How To Organize Your Printed Photos

Follow these easy steps to tame your photo mess!

photo organization

Why Organize Your Printed Photos

Your photos are one of your most priceless possessions and are the starting point of your family’s history. Most people say that if a fire happened in their house, they would first make sure all family members were safe, then their pets, and then their photos. They are a link to your past, your present, and even your future. The real magic of a picture happes when it is printed. Then you can touch, relive and share your memories for a lifetime! Photo organization is so important though it can be overwhelming. There are some simple steps to help you.

Do Something With Your Photos

WHAT you do with your photos is not near as important as DOING something with them. It is important for you to develop a system to organize, display and care for these priceless memories. (Now before you panic and tune out, it DOES NOT have to be complicated!) Your photos and memories deserve to be shared with others, not kept in a box or computer hard drive until someone finds them and has no idea who or what they are about, or worse yet, doesn’t have a program to open them with! Have you tried playing a floppy drive lately? Technology changes so fast but you can always look at a printed photograph.

If you took pictures “back in the film days”, the only way you saw them was to have them printed.  So you most likely have lots of older printed photographs.  Or maybe you inherited boxes of photos from a family member. These might be organized into photo albums, but most likely they are in boxes and envelopes, possibly all over your house.

One Day

Did you know there is no “one day” on any calendar. You probably keep telling yourself “one day” I’ll get to those.  Guess what? “One day” never comes, there is always other things to do.  So you have to make the time to tackle this project which will lift a huge weight off your shoulders that you never even knew was there.  Don’t wait for a week off with nothing to do.  Take a few minutes every day and over time, you will accomplish so much!


Photo Organization is a skill – a learned skill. There is no right and wrong way, only what works for you. Below are some suggestions as to how you can organize. Pick and choose what works for you and make a commitment to stick to it. If you have years and years of photos to deal with, don’t get overwhelmed. Work in small sections and enjoy the process. Reminisce about the events in the photos and enjoy knowing that you are further ahead than most people – you have taken that first step to getting your photos organized and properly cared for. This is valuable and meaningful work that forms a priceless connection between you and future generations. If you can, enlist the help of family members, it is fun to work together and reminisce about your family history.

step one gather photos to organize

Step 1: Gather

Gather all the photos in your house into one location –preferably a location you can leave them out for a while. Make it a photo organization treasure hunt and enlist family members in your search. Check drawers, desks, attics, closets, files, old albums, the garage, framed pictures etc, and bring them all into one location. Remember to check old letters and cards that may have photos in them. You can also ask relatives for pictures and memorabilia that you would like copies of. Don’t worry if you can’t find certain photos – this should be an enjoyable process. When you do come across more photos, you will be able to add them into your system. If you come across relevant memorabilia, add that to your gathering spot too.

If you have photos that are in old magnetic albums, remove them from these albums. This is an unsafe environment for your photos because of the adhesive on the page protectors and the acid in the pages. You can try dental floss to pry behind the photos or a liquid called Un-Do which neutralizes the adhesive. These old albums are not a safe environment for your photos, so even if you aren’t going to do anything with your photos right away, remove them from the magnetic album and store them in a photo box.

How to organized printed photographs

Step 2: Sort

Now comes the fun part. Don’t get overwhelmed now – this is the heart of the project. You will need to decide how you want to sort your photos, and then do it in small bits of time or in big chunks of time if you have it. When you pass through the area, sort one or two envelopes of photos. If you can find a whole afternoon to sort, great, but don’t wait for that chunk of time as it may not come. You CAN do this! Photo Organization should be an enjoyable process so don’t get stressed out.

There are different ways to sort your photos and memorabilia. Before you start grouping your pictures and stacking them in piles, you’ll need to decide which one will work best for you. Remember that with each new package of photos you bring home, you will want to continue this system so make sure it works for you. Whichever system you decide upon, label your photos with an acid free photo pen. Don’t use a ballpoint pen. It is also a good idea to wash your hands before you sort photos. The natural oils on your hands are not that great for photos. You could also wear light cotton gloves. Also, remove all tape, paper clips, staples etc from the photos. While you are sorting, make notes of photos that need restoration or that you want to make additional copies of. Both services are available at Photo Expressions.


Here are some suggested ways to sort but certainly not the only way.  Choose what works for you based on what you will do with the photos after. You may decide to use a combination of these methods for example keeping the majority of your photos organized chronologically while also having photo boxes for specific projects that you want to create – for your kids, for special trips, for a heritage book, etc. An important box to have is one for favourite photos – those photos that just make you smile.  If you only ever put pictures into one album, this is the one you want to do.  It will highlight the things that make you smile and are important to you.

 Sorting Options:

Sort Chronologically – This is the most popular way to organize photos. You will be able to access a specific event with ease, is straightforward to do and easy to maintain. If you have many years of photos to organize, start with “decade” piles, then work down to years, and then if you want, down to months. If you come across a photo and don’t know when it was taken, check to see if there is a date stamp on the photo or the envelope it came in. Guesstimate when it was taken (look at the background, age of people, style of clothes) and put it to the side of that decade pile, and as you sort more photos, you will be able to narrow down the date.

Sort by Event or Theme -You may want to organize photos of a special vacation or Christmas photos from each year by theme/event. This way it is easy to do up a “Christmas Album” with photos of Christmas on a yearly basis. You may want to start a “Celebration” album and put in birthdays, graduations and other family celebrations. You will sort your photos by whatever album you decide you want to have.

Sort by Person – You may want to group all the photos of a specific person together. This works really well for heritage photos or portraits. You may want to have an album for each of your children or an album of their school years. You could also break this down into period of life – for example each child could have a baby book, an elementary age book, a high school age book etc.

I Have No Idea Box – This is where the photos that you can’t identify go. Invite family or friends over or go visit them and take out your I Have No Idea Box to see if they can help you identify the photos.  You can also scan them and email them to friends or family to see if they can help uncover the mystery. (This is another good reason to label your photos – so they don’t become “mystery photos”.)

Downsize sort photos

Step 3: Purge and Select

You now have organized photos and memorabilia. The hardest part is behind you and you deserve a big congratulation! Now you get the easier job of sorting through the photos to remove duplicates or bad photos (yes, it is ok to throw away pictures that aren’t great.)

This is best done as a separate step, rather than as you sort. There may only be 2 blurry photos of your grandma as a young girl and you don’t want to eliminate both of them.

Family members will love to share duplicate photos. You can frame duplicates and display them (better yet enlarge them), or you can create a photo gift with them. You can find lots of options for photo gift ideas at Photo Expressions.

Celebrate that you are now becoming savvy at photo organization!

Album and Scrapbook Scanning

Step 4: Don’t Panic

Realize that it is going to get worse before it gets better. You will have photos spread out all over your dining room table, but the end result is more than worth it. If it gets stressful figuring out which year a photo is from, set it aside and go onto another pile, or take a break. You can do it!

 Step 5: Maintain

Sorting and organizing your photos is an ongoing task. Whenever you bring new photos into your house, label them and place them in to your newly organized system.

Enjoy looking through your pictures and sharing them with friends and family.  Leave a few photo albums or photoboxes out on the coffee table and watch how often they get looked at.  Enjoy hearing the exclamations and laughter (often at your clothes or hair styles!).  Photos are meant to be shared and enjoyed, not tucked away where nobody gets to see them.