How to Organize Digital Photos

Tips for making this overwhelming task more manageable

Three generations looking at photographs

LWA / Getty Images

You know you need to organize your photos. But, with digital versions on several hard drives and cloud services and numerous boxes and scrapbooks full of old snapshots, where do you even begin? We're not going to lie, it's not an easy task. But you can use the following suggestions to make a plan and get it done.

Make a Plan

Ask yourself what your ideal photo organizational system will enable you to do. Do you want to be able to easily find a specific shot? Organize into online scrapbooks? Choose nature shots to frame? Thinking about the end result will help you come up with an organizational plan.

For example, if you want to be able to find specific photos, you'll need to label each one. If you want to organize into online scrapbooks, does that include printed photos? If so, you'll need to digitize.

Once you know what you want your photo organization to look like, make time each week to set it up and maintain it. The exact tasks you need to complete will depend on which of the actions below you want to complete. For example, you could spend half an hour each week scanning photos until that's done, then switch over to labeling, then creating online scrapbooks.

Digitize Printed Photos

If your plan includes digitizing printed photos, there are three main ways to do it: scanning them at home, scanning them at a store, or sending them to a service that does it for you.

Scan them yourself. You can use a photo scanner or an app to digitalize printed photos. Both methods are easy and relatively inexpensive.

Scan them at a store. Many retailers now have photo scanning machines, including FedEx and Costco.

Send them to an online service. This option requires a bit of trust, but it's also the least amount of work.

Delete Duplicates and Bad Photos

Digital cameras are great because you can take as many pictures as your memory card will allow. But do you really need 42 pictures of your kids frozen in the same pose? These pictures eat up valuable hard drive space and add clutter to your photo collection.

One of the first things you should do when you start organizing your photos is to go through them and get rid of the ones you don't need. That includes out-of-focus, unexplainable, or unflattering pictures or those in which someone's eyes are closed.

It may make you uneasy to delete your precious memories. But don't feel bad about it; you'll never miss these bad shots. Hit the delete button and don't look back.

Rename Your Files

Look at the file names of your digital pictures and you'll see entries like "IMG_6676." Use more descriptive names like "Joey on Bike 2004." Think of new file names as captions you can use to find specific photos later. You should also label photos (see the next section) to ensure accurate searches.

Label Your Photos

You should take the time to label or tag each picture. Yes, it's tedious, but it's the only way you'll be able to perform effective searches later. Labeling your digital photos is the equivalent of placing a sticky note on the back of a printed picture. The difference is, you can use your computer to perform a search for digital photos and you can find each one using multiple search terms.

Use as many tags as are applicable, such as the names of people appearing in the photo, the location, the activity, and the date. Then, place the files in folders according to a criterion you choose. The date is usually good but make sure you add subfolders so you can find specific images more easily (see more about subfolders in the next section).

Depending on how many photos you have, you may want to break this task into multiple sessions. Since it doesn't require much brainpower, try doing it during commercials while you watch TV.

Create Helpful Folder Names

Even if you use dates to organize your photos on a high level, you should create subfolders that are more descriptive. For example, say you have a folder named "2004" for photos taken during that year. Within this folder, you could have subfolders named "Stacy's Graduation," "Grandma's 90th Birthday," or "Moving to Arizona." This action gives you just one more way to find a specific photo or group of photos.

Transfer Your Photos Immediately

If you've ever used film cameras, you may be familiar with the thrill of rushing off to get those rolls developed the minute you take the last shot. Now, with digital cameras and phones, we let our pictures sit for months without doing anything with them. 

Leaving photos sit like this isn't a good idea for a couple of reasons. First, memory cards fail and you could lose all the pictures you've taken over the past month or more. Secondly, dumping hundreds of photos at once means you won't have the time or motivation to delete the bad photos or perform any of the other important tasks listed above. So, include transferring pictures in your weekly photo maintenance session.

To address the issue of failing memory cards, you should be backing up your photos. There are many services (often free) for doing so, including Google Photos.

Use Photo Organization Software

Organize, share, and print photos easily with photo organization software. Many digital picture software programs are free and turn your photos into an easy-to-search catalog. These applications also have basic editing capabilities, such as red-eye correction. Some help you burn photo CDs or DVDs and back up your files so you don't lose them.

Use Your Pictures

Digital photography is fun and easy, meaning you get many perfect, fun photos of people and activities. Yet, how often do you do anything with them other than organize them as we've outlined above? There are so many great uses for photos, such as framing, displaying on digital photo frames, putting on mugs or calendars as gifts, even creating professional-looking printed photo books.

Don't let your wonderful photos just sit on your computer. Instead, print and preserve your favorites. You'll enjoy these shots more when you can view them any time versus having them hidden away on your computer.