I wrote a post on just how to take that first step when it comes to your photo collection.

My goal is to help people take small steps in the right direction so they can release those negative emotions. I want your photos to make you feel positive emotions such as joy, love, happiness, and more. Of course there will be some bittersweet emotions around loss, but they are still anchored in those positive emotions.

Remember why you took those photos in the first place, or if you’ve inherited them, why they are important to you. Cut yourself some slack and take that first step. And then, when you can, take the next, and the next. If you can’t take a step right away, put it on your calendar – schedule it. Commit to it. You will feel better, I promise.

#2 – Keeping Every Photo

Back when we ordered prints from film, we often ordered duplicates or triplicates, and somehow managed not to give them all away. Or we took multiple shots of things because we had no way of knowing which one would be best.

People often have a hard time throwing physical photos away. In the early days of my business, I would often offer to take them off their hands. This somehow made it easier, even though I would throw them away later. I think maybe it’s partly because we PAID for that film and those prints in a way that we don’t pay for digital photos today. And family photo keepers tend to be a sentimental lot, anyway.

Go through your printed photos and throw away the unused duplicates. (Or put them in a pile to give away, and then GIVE THEM AWAY.) Throw away the blurry shots, unless it’s the only shot you have of someone or something important – your great-grandmother, your first car, etc.

When it comes to digital, we may find it easier to delete bad or excess photos. But we often don’t have a strategy in place to make sure it happens regularly. And that is simply all that is required.

Pick an interval that works for you – weekly or monthly – and then do it. If you can remember to take the garbage can to the street once a week, you can certainly remember this.

Another method is to use downtime. If you find yourself waiting for something – a doctor’s appointment, in the carpool line, grocery pickup or anything else – use that time to delete photos from your phone. Make it a habit. You won’t regret it.

#3 – Not Organizing Printed Photos Before Scanning

Over the years clients have handed me many bags and boxes of disorganized photos to scan. The purchasers did not organize them first nor want to pay me to organize them first. This causes multiple problems:

  • It takes me longer to handle and scan the photos (which costs more)
  • They are much harder to clean prior to scanning
  • There are always multiple copies of some photos that get scanned, often of varying sizes and quality, costing the purchaser more.
  • There are likely photos that the purchaser wouldn’t keep if they had organized them first, again resulting in increased cost.
  • It’s easier to organize printed photos into piles than it is to organize digital photos on a screen.

Whether you scan your photos yourself or hire me or someone else to do it for you, it is worth taking the time to have them organized before scanning, even if it’s just a matter of separating them by year. Going through the photos ahead of time will allow for culling and curating. And, if you do it yourself, you’ll reawaken your connection with those in the photos and remember why you’re doing this.

a red plastic box with organized photos inside

#4 – Not Creating a Digital Photo Hub

Most people have digital photos scattered across devices such as computers, phones, SD cards, thumb drives and more. In addition, they may have some on photo sites such as Shutterfly, Flickr, and others. This is akin to keeping your spices or shoes in all the different rooms of your home and in your car.

It is important to create a Digital Photo Hub or DPH. This is a place where all your digital photos go to live, even if you are not ready to organize them yet. Your DPH can be your computer (if you have plenty of storage), an external hard drive, or a dedicated, guaranteed, secure digital platform, such as Forever.

Whichever you choose, set aside a regular time – even if it’s 15 minutes once a week – when you move all your digital photos into your DPH. Just like your spices in your spice rack (and your shoes in your shoe rack), you want all your photos to live in one place.

#5 – Not Renaming Photo Files

When you take a photo with a phone or digital camera, the device assigns a name to the photo of some combination of letters and numbers. And when you scan printed photos, the scanner will also assign a name to the photo, for what is a scanner but a large camera. These names are really only of benefit to the device that named them.

You should rename your photo files in a way that benefits you. It should reference something that is recognizable and understandable to you.

Now before you faint thinking of all the thousands and thousands of digital photos you need to rename, let’s start where you are. If you don’t already know how, use Google to find instructions to rename photos on your phone or tablet. When you do your weekly or monthly photo deletion, use that time to rename the photos you keep.

