Organization is a key to preserving and enjoying your snapshots.

They’re stuffed in shoe boxes in closets across America. Scattered in dresser drawers. Spilling out of envelopes in a file cabinet.

They’re photographs – often unsorted, unlabeled, and unprotected. And if “organize photos” has been on your to-do list for the past three years, you’re in good company

As camera-happy a nation as we are, our treasured photos of ten end up languishing in the attic – or nowadays, on digital memory cards.


Blame some of it on the sentimental importance we place on our photos, say Chris Sutton and Tracey DuBois, who run It’s hard to throw out snapshots of family or friends. And we often inherit old photos from relatives and feel an obligation to take care of them – even if we have no way to identify the people in them.

You think you have to keep everyone because of the emotional connection,” Sutton says.

Blame the rest of it on the sheer vol-tune of photos we have. Technology has made taking photos so easy that most of us have piles of prints*, the thought of sorting through them can be overwhelming.

Without proper organization and storage, photos can end up yellowed or lost at the very least, they aren’t being enjoyed. Here, we offer tips from the experts on how to save them from oblivion.

Taming the chaos

First, gather all your photos together so you can see what you have and what you can trash.

“Be choosy because otherwise you just get bogged down,” said San Antonio professional organizer DaLona Niland. “You don’t need to keep blurry pictures or bad pictures. It just takes up space.”

Then it’s time to sort the photos. How to sort depends on personal preference, the way you’re planning to display or store the photos and the size of your collection.

If you have years’ worth of un-sorted snapshots, start sorting by decade first, recommends Cherry Patterson, a professional organizer in New Braunfels.

After that, you can continue to organize them chronologically –ideal if you have hundreds of photographs you want to store in photo boxes, which usually have dividers so you can organize the photos by month or year.

Sorting by theme is another good option, especially if you’re planning to put the photos into albums.

Some people have a photo box for each child. Some sort by holidays or by events, such as birthday parties or family vacations. Or choose a more creative theme. Patterson suggests “pictures of children with their pets, dressed-up pictures, memories with Mom, dates with Dad.”

If you’re going the album route, make sure you’re choosing the right kind of album. Magnetic albums – in which the photos are placed on an adhesive-coated page and covered with a thin sheet of plastic – were once very popular, but photos can get permanently stuck to the pages.

The albums may also contain one or more of the three worst enemies of photographs: acidic glue or paper, which can eat away at the photos; lignin, which causes discoloration; and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which accelerates deterioration. Ditch the magnetic albums and transfer your photos to albums with slide-in pockets. Scrapbook albums are also an option, even if you’re not scrapbooking because the pages are usually free of harmful chemicals and page protectors can help safeguard the photos.

DuBois and Sutton recommend storing prints in photo boxes and photo envelopes – not the envelopes from the store where they were developed, which can hurt them.

Photo journaling envelopes and photo pockets allow you to sort and divide photos into categories and then write comments about them – where were the photos taken? What was going on? How were you feeling when the shutter snapped?

“If people don’t take the time to document the memories that go along with them, then the pictures are meaningless,” Sutton says.

Labeling individual photos will eliminate the frustration that arises when you find photos of unknown relatives. If you want to write on the back of the photos, use a wax pencil from a scrapbooking store, cautions Niland – ballpoint pens will leave an impression that’s apparent from the front of the photo.

If you have a large collection of photos, boxes are a more efficient way of storing them, whether in envelopes or not Again, make sure the boxes are free of acid, lignin, and PVC and be sure to label them carefully. Plastic containers should be made of archival-safe polyethylene or polypropylene.

Don’t forget the negatives. Negatives should be sorted, labeled and stored as the photos are. Many professional organizers recommend storing the negatives separately from the photos for safekeeping. Niland stores her negatives in her deep freeze in case of a fire.

Digital order

Now that you’ve gotten the traditional 35 mm photos stowed, it’s time to tackle digital photos.

Digital photos may seem easier to organize – after all, they’re not taking up space in your closet. Some people prefer to scan their prints and upload them to a computer, eliminating physical prints altogether But digital photos have their own challenges. When you upload photos onto your computer, they are often automatically labeled with a jumble of letters and numbers. Consider labeling each photo with the date and a keyword – “Halloween,” for example, or “pets.” Then you can organize them into folders by date or by subject. You may want to put favorites in a separate folder so they’re easier to find. Photo organization software is also available. The most important part of storing photos on your computer? Backing them up. “Years of pictures can be lost in the blink of an eye” if your hard drive crashes, says Sutton. Easy options are copying the photos to an external hard drive, a flash drive, a CD or DVD. Keep a copy in a safe-deposit box or at a relative’s house in case of a fire or burglary.

Printing photos out is an option to make them more permanent, but it makes more sense to print only the photos you’re using for a specific purpose or very important photos so you’re not creating clutter.

Online services such as Flickr Snapfish and Shutterfly allow you to organize and store photos offsite. Those sites also offer print services and allow friends and families to view your photos and order prints. Be aware that some online photo management services require subscribers to agree to allow the Web site to use the photos for its own purposes (such as advertising) without compensation.

Once you’re finished organizing your photos, keep filing new ones in the same way so you’ll never end up with piles of un-sorted prints – or a hard drive filled with unlabeled photos again.


Prefer to display your photos rather than pack them away? Here are some options:

Digital photo frames: These high-tech frames display your photos singly or in a slide show.

Digital photo albums: Often small enough to fit in your wallet or double as a key chain, these albums let you scroll through anywhere from dozens of photos to thousands of photos, depending on the size of the album. Some offer customizable folders for organization.

Scrapbook: Scrapbooks combine photos with memorabilia, embellishments and text in a beautiful keepsake that documents people and events.

Memo albums: More than a plain album but less than a scrapbook, memo albums allow you to slip in photos and write a few lines about them in an adjacent space.

Calendar: Many online and mail-order companies can create personalized calendars incorporating photos you provide them.

Screen saver: Load your photos onto your computer and display them in a slideshow screen saver. Photo tables: Arrange prints on a side table and cover it with glass.

Traditional frames: If you’d rather display photos the old-fashioned way – as prints in frames on a shelf or mantel – rotate the photos so you and your guests regularly have something new to see.

Collage: Create a collage of related photos and have it matted and framed.

Baskets: Set out a basket of photos on a coffee table for people to browse through.

Bookmarks: Make duplicates of your favorite photos and use them as bookmarks.