Organizing Photos

This can be a daunting prospect, especially if you have little to no system in place.  It’s similar to dealing with paper – these relatively small things that each need to be looked at and dealt with.  Yet photographs are often one of our most prized possessions, and creating a system means that not only are we protecting them, but also that we can appreciate them when we want.  As I touched on last month in Technology – Digital Pictures, organizing photos is becoming even more of a challenge to organize since we often have both physical pictures as well as digital ones.

As with virtually everything that we need to organize, the first step is to figure out what you want to do with your photos – besides keep them of course.  Do you want to put them into an album?  Do you want to scrapbook them?  Do you want them all printed or scanned – keeping them all in one specific medium?  How would you like to be able to appreciate them?  There is no wrong answer – although many people are embarrassed they don’t want to do more with them than have some order.

Let me make a couple of things clear early on – one, you do not have to set aside a weekend or a day to begin organizing your pictures, you can decide to spend an hour here and there (as with all organizing endeavors).  Two, as precious as photographs are, challenge yourself to part with the blurry and unnecessary duplicates.  Three, if you want to keep the physical images safe, look for archival containers (including albums and pages) that might not be available locally.  Four, consider whether you need to organize the larger pictures independently from the standard size pictures.

Often the traditional thinking with pictures is to get them into chronological order.  If the mere thought of figuring out the chronology of all your pictures leaves you wanting to scream, don’t worry – there are other options.  The ideas for organizing photographs can work with both physical and digital – though digital has other challenges associated with it.

One approach for organizing photos is to consider a broad timeline idea – more than chronological.  One person I worked with chose this idea: since kids, couple-hood, before spouse, and earlier generations.  In this situation, we needed 4 empty boxes/containers for those categories and we sorted the boxes of pictures into them, just adding another box into the category when the first was filled.  In another situation, after using floss to remove old pictures from albums, we spread out the pictures to divide them into decades – the ‘10s, ‘20s, ‘30s, and on.

If you think about scrapbooking – not that you are going to do this – the idea is to have a theme, the focus of the particular scrapbook and gather those photos together.  You can use this idea for organizing, the themes for your family and life – trips; family traditions (i.e. holidays, celebrations, etc.); athletic/theatrical/nature-loving/etc. kids; family “monsters” (pets); state of the home (garden pictures, renovations, etc.).  This is a time for you to think about your family and the things you are capturing in the pictures.  These themes become your broad categories – the piles or boxes that you sort into.

Imagine having a collection of pictures from each year your child was in soccer (or whatever activity) all together.  Organizing your pictures in this way allows you to see the progression over the years – there is a continuity to the photos that also offers perspective, “look how much they grew from that first year until their last year.”

Even if you stop at this point in the organizing process you will have a system in place.  Of course, you can continue to refine that system more – breaking those broad categories down so that specific photos can be found.  This is when you can use other groupings within the larger category – so all the Halloween pictures of your kids or Halloween pictures of your kids from the 1980’s are together.  You get to create the way you break it down or not.

From a preservation standpoint it’s recommended that you refrain from labeling the photographs themselves as inks can end up damaging the images.  From an organizing perspective, labeling each picture can be time-consuming and maybe even frustrating.  It’s easier to label the envelopes, index cards, and box for each category.

There it is – the process to getting your photographs into a system.  Yes, it will take time to get through your photos and into the organizing system that makes sense for you.  Yet with these dear memories, how wonderful would it be to have easy access to walk down memory lane or to find pictures to share with others?  And with the system in place if you decide later on to do something different – like make an album – the photos are already organized.  Any new pictures coming in can also be easily added to their place in the system.

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