Since the date and time the photo was taken is already part of the photo’s metadata, you don’t need to worry about that. Instead, think of an English teacher from your youth reminding you about Who, What, Where, When and Why. When you have those details in the photo’s name, you don’t have to blow it up to know what it’s about.

As for all your older digital photos, once they are in your DPH it is easy to batch rename them when the time comes.

#6 – Making the Organizational Structure Too Detailed

Many of my clients, especially in the early days of digital photography, had a tendency to get TOO detailed in their digital photo organization. They created folders for every event, every occasion, each child, every activity. If they wanted to find a photo, they had to click through all these folders to try to find it. In the end, this did not make it easy for them to find any photo quickly.

This also made it so hard to keep up with that some of them quit organizing their digital photos altogether.

I recommend using the structure of chronological-based organizing, theme-based organizing, or a combination of the two. Today’s digital photos are easy to organize chronologically, but if you’re organizing scanned inherited photos, it gets a little trickier.

The important thing is that your folders only go 2-3 deep. Stick to general categories like events, vacations, activities, etc. You can make smaller distinctions with keywords (also known as tags). This makes it easy to search for smaller groupings of photos.

#7 – Using Photo Organizing Software That Doesn’t Handle Metadata correctly

Metadata is the secret sauce of digital photo organizing. Metadata is additional information about your photo that is stored with the photo. Examples are dates and locations that your phone or camera may add automatically. Other examples are keywords or descriptions (the story) that you add to make the photo more meaningful.

Some programs allow you to add this metadata, but they don’t store it with the picture. What this means is that if you export your photos out of that program, you stop using it for some reason, or it becomes obsolete and is no longer supported, your metadata – and all the time you spent creating it – is gone.

It’s best to use an independent folder system in your computer’s operating system. This means that it doesn’t require any certain software, and you can view your files in different programs such as Mylio or Adobe Lightroom. These programs only reference your files, rather than copying them.

#8 – No Plan for Regular Maintenance

Once you have organized your photos, you’re not quite finished. It is important to schedule a regular time – usually monthly or quarterly – to add new photos to your DPH.

Don’t just dump them in. Take the time to rename, if needed, and add metadata. Delete duplicates, bad shots, etc. Once the system is in place, it doesn’t take long at all. The key is to attend to it regularly.

#9 – Not Digitizing Printed Photos, Albums and Scrapbooks

Every photo, album or scrapbook that is not digitized is at risk for permanent loss. It seems that every year the natural disasters are getting worse, and more and more people are losing their homes and everything in them.

Your photos are important. They are of people and places and events that you love. And if you also took the time and expense to put them into albums or scrapbooks, you probably also took the time to write the names and stories.

Don’t let them be at risk. Take the next step and get them digitized so that should anything happen to them, you will not have lost them all.

Many of my clients have told me that their grown children don’t want to inherit boxes of photos or albums or scrapbooks. An organized digital collection of photos and videos is much easier to pass on and less likely to be rejected.

a row of photo albums on a bookshelf

#10 – Scanning at the Wrong Quality

DPI, or dots per inch, define the resolution of the photo. This is especially important for long-term preservation and the potential for future printing. Professional photo managers and reputable companies follow recommended best practices for scanning quality:

  • 300 dpi for photo albums, scrapbook pages and documents
  • 600 dpi for photographs
  • 3000 dpi for slides

I’ve spoken with more than one client who didn’t realize that the default setting for their particular scanner was 300 dpi, and I’ve had to walk several through changing their settings so they could scan at the correct quality.

It’s also important to check with anyone you might hire for scanning what resolution they scan at. Forever scans at these resolutions, as do I.

#11 – Not Storing Printed Photos, Documents and Memorabilia Correctly

Some of my clients throw their printed photos away after scanning. Others keep them. There is no wrong or right way – only the way that is right for you.

What is important, however, is that if you choose to keep scanned photos, documents, and other memorabilia you may have, they should be stored in archival quality containers.

You will likely not find archival quality containers at your local hobby or crafts store. You may find items labeled as “photo safe” or “acid free,” but these are not legally enforceable terms and disreputable companies use them indiscriminately.

