People usually cringe when I ask them how many printed photos they have.  Squirming starts when I ask if they are able to find the ones they love the most.  Most of us who have taken, or inheritied, printed photo collections, have found them both priceless and (sometimes) a burden.  It’s no wonder generations who were born after the digital era took over don’t want all those boxes and albums.  I mean, look at the way they make us feel when they are unorganized.  It would be nice to think the next generation would be eager to get them in better shape but the truth is, they are even further removed from the people in the photos and the stories they hold.  It’s up to us to tell the stories and restore the value so the next generation understands why those musty old pictures are valuable to us and to them too!

So today I’ll write about how to get started when you find yourself staring at boxes, bins and albums of photos and no idea where to begin.  It’s really not hard but it will require some time committment on your part.  I encourage you to set a length of time you can commit to work on this project and stick to the schedule.  Each day or week, keep track of the progress you’ve made and focus on how far you have come each time to help yourself stay motivated.  I believe it is worthwhile…hang in there!

Where to begin?

I like to begin by establishing a timeline.  That gives me some idea of how much I know about a particular collection.  You simply record the dates when things happened in your family’s life (it doesn’t have to be an exact date, it can be a year and month or even just a year) and jot down the event that happened on that date.  For example:  March 13, 1898 – Grandma Morrison was born; March 9, 1940 – Mom was born; April 16, 1931 – Dad was born; September 3, 1962 – Mom and Dad married; 1973 – Mom and Dad opened the store; 1975 – Sam born; etc.  Get the idea?


The reason this is helpful is twofold:

  1. You can easily see the flow of events in chronological order.  So, when you are sorting (that’s coming soon), you can easily decide if a photo of Sam’s birthday party was before or after the photo of Mom and Dad at the store’s grand opening.
  2. You may realize you don’t know the dates of many photos, especially if they are inherited collections.  Using a timeline sometimes helps you to decide that you would prefer to sort by events or themes, which don’t require you to know the date a photo was taken.

And that leads to sorting!

Choose a sorting strategy.

Sorting is the process of putting like with like.  The strategy part of that is what you decide makes photos “like” one another.  I’ve seen a few strategies but these two seem to work well for most people:

  • Chronologically – grouping photos together based on their date.  You can sort by decade, year, and/or month.
  • Thematically – grouping photos together based on common events, activities, etc.  Common themes include birthdays, holidays, weddings, trips, births, everyday, etc.

Your timeline will help you determine how much information you have about your collection.  Once you decide which strategy you’ll use, simply sorting the photos into those groupings is just a matter of time.  We recommend 45 minute sorting sessions so you stay alert and can enjoy the process.

The ABCs

This is a process that was created by APPO founder, Cathi Nelson, which provides a basis on which to decide which photos to keep, which to discard and which are the very best and deserve the most attention.

In this system A stands for Album.  These are our favorite photos, the ones we want to share and enjoy in our lifes.  If we only have one print, we want to be sure to scan it to preserve and protect it.  We will also want to be able to find it easily to print, add to albums, include in digital slideshows and share with family and friends in the future.

B stands for Box.  Box photos are those we definitely want to keep but we may not want them on display, in albums or presentations.  Think of birthday parties where you take ten photos and you want to keep them all to remember the event and the people who attended – maybe only one or two are the best but they are all keepers!  These are added to your photo box and safely stored, maybe scanned when you have time.

C is for Can.  As in Trash Can.  One of the primary pain points we often have when dealing with our photos is deciding if we should throw ANY of them away.  A good place to start if you are squeamish about discarding photos is with those that are duplicates, blurry, poorly lit or composed or ones that only show the back of a person’s head or someone’s feet.  Later, you can move on to sifting through multiple photos of the same scenery or the same person doing the same thing – burst photos are not our friends!

S is for Story.  Photos don’t have to be of very high quality to tell a very important story in our lives.  Past generations took photos sparingly because it was expensive and not easily accessible.  If you only have one photo of a member of your family, it may not matter that it’s not a good one, it’s the ONLY one.  Telling the story of that photo for future generations makes it invaluable.

The final thing to know about the ABCs is that you should only be spending 2-5 seconds on each photo.  The goal is to evaluate which stack it will go into so you should be looking at it and thinking, “is this an A, B, C, or S?” instead of “Wow, I really like the dress my Aunt is wearing in this photo, I wonder if she…”  We are all guilty of it – this is just another tool to keep you on track and motivated to get the sorting done so you can enjoy the dress all you want after the overwhelm is behind you 🙂

Set the stage.

At Photo Gym we like to label index cards with the sorting categories we’ll be using and then sort into stacks above and below the cards.

For instance:

  1. If I were sorting into dates, I would label the cards 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, etc.  I would lay them out in a horizontal row on my sorting surface (a desk or dining room table work equally well)
  2. Next, process the photos using the ABCs
    1. Place A photos above their respective card (1950s photos go Above the 1950s card),
    2. B photos below the card
    3. C photos go directly to the trash can and
    4. S photos get a sticky post-it note attached to the backside and stacked with the A photos. (You shouldn’t put sticky notes on the front of your photo, it leaves a residue that may damage it over time)

Take the first step, you’ll never regret getting your photos organized!  If you need help getting started, email us to Schedule a Personal Training session to find out how to do it yourself or let us do it for you!