Seven Steps to Finally Organizing Your Photo Collection
So here we are... in the midst of a pandemic. You’re stuck at home..and need something productive to distract you from the news stories.
How about that photo organization project you’ve been meaning to get to? How long have you been meaning to do SOMETHING with your photos?
It might be the perfect time to get this project underway! Especially when it's gloomy and rainly outside.
What Does Your Collection Look Like Right Now?
It's likely a combination (depending on your age) of shoeboxes filled with 4 x 6 prints, envelopes of negatives, magnetic photo albums, and a cell phone photo with hundreds (thousands?) of pics.
I know...it's frustrating! You’re well aware that you “should have kept up” with this somehow... and now it just seems impossible...so you don't do anything at all. But if you break it down a bit, it can happen.
What's Your Goal?
Generally, it's a good idea to schedule small chunks of time to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Baby steps! Keep these tips in mind too:
- Cut down the numbers! It’s much better to have a few good photos that tell the story about that event, holiday, or vacation than lots of not-so-good ones. Throw away the bad ones and don't second-guess yourself.
- Have an endgame in mind. That is, what do you want to do with the photos when you're done?
For example, do you want to create a photo book (or 10)? You can use a number of user-friendly consumer printers for your DIY book projects, such as Shutterfly or Pickaboo.
Maybe you want traditional photo albums to insert your prints into? Just be sure to pick a reputable dealer who makes albums labeled "archival-safe".
How about something for your home decor? Aside from ordering the best-of-the-best from your professional photographer (which I recommend for your most important and professional images),many options are out there for you to print yourself.
Feeling ambitious? Scrapbooks are a great way to get creative and add text and embellishments onto. Warning..this can be very time-consuming. (I was a scrapbooker myself).
Perhaps the only goal at this time is to simply digitize and organize.
Perhaps your answer is a combination of things. When you begin the tasks below, be sure to incorporate that labeling as well (ie: print-worthy, save-but-not-for-print, etc.)
One thing EVERYONE needs regardless of these options, is a solid organization, back-up, and maintenance plan.
Here’s a step-by-step process of how you can get it done. It takes into consideration all the possible scenarios that might describe your own situation.
STEP #1 Collect and cull the older stuff
Of course I'm talking about the olden days of film photography. In reality only 15 years ago, most of us were just transitioning to "digital" capture!
I suggest you start with one medium at a time. You can skip this step if you only have digitals. If your prints are a mess and you never labeled your photos, this part could take awhile. One clue to look for is the photo lab imprint on the backs of the prints and dates on the negatives.
You’ll need some shoe boxes/photo boxes plus index cards and a pen (archival ink) to label.
- Collect all your physical prints, negatives, photo books, and envelopes of photos and put them all in a location where you can work on them without moving until you’re finished. If you don’t have space, use a bin you can keep everything together in and store away when you’re not working on it.
- Label your index cards by year (or any other way that is meaningful to you, such as seasons, events, holidays). Stick with this method of organization through your whole project.
- Start with your negatives. You can hold them up to the light to see what they are and label them--placing them into the year or event they belong to. Keep them in their original envelopes if possible. They shouldn’t be out in the light for any length of time.
The negatives are better for scanning as they contain more info and therefore result in better quality scanned images. You’ll be scanning all of them.
If you have the same images in prints, you really don’t need to go through them...unless you plan to use the prints in your final project.
- If you do want to use them, go through and label each on the back, placing them into the boxes under your labeling system. With your print culling process, it’s a good time to dispose of prints that don’t make the cut.
- Remove all photos stuck into magnetic photo albums (carefully). These types of albums degrade the photos. Label them and file them into the appropriate box.
STEP #2 Digitize the prints and/or the negatives
Prints and negatives fade over time and should be scanned to be preserved in digital format.
And it’s great to have them at your fingertips when you are looking to make that birthday tribute collage or memorial post.
Personally, I don’t have the patience to scan a zillion photos, and I don’t want to figure out how to scan negatives.
Fortunately, there are services that can do that much better, quicker, and reasonably for you. Again, negatives are preferred, but if you didn’t keep your negatives, you can scan the photos.