It’s much better to get your storage containers from a reputable source. My favorite is Archival Methods in Rochester, NY. Their site also provides a wealth of information and education on archival storage.

In addition, printed photos like the same temperature and humidity conditions that you do. So storing them in the basement or garage or attic is never a good idea. Keep them in the house, even if in a closet or spare room.

Getting Started Checklist

#12 – Not preserving the stories

We preserve our photos because they feature who and what we love. But if we don’t also preserve the stories they show, within a generation or two the photos will become meaningless.

It’s also important to do it for yourself. Memories fade over time and details can become distorted. You think you’ll remember when your child took their first step or lost their first tooth, but you probably won’t. And neither will she nor he.

Research shows that children with a knowledge of family history have higher self esteem, lower anxiety, and better behavior. Teens, in particular show better coping skills and higher confidence. So do it for all the generations going forward. It’s only good!

If you have printed photos in boxes or pocket albums, make sure to store the stories with them. Write down (or type) the stories on photo safe paper or cards to keep with the photos.

When creating photo books or scrapbooks, make sure to include the stories in the books.

If you are creating a digital archive, some cloud storage sites, like Forever, allow you to capture the story and keep it with the photo. If your DPH is on your computer or a hard drive, create PDF documents with the stories and keep them with your photos. PDFs can be opened on multiple devices and are likely to last and be upgradeable.

#13 – No Backup Strategy

As stated earlier, printed photos should be digitized as a backup against physical damage and loss. And digital photos should also be backed up in more than one location.

Reputable cloud storage services, such as Forever and Permanent have backup strategies in place for you. Those are the only two I would trust to do that for me.

If your DPH is in your possession, however, best practice is the 3-2-1 backup strategy. This means 3 copies of your collection with 2 different media and 1 offsite for disaster recovery.

The three copies consist of your DPH plus 2 more copies.

Two different media can mean any two of the following: computer, external hard drive, NAS/server backup, cloud storage.

One copy offsite can mean a drive stored elsewhere or cloud storage. Someplace where your photos would be safe if your neighborhood burned down.

It’s also important to automate the backups as much as possible. This is where having cloud storage shines over storing an external drive somewhere else. If you have to manually create backups, there will always be a gap between changes made and the new backup created.

One easy way to ensure that you have an automated cloud backup of your digital photos is to use a service like BackBlaze. This is what I use to back up my entire computer constantly, including any photos that come in to Dropbox from my phone. I also have my DPH copied onto an external hard drive. I plug it into my computer every 2 weeks and BackBlaze backs it up as well for no additional charge.

Forever also has a phone app that will automatically send your photos to your Forever account. You can delete the duds in Forever either on your phone or your computer, and it won’t upload them again.

#14 – Backing Up Photos in a Haphazard Way

This is a problem that many of my clients have had, and it results from not having one Digital Photo Hub where all the photos live. They make backups of this group of photos and that group of photos, and they don’t deduplicate, and they aren’t organized, so they can’t tell what they have, and they don’t have, and pretty soon what they have is a big mess.

If this is you, you need to define your Digital Photo Hub and get all your photos into it. Then you need to deduplicate and organize as outlined above so this stops happening.

When it comes to deduplicating, I have some recommendations. For Windows, I recommend either using Awesome Duplicate Photo Finder (free, time intensive) or Duplicate Cleaner ($39, a bit of a learning curve, but faster). For Mac, I recommend Photo Sweeper which is $10 but has a steep learning curve. The Photo Managers has a course ($59) on learning to use it correctly.

#15 – Not Replacing Hard Drives Often Enough

I once heard a photographer say “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who have had a hard drive crash, and those who WILL have a hard drive crash.”

All hard drives can crash. It doesn’t matter if they are in a computer or in an external drive. It doesn’t matter if they are mechanical or solid state.

A best practice is to replace hard drives every 3-5 years. If you then back up the hard drive to cloud storage (like BackBlaze, Dropbox or other) even better (and there’s your offsite copy).

