• The Photo Organizers

Tip Roundup: Organizing Your Printed Photos

September was officially Save Your Photos Month, but as The Photo Organizers, we think any month is an excellent month to organize, preserve and protect your photos.

Here are some of our favorite tips for working with your printed photographs.

Why Are You Overwhelmed?

Photos are the memory keepers of our personal story. They are reminders of love, laughter, good times, vacations, family, friends, and traditions. They help us reflect and remember a life well lived.

Today we are at risk of losing our visual inheritance to natural disasters, technological obsolescence, and digital overload. The ability to take and share thousands of photos in an instance has lulled us into thinking that these pictures will always be available to us, but too often, that isn’t the case.

No Wonder You Are Overwhelmed

The statistics are staggering. In 2015 people took 1 trillion digital photos and that number grew to 1.7 trillion by the end of 2017. There are currently an estimated 4.7 trillion photos stored on computers and devices and growing!

Additionally, there are over an estimated 1.7 trillion paper photos stored in albums, attics & shoeboxes, waiting to be digitized and backed up.

What about your old home movies? Videotapes, like VHS, were very popular, and some 6 billion tapes were sold in the US with an average length of 2 hours each. That’s 12 billion hours of footage of new babies, first steps, weddings, barbecues, and graduations. But videotapes were never meant to be a permanent medium, and deterioration strikes them in as little as 20 years, even when stored under optimal conditions. Less than 1% of these memories have been transferred to digital, a much more durable and lossless format. Also, the ability to view these 6 billion tapes is not an option any longer since most devices have become obsolete.

Is it any wonder people are overwhelmed with their memory collections?

How To Save Your Photos

Take a deep breath; we’re here to help. Our goal is to help you choose the pictures, stories, and memories that matter the most and safeguard them for generations to come. And most of all, we want to help you get them back into your life now so that you can enjoy them today!

Set A Goal

The first step to getting your photo life organized is picturing the end result. In other words, set a goal for yourself and your photos, videos, and memorabilia. Just like any goal, you need to have a concrete vision with a timeline for completion.

Having an end-goal and a deadline will help motivate you towards completion. Think ahead to when you have your entire photo and video collection organized and accessible.

  • How would you like to share and enjoy these pictures?

  • Do you want a family yearbook with highlights?

  • Do you want a photo gallery on your wall with milestone events?

  • Do you want online photo albums that other members of your family can access?

  • What about a video slideshow to enjoy with some popcorn?

Choose a few fun ways you plan to celebrate and share your photos – this is the fun part!

Next, think about who you plan to share your photos with and let them in on your plans. You are more likely to achieve your goal when you tell someone who can hold you accountable.

Get Set Up for Success

Any good organizing project starts with a proper workspace and a plan. Let’s talk about how to find a great workspace to ensure your photo organizing project is set up for success.

Find a Work Space

Remember the saying “out of sight, out of mind”? Depending on the size of your photo collection, you may be working on this for a while. (And you probably have a lot of photos because remember, we are all overwhelmed!) If everything is tucked away or hidden in closets and on computers, it will be easy to forget. You’ve committed to organize your photos, so let’s get them into an area where you can work on them.

Designate a temporary workspace in your home that is visible and allows you to spread out. A large table in the corner of a room or a separate room is ideal and causes the least amount of disruption. When your project is visible, you’re more likely to remain focused on completion. If you set yourself up on your dining room table, then you may have to pack it up again when you want to sit the family for dinner! If space is an issue, take a photo of the locations where your photos are stored so you can create a vision board of what you are dealing with in your project.

Hunt and Gather

Next, gather your memory collection into your workspace. Locate all photo albums, loose printed photos, memorabilia, kids artwork, negatives, slides, undeveloped film, memory cards, family artifacts, home movies (ex. VCR tapes, miniDVs, film, etc.). Determine the devices where you have photos stored, such as your smartphone, computers, and tablets. Resist the temptation to start sorting yet or reminiscing! There will be time for that later.

Take A Photo Inventory

How many photos do you have in your digital collection? What about your print collection? What about film, video and other memorabilia? It’s time to assess the mess and take a photo inventory. You need to know how many photos you have so you can plan the scope of your project and the time involved.

