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Organizing Your Print Photos

Organizing photos was a project I started off and on for years, but I usually ended up frustrated and quit before the job was completed. But there’s nothing like a hard deadline to force me to finish something, so for three weeks our dining table and breakfast bar were buried under piles of photos and various kinds of containers. I was determined to not clear off either area until all the photos were sorted and could be found, when needed. All these years, I knew I had certain photos, but I never had enough time to look through all the albums and boxes to find them. Post project, I can put my hand on any photo I’m looking for in minutes. 


On day one of this photo organizing project, though, I wasn’t prepared for the waves of emotions that kept washing over me as I looked through all those photos and saw family members and friends that had passed on, and some way too soon. I found myself laughing and then the next minute crying, and the nostalgia almost pulled me under. I questioned if the pandemic was a good time emotionally to attempt this project, so for two days I stopped and binge-watched The Frankenstein Chronicles on Netflix, and then I was ready to get back and hit it hard. 


One of the reasons I gave up organizing my photos in years past was that I didn’t know how to organize them. I had at least a dozen photo albums, but once you put photos out of order in an album, they stay that way. Or I pulled photos out of albums for various reasons and never put them back. I also stored photos in hanging files, which works great for quick sorting, and I also sorted photos in labeled ziplock bags. I even had piles of photos in plastic bins. The over-arching mistake I made, though, was not finishing the job and putting them all in one place. My photos were scattered everywhere. 


I researched online to see how others organized their photos, and no two websites said the same thing, other than suggesting chronological organization. So I just jumped off the cliff and tried four different ways to see which system worked best for me. 


System 1: Index card boxes

I bought 6 index card boxes to begin with, and I labeled them with temporary subjects/dates on the outside as well as the inside of the boxes so I could still identify what group it was when the lid was open. I first started organizing my children’s photos from birth to 8 and 10 years old, and  I made some rough subject dividers to separate them topically. I used a pencil for the titles because I continued to refine and change the date ranges as the groups of photos got bigger. I thought I could keep adding index boxes as needed, but then I couldn’t find this size in the stores anymore.


System 2: Photo organizers

I also found a good buy on a plastic photo organizer case that has 16 separate, color-coded boxes that I labeled, which enabled me to store a lot of photos in a small area. My neighbor Dalina has all of her photos stored this way and tucked neatly under her bed. She said she watched until these organizers went on sale before purchasing, or this storage solution can get expensive. I paid $15 for mine; otherwise, they usually run from $25 - $35 a case. But the downside to these is that I ran out of room fairly quickly, and again had to move to larger storage containers.



System 3: Photo albums

The third system is to continue to use photo albums. There are some photos, like my first grandchild, that I have way too many to put in smaller storage containers. I emptied out most all of my albums, chunked the old ones, donated others, and kept the newer ones. I will fill some of them again once ALL of the photos are organized so they will be chronologically or topically correct with no photos missing when I put the photos back into the albums. I will print labels for the outsides and spine of each album so I can find photos easier. 


System 4: Photo Boxes

In the words of Goldilocks, “This one was just right” for me. And the funny thing is, I already had a collection of these beautiful photo boxes with other things stored in them, so I could’ve saved some money. But I really didn’t know what system worked best until I tried them all. I quickly ran out of space in the index boxes and color-coded plastic photo organizer, but I can always add more photo boxes I already have on hand if I need to.

I printed and cut out dividers to fit the width of the boxes and made smaller dividers to use in-between the larger ones. The labeled dividers are the key to you being able to quickly find photos you are looking for. Don’t forget to return the photos to their rightful place, though, or you’ll end up back in the same disorganized boat. The last thing, if you choose to do it, is to type and print the dividers and boxes labels if you want everything to look nice. 

Right now, my five boxes are generally organized as follows:

  1. My son - birth to college & career organized chronologically & by theme

  2. My daughter - birth to graduation, and photos of her and her brother together organized chronologically & by theme (trips, organizations, county fair, etc.)

