How to Organize Both Printed and Digital Photos

As we talk about photos this month on Evolve’s #familyhistoryfriday, it’s important to talk specifically about how to organize both printed and digital photos.  Organizing printed (physical) photos requires a good strategy, but digital photos are a whole new animal.  We just didn’t take thousands upon thousands of photos back when we used film.  In fact, you’ll sometimes see me mention people I meet who have a terabyte (or more) worth of digital photos on their computers.  A terabyte can hold 2,000,000 photos.  Two million.  So organizing digital photos really is imperative simply because we have so many of them!  Let me help with some steps on HOW to organize your photos.

Declutter First

After the first important step of setting aside time for your photos and honoring your own appointment with yourself, it’s time to declutter.  (If you need help getting your pictures off your phone and onto your computer, last week’s post will help you out.  There’s a quick video tutorial, even.)  On the first #familyhistoryfriday this month, I outlined three main elements of decluttering your photos:

  1. Get rid of garbage photos (your finger, the floor, blurry photos).
  2. Really consider how many photos you need to keep that don’t have people in them.  (You already know what the White House looks like.)
  3. Get rid of duplicates.  (In the olden days, we would order double prints.  With digital photos, we can sometimes take about 10 shots that are basically the same.  Duplicates.  Just keep one.)

This is a good place to start, but if you missed the original post about decluttering your photos, be sure you click the link and head on over.  There are some important, preemptive tips on decluttering your digital photos to begin with so you don’t have to do it later.  You’ll also find a little dose of reality and perspective that can be rather motivating!

Organizing Physical (Printed) Photos

Organizing photos that have already been printed can feel overwhelming because you can see how much physical space they take up–one box, four boxes.  Digital photos are a little sneakier that way.  Although I mostly deal with digital photos in my everyday life, I have had to organize boxes of physical photos.  Before my mom passed away, she left me a few boxes of mementos and keepsakes that included quite a few photos.  So believe me when I say that looking at boxes of photos can be overwhelming.  Here are the steps I suggest for organizing physical (printed) photos:

  1. Put the boxes in a place where you can spread out as you organize.  You will need physical space.
  2. Go through the boxes with not more than a glance, just to get an idea of what you’ve got.  Are we talking pictures from 1940-2010, or are all the pictures just from the 1960s and 1970s?
  3. Get containers, one for each decade you’re dealing with.  Label them with sticky notes for each decade.  The containers don’t need to be fancy because they’re temporary–shoeboxes and tupperware will do.
  4. Begin organizing.  Only organize by decade at first.  Put all the pictures from 1980 in the container with the sticky note “1980,” and so on.
  5. Once everything is sorted into decades, you’ll now just work with one decade.  Get 10 large envelopes (manila envelopes) for that decade.  Label each envelope with one year:  1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, etc.  Then organize everything from the decade container into the specific year envelope.
  6. Take a break if you need to!  Work with a friend or family member!  But enjoy reminiscing or discovering new gems.
  7. Repeat through all the decades until you’re done.
  8. Remember that organizing photos isn’t the same thing as preserving them.  (Keep reading…)  For example, I transformed my mom’s box of cherished mementos into a beautiful life storybook.

What To Do With File Names

With film, you had a negative and a printed photo from it.  That’s it.  With digital photos, though, you have a name to deal with.  That’s because each photo has a file name that has nothing to do with anything at all about the photo except the order in which it was taken.  Because photos come out being called “IMG_624” instead of “beach trip 2015 with Bob and Sue; our first stop at the tide pools,” people often ask me what to do with file names.

Now, if you’ve been hanging out at #familyhistoryfriday for any length of time, you know that a photo loses half its value if it doesn’t have its story with it.  A photo of Bob and Sue on their 2015 beach trip, stopping at the tide pools, is only valuable if you know that’s Bob and Sue at the tide pools in 2015.  Right?  If it’s a couple of people you may or may not have ever seen doing something at a beach, who cares?

So you might think that I would suggest that you add some details to the file names.


This just makes them harder to find.  If you have 100 photos from the Bob and Sue trip, you might call some of them “Bob and Sue trip” or “Oregon Coast trip” or “2015 beach” or any number of other things.  Even if you remember to stay consistent with your photo names, what if you take an “Oregon Coast trip” every year?  What if you go back to find those photos in 5 years and you can’t actually remember what you named them?

Leave the file names alone.  Your computer will automatically “alphabetize” files (which, in this case, places them in chronological order).  It’s the easiest way to find things.