Print Photo Inventory

Taking a count of your digital photos can be done in a few clicks. Printed photos are a little less exact especially when you have a lot of them.

Professional photo organizers measure photos or weigh them when estimating. A one-inch stack of photos is approximately 100 pictures. This number may be less if you are working with older photos which may have a thicker backing. If you weigh boxes of photos, 6-7 pounds is the equivalent of 1000-1200 photos.

Don’t forget your slides. A circular slide carousel holds either 80 or 140 slides. If you are unsure about the slides you have, you can check out this rare slide guide.

What are your final numbers?

Collect Your Photo Organizing Supplies

The proper photo organizing supplies are an essential part of your photo organizing project. A Photo Organizer’s kit includes many different items that make the job of handling, identifying and storing your precious lifetime of photos.

Before you get down to the business of organizing your photos, you’ll need to collect some photo organizing supplies. We polled Professional Photo Organizers for their supply list; these are the ‘must haves’ when they begin any photo organizing project.

  • Cotton Gloves - Fingertips contain an oily residue that will further deteriorate your delicate photo. Invest in a good quality, comfortable pair of cotton gloves.

  • Face Mask - If your printed photos smell musty, or if they were stored in an attic or basement, they may contain mold spores that you could find irritating during the sorting process.

  • Soft-lead Blue or Black Art Pencil - As you sort photos you may want to include a date, year or name on the back of a photo. This pencil is not permanent, and will not indent or harm your photo until you can capture the details digitally once scanned. Never use a pen to mark the back of your photo.

  • Index Cards - Jot down more details, facts, stories, and dates on index cards and group them with printed photos. Index cards can be scanned with printed photos, so important details remain grouped together.

  • Archive Quality Photo Safe Storage Box - Choosing a good quality photo box will keep your photos safe, and aid in the sorting process.

  • Dental Floss and Hair Dryer - If you have peel and stick albums, some of your photos may be difficult to remove.

  • Smartphone Camera - If you have old albums with details on the page, you can take a snapshot of the page to keep the details with the photos.

  • Sticky Notes or a Notebook - These come in handy for creating a timeline during the sorting process. Some organizers use apps like Evernote or OneNote to curate information or create timelines.

  • External Hard Drive - Choose a high capacity drive according to the number of images you have.

  • Garbage Bags - You’ll come across toss-away pictures, artwork and meaningless ticket stubs that will help reduce your clutter. Let’s set a goal to fill a bag!

These are the essentials, but you may have some more ideas too. Whatever makes your job easier, add it to the list.

Create A Photo Timeline

Preparing a photo timeline aids in the sorting process as you begin to tackle your photo and video collection. Begin by plotting important milestones like marriage and birth dates.

Most of our lives can be mapped into important milestones on a timeline, even though we may not know specific dates. Once you create your timeline, you will use this as a roadmap for indexing your photos during the sorting process. Trust us. You’ll be glad you took the time to complete this step.

Map Your Family Timeline

As you look at the entire collection of photos/videos that you are working with, determine the oldest photo and the most recent photo. This time span will help you map out the main points of your timeline.

Once you have these significant time markers in place, you can begin to jot other moments or milestones in between until you are satisfied with your timeline. Plot your timeline on a spreadsheet or in a notebook, for easy reference. You will refer to this often as you start sorting, and details may change based on some of your photo discoveries.

Now is an excellent time to ask your relatives about key dates and events for accuracy, especially if you are working with heritage photos!

Events/Dates to Add to Your Family Timeline

Here are a few event and date ideas to get your family timeline started.

  • Birth

  • Marriage/Divorce

  • Death

  • Adoption

  • Immigration/Naturalization

  • Move to a new home/city

  • Graduations

  • Baptism/Christening

  • Military Service

  • Retirement

How To Sort Printed Photos: Themes or Chronological

Are you going to sort your pictures chronologically or in themes? Is there any existing structure to your collection on which you can build?

As you survey your photo collection, you will notice that you took most of your photos in themes. You probably have birthdays, vacations, weddings, graduations, babies, sports and so on.

Organizing by theme has many advantages:

  • Themes make it easier to pull together a photo album. Put an entire theme into one album like a vacation album, or take a handful of photos from each theme for a family yearbook.