Scanning services take the work out of this and to me, the key to getting the project done. Expect to pay per image (.40-.60/each), but it’s worth it.
If you were a shutterbug like me back then (I took lots of photos), and don’t want to pay for every single one (knowing that you're only going to want the best of them to keep) use a service that is “post-pay”. In other words, they scan all of it, send you an online gallery, and you decide which ones you want to keep and pay just for those.
This will help you get rid of the duds when you have to stop and think about whether it’s worth the money to archive that blurry photo.
The service will send you a USB or download of your finished scans Three services to look at:
STEP #3 Organize your digitized library
This is a really important step. Now that you have your prints & negatives in a digital format, you’ll want to have them findable and accessible. You can create your own folder system on your computer, but I recommend using software that allows you to do more... such as adding keywords, and editing functions.
I won’t go into all the details of the various software programs out there, but suffice to say that a little research will help you find one (and often free) to give you the features and ease of use (and sometimes even back-up) you’re looking for.
I love everything Adobe makes...and they do offer a free product (https://www.adobe.com/products/bridge.html) which is outside of the Creative Cloud subscription used by professionals.
STEP #4 Get your phone photos under control
I’m making the assumption that you’ve got an unwieldy collection of photos on your phone. I’m also guessing you find yourself endlessly scrolling when you’re looking for a particular photo.
IOS and Android can help you with the built in function of albums. Themed albums. Take advantage of them!
How do you want to organize your albums? You should use the same method of organizing your digitals as you did in step #1. Use that method that makes sense to you.
Or...organize the same way your phone does, which is different on iPhones and Androids, including organizing them by people or places. Your phone has literally been organizing for you, and you can search for photos a variety of ways (faces, places, items in the photo you’re searching for using object-recognition). Amazing.
I suggest being consistent...no matter how you decide to do it.
Being a control freak of sorts, I prefer to take that control and use my own themes.
Are you running out of space on the phone? Once you complete the process below, you can delete the ones you’ve archived. You also have a choice of using the cloud as your primary storage instead of your phone.
As you’re scrolling through, adding your photos to albums, be sure to clean up your selections by deleting the ones you don’t want to save. In fact, do this on a regular basis, just like doing the laundry or cleaning the kitchen!
STEP #5 Get the photos onto a computer and backed-up
There’s several ways to transfer your photos from your phone to your computer, including software that doesn’t mess your photos up, such as AnyTrans.
These should be catalogued the same way as your scanned items.
Congrats! You're almost done! However, even the most organized system means nothing if you loose it all.
Your goal is to create 3 copies of all your catalogue using two types of media. I suggest one on your computer's hard drive, one on an external hard drive, and one on a cloud service such as Google Drive or Dropbox.
STEP #6 Maintain Your System
I suggest developing an easy workflow.
- Upload to your computer at regular intervals, and catalogue.
- Have an automatic backup of these files in your cloud service (such as google sync and back-up)
- Then regularly copy your files onto the external hard drive (I keep mine in a different location in case of fire, etc). I do this at the end of each year, but you can do it as often as you like--even every time you import photos.
STEP #7 Enjoy Your Work
I personally LOVE to print photos and create photo art!
There's something about having tangible memories. Especially when it comes to telling stories.
While the cloud copy of my photos are always accessible (my daughters love that they have them at their fingertips), I make albums and wall/shelf art.
I think of my albums as a chronicle of our family’s life. I have multiple traditional albums with 4x6 photos from the earlier years, and have switched now to beautiful leather or photo cover bound books for each year or special trip. My walls and shelves showcase canvases, framed prints, and modern prints.
When it comes to my portrait clients, I offer the best prints from the best labs to them as well.
There is no right or wrong way to display art of your favorite memories and your precious family members.
Have some fun and try something different!
I'm Deb Wesley Photography--based in Downers Grove, IL--about 25 miles west of Chicago. I enjoy photographing and creating printed art for families & high school seniors. My other area of photography expertise is business headshots and branding/marketing sessions.
Visit my website www.debwesleyphoto.com