Spending more time at home has offered the opportunity to tackle all sorts of ambitious projects, from DIY focaccia to workspace upgrades. Yet there’s one task that still seems impossible: organizing hundreds, if not thousands — or even hundreds of thousands — of print and digital photographs. The idea of sorting through them feels daunting, so instead you do nothing. The shots pile up; the cycle continues.
Yet with so many hours inside and a yearning, perhaps, to see friends and family, there’s no better moment than this one to break the inertia.
“The more that our photos are visible and accessible to us, the more likely it is that we’ll remember why we love the people in our lives,” said Eric Niloff, a co-founder and the chief executive of EverPresent, a Boston-based company that digitizes and organizes family pictures.
Whether you have hundreds of gigabytes amassed from six device upgrades — EverPresent’s average iPhone client has between 15,000 and 20,000 digital photos, Niloff said — or boxes of decades-old albums, here are some simple ways to catalog and organize your images.
De-stress the scope, de-stress the sorting
“Sitting down and saying, ‘I am going to perfectly organize 50 years of slides and photo albums and 10 years of digital photos across eight devices’ is not a prescription for success,” Niloff said.
Instead, he suggested setting specific parameters (say, two years’ worth of photos or two hours of your time each week) and building momentum from there. Gather everything in one place — a floor for prints, or a computer (the best place to keep a working master archive) for digital images. Physical piles of “yes,” “no” and “maybe” work on the floor; digital images can be starred (or “hearted” on Apple’s Photos application) or deleted.
“If you get into a comfortable groove of favoriting, you’ll look up after a few hours and suddenly you have a manageable timeline,” Niloff said.
Cathi Nelson, the founder of the Photo Managers, a global community of photo organizers, uses a prioritization system she calls “ABCS”: Album (prime photos worthy of a physical or online album); Box or Backup (photos you want to keep in some form but don’t need accessible); Can (as in, trash can); and Stories (photos that conjure up a great memory, and are thus also worth holding onto).
“A lot of emotions arise in this process; you’re going to feel nostalgia and sadness,” said Nelson. “But don’t get too lost — you only want to look at each photo for two or three seconds, max.”
She also lives by the 80/20 rule: By the time you’ve finished sorting, 80% of your shots should be bound for the garbage, whether physical or digital. If you’re excited about the remaining 20%, you’re making progress.
Label and perhaps digitize prints
Loose photos need a bit more love. If, after sorting, you’re left with a manageable quantity, transfer natural groupings into albums or archival boxes and note whatever best unites them, be it the year or the people featured.
If you’d rather keep the full archive on a computer — digital images are easier to turn into gifts and share with others — you’ll need a good-quality scanner and lots of time and patience. Or you can find digitization services on the internet.
Tag and file digital photos
Most photo apps allow users to input custom keywords, which can later be used to search for specific images. Niloff recommends starting with basic categories like people, pets, hobbies and holidays.
“The difference between 3,000 unlabeled photos versus 300 photos organized by category can be the difference between your child learning their history or not,” he said.
Folders (“Holiday Card 2020,” “Prints for Grandma”) make it easy to prep potential photos for a project and allow others (like children) to browse images on your device. Just remember that chronology, or lack thereof, is not the final word.
“This is another big thing that holds people back,” Nelson said. “They open up the box and I think, ‘Oh my god, I can’t remember if Johnny’s 7 in this picture or 8.’ But although we live in time order, we remember experiences semantically. What are the themes of your life? Travel, family, holidays: Whatever is of value to you is what you can use to group photos.”
Decide what to frame and display
The rule is simple, said Tessa Wolf, the head of merchandising and marketing at Framebridge, a custom-framing company: Frame whatever you want to look at every day.
“Things that are tangible — that you can see and feel and touch — hold a different meaning now, during the pandemic, when you want to remember the last time you were with your girlfriends from college, or when all of your siblings were together,” said Wolf.
As for choosing the right composition, photographer Adeib El Masri, who shoots portraits and fashion editorials, looks for symmetry and clutter-free backgrounds. If there are several excellent contenders — as there might be, thanks to newer smartphones’ “burst” feature — El Masri espouses a classic, no-pressure tiebreaker: “eeny, meeny, miny, moe.”
“At a certain point, we’re talking about micro movements,” he said. “Remember that when you see that photo on your wall, you’ll love it; you won’t be analyzing it against the ones that aren’t there.”
Delete, backup and share
Once your master archive is under control, it’s important to maintain it. Niloff suggests setting aside regular intervals — five minutes a week, the last Sunday of every month — to go through new images and ax the “no’s.”
“There’s a psychological fear of deleting,” Nelson said. “But by never deleting, the likelihood of you ever looking for the photos again is actually going to decrease.”
What should you do with the new batch of yeses and maybes? That varies depending on your specific setup. One tactic, said Niloff, is to upload them to the computer and back them up on an external hard drive or a cloud-storage service. Delete the maybe’s from the computer, leaving only your favorites left to tag and file. It’s as if you’re playing bouncer to your master archive — nothing that doesn’t pass muster is allowed inside.
After that, anything goes, but the experts encourage sharing some photos somewhere, whether organized in a stylish photo book, printed on reliable 4×6 glossies, used in hip holiday cards or even appearing in a regularly updated Instagram feed.
“If you are in a constant state of organizing but there’s no output — nothing in a photo book, nothing on social media, you’re in an ‘analysis paralysis,’” Niloff said. “Text three photos to a friend, turn it into a slideshow with Taylor Swift music. Whatever makes you connect with people.”