Modern Life

7 habits for organizing your digital photos

Getting a handle on your digital images is easy if you cultivate a few simple habits from professional organizers.

By Marisa Cohen — December 18, 2018

According to InfoTrends, more than 1.2 trillion digital photos were snapped worldwide last year. Yet of all those special moments captured on smartphones, only around 38 billion — or roughly 3 percent — were ever printed. The rest? Well, you may scroll through them on Facebook or Instagram, but many of those moments are lost in a digital black hole, never to be seen or shared again. 

We owe our ever-growing collections to the ever-improving, high-quality smartphone cameras that we carry everywhere. “Back when we all used film  cameras, to see those pictures, you had to get them developed,” points out Cathi Nelson, CEO and founder of the Association of Personal Photo Organizers. “ We don’t take digital photos with the same intentions as when it was a roll of film — and we don’t have the same cues to print them out or organize them.” In fact, by the time you decide to put together a family album — whether you want to share it online or print it — you’ll probably have to wade through thousands of random photos to find the hidden gems. The process can be so overwhelming, you may be tempted throw in the towel.

But if you incorporate these organizing habits into your digital-photography life, you’ll be able to access and enjoy your most precious photos in seconds. Here’s how:

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Trash the utility photos immediately.

Mixed in with those amazing shots of your daughter lighting the Chanukah candles with Grandpa and the cast of your high school production of Pippin doing jazz hands at your 20-year reunion, you’re going to find plenty of photos were simply meant to help you in the moment: a pair of shoes you were thinking of buying, your parking spot location, a snapshot you took of the burned-out lightbulb so you didn’t have to take it with you to the hardware store. Delete as soon as you’re done with them.

Once a week, pare down using the 80/20 rule.

“Set a time every Sunday to delete photos [from your phone],” says Nelson. “It can be while you’re on line at the grocery store, or having coffee in the morning, but make it a weekly habit.” The goal, says Nelson, is to get rid of 80 percent of your photos, saving just one in five. Use this time to sort through the five versions of that group photo from dinner and save the one where everyone is looking at the camera and the lighting is best. And do you really need 20 shots of the finches that were feasting on your bird feeder?

Decide where to back everything up, once a month.

Instead of having your photos scattered around on three different devices and four different storage spots, make one dedicated folder on your computer and choose one hub in the cloud (such as Dropbox, Amazon Prime Photos, iCloud or Google Photos), and back them up once a month. That way, if your phone is lost or stolen, you don’t lose those memories forever. Nelson also suggests backing up to an external hard drive, again with a dedicated photo folder, since storage sites aren’t guaranteed for life and computers can always crash. And whatever you do, don’t count on Facebook or Instagram to archive your photos. Social media sites compress photos, making the resolution too low for high-quality prints.

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When you get an “upgrade” notice, it’s time to clear everything out.

“Every time you get a notice from iCloud or DropBox that your storage is full, and you need to pay to upgrade for more data, it’s like someone ringing your doorbell and saying, ‘Your closet is full. You need to build another closet,’” says Nelson. But instead of immediately giving your credit card info, make room in the old closet and take the time do a spring cleaning, moving old photos to your external drive, and trashing anything you’ll never want to wear (that is, look at), again.

Master the metadata.

Your photos will be automatically tagged with date and location, which can help you search for that great sunset shot from your trip to the Grand Canyon three years ago. And by typing a word like “dog” or “flower” into the magnifying-glass icon on iPhotos, you can zero in on certain categories in your photo stash. But those don’t tell the whole story, says Nelson. “There are important things the computer can’t know, like whose birthday you’re celebrating, or the funny thing that made you laugh right before the picture was taken.” So before you forget, add your own personalized information. Think of the way your grandmother wrote names and location or a funny note on the back of those black-and-white photos in your old family albums. On Google Photos, you can add a description and tag everyone in the photo so that years from now, so your children can search through all your photos by just typing in a few words.

After each special event or at the end of each season, organize into folders.

As soon as possible after you take a vacation, go to a family wedding or celebrate the holidays, go to your digital hub and divide the photos into folders by theme: Summer Vacation - Cape Cod 2018, Mackenzie and Ethan’s Wedding, Santa’s Grotto 2019. When you’re ready to create a printed photo book or put together a slideshow for your friends, you’ll already be one step ahead.

Decide how to show off your photos.

All those beautiful, silly or inspiring moments from your life are meant to be shared and enjoyed, so choose some to take out of the digital box immediately and tack up at your desk or frame for your wall (the HP Sprocket 2nd Edition Photo Printer fits in your pocket and connects with your phone via Bluetooth for instant prints, while the HP ENVY Photo All-in-One Printer makes it easy to print out frame-worthy pictures). Or decide if you would like to make a photo book, and which images you would like to share as a slideshow. For albums, Snapfish and Shutterfly are user-friendly and inexpensive; with Blurb, you can print out professional-quality photo books and magazines. For slideshows, Nelson is a big fan of the JoyFlips app (free on iPhone and Android), which allows you to add voice memos, creating your own narrated slideshow that you can then share with friends and family.

For a great gift, consider a NixPlay digital photo frame.  You can either pop in a USB device or memory card and create a continuous slide show, or go with a WiFi version: Download the app, and you can share photos from your phone in New York to Grandma’s photo frame in Miami. You can even add captions so everyone knows exactly who won the ugly sweater contest.


Can taking photos put you more in the moment? Read more to find out.