How to Organize Digital Photos

Tips for making this overwhelming task more manageable

With digital versions on several hard drives and cloud services and numerous boxes and scrapbooks full of old snapshots, organizing your photos is not an easy task. 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 goal 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. Your particular tasks depend on which of the actions below you want to complete. For example, you might spend half an hour each week scanning photos until that's done, then switch to labeling and then to creating online scrapbooks.

Three generations looking at photographs
LWA / Getty Images

Digitize Printed Photos

If your plan includes digitizing printed photos, there are three main ways to do it:

  • Scan them yourself using a photo scanner or an app. Both methods are easy and relatively inexpensive.
  • Scan them at a store. Many retailers, including FedEx and Costco, now have photo-scanning machines.
  • 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

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

You might feel uneasy when deleting your precious memories, but you'll never miss these bad shots. Hit the delete button and don't look back.

Rename Your Files

Many of the photo file names probably look like "IMG_6676." Change them to 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

Labeling or tagging each picture is tedious, but it will help you find particular photos 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 search for digital photos and find each one using multiple search terms quickly.

Use as many tags as are applicable, such as location, activity, date, subjects, and names. Then, place the files in folders according to a relevant criterion. The date is usually good, but make sure you add subfolders so you can find specific images 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 might 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, back up your photos using one of the many services available. Google Photos is free of charge.

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

There are so many great uses for photos, such as framing, displaying on digital photo frames, putting on mugs or calendars as gifts, and 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.