the abcs of photo organizing

Everybody has them: those boxes of loose photos that you’ve devotedly moved time and again to each new home, promising yourself that someday you’ll put them all in an album. In fact, this is one of the most common scenarios we see in our clients’ homes!  When you’re downsizing, we highly encourage you to make the effort to preserve your photos and once and for all.  You’ll be glad to have the task off of your list, and you can rest easy knowing that they will be safe and available for your family too.

But what’s the best method for organizing stacks of loose snapshots? We turned to photo organizing expert  Cathi Nelson for her go-to advice for people struggling to sort through loose photos. Her easy-to-remember acronym, The ABCs of Photo Organizing, will save you time and simplify the process.

The ABCs of Photo Organizing

Start by setting up four temporary containers and clearly label them “A”, “B”, “C” and “S”. Plastic storage bins or even cardboard boxes can work for this. Choose whichever works best for you, but these are the categories I recommend:

“A” is for Album

These pictures are the best of the best! Ask yourself, does this photo belong in a photo album? Would you mourn the loss of the memories if you lost the photo? Would your great-grandchildren enjoy this photo in the future? If you answered yes to any of these questions, these are the photos that you’ll want to digitize, backup, share, and display. As you come across “A” photos, add them to your container or make sure you identify them with a sticky note.

“B” is for Box

These are those pesky photos that aren’t quite an “A”, but you know you aren’t ready to part with yet. These photos will be archived for safekeeping, but not necessarily digitized. Start adding these to your “B” container. I often joke that you can leave a note in your “B” Box, telling whoever opens it in the future to feel free to toss the photos because you just couldn’t. 

“C” is for Can

Yes, you CAN throw them in the trash can! Your collection is filled with doubles, triples, and just plain bad photos. If your photo doesn’t fall into one of the previous categories, then it’s a “C” photo. I encourage you to be brutal here, and set a goal to fill a garbage can with these!

I suggest you eliminate many of your scenery, sunsets, and famous travel sites. If you traveled to the Grand Canyon, you likely have hundreds of photos. Try and narrow down to your favorite two or three because the Grand Canyon will still be there years from now, but the photos of people won’t be. In fact, my rule is to eliminate 80% of your photos and keep your favorite 20%! That means keep only 20 out of every 100.

“S” is for Story

Does the photo tell a story? These pictures play a significant role because there is something illustrative about the picture even though it may not be obvious. A picture of a single tree in the backyard may seem meaningless unless you know it as the full-grown sapling your Great Grandpa planted before he passed away. Or does the photo of your Dad making a silly face remind you of how he embarrassed you as a teen, but today you would give anything to see that smile again?

Those are the “S” photos, the gems within your collection. These photos matter and tell a story. Depending on what works best for you, you can either put these in a special container to review later or take the time to write down the story on an index card or sticky note. If you use the Who, What, Where, When, and Why of basic journaling, you will capture all the necessary information and can add this when scanning. 

Keeping the organizing rules simple means that you’ll be able to work through your piles of photos quickly, while reliving some of those precious memories along the way. We like to encourage taking the time to digitize and organize photos, leaving you with a collection of memories that tells your personal story, and can be easily accessed and enjoyed for years to come.

Cathi Nelson, has been sharing her passion and expertise helping people manage their photo collections for decades. She is the author of two books, Photo Organizing Made Easy: Going from Overwhelmed to Overjoyed and A Business Roadmap for Professional Photo Organizers. Cathi is also the Founder and CEO of The Photo Managers, a global membership organization that serves photo organizing professionals through training, professional certification, partnerships, and educational conferences.

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