  • Themes are easier to identify than dates. You may not be sure which year a Christmas photo was taken, but you’ll know it’s Christmas!

  • Themes translate into tags and keywords. Once digitized, themes make it easier to determine keywords or tags when you move them into your digital photo hub.

If your photos are a mess of disorganized prints with no structure, then we recommend a theme-based approach.

If you already have some chronological organization in place then keep this intact and look for ways to build on that structure. You can still identify themes, and group photos based on your end goal.

With your structure in place, set up some index cards in sorting boxes or on a table and use these to group your photos as you sort. Jot down details on the index cards so they can be scanned in with your prints.

A Few More Sorting Tips

Be gentle, wear gloves.

Your older photos may be delicate, and all your pictures are susceptible to further deterioration with residue from your fingertips. Wear your cotton gloves anytime you are handling your photos.

Set a timer.

Sorting years of photos can be tiring work, so set a timer for 1-3 hours maximum and give yourself time between sorting sessions.

The 2 Second Rule

As you sort your photos, resist the urge to reminisce and linger. There will be plenty of time for that later. Instead, follow the 2 Second Rule. Don’t hold your photo for any longer than 2 seconds, or the time it takes to determine its pile.

Be a Document Detective

Not sure what to do with your growing collection of memorabilia and other keepsakes? Treasures such as documents, report cards, certificates, awards, trophies, newspaper articles, invitations, and letters play a significant role in your memory collection. We encourage you to organize (and purge) these items as well. They can be a great source of information as you organize the rest of your collection.

Review for dates and details

Documents, report cards, certificates, awards, trophies, newspaper articles, invitations, letters, and other similar items contain dates and information that may contribute to your family timeline. Transfer dates to your timeline.

Do any of these items correspond with a photo in your digital or printed collection? Make a note (sticky note) with the image name that this memorabilia corresponds with so you can add this to the file name when scanning or digitizing.


Once you start reviewing your memorabilia, toss out anything that has lost its meaning or level of importance. Kids artwork is a challenge for most parents, and these beautiful treasures can clutter a collection very quickly.

Get into the habit of taking a photo of your child displaying their artwork as it comes into the house. Showcase their art for a period then scan and toss with the reassurance that you have digitized and cataloged accordingly. If you have a budding Picasso, then keep and store the very best pieces.

Digitize and backup

Divide your memorabilia into two categories for digitizing. Documents, report cards certificates, etc. can be scanned but bulky items will need to be photographed. Once you have a digital file, rename your files and add metadata using the same procedure as your photos, then store in your digital photo hub.

Organize and store

Store documents flat, in archive envelopes or boxes designed specifically for document storage. Label envelopes and boxes with as much detail as possible in case your envelopes or boxes become separated from your photo collection. Or add a few duplicate images that correspond with your memorabilia (not your original prints), so you keep your timeline and photos connected.

Finally, store all protected media in a safe place away from light, humidity, and extreme temperatures.

The Chemical Sandwich of Magnetic Albums

Old magnetic or ‘sticky’ albums contain unsafe components that act as a ‘chemical sandwich’ for your photos. These pictures should be removed and scanned as quickly as possible.

The Downside of Magnetic Albums

As you organize and sort your photos, you may come across pictures in old scrapbooks, pocket page albums and old magnetic albums that were popular about 25 – 30 years ago. Unfortunately, many of these albums may be accelerating the deterioration of your photos, and you need to take steps to remove your pictures now.

The biggest offender is the magnetic or sticky album. The glue on the page surface, the acidic cardboard page, and the plastic overlay create a ‘chemical sandwich’ that is rapidly destroying your photos.

If you have these albums in your collection, removing the photos is a priority! Some may be easy to remove, and some may be troublesome.

How to Remove Troublesome Photos

Here are a few tips as you approach this next step.

  1. Find a photo in the album that is a ‘throw away’ and try to remove it first by gently lifting a corner. If it comes up easily without having to pull or curl the photo, then proceed.

  2. If the picture is stuck, take a thin metal spatula and gently work under the photo, or slide a piece of unwaxed dental floss under the corner and gently saw back and forth to work through the adhesive.

