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The ABCs of Photo Sorting: How to Turn a Mess of Pictures into an Organized Collection

This post is part of a series called Digital Asset Management: Photography Workflows.
What's in a Name? Nomenclature, File Structure, and Saving Digital Images

Have you ever faced a necessary project that seems so overwhelming you don’t know where to begin? You delay, then you don’t start, and soon enough the project is a mental barnacle, forever attached to a to-do list. That can be the state of affairs when your intent is to sort a collection of photos. They could be printed or digital photos; the problem is still a large mess without an obvious place to start.

Collage of photographs
Photo by BepsImage, PhotoDune.

In our digital asset management series, we’ve offered suggestions for establishing and using an image management system, but if your existing collection of photos is large and chaotic or you find yourself tasked with sorting out an existing, disorganized collection, you probably need some way of getting that collection organized before you can even begin to think about managing existing and new images. In this tutorial, we’ll look at a few techniques to tame your jumbled piles and overflowing shoe boxes of photographs. It doesn’t matter whether your photos are printed or digital; the same techniques will work for both.

1. Collect It All Into One Place

Although you will want to work with your photos in manageable chunks, you won’t know what you’re working with until you’ve collected it all up together. Also, collecting all of your photos in one place before you begin will help you avoid chasing down photos mid-project or having to repeat work later because a new discovery changes how you did previous work.

If you’re working with digital photos, collect them all onto one external hard drive. If you’re working with printed photos, collect them all into one physical place. Keep any existing organization such as digital folders, paper envelopes, boxes, or albums. Often, those organizing structures will provide information about a group of photographs and, by association, individual photographs within the group.

2. Make the Photos Safe

Your unorganized photos have always been at risk of damage or loss, but now that you’ve collected all of them together, you can take initial steps to protect your images. If you’re working with digital images, make a duplicate copy of everything you’ve gathered together and store that copy in a safe place, preferably in a different location.

If you’re working with printed photos, you don’t have the option of easily making duplicates. However, you can do your best to protect what you have. Place your photos in clean, dry boxes with lids. Watertight storage boxes are ideal if you have some available. If you don’t have such containers, use whatever you can easily access. Keep the boxes small enough that you can deal with the contents of a box in one sorting session, and store all of the boxes except the one you’re working on in a clean, dry, cool space that is high enough to prevent damage from flooding.

Box of photographs
Shoeboxes and gift boxes are great for sorting photographs. Be careful about using them for long-term storage though unless the photos are placed into archival sleeves before being placed in a non-archival box.

3. Choose Your Method of Organization

Now the real work of sorting begins. Different sorting methods are recommended by people in different industries. My suggestion is that you use whatever works best for you, which means being clear about your end purpose. If you’re putting together a collection of photos to celebrate someone’s milestone birthday, you’ll likely want to sort photos by person. On the other hand, if you’re gathering photos to put together a family yearbook, you’ll want to sort photos by date or event. Also consider combining sorting methods. One method may get you started but still leave you with a large, (somewhat less) chaotic pile of photos.

Sort by Person or Subject

This method is ideal if you’re going through photographs of people with the intent of identifying only the photos that contain one individual. This could be the scenario if, for example, a relative gives you a box of historical family photos. You may want only pictures of your mother as a child while your cousin wants pictures of her father. Obviously, the challenge with this method is deciding how to sort group photos.

If you’re sorting digital images, check the features available in your photo management software. Many programs now offer face recognition. It’s not perfect, but it is a place to start.

This method of organization will also work if you’re interested in grouping together, for example, all of the photographs of plants or all of the photos taken of a house your family built. If you’re looking at a collection of artistic photos, you might want to sort them by style: documentary, abstract, or landscapes, for example. As with sorting by person, the challenge will be deciding how to sort photos that fall into more than one category; however, this broad method of grouping can be a place to start.

Sort by Event

If photos are in some kind of loose organization this method of organization can be easy. People tend to process or print photos after an event or vacation, so related photos are often grouped together. If working with printed photos, look for prints that are still in commercial printers’ envelopes or are grouped together in one box. Photos in albums also tend to be related, often by event. Digital photos from the same event may have a shared naming system—”Harry-6th_birthday,” for example—or be sequentially numbered or grouped together in a digital folder. This is when keeping any kind of existing organization pays dividends.

As well, there are often clues within a photograph that will link the photo to an event. For example, look for people wearing the same clothing in several photos, or look for the same setting, lighting, decorations, styles, or buildings. Vacation photos are often easy to group if the travel destination was not one visited the same time each year.

Two women standing together and a woman and man standing together
The two photographs are taken in different places, but the person who is in both photographs is wearing the same outfit in both, suggesting the photographs were taken at the same event.

Sort by Date

If you’re sorting digital photos, sorting by date can be the easiest place to start because digital cameras usually store the date and time the photograph was taken in the metadata. I say “usually” because the clock may not be set correctly in the camera, or the metadata may have been stripped from the photo or may have been changed when the image was processed. Also, some management software is better than others at reading an image’s metadata. For example, Adobe Lightroom and Apple Photos are excellent at reading metadata when it’s intact, but Picassa, Lyn, and renaming apps are not as reliable. They seem to be fooled by changes made to a file during processing.

In any event, look for an option within your photo management software or even within the file manager of your operating system to sort by date created. That’s a decent place to start. If you find some photos that seem to be out of chronological order, look for patterns that might provide you with clues about an incorrect camera clock or changed dates.

