Curate your phone's camera roll once and for all.
Having a phone always in your pocket has made it easier than ever to document every moment of your life, from the hydrangeas blooming on a bush along your commute to selfies in the supermarket with the kids (a place we can agree that previous generations never thought to bring their camera). Those images may not all be worth saving, printing, or framing, but if don't keep them organized, you'll never be able to enjoy—or even find—your favorites.
"People are forgetting that the most important reason we take photos is to preserve our history," says Diana Smyth, a family photographer in Philadelphia, Pa. Keeping your images sorted by date, easily accessible, and edited down to the best-of-the-best allows you to create albums, canvases, and frame-worthy prints of the moments that tell your personal story.
Choose Your Tools
Before you can organize your digital photos, you need to centralize all your images in one spot. If you shoot all of your photos on your phone, then a cloud-based app, like Google Photos or Apple Photos, makes this easier by allowing you to access photos from your phone on your computer or tablet.
If, however, you're managing images from several other devices, too—your partner's phone, your camera, your nanny's text messages—then plan to upload all the images to your computer and organize and manage them within a photo program, whether its software-based, like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom, or cloud-based.
Pick Your Sorting Method
If you can't find the photo you want when you want it, it's almost like you never took it at all—which makes developing an organizational system that works for you critical to managing your photo collection.
Sort by Year
At the most basic level, your images should be organized by year, says Smyth; many photo apps use image metadata to keep photos sorted chronologically by default, so separating them into groups by calendar year should be relatively easy.
Sort by Occasion or Location
Sorting the images into more specific groups allows you to find a photo you're looking for in the future—your high schooler's first day of kindergarten, the intricate birthday cake you successfully copied from Pinterest, your beloved family dog as a new puppy—but the exact method you choose is a matter of personal preference. The season and year may be enough to jog your memory about when exactly you took that memorable vacation, or you might want to get as detailed as "Camping at Lake George, N.Y., August 2-5, 2022."
You may find it more intuitive to pull together groups of photos on the same subject with dates that overlap several months, like your kitchen renovation, a kid's basketball season, or autumn hikes—or to set aside photos with specific people ("Weekends with Grandpa"). You can also sort by location, keeping all the photos of winter weekends at the ski lodge together. "Whatever works best for your brain is the way to go," says wedding photographer Charla Storey. "Think of the ways you would search folders looking for images; this will help you determine the best way for your brain to find what you're looking for fastest."
Delete as You Go
The more photos you have, the harder they are to manage. "As you organize, really look at them and ask yourself what is worth saving," says Smyth. "If the server took 10 pictures of you at the dinner table, pick your favorite and trash the rest." Sometimes weeding out the rubbish is easy: You can delete exact doubles, anything blurry, photos with heads cut off, or photos with your finger in the corner. "Saved images should be your favorites," says Storey. "So maybe not your outfit of the day, unless it's seriously a favorite, or what you had for lunch."
Other times, deciding what stays and what goes isn't as simple (doesn't each picture of your baby niece sleeping look just slightly different from the others?). "Saving things that are important to you (like all the dogs you saw in Paris) is totally fine," says Storey.
Keep the Images That Move You
Both photographers offer the same tip for minimizing photo excess: Let your feelings guide you. "Whatever strikes the most emotion are the ones I say are worth keeping," says Smyth. Storey agrees: "Your gut reaction favorite from a set of images is the one! Trust your gut and save only that one to keep the clutter under control."
Remember: Though you can snap photos until everyone flashes their best smile, your favorite might not always be the one that's picture-perfect. Keep candid shots, photos that show off a variety of facial expressions, and the unposed pictures that capture the feeling of a specific moment—and avoid automatically trashing a photo just because you don't love how you look. "Don't ditch images with loved one because of a bad hair day or because you don't like your outfit," says Storey. "Someday those things won't matter—your feelings about yourself don't trump the moment."
Back Up Your Photos
Though a cloud-based service automatically backs up your phone images, both experts recommend saving your images in at least two other ways. Smyth tells her clients to keep their photos in three places—a flash drive, a solid state external drive, and the cloud; Storey uses two online services (Dropbox and the cloud) and one hard drive. "Online is so helpful, but a 'hard' copy is also so nice to have," she says. "Having both will bring so much peace. These are your life's memories and you don't want to rely on just one way to preserve them."
When saving your images to an external drive, the organization you've set up within your photo application may not transfer; remember to label your folders by year, month, and event so you can find them quickly in the future. Another caveat, says Smyth: The technology used by external drives and laptops or desktops can change quickly. As you upgrade your computer, check that you have the right connection cords and operating system to continue to access photos on older drives; you may need to update and replace those drives in the future, as well.
Print Your Favorite Photos
No matter how organized your photos are, you can't enjoy them if you don't print them. Smyth, a former foster child, is especially passionate about the preservation of childhood photos. "I would give anything to hold a print of my mother or myself as a child," she says. "When we just want the digitals, we are not leaving anything for the next generation to say, 'This is who we are.'"
Opt for simple or detailed albums created online or through mobile apps that let you upload your photos directly, incorporating your favorite photos and plenty of white space. "More isn't more in the world of imagery: Think more impact, quality over quantity," says Storey. "This will tell a clear story and ensure you see more of the images. When we have too many on a page we actually see less of the story."
Then turn your favorite images into prints for your home, office, or to give as gifts. "Printing your images makes a space feel like home," says Storey. "The images that really embody an experience, emotion, place, vibe, that really changed you—those are the ones to print! I personally love to print places my family went on vacations together; to others it may just feel like an image of Yosemite or Rome, but for my family, we know we stood there together and it brings back so many priceless memories."
Help Your Future Self
Once you've tackled the organization and storage of your current photo collection, consider ways you can ease the process for yourself in the future. Start by regularly deleting extra photos the moment you take them—you can tell immediately which shots cause a positive emotional reaction and which don't.
Make a Sorting Schedule
If you thrive on routine, set aside time each week or month to create a few pages in an annual photo album; this can also happen every season, twice a year, or even only after the year is over, according to your own preference. "Know yourself well enough to set yourself up for photo saving success," says Storey. "It should be fun, not a big job you dread."
Stay in the Moment
Don't hesitate to put your camera away and embrace a memory, instead of capturing it. "I love to take an image at the beginning of a special moment and then put my phone away and be present," says Storey. "It doesn't have to be the perfect shot. A balance of being present and capturing important memories will bring you the most joy and impact when looking back at your prized memories. They're not memories if you're not present—they're just pictures at that point, and you could have just Googled them. Live your life."