  3. Try heating the back of the photo slightly with a blow dryer then attempt the dental floss again. Or heat the metal spatula and use this to soften the glue as you work behind the photo.

  4. Try using a product like Un-du which is an adhesive remover used by scrapbookers and safe to use on the backs of photos.

  5. If all this fails, leave your photos in the albums and make digital copies with a flatbed or mobile scanner.

Scan Your Pictures

Scanning your printed photos and slides extends the lifetime of your pictures, creates a backup, and increases your ability to share and enjoy your memories. Now that your analog collection is organized (or at least in progress), it’s time to get some or all of these treasures digitized.

Why Scan Your Pictures?

Scanning extends the lifetime of your photo.

Your printed photos are decaying and deteriorating even under optimum storage conditions. When you make a digital copy, you have the ability to enhance the image, restore it to its original color and fix damaged any damage. Digital photos can be migrated into new forms as technology changes, extending the life of your image beyond the original print.

Scanning creates a backup of your printed images.

Right now, you have one copy of those prints with no back up unless you were particular about saving and cataloging your negatives. Your digital copy will be stored in your digital photo hub with the rest of your digital images and will get backed up during your normal workflow.

Scanning increases your ability to share and enjoy your photos.

Families with printed photos face similar dilemmas. How will I divide my printed photos between my kids? Who gets what? What if they have storage space issues? I created scrapbook albums, and everyone in my family wants one! When you have digital copies of your photos (and your albums), your problems are solved. In their digital form, your printed photos can be shared via social media and online photo archives or put into slideshows and photos books.

How To Scan Your Pictures

Begin by reviewing your printed photos and slides and determine the quantity now that you have purged during the organizing process.

Consider how you want to use these digital images so you can determine the minimum DPI that you need your images scanned. We recommend a minimum of 600 DPI depending on the original size of your image, and what you intend to use it for. For example, a 2×3 photo that you want to display on your wall as a canvas print may need scanning at a much higher DPI. If you are scanning slides, your DPI will be considerably higher and will be determined based on the end goal for your digitized copy. Work with your scanning service provider to help determine your needs.

Scan at Home or Use a Service?

Local and online scanning services are an excellent choice for time-starved individuals and can be an affordable solution if you don’t have a quality scanner at home. Look for service providers that offer image enhancement and white glove service. Some big box stores ship your photos out of the country for processing. Do your homework!

If you scan your pictures at home, take extra care when handling your photos. Wipe your printed photos with a clean cloth and keep the scanner glass clean and dust free. Scanners will pick up dust, scratches, and smudges and magnify them in your image.

Do you have thousands of photos to scan? Consider buying a high-speed scanner or better yet, rent one. A high-quality, high-speed scanner can process your scans at an average of 50 prints per minute depending on the scanner. That’s roughly 2,000 – 3,000 photos per hour. Choosing a high-speed scanner for large jobs saves you time and money. Google ‘rent a scanner’ to find a scanner that suits your needs and budget.

Store Your originals Safely

It is essential that you store your printed photos and other items safely. That means archival containers and storage in rooms with stable temperatures and low humidity.

Pass The PAT Test

Printed photos (and memorabilia) should be stored in containers designed for archiving. To be considered ‘archival,’ products must meet rigorous standards developed the Image Permanence Institute, by passing the Photographic Activity Test (PAT). The PAT test is the international standard for photographic archival storage, and you can learn more about it at the Image Permanence Institute.

Keep It Clean

Before you place your scanned prints and memorabilia into their storage containers, wipe the surface of each photo with a clean, lint-free cloth to remove any residue or dust that may be on the picture. And of course, wear your gloves!

Perfect Storage Conditions

Your photo boxes and containers should be stored at room temperature with 40% humidity levels, and away from light.

Stay away from basements and attics and keep them off the ground, preferably on top shelves or the 2nd floor of your home. When floods occur, homes fill from the basement up. Even though your collection has been digitized, and backed up with the rest of your digital images, you should strive to secure your originals to best of your ability.

Sign up today for more ways to save your photos directly in your email box.

We also invite you to visit our sister blog The Photo Organizers for more tips and in-depth knowledge from some of the top photo organizing industry professionals. To find a photo organizer near you, visit the Association of Personal Photo Organizers.

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