Sorting by date can be a challenge when working with printed photos, but some clues can help. Again, look for photos that are grouped together in printers’ envelopes, boxes, or albums. Photos printed within the last ten to twenty years may have the date printed on the backside. Look for the date within a longer string of coding that provides information about the printer’s machine settings. And again look for clues within the photographs themselves. Photos of Harry blowing out six candles on a birthday cake were probably taken at Harry’s sixth birthday. If you know Harry’s birthdate, you can figure out the year and perhaps even the precise date. Other clues could include signs that reference a political event or cause, evidence of construction in an area known to you, or stickers on licence plates. Look for the details that we often don’t notice.

A pile of photographs loose and in envelopes
Photos grouped together in envelopes are likely from the same time, event, or subject.

4. Cull the Photos

After organizing your photos, you are sure to have more photos than you want or can use. Being methodical in evaluating the sorted photos will help you whittle down your sorted piles into collections you want to archive. You can cull your photos before sorting if you want to reduce the pile of photos that you need to organize, or use it after you’ve used another method to sort the photos to determine which of the sorted and related photos you want to keep.

If you’ve never evaluated the quality of photographs or you’re working with digital photos, have a look at two of our related articles: How to Assess and Edit Your Photographs and Unlock the Power of Ratings and Subjectivity in Your Photo Editing Workflow. Even if your photo collection consists only of printed photos, there are techniques in those articles that you can adapt for culling your collection.

Another method for culling photos is based on an an easy to remember acronym—the ABCs. Cathi Nelson, the founder of the Association of Personal Photo Organizers (APPO), developed this system, which can be used for either digital or printed photographs.

A is for Album—These photos are the best of the best—the ones that belong in an album and the ones that you would mourn if you lost them. It doesn’t mean that you will use all of these photos; it just means the photos are album worthy. These are the photos you will primarily use to build collections and thematic albums.

B is for Box—These photos are the extras that support your best. They are the photos you aren’t ready to part with and may want to access at some point in the future. These photos will be archived for safekeeping.

C is for Can—Yes, you can delete these photos. All photo collections are filled with doubles, triples, and really bad photos. If your photo doesn’t fall into one of the other categories, then it’s a C photo. I recommend not discarding the C photos immediately though. Set them aside and mark your calendar to review the selection again in three months. If you’re still certain they are C photos, put them in the trash can then.

S is for Story—Does the photo tell a story? These photos play a major role because there is something illustrative about the photo even though it may not be your best. For example, the following photo is not a very good photo of the dog but it tells a story about the relationship between the dog and swimming therapist.

Woman massaging a dogs foot in the swimming pool

When you are creating collections and albums to share with others, you will work with the photos in your A and S collections, drawing photos from the B collection if you need them to complete a story.

5. Tell Your Story

Photographs document our lives. They link us to others, providing a means of sharing stories, claiming our roles in life, and documenting events, geographies, politics, societies, and more. Once you’ve sorted your photos, interact with them.

In order to remember, we have to access and interact with the photos, rather than just amass them. —Linda Henkel, “Point-and-Shoot Memories,” Psychological Science (2013)

There are many, many options for collecting photographs into meaningful stories. Consider digital collections, online albums, photo essays, photo albums, scrapbooks, or printed books, just to name a few options. Frame and hang key photos. Collage-type picture frames that hold several photos can be a great way to interact with small collections of photographs. Just don’t relegate the photos to a dusty storage space, never to be seen again!

6. Preserve Your Collection

Photographs are important assets and need care. If you’re dealing with printed photographs, at minimum store them in photo storage boxes. Craft stores often have photo storage boxes for sale in the scrapbooking department. They are usually inexpensive, but be careful to choose boxes made from acid-free materials.

If you’re able, digitize negatives and printed photographs. In the past, we had to trust that we wouldn’t lose our negatives and photos to fire, floods, or some other damage but now we have the ability to scan the photos into digital files. Those digital files can be safeguarded in ways that analogue photos cannot.

If you’re working with digital assets—and once you’ve digitized your collection of prints and negatives—take the time to archive your digital images. We have a whole series of articles devoted to digital asset management. If, however, you’re looking for something simple, our article The Digital Shoebox will tell you what you need for a minimum, viable, safe digital storage system.

Some Final Thoughts

I find organizing photos is akin to cleaning my house: I start with the best intent to be systematic, thorough, and quick but without fail, something I discover sends me off task. I’ve been told that paid professionals are more efficient at these projects because they are not as easily distracted mid-task. Perhaps so, and there are professional photo organizers for hire if you wish to go that route. If you do organize your own photos, I have just two final suggestions:

  1. Be patient with yourself. It took years to accumulate the photos and it’ll take more than a few days to sort them out. Work in small batches so you can see what you’re accomplishing. That will help you to stay motivated and keep on with the task until it’s done.

  2. Know what is good enough for your collection. Perfection is difficult to achieve, especially when sorting a mixed pile of photographs. Set your goals before you start so you know how much organizing is enough. Do you intend to create a slideshow for your brother’s wedding? Organize the photographs for your children or grandchildren? Use the photos as media for another art project? Once you’re able to accomplish what you intend, you have organized enough. Ensure your organized collection is safe and preserved, and move on. 

Keep On Learning and Organizing

Organizing your photos is a life-long journey! To help you keep learning, here are the articles and tutorials mentioned in this tutorial:


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