The Only Exception

The only exception to the “leave the file names alone” rule is if you have photos from different sources.  For example, I take most photos on my camera because I often like the landscape (far away) shots and close up shots.  My phone doesn’t do as well in those situations, but does better than my camera for selfies and low light situations.  My camera calls photos DSCN_1111 while my phone calls them IMG_1111.  If I go to the tide pools and take pictures with both my camera and my phone (which often happens), then when I put them on my computer, they won’t be together.  Some will be DSCN and some will be IMG.  This will make them harder to find in the future because they will be separated and I may not remember that they belong together.

After I upload my photos from my camera and my phone to my computer, I rename some of them so that they will fall in line (alphabetical order) to keep them in chronological order.  If I’m humming along uploading my camera photos (DSCN_1111, DSCN_1112, DSCN_1113) to my computer and find a photo from my camera that chronologically belongs in the middle of those, I’ll rename it from IMG_1111 to become now DSCN_1112a.  This will put it in alphabetical order on my computer between DSCN_1112 and DSCN_1113.

(That’s a lot clearer in the video link below than in written form here!)

Organize Using Dated Folders

This is a sure-fire way to be able to find digital photos!  Without folders, your photos are just an unending sea of digital images.  I suggest first creating year folders (so:  2012 pictures, 2013 pictures, 2014 pictures, etc.)  Within each folder, add month folders (so:  January 2012, February 2012, etc.)  I used to just leave it at that unless a lot happened within a given month, but now I add another layer of organization.  I add folders per event.  So, for example, if you click on my 2012 pictures folder, then my February 2012 folder, you’ll see folders that say “Las Vegas trip,” “school concert,” etc.

And I’m telling you, using this method means you can find anything as long as you can remember approximately when it happened.  It’s so much easier than swimming through a sea of digital images!  It narrows down where you will look.  It gives clear organization to the myriad life events and moments we preserve on camera.

If you missed my video tutorial on digital photo organization, watch it here.  I show you in person through a video screen share exactly what I’ve written here–exactly how I organize my digital photos.  Organization is KEY in how I stay caught up preserving them.  Which brings us to the whole point.

Preserving Your Photos, Not Just Organizing Them

Organizing photos is really important so you know what’s where, but that’s not the end goal.  Photos must come out of digital form in order to be seen and loved.  I call that preserving your photos.  You STORE your photos on your computer or hard drive, but you PRESERVE them by printing them.  Here’s why:  You need to remember why you took the picture.  You need to tell its story.  You really can’t do that with a file.  Printing your photo and then writing details and memories next to it is what makes it a valuable, even priceless, photo.

So once your digital photos are organized, you can print them the old-fashioned way and put them in photo albums, Pocket Pages, or traditional scrapbooks.   Or you can sort of combine the two–print your photos IN an actual product, rather than printing them and then physically putting them in a product.  For digital printing and publishing, whether in books or scrappages, I use and recommend Heritage Makers (shown at left) because of its heirloom quality and other phenomenal features like Heirloom Assurance, flexibility, photo security and storage, and more.  Whatever method you choose, just be sure you are trusting your precious photos and memories to quality products.

Organizing digital photos is important, but only so they can be preserved in a tactile way for hands, eyes, and hearts to enjoy. 



  1. Heritage Makers. (2018). Retrieved from
  2. Wise, Jennifer. (2014). Life Tales Books & Personal Publishing. Retrieved from
  3. Wise, Jennifer. (2016). Life Tales Books & Personal Publishing. Retrieved from
  4. Wise, Jennifer. (2016). Life Tales Books & Personal Publishing. Retrieved from
  5. Wise, Jennifer. (2016). Life Tales Books & Personal Publishing. Retrieved from
  6. Wise, Jennifer. (2017). You Tube. Retrieved from
  7. Wise, Jennifer. (2018). Life Tales Books & Personal Publishing. Retrieved from
  8. Wise, Jennifer. (2018). Life Tales Books & Personal Publishing. Retrieved from

Jennifer Wise

consultant at Heritage Makers
I'm Jennifer, and I'm passionate about connections.I enjoy helping people discover the very real benefits of preserving stories, photos, and memories because of the impact they have on children, families, and individuals. I blog weekly at sharing tips, ideas, solutions, and inspiration, and I'm over at, too. Learn more about me at the "About" tab.

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2 thoughts on “How to Organize Both Printed and Digital Photos

  1. Thanks for these tips on keeping the digital photo clutter down and being able to organize and find photos later. It probably seems intuitive to some people but it helps me to have it simply spelled out like this. Thanks!

    • I’m so glad! Thanks so much, Rhonda. I think for some people it is intuitive, but I can’t tell you how many people are in your shoes and really could use it laid out step by step. Digital photo clutter can happen so quickly that people end up swimming in photos before they know it. I’m so glad this was helpful. Thank you!