Please don’t put your photos on some old drive you have lying around. Buy a new drive, the best you can afford, and put the date on it. Make sure you replace it regularly. These are your precious photos. Don’t leave them to chance.

Here are two drives I really like (and buy myself):

#16 – Using Free or Unreliable Cloud Storage

The most trusted cloud service for photos is one you pay for. For online storage and sharing, I do not recommend using free photo storage sites. A site that charges you nothing owes you nothing should their business goals change. Many free sites have been found to use data mining (and sell your information), and many compress your files or make you pay to download them.

I recommend to my clients two companies who sell you space for photos and videos (one time fee) vs rent you space (monthly subscription). FOREVER is one company. Be sure to read their terms and conditions – your photos are protected even should the company go bankrupt, which isn’t likely at this point. Forever guarantees your photos for your lifetime plus 100 years.

Another is Permanent, a new nonprofit startup that aims to bring museum quality storage to the general public. Being a non-profit, it also operates on an endowment fund, but is still in startup stage.

They will both give you a small amount of free storage so that you can try them out to see if you like them.

If you’d rather pay a monthly subscription rather than a one time fee, then I recommend SmugMug (which owns Flickr). It’s a good and safe place, but there’s no guarantee should you stop paying for it, unlike the previous two.

#17 – Not Updating Older File Formats

Many of us have slides, videotapes and old film movies in our collection. But we can no longer view them.

In addition, we may also have cassette tapes or reel-to-reel tapes with family voices and stories on them. And we can’t listen to them anymore.

It is so important to update these precious memories to today’s formats so we can enjoy them again and pass them down.

And they are degrading as they sit in our collections. Videotapes, for example, were never meant to last more than 5-10 years. Poor storage conditions can also hasten the degradation.

It’s important to find a good provider to digitize your outdated file formats. Again, my favorite is Forever because your order is tracked from the time you place it. It’s followed by camera while in their facility, and every order is triple checked for quality before being returned to you either in your Forever account or on an external drive (your choice).

But one of the best parts about Forever Guaranteed Storage is that someday our current formats of JPG, mp3, mp4 and so on will not be the standard. Part of your purchase now will go toward upgrading formats to the standards of the day in the future.

One more comment about updating old formats: Many of my clients have created scrapbooks over the years. I highly recommend digitizing scrapbooks (or any album where the photos are attached to pages) as well. That way if anything happens to the original, you always have a backup.

#18 – Not Designating a Future Photo Manager

I hate to say it, but you won’t live forever (even though your photos and stories can). It’s important to designate an “heir” to your photo and memory collection.

That may be a grown child, grandchild, niece, nephew or other. If you are planning to pass down physical photos and books, you want to make sure they want them. Have the conversations. It’s important that you do.

If you are passing down a digital collection, make sure your future photo manager has the information required to be able to access your photos.

Both Forever and Permanent have this feature built right in. You choose your photo manager(s) ahead of time and designate them right in the software.

It cannot be stressed too much: Your photos and stories can truly benefit future generations. But only if you set it up so that future generations can access them.

#19 – Not Enjoying or Sharing Your Photos and Stories

It may sound kind of funny to talk about digitizing a printed photo so you can print it again. But context is everything.

It is one thing to give someone a pile of loose photos. It is quite another to give a photo gift or a photo book that includes the stories behind the photos.

Favorite photos can go on the wall, on a mug, in a calendar and more. Keeping your favorite photos in front of you in physical form is one of the best ways to celebrate and enjoy them. Having them digitized and organized is the best way to preserve them.

Digital photos are also easy to share. There’s email and text, of course, but that’s akin to sharing a pile of loose printed photos.

Digital photos can be turned into slide shows which can then be shared electronically. In addition, platforms like Forever, Permanent and SmugMug allow you to share within the platform, and users can copy them to their own accounts.

We took the photos to help us remember moments. Take the time to enjoy and celebrate those moments. You’ll be glad you did.

What’s Next?

Are you making any of the above photo organizing mistakes? Do you know how to fix them now? If you need some help, join my Family Photo Keeper Community so you enjoy your photos now as well as leave a meaningful collection for future generations.

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