  3. Photos of me as a child, me as an adult, my ex-husband, both of us together, family pictures, current & former houses, pets

  4. Grandchildren (mostly oldest grandchild since the other two have mostly digital photos)

  5. Kinfolks & Friends organized by families & theme (vacations, reunions, etc.)


I also bought two large, flat craft boxes for the 8x10 photos, and I’m using a flat food storage container for the 5x7 size photos.











I threw away HUNDREDS of photos during this process, and for the first time I felt such freedom to do so. Maybe it was because we paid to develop print photos that caused us to think we had to keep every blurry or black print, or photos of places we no longer remember ever visiting, or of meaningless photos like cars in a parking lot somewhere. My goodness, we should have taken photography lessons years ago to avoid all of those awful photos.

We don’t have to be the photo archive for every person we’ve ever met.


For the first time, too, I felt no compulsion to keep every photo of people I’m not close to. We don’t have to be the photo archive for every person we’ve ever met. They have their own copies. I also realized that most of my photos are just one generation away from going in the trash because many will have no special meaning for my children. And that’s okay. I need to label the photos that are important to keep for family history, and enjoy the ones now that are only meaningful to me.

This generation and beyond's photos are primarily documented digitally.


Something else I noticed is that I have very few prints of my last two grandchildren because most of their photos are digital, so it's hard to sit down and enjoy seeing photos of my boys when they aren't organized in my computer. So I’m thinking about creating a photo memory book of some of their pictures or have a bunch printed out so I can fill an album for them, too. 


We have infinitely more photos than ever before in this digital age with the ease of having a camera, a computer, and storage capacity available to us in our cell phones. And the ability to delete bad photos at the touch of a finger is such a blessing. But I’m finding it’s very easy to lose track of digital photos, too, when I have thousands of unorganized photos on my computer or when upgrading technology and I’ve somehow lost many photos that stayed on old computers. I have a lot of photos in the cloud, too, but they aren’t organized either. Or I simply can’t find where I stored them on my own cell phone and computer. Digital photo organization is my next photo organizing project, but it won’t be anytime soon.

If you don’t have the time to organize print photos in detail right now, use hanging file folders or labeled Ziplock bags stored in plastic boxes as a quick and easy temporary filing system until you do have the time to get all of them organized even better. Every time you find loose photos in a drawer or box, drop them in labeled  file folders until you’re ready to organize them further.


The next steps for me in this process are to label the rest of the photos I think are important to keep and to organize the larger photos in the craft storage boxes. I plan to use labeled manila folders for those.


Once you start, you’ll figure out what system works best for you. You may learn halfway through that you need a bigger storage solution, and you adjust accordingly and keep going. When one section of photos within a large divider section gets too big, you may have to go back and sub-divide it. Erase the label title and/or add a new one. The important thing is to know that it can be done if you’ll just stick with it. 

The chaos gradually morphs into order.


Even though you may not see the end in sight for a while, and it probably won’t take you nearly as long to organize your print photos as it took for me, the chaos will gradually morph into order.


Remember to enjoy the journey, too!

Donna Van Cleve

October 2020

Family History

Baby Van .jpeg
Empty index boxes.jpeg
Filling index boxes.jpeg
Color coded photo organizer.jpeg
Storing albums by front door.jpeg
Scattered photos on breakfast bar.jpeg
Pretty photo boxes in a row.jpeg
5x7 storage.jpeg
Finding photos around the house.jpeg

The project quickly took over the dining table & breakfast bar

I had such high hopes to keep the project organized the entire time I worked on it.

I crack myself up sometimes.

Two weeks in I was still finding photos around the house

Where I used to store all of my photo albums; but most of those are gone now

You can see the hanging file container I used for years to quickly drop photos in when I'd find them, but it was a temporary storage solution.

From Penciled to Typed Labels 2.jpeg
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