12 Smart Ways to Organize Old Photos


Is your photo collection a disaster? Well, so was mine until I figured out a workflow that helped me to organize over 50,000 digital photo files and 6,000 printed photographs. Here's how I cleared my photography clutter.


Wade through your endless digital photos and keep only the ones that really matter.

1. Stay Current

I realized that unless I stopped taking new photos (this would not happen), I would continue to play catch up… forever. Instead of trying to organize all 50,000 digital images at once, I focused on the most recent 5,000 pictures and resolved to stay on top of my photo curating chores from that point forward.

At the end of every day, I go through the photo stream on my phone, and like my favorite shots so they are automatically saved in my "Favorites" album.

Photographs I take of items to sell on Etsy, eBay, and Craigslist stay on my phone in their own separate "For Sale" album until the item sells (and then I delete the associated images). Because I run my online storefronts exclusively from my phone, I never need to download these images to my desktop computer.

Lastly, since I am a visual thinker, I take a ton of photos to help me remember everything from my Italian homework to where I parked the car at the airport. I now add those photos to my Evernote app as I go for reference, and delete these images as I complete each related task.

2. Decide on a Primary Storage for Digital Archives.

I have 50,000 digital images because I am paranoid about losing photographs. As a result of this anxiety, I had copies of the same image on my phone, on my computer's hard drive, on external hard drives, and on Flickr. What's worse than organizing 50,000 images? Organizing multiple copies of the same 50,000 images over and over. Don't be me. Choose one spot as your complete archive. You can divide your archives later.

3. Housekeeping

At least once a month, I download my favorite photographs from my camera and phone to my computer for further editing.

4. Ditch the Worst Photographs

While I can spend hours toggling between good images in an effort to select the best of the lot, the bad photos stick out like a sore thumb. Even if I only trashed 1% of the images taking up space on my hard drive, those were still 500 photographs I didn't have to organize later.

5. Create Folders or Albums

Sort by subject or event, not chronologically. Even though Flickr automatically archives my photographs in chronological order, this is my least favorite method of sorting images because I hate scrolling through thousands of photographs to find the one shot that I am looking for. For example, because I am working on building up Flickr as my professional portfolio of travel and architecture shots, my initial sort will be to organize my photos into albums by city. When I have more time, I will go through each city album, and sort the images into smaller albums like Architecture, Art, Food, etc…and add hash tags #brutalism, #michelangelo, #gelato, etc…to make these archives easily searchable by photo editors looking for images for magazine and book projects.

6. Back Everything Up

Technology hates you! I store copies of my favorite shots on an external hard drive in the event that my computer croaks. And, because I like to worry, in the event that my house burns down, I also keep a second copy of my photo archive on Flickr.

Prints and Negatives

I come from a long line of photographers. Unlike many people who may only have one cherished photograph of their elderly relatives, I have thousands of family pictures that go back four generations. Just about every family event was documented on film, usually by more than one relative.

Unfortunately, while my family is great at taking pictures, they are horrible archivists. I don't recognize half the people in the photographs that have been passed down to me! Also, even when I know who is in the shot, the context of photographs is often as important as the picture itself. Why is everyone dressed as donkeys in this photograph? Who is the mysterious blonde lady cuddling up to Uncle Ed?

Now I know why I kept putting off organizing my prints. All the sideline research is super daunting. I don't want to be the relative who accidentally dumped the only evidence of an important event in family history. Even with that emotional pressure, I still found organizing physical photographs way easier than organizing my digital files. Here's the process:

7. Gather Loose Photos

Take all the photos and random albums and put them in one location.

8. Ditch the Bad Photographs

Photographs that have faded to nothing or are out of focus should go into the trash. Unlabeled landscape shots from vacations that aren't suitable for framing also get tossed. Group photos where no one looks cute? Garbage.

9. Divide and Conquer

I divided my photographs into six major collections: vintage family photographs, childhood, college, post-college, travel, and mystery; and sorted the photographs into labeled, acid-free, archival photo storage boxes. I kept the categories extremely broad because I knew that this project would be time consuming. Worst case scenario, if I stop organizing at this point, at least know which box to start looking in to find a specific picture.

10. Sort Each Collection

Sort them into smaller, searchable categories. For example, I sorted my travel box by vacation, and my childhood pictures by year.

11. Research the Mystery Photos

Mystery photographs are family photos of strangers and unfamiliar locations. My favorite method of researching mystery photos is to bring them to large family events and have my relatives help me identify people, places, and things. (I can say from personal experience that doing this at family wakes is oddly comforting and enjoyable.) I have also solved photo mysteries by scanning and emailing the images out to my older relatives who sometimes respond with the best stories.

12. Preserve and Label for Future Generations

For the love of all that is good and beautiful, don't write on the back of photos you want to keep forever! Even archival inks and glues can damage the prints. Instead, label archival presentation photo sleeves, which keep photographs clean and fingerprint-free. Alternately, go old school and write the story of each photograph, as a caption, directly onto the paper album pages. Personally I am scanning all my vintage photographs into my computer and uploading them to Flickr to a shared family album. My relatives can make their own copies of their favorite images and help me write captions. Since I am paranoid, this Flickr album also doubles as backup storage for physical photographs.

Notes About Negatives

Don't throw these away! Although I will never again be able to afford to print using a traditional darkroom, I can use my home scanner to create beautiful digital prints from my negatives.

Beware of Bugs and Other Things

I have seen photo archives destroyed by heat, moisture, mold, rodents, and bugs. (Who knew that carpet beetles love to eat color slides?) Stash photos in a cool, dry place, out of direct sunlight.

Sunlight will fade photographs. Although it's counterintuitive, hang photographs on the wall that gets the least amount of direct light.

Handle photographs by the edges, as the oil on your skin will degrade photographs and negatives.

Use archival glue or tape to attach photographs to frames and photo albums. Fasteners such as rubber bands, glue sticks, tape, and paper clips can permanently damage any photo they touch.

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Jodi Rives

Max, you inspire me all the time. Even stuff you wrote years ago still pops up in my feed or in my memory. I have developed a new saying for when I am going to try and be more like you while doing something: "I'm gonna Max Wong this sh**!" The whole family "knows" you--and they even say it now. From shopping out of our own cabinets to thrifting clothes to making gifts and repurposing furniture, we have you as our fearless leader. Thanks for everything.

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